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Matt Wasson

Matt Wasson

Posted: April 26, 2010 01:09 PM

Readers of the Washington Post were served up some jaw-dropping whoppers yesterday about why renewable energy - and wind in particular - supposedly doesn't reduce CO2 emissions, increase our national security, or create jobs in the US. The author of the op-ed is climate change denier and long time fossil fuel cheerleader Robert Bryce. Bryce's piece was part of the Post's "5 Myths" series, which invites readers every Sunday to "challenge everything you think you know."

While challenging everything you think you know is generally a good idea, it's not a good idea to replace what you know with what Bryce thinks he knows because, as it turns out, he doesn't know much about renewable energy. Relying on bad science like the Nature Conservancy's "Energy Sprawl" study and thoroughly discredited white papers like "The Case of Denmark" from Bjorn Lomborg's Institute for Energy Studies, Bryce deftly turns common sense on its head to convince his readers that burning more fossil fuels is really the best path to a green energy future.

It would make for an exceedingly long and boring post to debunk every piece of misinformation in his 1,000 word piece, so for now I'll just focus on Bryce's "Myth 1: Solar and wind power are the greenest of them all."

Bryce begins his argument with what has become the new favorite talking point of renewable energy detractors and climate change deniers: "solar and wind technologies require huge amounts of land to deliver relatively small amounts of energy, disrupting natural habitats."

As I have written extensively about in a previous post, the authors of the "Energy Sprawl" study committed the cardinal sin of ecological modeling by comparing apples to oranges (more like watermelons to grapes). In the study, wind power was presumed to impact an area as much as 300-400 times greater than the actual footprint of the turbines on the land, while the impacts of coal power, for instance, were assumed to go no farther than the footprint of mine permits, leaving aside any consideration of habitat fragmentation and wildlife disturbance that increased wind's alleged sprawl factor by 300 to 400 times. Nor did the "Energy Sprawl" study include the acreage consumed by actual coal-fired power plants, the infrastructure for processing coal and disposing of processing wastes, the rail and barge infrastructure for transporting coal to power plants, or the fills and impoundments used for disposing of coal combustion waste.

While it should strain the credulity of even the most entrenched climate change denier that a single wind turbine would impact more than 100 football fields worth of land, at least the "Energy Sprawl" study makes clear that only 2-5% of the area is cleared for access roads and a buffer around each turbine. Bryce makes it sound like they're referring to the actual footprint of the turbine, which is about 1/3rd of an acre for a 2MW turbine (or about 1/300th of the land impact estimate cited by Bryce). If a fair comparison were made, wind would produce 10 to 20 times as many watts per square meter as Bryce's hypothetical natural gas well.

But where Bryce really goes off the deep end is when he states:

"Nor does wind energy substantially reduce CO2 emissions. Since the wind doesn't always blow, utilities must use gas or coal-fired generators to offset wind's unreliability. The result is minimal -- or no -- carbon dioxide reduction."

First off, while supporters of increased reliance on fossil fuels love to conflate the issues of intermittency (which is manageable) with unreliability (which is not), countries such as Spain and Denmark have managed to integrate large amounts of wind power into their grids without power outages or other problems that an "unreliable" power source might create.

That said, it's true that there is not necessarily a one-to-one relationship when it comes to displacement of coal or natural gas by wind. Because of its intermittency, wind requires a certain level of "firming" with conventional or other renewable technologies like biomass and hydro to ensure there is sufficient electricity supply when wind resources are low. That's an issue that could be intelligently discussed and built into energy plans were it not for people like Bryce that use it as an opportunity to confuse the public and mislead them into believing intermittency makes wind an unreliable source of power.

More apalling, however, is Bryce's extraordinary claim that wind power results in little or no CO2 reduction. As evidence, he cites the 2007 annual environmental report from Energinet.dk, the largest operator of Denmark's electricity grids. The online version on the Washington Post website even includes a link to that report, which should prove quite useful for Bryce, as he doesn't appear to have read it. According to the report:

"... some of Denmark's thermal generation will be displaced by the commissioning of new wind turbine capacity. Extra wind capacity will also contribute to displacing thermal generation outside Denmark."

