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John Holdren on Renewable Energy Problems (Part V in a series on Obama's New Science Advisor)

If only to cover their bases, environmentalists have from time to time been forthright about the problems of renewable energies. To his credit, John Holdren has punctuated his energy alarmism with a bit of energy realism in this regard. “There is no energy technology presently known or imagined (solar energy not excepted) with negligible environmental impact,” he said in a 1977 essay, “Energy Costs as Potential Limits to Growth” (Dennis Pirages, ed, The Sustainable Society: Implications for Limited Growth, p. 71). 

And more specifically:

“Solar collectors, biomass plantations, and hydroelectric reservoirs can occupy a lot of land; overharvesting biomass can cause deforestation and soil degradation, and processing and burning biomass fuels can pollute water and air; lining mountain ridges and coastal promontories with windmills may offend aesthetic sensibilities; manufacturing photovoltaic cells can involve substantial quantities of toxic substances.”

-  Holdren, “Solar and Other Renewable Energy Sources,” in Ruth Eblen and William Eblen, eds. The Encyclopedia of the Environment (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), pp. 660-61.

There is an inherent reason why renewables are hard on the environment: the required capital intensiveness to counteract the diluteness of “natural” energy flows. Holdren explains:

“The very dilution of the largest natural energy flows, which makes them seem “gentle” in comparison with nonrenewables, means that large structures (e.g. collector fields, arrays of windmills) ordinarily are required to harness them in interesting amounts. This property tends to mean significant use of land and heavy materials requirements for the collecting systems. Land use for energy systems can preempt other economic activities. . . . Such land use also can disrupt ecosystems and offend aesthetic sensibilities. Extraction, transport, and processing of materials can produce their own hazards to ecosystems as well as to health and safety.”

-  John Holdren, “Environmental Aspects of Renewable Energy Sources,” Annual Review of Energy, Vol. 5, 1980, p. 248.

Here are some other quotations from the Holdren library on the shortcomings and issues of specific renewables. His criticism of windpower, however, has been scarce given a variety of specific operational and environmental problems that have been experienced with more industrial wind parks:

Solar

“The solar option will not be entirely free of significant impacts. For example, materials requirements for covering large areas with collectors will be significant; extracting and processing those materials will produce some environmental disruption. Extensive land use itself, pre-empting other uses, is a significant effect. Installation of large solar-electric plants in the sunny Southwest would probably encourage extensive industrial and residential development of fragile and scenic desert areas there.”[1]

“Solar energy is unevenly distributed, dilute, and presently expensive to harness.”[2]

“Using sunlight to make electricity with photovoltaic cells remains 3 to 5 times more expensive than fossil-fueled electricity generation, despite very substantial reductions in the costs of photovoltaics over the last two decades.”[3]

“The attractions of sunlight as an energy source have been offset by its diluteness (requiring large collector areas if large amounts are to be captured) and its intermittency (requiring some form of energy storage or back-up supply if energy needs at night and in cloudy weather). These characteristics have tended to make solar energy (and wind, which shares them) more expensive than hydropower and biomass—and, until now, more expensive than fossil fuels.”[4]

“It is nonsense to argue, as [Barry] Commoner does, that no [population] limit could possibly be near because the sunlight reaching the land area of the planet is more than a thousand times the current rate of energy use by civilization. In reality, it is far from obvious that civilization could harness more than a few percent of this flow (which, after conversion to electricity and fluid fuels, would represent a much smaller quantity of usable energy) without intolerable disruption of the critical ecological and geophysical processes that are driven by solar energy.”[5]

Windpower

“Windpower at the best sites has monetary costs not dissimilar to those of new hydro development—in the range of 1 to 1.5 times the costs of electricity generation from fossil fuels—but much smaller ecological impacts.”[6]

“For basic physical reasons, windmills cannot extract all the energy that passes through the swept area. The theoretical maximum is about 60 percent for windmills with horizontal axes, and only a fraction of that theoretical limit can actually be attained by existing machines.”[7]

