hen it comes to energy production, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, unfortunately.
As the world begins its large-scale transition toward low-carbon energy sources, it is vital that the pros and cons of each type are well understood and the environmental impacts of renewable energy, small as they may be in comparison to coal and gas, are considered.
In two papers — published today in the journals Environmental Research Letters and Joule — Harvard University researchers find that the transition to wind or solar power in the U.S. would require five to 20 times more land than previously thought, and, if such large-scale wind farms were built, would warm average surface temperatures over the continental U.S. by 0.24 degrees Celsius.
“Wind beats coal by any environmental measure, but that doesn’t mean that its impacts are negligible,” said David Keith, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and senior author of the papers. “We must quickly transition away from fossil fuels to stop carbon emissions. In doing so, we must make choices between various low-carbon technologies, all of which have some social and environmental impacts.”
Keith is also professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
One of the first steps to understanding the environmental impact of renewable technologies is to understand how much land would be required to meet future U.S. energy demands. Even starting with today’s energy demands, the land area and associated power densities required have long been debated by energy experts.
In previous research, Keith and co-authors modeled the generating capacity of large-scale wind farms and concluded that real-world wind power generation had been overestimated because they neglected to accurately account for the interactions between turbines and the atmosphere.
In 2013 research, Keith described how each wind turbine creates a “wind shadow” behind it where air has been slowed down by the turbine’s blades. Today’s commercial-scale wind farms carefully space turbines to reduce the impact of these wind shadows, but given the expectation that wind farms will continue to expand as demand for wind-derived electricity increases, interactions and associated climatic impacts cannot be avoided.
What was missing from this previous research, however, were observations to support the modeling. Then, a few months ago, the U.S. Geological Survey released the locations of 57,636 wind turbines around the U.S. Using this data set, in combination with several other U.S. government databases, Keith and postdoctoral fellow Lee Miller were able to quantify the power density of 411 wind farms and 1,150 solar photovoltaic plants operating in the U.S. during 2016.
“For wind, we found that the average power density — meaning the rate of energy generation divided by the encompassing area of the wind plant — was up to 100 times lower than estimates by some leading energy experts,” said Miller, who is the first author of both papers. “Most of these estimates failed to consider the turbine-atmosphere interaction. For an isolated wind turbine, interactions are not important at all, but once the wind farms are more than five to 10 kilometers deep, these interactions have a major impact on the power density.”
The observation-based wind power densities are also much lower than important estimates from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
For solar energy, the average power density (measured in watts per meter squared) is 10 times higher than wind power, but also much lower than estimates by leading energy experts.
This research suggests that not only will wind farms require more land to hit the proposed renewable energy targets but also, at such a large scale, would become an active player in the climate system.
The next question, as explored in the journal Joule, was how such large-scale wind farms would impact the climate system.
To estimate the impacts of wind power, Keith and Miller established a baseline for the 2012‒2014 U.S. climate using a standard weather-forecasting model. Then, they covered one-third of the continental U.S. with enough wind turbines to meet present-day U.S. electricity demand. The researchers found this scenario would warm the surface temperature of the continental U.S. by 0.24 degrees Celsius, with the largest changes occurring at night when surface temperatures increased by up to 1.5 degrees. This warming is the result of wind turbines actively mixing the atmosphere near the ground and aloft while simultaneously extracting from the atmosphere’s motion.
This research supports more than 10 other studies that observed warming near operational U.S. wind farms. Miller and Keith compared their simulations to satellite-based observational studies in North Texas and found roughly consistent temperature increases.
Miller and Keith are quick to point out the unlikeliness of the U.S. generating as much wind power as they simulate in their scenario, but localized warming occurs in even smaller projections. The follow-on question is then to understand when the growing benefits of reducing emissions are roughly equal to the near-instantaneous impacts of wind power.
The Harvard researchers found that the warming effect of wind turbines in the continental U.S. was actually larger than the effect of reduced emissions for the first century of its operation. This is because the warming effect is predominantly local to the wind farm, while greenhouse gas concentrations must be reduced globally before the benefits are realized.
