Over the last few years, I have been pushing back against the idea that renewables are good for the environment. In 2019 I published, “Why Renewables Can’t Save the Planet,” which was the most-read article of the year at Quillette, and gave a TEDx talk by the same name, which today has 2.5 million views. And last year, in Apocalypse Never, I pointed out that wind and solar projects require 300 to 400 times more land than nuclear or natural gas plants, and that 100% renewables would require increasing land used for energy from 0.5% today to 25% to 50%.
Needless to say, the renewable energy industry and its boosters haven’t liked what I’ve written, and have sought to cancel me. Last year, a group of activist scientists denounced me as factually wrong, and demanded that I be censored by Facebook. They drew on junk science to claim that solar required just 3.6 times more land and wind just 5.8 times more than nuclear and natural gas plants. In response, Facebook censored me and denied me the right to appeal their verdict.
But now researchers at Princeton University and Bloomberg News have admitted that I was right and my critics were wrong. They have just published research showing that wind farms require 370 times more land than nuclear plants, and that shifting away from nuclear and toward renewables, as Biden’s climate plan would do, would have a devastating impact on America’s natural environments.
“A 200-megawatt wind farm,” notes Bloomberg, “might require spreading turbines over 19 square miles (49 square kilometres). A natural-gas power plant with that same generating capacity could fit onto a single city block.”
Everyone agrees that we can increase, to some extent, the amount of electricity from solar panels and wind turbines. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, whose mission is to promote renewables, claims 74% of California’s electricity could come from solar panels. Princeton estimates that 11% of electricity could come from offshore wind projects by 2050.
But after generating just 23% of its electricity from solar panels, California is suffering from blackouts and price spikes stemming from over-dependence on weather-dependent energies. Imagine what tripling solar production would do.
And it’s highly unlikely that the U.S. will add anything close to that amount of off-shore wind. Today, there are total of just seven off-shore wind turbines. Generating 11% of our electricity from them would require building 20,000 of them. And that’s unlikely to happen given widespread opposition from conservationists, fisherfolk, and local residents.
The U.S. would need to triple the amount of transmission lines, according to Princeton researchers, under a high-renewables future. But new transmission lines are being successfully opposed by a grassroots conservationists worried about whooping cranes and other endangered species. The same thing has occurred in renewables-heavy Germany.
Notes Bloomberg, “in 2011, former President Barack Obama created the Rapid Response Team for Transmission to speed the permitting of five Western transmission line projects. Only one is under construction so far. Three still face permitting delays. The fifth was canceled.”
The better alternative, Bloomberg notes, from an environmental point of view, is to build a lot of nuclear power plants, and use carbon capture and storage. “If the U.S. wants a carbon-free economy by 2050 using the least amount of land, it will need to rely far less on wind and solar and instead build hundreds of nuclear plants and natural gas plants outfitted with systems to capture the carbon dioxide before it escapes into the atmosphere.”
Bloomberg correctly notes that “Biden’s plan doesn’t need to entirely rest on wind and solar. Nuclear energy, which requires far less space, is also emission free.” But in its current form, Biden’s plan would result in the loss of half of America’s nuclear power plants between now and 2030, which would nearly wipe out nearly all of the electricity Princeton researchers say could be generated by off-shore wind.
Despite repeated appeals by Environmental Progress and the world’s leading environmental scientists, Congressional Democrats have rejected proposals to even modestly level the playing field by offering nuclear plants a fraction of the subsidies Congress has been giving solar and wind.
Anti-nuclear Democrats in Congress demanding 100% renewables have the strong support from progressives in the news media. “Unlike fossil fuels — which get more expensive as we pull more of them from the ground, because extracting a dwindling resource requires more and more work — renewable energy is based on technologies that get cheaper as we make more,” claimed New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo last week.
But fossil fuels have become cheaper over the centuries and decades, not more expensive. In fact, the biggest story in energy over the last decade has been the declining cost of natural gas from fracking, which is the main reason the U.S. reduced its carbon emissions more than any other nation in history. For years researchers have calculated that the fracking revolution resulted in $100 billion being added to the U.S. economy every year in the form of lower energy prices.
And every serious student of technology knows that declining cost of producing energy is one of the largest factors driving economic growth. Fewer people are required to produce energy, which allows us to do different things.
Meanwhile, the era of cheap Chinese solar appears to be over. The solar industry today is in crisis, wracked by evidence that forced labor is being used to make solar panels in Xinjiang province in China, where the U.S. State Department says that Chinese government is engaged in genocide against its ethnic Uyghur Muslim minority, forcing over one million of them into concentration camps.
And every place that deploys renewables energies at scale makes electricity more expensive. California has seen its electricity prices rise 7 times more than they did in the rest of the U.S. since 2011. Germany saw its electricity prices rise 50% as it deployed renewables and today they are the highest in Europe. France spends about half as much for electricity that produces one-tenth of the carbon emissions as Germany.
The reason is because while solar panels and wind turbines can be produced for less, integrating them into electricity grids requires more and more land, labor, transmission lines, and storage, which all serve to drive up costs, which are largely hidden from consumers and policymakers. Weather-dependent renewables like industrial solar and wind projects externalize onto the public their high costs.
If you are a generalist tech columnist for places like The New York Times you can rely on the opinions of others, without digging very deeply, or even seeking out a different perspective. In Manjoo’s case, it appears he wasn’t even aware that a big part of the reason China had made solar panels cheaper was through forced labor.
That’s too bad, not just for Manjoo, but also for all who would like to protect America’s natural environments, consumers from electricity price spikes, and civilization from blackouts. Advocates for renewables can demonize those of us who point out the obvious, but in the end physics, economics, and nature’s own limits will constrain the expansion of weather-dependent energy sources.