No Free Lunch in Our Energy Options

Land Usage and Wildlife vs. Carbon Emissions

If I had to describe the theme of my upcoming book with just one phrase, it would be “There is no free lunch in our energy options.” Sometimes the costs are obvious, as when an oil spill occurs or a nuclear accident happens. Other times, the costs are not so obvious, but the trade-offs are always there.

Some people have insisted to me that there really aren’t too many trade-offs with solar power, but a new story in the Los Angeles Times highlights a few of them:

Sacrificing the desert to save the Earth

BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar power project will soon be a humming city with 24-hour lighting, a wastewater processing facility and a gas-fired power plant. To make room, BrightSource has mowed down a swath of desert plants, displaced dozens of animal species and relocated scores of imperiled desert tortoises, a move that some experts say could kill up to a third of them.

Despite its behemoth footprint, the Ivanpah project has slipped easily into place, unencumbered by lasting legal opposition or public outcry from California’s boisterous environmental community.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has vehemently opposed the Keystone XL pipeline. In fact, on the home page of the NRDC site is a plea to “Help Us Kill the Keystone XL.” But in this case, the NRDC was cited as one of the environmental organizations that lined up behind the BrightSource project:

“I have spent my entire career thinking of myself as an advocate on behalf of public lands and acting for their protection,” said Johanna Wald, a veteran environmental attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I am now helping facilitate an activity on public lands that will have very significant environmental impacts. We are doing it because of the threat of climate change. It’s not an accommodation; it’s a change I had to make to respond to climate.”

So what kind of trade-off are they making here? They are using a tremendous amount of land to produce electricity that could have been produced on a tiny fraction of that footprint with nuclear power or fossil fuels. So they traded lower carbon emissions for a large area of destroyed wildlife habitat.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am strongly in favor of solar power (and even of this particular project). I have said many times that I believe that it is the long-term best option for our energy needs. But I want to use this post to emphasize the trade-offs that we will be making regardless of which energy options we choose.

Crunching the Numbers

The BrightSource project will reportedly supply electricity to 140,000 homes at peak power (i.e., during the period of brightest sunlight). The reflectors will take up six square miles, and the enclosed acreage of the facility is “more than 3,500 acres of public land.” Peak power for the Brightsource plant is reportedly about 370 megawatts. They don’t give an annual capacity factor, but let’s make the very generous assumption that the plant can produce 370 megawatts for 10 hours a day. That would mean 3,700 MWh of electricity per day.

I thought it might be interesting to relate this project to the energy flowing each day through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. While very little of U.S. oil production goes toward producing electricity, I am going to convert to electricity for an apples to apples comparison to the Brightsource plant. The U.S. EPA has estimated that 1672 lbs of carbon dioxide are emitted per MWh of electricity production when oil is the fuel source to make electricity. Oil emits about 3.15 times its weight in carbon dioxide when burned, so that means about (1672/3.15) lbs of oil was consumed per MWh of electricity production. This is 531 lbs of oil, and a barrel of oil weighs about 300 lbs. So this means about 1.8 barrels of oil per MWh of electricity.

The Keystone Pipeline would have brought 700,000 barrels per day of oil into the U.S., and if this was turned into electricity it would make 390,000 MWh of firm power each day — more than 100 times the power output of the Brightsource plant. So, one way of looking at this tradeoff is that to give up the Keystone Pipeline and replace that power with solar thermal power would require over 100 of these 3,500 acre plants. Or, to think of it another way, 3.5 days of flow through Keystone XL would provide the annual energy equivalent of the BrightSource project.

One other note about this particular project. The NRDC has spent a lot of time downplaying the number of jobs that would be created by the Keystone XL pipeline. There have certainly been exaggerated reports of the number of jobs that would be created, but the U.S. State Department estimated 5,000 to 6,000 construction jobs and then 20 or so permanent jobs would be created for the Keystone XL pipeline. Of course, as I recently pointed out, one of the things the Keystone might do is keep U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast in business instead of shutting them down as has been the case with many refineries on the East Coast. By contrast, the BrightSource plant will create a reported 1,400 jobs during construction, and 86 permanent operations and maintenance jobs. I have not yet heard the NRDC complain that this isn’t enough jobs created for the money spent and the habitat that was destroyed.

Powering a City

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) put together a short presentation called How Many Does it Take? in which they looked at the required footprint of different facilities to power a city of 100,000 people for a year. The conclusion was 1/30th of a nuclear power plant with a footprint of 12 acres, 3/7th of a hydroelectric dam on 73 acres, 7/8ths of an offshore gas platform on 2/5ths of an acre, 20 onshore gas wells on 8 acres, 724 wind turbines on 1615 acres, or 241,000 solar panels on 2907 acres.

The BrightSource project is a utility scale solar thermal plant. That is necessarily going to take up a very large area. But there is numerous space already available on existing roofs that could be exploited to a large degree. The cost of this plant was reportedly $2 billion. For that price, you could put rooftop solar photovoltaic systems on 100,000 homes without the land usage issues involved in this project.

Ultimately, what needs to be done for our energy choices is a full-accounting of all the trade-offs, and then we should make decisions based on the greatest benefit and least downside to society. Too often, people are driven by agendas, and they are therefore not interested in looking at trade-offs. These are the sorts of people who will look at a project and only see benefit or only see downside, and they therefore resort to one-sided and misleading arguments in pursuit of their agenda.

On a final note, nuclear power has a small footprint and no carbon dioxide emissions, but many environmentalists remain steadfastly opposed to nuclear power due to the perceived risks. Maybe some of these environmental organizations should be spending more time figuring out how to improve the safety of nuclear power. They have demonstrated that they are willing to make environmental sacrifices as shown by their support of BrightSource, so perhaps they may want to revisit some of the sources that they have opposed in the past.