A Free-Market Energy Blog

“Killing Wildlife In the Name of Climate Change” (Part II: Gas, Nuclear, Little Else)

By Robert Bryce -- March 20, 2014

[Editor note: Robert Bryce, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, is a leading researcher and disseminator of the problems of ‘green’ energy. His February 25, 2014, testimony before the Senate Committee on the Environmental and Public Works was published yesterday and today.]

In discussing energy sources, we must cast aside the social marketing of renewable energy and discard pre-conceived notions as to what qualifies as “green.” Instead, we must focus on basic physics and math.

I am an ardent proponent of nuclear energy because of its negligible carbon dioxide emissions and its incredibly high power density. No other form of energy production can produce as much energy from such a small footprint as a nuclear reactor. This is due to basic physics. Allow me to explain this by using a common metric in physics: power density, which is a measure of the energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area, volume, or mass.

The concept of power density can be understood by looking at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California. SONGS has a capacity of about 2,200 megawatts (2.2 billion watts.) The plant, which is slated for closure, covers 214 acres or 866,027 square meters. [18] Therefore, the nuclear plant has a power density of about 2,500 watts per square meter. [19]

Now let’s compare that to the power density of wind energy, which is one watt per square meter. And I can back up that number with a half dozen studies. [20]

Therefore, to replace the San Onofre plant with wind energy would require setting aside 2.2 billion square meters of land. That’s 2,200 square kilometers. Put another way, if we wanted to replace the San Onofre Generating Station solely with wind energy, California policymakers would have to set aside a land area nearly as large as Sacramento County. [21] And because of the low-frequency noise and infrasound that wind turbines make, no people could live on that county-sized piece of land.

It is essential to understand the concept of power density because it is directly related to the wildlife-kill issue. To produce significant quantities of energy with wind energy requires vast swaths of land to be covered with wind turbines. And the more wind turbines that are installed, the more birds and bats will be killed. That can be seen by the Pagel study mentioned above, which shows that as wind-energy installations in the US have increased, so have the verified numbers of eagle kills.

When we look at the main justification for renewable energy projects, and wind energy in particular, climate change is nearly always mentioned. For instance, the Global Wind Energy Council claims “The greatest benefit of wind power is its contribution to reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.” [22] On its website, the American Wind Energy Association says “Mitigating climate change poses an immediate need to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Fortunately, wind energy can play a major role in reducing CO2 emissions.” [23] And in a December 6, 2013, press release that focused on the bird-kill issue, the American Wind Energy Association claimed that wind energy “is one of the cheapest, fastest, most readily scalable ways available now to address climate change.” [24]

Those claims are among many similar ones that have been made over the past few years by renewable-energy advocates. Here’s the reality: Wind turbines are nothing more than climate-change scarecrows.

The proliferation of wind turbines over the past few years has not, and will not, result in statistically significant reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions. That is not an opinion. It is simple math.

In 2012, the American Wind Energy Association claims that wind energy reduced domestic carbon dioxide emissions by 80 million tons. [25] That sounds significant. It’s equal to about 1.4 percent of US carbon dioxide emissions in 2012. But the issue isn’t US carbon dioxide emissions. As President Obama said in his State of the Union speech on January 28, “Over the past eight years the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.”

The daunting challenge we face is global carbon dioxide emissions. In 2012, those emissions totaled 34.5 billion tons. [26] Thus, in 2012, the 60,000 megawatts of domestic wind-generation capacity reduced global carbon dioxide emissions by about two-tenths of 1 percent.

Since 1982, global carbon dioxide emissions have been increasing by an average of about 500 million tons per year. [27] If we take the American Wind Energy Association’s claim that 60,000 megawatts of wind-energy capacity can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 80 million tons per year, then simple math shows that if we wanted to stop the growth in global carbon dioxide emissions by using wind energy alone, we would have to install about 375,000 megawatts of new wind-energy capacity every year. If we assume each turbine has a capacity of two megawatts, that would mean installing 187,500 wind turbines every year, or nearly 500 every day.

How much land would all those wind turbines require? Again, the math is straightforward. As I noted earlier, the power density of wind energy is 1 watt per square meter.

Therefore, attempting to halt the growth in carbon dioxide emissions with wind energy alone would require covering a land area of about 375 billion square meters or 375,000 square kilometers — an area the size of Germany — and we would have to do so every year.

What would that mean on a daily basis? Using wind alone to stop the growth in carbon dioxide emissions would require us to cover about 1,000 square kilometers with wind turbines — a land area about 17 times the size of Manhattan Island — and we would have to do so every day. [28] Given the ongoing backlash against the wind industry that is already underway here in the US, as well as in Canada, Europe, and Australia, the silliness of such a proposal is obvious.

The hard but unavoidable truth about wind energy is that it not even a viable option to stop the growth in global carbon dioxide emissions, much less make a significant dent in existing demand for carbon-based fuels.

If we are going to agree that carbon dioxide is a problem, and that we must reduce carbon dioxide emissions in order to protect wildlife, then we must embrace the technologies that are most effective at reducing our production of that gas. And that means N2N, natural gas to nuclear.

A surge in availability of low-cost natural gas has been a key driver of the recent reductions in US carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, it is beyond argument that if we are going to be serious about making further reductions in emissions, we will have to get serious about nuclear energy, not just on a national basis, but on a global basis.

