“[Brian] Ross was stunned by his first look at a map of the Twin Cities region … show[ing] a hypothetical horizon in 2050 filled with new wind farms sprouting less than 40 miles from downtown Minneapolis…. Five other U.S. cities are similarly “mapped”…. ‘Holy moly,’ Ross exclaimed. ‘How on Earth are you going to get people not coming with pitchforks and tar to these siting meetings?'”
“Though [the Princeton] study concludes that ‘adequate land area exists’ to deploy enough wind and solar power … getting there will require building wind and solar units and power lines right now matching the highest annuals levels ever achieved in the United States. And development would only accelerate from there.” (E&E News, below)
Sometimes even the mainstream media gets an inconvenient fact out there amid the hype of a narrative. (Maybe with Trump out and Biden in, such things can be discussed.) And so it recently happened in an E&E article last week by Peter Behr and Jeffrey Tomich, “Biden’s Dilemma: Land for Renewables” (March 24, 2021).
“Picture an area of land equal to the combined territories of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island — 228,000 square miles in all,” the article began. “That’s the space that could be required to site most of the massive deployments of wind and solar generation required to fulfill President Biden’s goal of a net-zero-carbon economy by midcentury, according to a recent first-ever project to attempt mapping that future.”
This estimate was produced in “Net Zero America: Potential Pathways, Infrastructure and Impacts,” a 345-page study released late last year authored by 10 Princeton researchers and 8 external collaborators.
Tucked way on page 172 of “this extraordinary study” (John Holdren, Foreword) is this summary.
Cumulative land use impacts of wind and solar deployment in the E+ case (2021-2050):
• Total area spanned by onshore wind and solar farms is ~590,000 sq-km, an area roughly equal to the size of IL, IN, OH, KY, TN, MA, CT and RI put together. Offshore wind farms span 33,000 sq-km.
• Wind projects drive total farm area, which is concentrated in the Great Plains and Midwest and primarily on crop, pasture, and forested lands.
• Wind farms have large spatial extent and significant visual impact, but directly impact only 1% of total site area and can co-exist with farming and grazing.
• Conversely, directly impacted land area is dominated by solar and greatest in the Northeast and Southeast; forested lands make up the largest directly impacted land cover type.
• Solar farms are more compact but also more intensive, directly impacting ~90% of their area.
• Wind and solar present different land use impacts, with particular advantages and challenges.
• Cumulative total wind and solar farm area in E+ RE+ by 2050 is ~1 million km2, or roughly an area the size of AK, IA, KS, MO, NE, OK, and WV combined (with an additional 64,000 km2 of offshore wind); directly
impacted lands total 70,000 km2, an area larger than WV.
• Only 3% of Constrained solar candidate project areas are selected in E+ and 5% in E+ RE+, indicating potential to substantially reconfigure solar siting to minimize conflict.
• Wind farms use 57% and >100% of Constrained candidate project areas in E+ and E+ RE+, respectively, and face shortfalls in some regions, indicating greater potential for wind to be constrained by siting
This is a battle at the grassroots, where renewables are at a distinct disadvantage with nature–and man. Behr and Tomich note:
For generations, the placement of energy infrastructure has pitted utilities and developers against protesting residents who want no part of it…. “People completely underestimate the scale of the challenge,” said Jürgen Weiss, co-author of a study by the Brattle Group on meeting New England’s clean energy goals.
Brian Ross, a vice president at the St. Paul, Minn.-based Great Plains Institute, knows firsthand how hard it can be for energy companies to secure land for wind and solar farms. He’s spent over two decades of his career working with local governments on sustainable development.
Ross was stunned by his first look at a map of the Twin Cities region from the Princeton study. It shows a hypothetical horizon in 2050 filled with new wind farms sprouting less than 40 miles from downtown Minneapolis, representing the scale of the required renewable power growth. Five other U.S. cities are similarly “mapped” in the analysis. “Holy moly,” Ross exclaimed. “How on Earth are you going to get people not coming with pitchforks and tar to these siting meetings?”
… the [Princeton] analysis offers an answer … by ruling out types of land parcels that don’t make sense geographically or politically, such as steep slopes, floodplains, protected wilderness areas and sites with concentrated populations….
The analysis does not hedge on the enormousness of the task. Though it concludes that “adequate land area exists” to deploy enough wind and solar power to meet a national zero greenhouse gas emissions target in 2050, getting there will require building wind and solar units and power lines right now matching the highest annuals levels ever achieved in the United States. And development would only accelerate from there.
Peter Behr and Jeffrey Tomich’s “Biden’s Dilemma: Land for Renewables” ends soberly by quoting Jesse Jenkins, coauthor of the Princeton study:
We need to build a lot of new things. We are not going to sustain a transition on the scale, magnitude and pace required to get to net zero unless we have in effect a social compact…. If we continue the ways we have of last several decades … I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere close to the pace required.
It is back to William Stanley Jevons, the father of energy economics. “We cannot revert to timber fuel,” he wrote in 1865, “for ‘nearly the entire surface of our island would be required to grow timber sufficient for the consumption of the iron manufacture alone.’” What is true for wood and plants is also true for dilute, intermittent wind and solar as modern energies.
Also remember the late Peter Huber, who memorably wrote (Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists , pp. 105, 108):
The greenest fuels are the ones that contain the most energy per pound of material that must be mined, trucked, pumped, piped, and burnt. … [In contrast], extracting comparable amounts of energy from the surface would entail truly monstrous environmental disruption…. The greenest possible strategy is to mine and to bury, to fly and to tunnel, to search high and low, where the life mostly isn’t, and so to leave the edge, the space in the middle, living and green.