The Gas Is Definitely NOT Greener

on June 14, 2011 at 10:45 AM

Robert Bryce penned another one of his usual contrarian energy pieces earlier this week. In an Op-ed for the New York Times, titled ‘The Gas Is Greener’, he made some poorly formulated arguments in favor of natural gas and nuclear while throwing mud at wind and solar power. It must be desperate times indeed in the conventional power business when wind and solar earn such spleen.

The truth is that all energy sources have costs and risks.

Mr. Bryce’s first argument is that the land use associated with wind and solar power is ‘profligate’ and untenably wasteful. He works through some simple math in an attempt to horrify readers with the possibility that such power sources might need 129 square miles of area to supply California’s renewable energy needs. Let’s do some simple math of our own to put his numbers in perspective. California has an area of 163,707 square miles. Mr. Bryce’s ‘big number’ amounts to just 0.08% (eight one-hundredths of a percent) of California’s total area. I think most Californians would agree that seems like a reasonable use of land for the payoff of clean, sustainable power in perpetuity.

In what can only be characterized as an odd canard, Mr. Bryce then attempts to shoot down wind power on the basis of its overuse of steel. Using some simple math again as a smokescreen, he makes the point that, on a per-megawatt basis, wind turbines use 4 times the amount of steel of a natural gas turbine. I’m not sure exactly what his point is. Yes, steel is somewhat energy- and transportation-intensive and thus contributes to winds embedded carbon footprint. However, his analysis ignores the obvious and critical point that natural gas is a fossil fuel. Burning natural gas to create electricity is ultimately far more carbon-intensive than the footprint associated with wind’s steel usage.

Innuendo is the favorite rhetorical tool of mudslingers and Mr. Bryce is clearly a champion. Suggesting the green community is ‘deeply divided’ around these issues is reminiscent of the claim that ‘scientists disagree’ about the causes of climate change. By casting the disagreement as a profound philosophical quandary, Mr. Bryce hopes to cast doubt on the thesis of green power itself. (“See,” he says. “Even they can’t agree on the answer so it must all be untrue!”)

There are two fallacies here. First, the green community is not ‘deeply divided.’ Rather I would say that the green community is working through the issue of how to balance the global threat of climate change with the preservation of local land resources. This is a classic public goods issue that requires some careful thought but will ultimately be resolved (remember after all we’re talking about less than 1/10th of one percent of our land). Second, even if we were to imagine the green community ‘deeply divided’ on this issue, it is doubtful any of them would rush to embrace Mr. Bryce’s thesis that the only answer is natural gas and nuclear!

This insight by itself reveals this argument as nothing more than rhetorical flourish, empty of any real meaning or insight that might lead us to an answer. The answer on this issue will come from the current debate happening in the green community and through the permitting process by which we are deciding how to balance the use of land and our need for cleaner sources of energy.

How natural gas and nuclear energy provide a preferable answer for Mr. Bryce is beyond me. While I support an ‘all of the above’ energy policy, I would never put all our eggs in those two baskets. We have a tremendous new discovery of shale gas in this country that may last us anywhere from 40 to 100 years at current consumption. Supporting our future energy needs exclusively on this resource would only hasten its depletion, leaving us dependent once again on foreign imports. Talk about kicking the can down the road and forcing our children to deal with problems we can deal with today.

The truth is that all energy sources have costs and risks. Population growth and society’s advancement along an ever increasing technological path requires a response. We need more sources of energy and we need to be ever more efficient in our use of energy. We need to choose a path that balances our need for power, our desire to reduce carbon pollution, our need for energy independence, and to minimize the impact on our local air, land, and water supplies.

We’re at an incredibly important turning point in the history of renewables. Solar and wind are on the cusp of true competitive parity with conventional energy (within 3-5 years). They are clearly a BIG part of the answer to our future energy needs. Perhaps the reason we’re seeing more and more allergic reactions like Mr. Bryce’s from the conventional power side of the industry to renewables is that they’re finally posing a long-term threat to the dominance of the status quo. In that sense, articles like Mr. Bryce’s are a welcome and very good sign.

Arno Harris is CEO of Recurrent Energy, a company that specializes in using solar photovoltaic (PV) technology to produce electricity from sunlight.