The purported evidence from the report that Bryce uses to support is based on his tortured and selective presentation of CO2 emissions data. According to Bryce, the Energinet.dk report shows that:

"...carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in 2007 were at about the same level as they were back in 1990, before the country began its frenzied construction of turbines."
Contrast that with what the report actually stated:
"CO2 emissions vary considerably from year to year, depending on electricity trading. Adjusting for imports and exports resulted in an overall emissions reduction of 23% in the 1990-2007 period. The primary reason is a conversion of Danish electricity and heat generation to less CO2 intensive fuels such as natural gas, coupled with increased use of renewable energy sources"

So what's the disconnect between Bryce's analysis and reality? As with many small European countries, Denmark's electric grid is integrated into larger grids of neighboring countries - in Denmark's case those are the grids in Germany, Norway and Sweden. In general, Denmark exports a lot of electricity to the German grid while importing power from Sweden and Norway, which have large (and cheap) surpluses of hydropower, particularly in wet years. What Bryce has done is compare 1990, a year when Denmark imported a huge proportion of its electricity from other Scandanavian countries, with 2007, a year it was a net exporter of electricity. The graph below from the Energinet.dk report tells the story - the red bars are the in-country emissions, while the grey line shows emissions adjusted for imports and exports of electricity:

Denmark_CO2_Emissions_1990_2008

Bryce clearly draws his analysis from a 2009 white paper entitled "The Case of Denmark" produced by the Institute for Energy Studies. That institute is run by notorious climate change denier Bjorn Lomborg and the analysis has been thoroughly debunked by numerous analysts. Essentially, the analysis in The Case of Denmark is based on the bizarre assumption that wind-generated electricity exported to Germany simply disappears from the grid, rather than viewing Denmarks's energy production in the context of a multi-nation integrated grid.

But the point where Bryce's analysis goes from misleading (or ignorant) to downright dishonest is when he attributes Denmark's success in controlling CO2 emissions to a low population growth rate, while touting the United States' success in decreasing per capita emissions by 2.5% between 1980 and 2006. Keeping with the 1990-2008 time frame from the most recent Energinet.dk report, the US has done somewhat better than that, decreasing per-capita CO2 emissions by about 4.5%. But over that same time period, the Danes have decreased their per capita CO2 emissions by 21%.

A final piece of distorted analysis provided by Bryce is when he states:

"... Through 2017, the Danes foresee no decrease in carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation."

On the surface, that is true, the Danes project no decrease in carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation over the next decade, but that is because they plan to replace inefficient old oil heaters with heat pumps and transition to far more efficient electric vehicles. The net effect will be an enormous decrease in overall CO2 emissions over that time period. The remarkable thing is that the projected 1.2% annual increases in electricity demand resulting mostly from transitioning to more efficient electric vehicles (10% by 2020) and heat pumps will be met entirely with renewable energy sources, primarily wind. In fact, increasing wind generation up to 20% of their electricity generation has been such a success that the Danes plan to expand their wind generation up to 36% of their electricity mix by 2020.

On a final note, Bryce ignored the many other environmental benefits Denmark has enjoyed from its rapid transition to renewable energy sources. For instance, sulfur dioxide emissions, which decreased in the US by about 50% between 1990 and 2008, were reduced by 94% in Denmark over the same period. Here's a graph of sulfur dioxide emissions from the Energinet.dk report:

Denmark_SO2_Emissions_1990_2008

It's particularly notable that sulfur dioxide emissions are the primary cause of acid rain which, back in the early 90s, was found to be responsible for massive reproductive failure in some species of birds nesting in Northern European forests. The benefits of these reductions for bird populations absolutely dwarfs the impacts of the small number of birds killed by wind turbines.

All of the analysis in this post is based on just one of five "myths" about renewable energy that Bryce addresses in his op-ed. His treatment of the other four is equally misleading, but hopefully this post will provide an indication of the depths to which Bryce is willing to sink to make his case for a greater reliance on fossil fuels.

The analysis of these "myths" is presumably drawn from Bryce's new book, Power Hungry: The Myths of 'Green' Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, which is due out tomorrow. If his piece in the Washington Post is indeed indicative of what's in his book, it should provide excellent fodder for a variety of debunkers seeking an honest debate about the various paths the US could take in moving to a 21st century energy policy.

 

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