Saturday, July 2, 2011

Top 10 Myths Renewable Energy Companies Want You to Believe

Big Solar and Wind companies still pretend they can do no harm to the environment, projecting a misleading image that glosses over the damage their projects cause.  We have to face the facts if we're going to chose the right renewable energy path--which is distributed generation (such as rooftop solar), or projects on already disturbed land (such as those identified by the EPA's RE-Powering America's Land program). 

Before I break into the list, I will say that coal and oil companies are also guilty of misinformation, and there is no doubt that their products damage the environment and our health.  But if we are going to prevent renewable energy from taking a path that also destroys our open spaces and wildlands, we need to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Here are the Top 10 myths you will hear from Big Solar and Wind energy company executives:

10.) Bulldozing the land to build massive solar or wind farms may have local impacts, but it will save the rest of the world from global warming.
Big Solar and Wind facilities will require so much land to meet our energy demands that we will ultimately lose many of the places and wildlife we want to protect from global warming.  In California alone, energy companies have submitted applications to destroy over 1,000 square miles of public land--mostly pristine wildlands--for solar and wind projects, according to the Bureau of Land Management.  Those projects would supply less than 25% of California's energy needs, but they would industrialize many of the remaining valleys and hillsides in the state.  If we apply this math to meet even more of our energy needs in every state, we lose many more thousands of square miles to industrialization.
9.)  Wind farms are better than solar facilities because they do not have to scrape as much of the land.
It is true that wind farms have a smaller footprint on the land than solar facilities, but they do carve miles of access roads and flatten the area around the wind towers.  The proposed Searchlight Wind project in Nevada will carve 38 miles of roads into hillsides.  The most damaging aspect of wind farms are the spinning blades, which kill thousands of birds and bats every year.  According to industry estimates, wind turbines can kill up to 14 birds, per megawatt, per year, and a median rate of 2.2 birds per MW, per year.  The Alta Wind Energy Center in the western Mojave Desert is likely to kill anywhere from 3,300 to 21,000 birds every year.
8.) If you let us build the solar farm in the middle of the desert, the solar panels can create shade for the desert tortoise, helping the species recover.
Solar projects will create massive dead zones, and almost certainly will introduce non-native plants that are less nutritious for desert animals, such as the tortoise.  Tortoises have lived without human-provided shade for centuries, and they can do this best when their habitat remains intact -- they dig burrows, and find shelter under desert shrubs.  If a tortoise finds itself in the middle of a 7 square mile solar facility, it will be feeding on sparse non-native plants, and under threat of being run over by vehicles used to wash the solar panels.
7.) Don't worry, our construction technique only mows desert shrubs so they can grow back around the solar mirrors after construction.
A couple of solar companies have touted their "mowing" (check out this video) technique as an environmentally responsible way to build a solar facility.  But desert shrub and trees are not like your front lawn.  Many are hundreds of years old--yes even those plants that only come up to your waist.  They will not just bounce back a couple of months after the company chops them down.  Also, the solar facilities will require miles of access roads between all of the mirrors or panels to wash them on a regular basis.  All of this activity and the water running off the mirrors will erode any topsoil or biotic crusts that provide nutrients for native plants.
6.) Rare plant and wildlife will be okay because we will relocate the animals and build around the rare plants.
Relocating tortoises will still result in high mortality rates. When hundreds of tortoises were relocated from a new military training area in the central Mojave Desert, at least half died within two years of being moved.  Solar companies have also proposed building around spots where rare wildflowers occur, but isolating patches of vegetation will disrupt the ecosystem functions the plants depend on and the runoff from the nearby solar panels could still cause harmful soil erosion.
5.) Rooftop solar panels cannot generate enough energy to meet the demand for clean energy, which is why we need huge facilities on public land.
This is not true.  There are many opportunities to place solar panels in the urban environment, making them serve as shade structures for parking lots, on schools, homes, small businesses and warehouses.  A study by UCLA found that Los Angeles rooftops alone could support enough solar to generate 5,500 megawatts.  In 2009, Germany had already reached 9 gigawatts of solar generation, most of which came from rooftop systems.  Utility companies are also afraid of rooftop solar.  If you lease or own a rooftop solar system on your house or business, that's less money going into utility company pockets.