Miller and Keith repeated the calculation for solar power and found that its climate impacts were about 10 times smaller than wind’s.
“The direct climate impacts of wind power are instant, while the benefits of reduced emissions accumulate slowly,” said Keith. “If your perspective is the next 10 years, wind power actually has — in some respects — more climate impact than coal or gas. If your perspective is the next thousand years, then wind power has enormously less climatic impact than coal or gas.
“The work should not be seen as a fundamental critique of wind power,” he said. “Some of wind’s climate impacts will be beneficial — several global studies show that wind power cools polar regions. Rather, the work should be seen as a first step in getting more serious about assessing these impacts for all renewables. Our hope is that our study, combined with the recent direct observations, marks a turning point where wind power’s climatic impacts begin to receive serious consideration in strategic decisions about decarbonizing the energy system.”
This research was funded by the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research.
Liberals love to talk about helping the poor and the middle class, and they are obsessed with reducing income inequality. So why is it that across the country they are pushing one of the most regressive taxes in modern times?
I am talking about the fad “green” initiative in states such as California, Arizona and New Jersey that require local utilities to buy expensive renewable energy. These renewable energy standards require that utilities to buy expensive wind and solar power. They then pass these costs onto the poor and working class who get stuck paying the tab.
In Sacramento, California, the legislature is speeding ahead with one of the most absurd proposals of modern times by mandating 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
This would mean no coal, no natural gas and no nuclear power.
Meanwhile in Arizona, voters will decide on a ballot initiative funded by billionaire Tom Steyer that would increase renewable mandates to 50 percent over the next decade or so.
The goal of these initiatives is to shut down fossil fuel and nuclear energy production in America. These are industries that supply millions of jobs. We have more coal and natural gas than any other nation and liberals want to shut it all down. It is worth mentioning that today in America about 80 percent of our electric power comes from natural gas, coal and nuclear power.
In 2017, about 1 percent of our power came from solar power and about 6 percent from wind. The idea of moving from 7 percent to 50 percent or 100 percent reliance on renewable energy without severe disruptions to the way we live our lives is a “Star Wars” fantasy.
If you want to keep the lights or the air conditioning on at home, or recharge your iPhone or iPad, or keep the factories and hospitals and schools open, we are going to need the reliability of fossil fuels. Period.
If we go hog-wild on green energy mandates we may be facing a future of potential routine brownouts and blackouts. That has been the pattern in many nations and localities that have shutdown their reliable fossil fuel capacities. Just look at the disruption and havoc from the loss of electric power from the hurricane in the Carolinas. That was an act of nature. These brownouts would be from an act of government and radical green groups.
These mandates aren’t just dangerous. They will raise electric power costs sharply. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that residents of states like California and New Jersey with strict renewable mandates pay about 25 percent more in monthly electric utility bills than states that let the market place choose the lowest cost forms of power.
The folks at the Manhattan Institute looked at green energy mandates from 2001 to 2010. They found that of the 10 states with the highest electric power costs, eight of them had renewable mandates — typically 30 percent to 40 percent.
Only two of the 10 states with the lowest energy costs had these mandates. The 10 lowest-cost states had electric power costs about half of what is charged in high-cost states. We are talking about hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars of higher costs every year to homeowners to enrich billionaires like Elon Musk and Tom Steyer. This is Robin Hood in reverse: Rob the poor to pay the super rich.
Low-income households spend at least four to five times more out of their incomes in energy costs than do millionaires. For a family with an income of $40,000 or $50,000, an extra $500 a year in costs means less money for school supplies, day care, a family vacation or health insurance.
All of this is so unnecessary. If wind and solar are truly the energy sources of the future — with reliability and low costs — let the market determine that. Why do they need mandates and billions of dollars of federal subsidies to make them work? This is an experiment of imposing high costs on American small businesses, farms and families to pay off wealthy green energy investors. Could anything be more illiberal than this?
Stephen Moore is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and an economic consultant with FreedomWorks. He is the co-author of “Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy.”
This op-ed was originally published on CNS News.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
October 5th, 2018