Hydropower

“Hydroelectric plants are not without adverse environmental and social impacts. The spawning grounds of migratory fishes of commercial and recreational importance, such as salmon, are often destroyed by hydroelectric facilities, or the fishes are prevented from reaching them. Other wildlife habitat and valuable farmland may be destroyed, and long-time human residents forced to move. Seepage from reservoirs can raise a water table and bring subsurface salts with it, impairing the fertility of the soil. Stream conditions downstream from dams can be greatly altered, and estuaries and the associated fisheries can be affected. Rapid fluctuations of river levels with the intermittent operation of the hydro plants—which are especially cherished by utilities for their ability to start rapidly when the need arises—can be especially disruptive.”[8]

“Construction of new large dams for hydropower is arguably the worst electricity option in terms of damage to ecosystems per unit of electrical energy or generating capacity provided. Dam construction alters drastically—effectively consumes—an increasingly scarce ecological resource: free-flowing rivers and the bottomland in river valleys.”[9]

“Unexploited hydroelectric sites are in limited supply, and their development compromises other values.”[10]

“Much of the potential of specific hydroelectric sites is typically destroyed within one to three centuries when the reservoirs fill with silt. No real solution for this problem is yet known.”[11]

Geothermal

“Geothermal energy . . . ranges in its various manifestations from nonrenewable to effectively renewable.”[12]

Biomass

“Biomass fuels that rank next in importance behind fossil fuels as contributors to world energy supply are themselves significant air polluters as well as contributors, in many circumstances, to deforestation and impoverishment or erosion of soils.”[13]

“Biomass energy, if replaced continuously by new growth, avoids the problem of net CO2 production, but the costs of controlling the other environmental impacts of cultivation, harvesting, conversion and combustion of biomass will be substantial.”[14]


[1] Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1977), p. 471.

[2] Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren, “The Energy Crisis,” Saturday Review, August 7, 1971, p. 50.

[3] John Holdren, “The Transition to Costlier Energy,” in Lee Schipper, Stephen Meyers, et al, Energy Efficiency and Human Activity: Past, Trends, Future Prospects (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 32.

[4] John Holdren, “Solar and Renewable Energy Sources,” in Ruth Eblen and William Eblen, eds. The Encyclopedia of the Environment (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), p. 660.

[5] John Holdren, Population and the Energy Problem,” Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Spring 1991, p. 252.

[6] John Holdren, “The Transition to Costlier Energy,” in Lee Schipper, Stephen Meyers, et al, Energy Efficiency and Human Activity: Past, Trends, Future Prospects (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 32.

[7] Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1977), p. 477.

[8] Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1977), p. 476.

[9] John Holdren, “Environmental Aspects of Renewable Energy Sources,” Annual Review of Energy, Vol. 5, 1980, p. 254.

[10] Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren, “The Energy Crisis,” Saturday Review, August 7, 1971, p. 50.

[11] Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1977), p. 476.

[12] John Holdren, “Environmental Aspects of Renewable Energy Sources,” Annual Review of Energy, Vol. 5, 1980, p. 281.

[13] John Holdren, Population and the Energy Problem,” Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Spring 1991, p. 233.

[14] John Holdren, “Energy in Transition,” Scientific American, September, 1990, p. 161.

3 comments

1 Wayne { 01.12.09 at 1:01 pm }

Thanks for putting all this together in one post … I’ve linked to it on John Holdren is Obama’s choice for Science Advisor with your first quotation

2 Richard L. Gordon { 01.12.09 at 4:53 pm }

You were one article too short. Holdren’s Scientific American hatchet job on Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist repudiates the depletion argument and holds that the danger is pollution from continued fossil fuel use. It further illustrates that these are knaves who freely shift to find new ways to scare.

3 Scary Thoughts From John Holdren, Obama’s Science Policy Advisor | EPA Abuse { 11.01.11 at 11:29 am }

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