4.) If you are against Big Solar or Wind, you must be a coal or oil industry supporter.
Yes, I have been accused of being in bed with the coal or oil industry because I am against solar and wind projects that destroy America's southwestern deserts.  The last thing I want is another new coal plant, or a repeat of the 2010 Gulf oil disaster.  But the damage done by Big Solar and Wind is going to catch up with us. 
Why should we continue down the wrong path when we know we will ultimately regret it, and when we know the miracle of solar and wind technology is its versatility.  Wrist watches and calculators have integrated solar technology on a miniature scale for years.  One company is developing windows with embedded solar cells.  There is no reason solar facilities cant find another home and leave public land for other uses.
3.) More birds are killed each year by pet cats than wind turbines.
So this is actually true.  There are nearly 90 million pet cats in the United States, according to the American Bird Conservancy, which kill millions of birds ever year.  Supporters of big wind energy facilities frequently cite this statistic in defense of the 440,000 birds killed by turbines every year (this number will reach 1 million birds per year in 2030, when over 100,000 wind turbines are expected to be in operation).   There are two things wrong with this defense: 1.) It's like the oil industry saying more fish die in fishing nets than in oil spills.  These are two separate problems, and the magnitude of the other problem does not excuse you from fixing the one you have. 2.) Snowball the neighborhood cat will not kill a Golden Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Whooping Crane, or a Mexican free-tailed bat--but wind turbines do it all the time.
2.) Big Solar and Wind facilities create much needed "green" jobs.
Building a 392 MW solar power facility in the middle of the desert will support hundreds of constructions jobs.  But once construction is finished, facilities usually only have a small permanent staff.  The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California will employ 86 permanent staff, but the project will depend on a 1.6 billion dollar taxpayer-backed loan guarantee.  That's over 18.6 million dollars of taxpayer risk per permanent job for a project that is not even "green."  Ivanpah is projected to displace or kill hundreds of desert tortoises, thanks to the company's decision to build on some of the best habitat in the eastern Mojave Desert.  Since when did creating "green" jobs involve destroying pristine habitat for an endangered species?  Distributed generation projects can create just as many jobs, but they will be local.  Instead of workers driving an hour and a half from the nearest city to reach the solar facility, installing rooftop solar means they can work in their own neighborhood.
1.) The desert is the most efficient place to build solar facilities because of the higher insolation.
The desert does have higher insolation, which is the measurement of the sun's radiation that actually reaches a given surface area.  But any efficiency gained by building in the middle of the desert is lost when the electricity seeps out of the transmission lines.  Transmission lines can lose anywhere from 7-15% of the electricity.  Not to mention, transmission lines are expensive to build or upgrade, and those costs are passed along to the customer.  For example, the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line being built in Southern California will cut through national forest and pristine desert, but it is expected to cost 2 billion dollars.  This will ultimately be passed along to the ratepayer.
The other problem is water.  There's not much water in the desert, but a water-cooled facility like the Beacon Solar power project will require 456 million gallons per year.  Air-cooled facilities can use less, but the 11 square mile Blythe Solar power project will still require 195 million gallons (600 acre-feet) per year for cleaning mirrors and other operations.  All of this is going to be pumped from dwindling groundwater supplies.
We have a lot to learn about our renewable energy choices, but energy company propaganda does not help support informed decision-making.

Wildflowers in bloom on the site of the proposed Ridgecrest Solar power project in the western Mojave Desert. The site is home to an abundance of desert tortoise, and the threatened Mohave ground-squirrel.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this great article! I'll post and share it on the Renewable Communities Alliance FB and blog. I would add that local clean energy creates significantly MORE GREEN JOBS than remote, absentee-owned central solar. See Al Weinrub's excellent Community Power white paper available at: http://www.localcleanenergy.org/Community-Power-Publication

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