That point was made in November, when some of the world’s top climate scientists, including James Hansen, a former NASA scientist, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tom Wigley of the University of Adelaide in Australia, and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, wrote an open letter that was clearly aimed at anti-nuclear groups like the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The letter says that while renewables “like wind and solar and biomass” are growing, those sources “cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.” It went on, saying that “in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

The four concluded their epistle by saying that if environmental activists have “real concern about risks from climate change” then they should begin “calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.”

Rather than get serious about nuclear, the US and other countries have been subsidizing the paving of vast areas of the countryside with 500-foot-high bird- and bat-killing whirligigs that are nothing more than climate talismans. Wind turbines are not going to stop changes in the earth’s climate. Instead, they are token gestures — giant steel scarecrows — that are deceiving the public into thinking that we as a society are doing something to avert the possibility of climate change.

Even though wind energy has not been, and cannot be, an effective strategy to address global climate change, the US government and state-level policymakers are continuing to pursue this failed strategy through tax breaks, mandates, and subsidies. Those policies are leading the deployment of still more bird- and bat-killing wind turbines. According to the latest projections from the Energy Information Administration, domestic wind-energy capacity is expected to increase by about 25 percent, to about 75 gigawatts, by the end of 2015. [29] And most, perhaps all, of that additional 15 gigawatts of wind-energy capacity, will be getting taxpayer money in the form of the production tax credit, the 2.3 cent per kilowatt-hour subsidy that is given to the owners of qualifying wind projects.

Given the studies already done on wind energy’s deleterious impact on wildlife, combined with the “energy sprawl” that will come with the industry’s continuing expansion, it is virtually certain that as the wind sector adds more turbines, more federally protected wildlife – including more bald eagles, an animal that has been on the Great Seal of the United States since 1782 — will be killed. And thanks to the production tax credit, taxpayers will be subsidizing the slaughter.

The question at hand is obvious: why are policymakers implementing an energy policy that is a known killer of wildlife in exchange for what are infinitesimally small reductions in carbon dioxide emissions?

If the federal government is going to be serious about addressing climate change and in protecting this nation’s wildlife, it must focus on the energy sources that have small footprints, are able to provide large amounts of dispatchable energy at reasonable cost, and can provide significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions when compared to the two sources that dominate our current energy mix: oil and coal. [30]

Those energy sources are natural gas and nuclear energy.

Thank you.   ————-END—————-


[18] Tetra Tech, “California’s Coastal Power Plants: Alternative Cooling System Analysis” (undated), N-3.

[19] 2.2 billion watts / 866,027 m2 = 2,558 W/ m2

[20] For instance, see:

1. David J.C. MacKay, “Illuminating the Future of Energy,” New York Times, August 28, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/29/business/energy-environment/29iht-sustain.html?pagewanted=all, which puts the power density of wind at 2 to 3 W/m2.

2. Jesse Ausubel, “Renewable and Nuclear Heresies,” International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy, and Ecology, Vol 1., No. 3, 2007, 233, http://phe.rockefeller.edu/docs/HeresiesFinal.pdf, which puts wind’s power density at 1.2 W/m2.

3. Vaclav Smil, “Power Density Primer: Understanding the Spatial Dimension of the Unfolding Transition to Renewable Electricity Generation, (Part V – Comparing the Power Densities of Electricity Generation) ” Vaclavsmil.com, May 14, 2010, http://www.vaclavsmil.com/site/uploads/docs/smil-article-power-density-primer.pdf, which puts wind’s power density at 0.5 to 1.5 W/m2.

4. Todd A. Kiefer, “Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuelas as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy,” Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation, January 2013, http://wici.ca/new/site/uploads/2013/02/Kiefer-Snake-Oil2.pdf, 33, 68, note 119. Kiefer puts wind’s power density at 1.13 W/m2.

5. Amanda S. Adams and David W. Keith, “Are global wind power resource estimates overstated?” Environmental Research Letters, February 25, 2013, http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/1/015021/pdf/1748-9326_8_1_015021.pdf, which put wind’s power density at 1 W/m2.

6. Author’s own calculations, based on data on 16 different projects that ranged in size from 40 megawatts to more than 2,000 megawatts. The projects were geographically diverse – Texas, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Kansas, Ontario, and Australia — and totaled more than 5,000 megawatts of capacity. Author’s finding: the power density of wind energy is 0.89 watts per square meter.

In summary, the power-density calculations of wind energy are as follows: Jesse Ausubel: 1.2; David J.C. MacKay: 2; Vaclav Smil: 1; Todd Kiefer: 1.13; Adams/Keith: 1; Robert Bryce: 0.89.

Add those figures together and divide by six, and you get an average power density for wind energy of 1.2 watts per square meter — exactly what I reported in my 2010 book, Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future. If we toss out the high and low estimates (MacKay’s 2 watts per square meter, and my 0.89 watts per square meter) then the average power density of wind is 1.08 watts per square meter.

[21] Sacramento County covers 2502 square kilometers.

[22] Global Wind Energy Coalition.

[23] American Wind Energy Association.

[24] American Wind Energy Association.

[25] American Wind Energy Association.

[26] BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

[27] BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

[28] Manhattan Island covers about 59 square kilometers.

[29] Capacity at the end of 2012 was roughly 60 gigawatts. See: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013. For the latest EIA projections, see EIA, Short-Term Energy Outlook, February 11, 2014.

[30] Together, oil and coal provide about 63 percent of global energy consumption. See: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

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