Alternative energy from the wind and sun comes at a high environmental cost and a cost to democracy if it is done wrong-

Basin and Range Watch is a web site that shows the reality of wind and solar in SW deserts-

Read (and look at the photos) in the Watch’s Green Energy vs Actual “Green” Energy.

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University with specialties in natural resource politics, public opinion, interest groups, political parties, voting and elections. Aside from academic publications, he is author or co-author of three hiking/backpacking guides, and he is President of the Western Watersheds Project.

28 Responses to The high cost of concentrated solar/wind energy in the desert-

  1. avatar Mike says:

    Interesting site and article. At wilderness-sportsman, I just switched to a host that uses wind power. It seems every aspect of energy harvest has some side effects. My biggest concern for wind power is the effect on birds and the noise/presence. Still, I feel it’s a better choice than nuclear or oil.

  2. Mike,

    If it is done wrong, I think it could be just as bad. I have read that the design of the blades of wind turbines makes a big difference regarding birds with the larger ones safer. You don’t want the blades close to the ground either. That hits a lot more birds than higher. Location matters too. Apparently the Altamont wind farm is a real slaugher house, but the San Gorgonio Pass group of farms are quite benign for birds.

    This may not be a good example, but corn ethanol is worse than oil.

  3. avatar kt says:

    Hey Ralph,

    Thank you for posting this. These folks are up-to-date. They already posted a Ken Salazar quote about public lands as assets.

    Does that sound like he thinks that the “assets” should be given over to those who seek to exploit or use them for private profit?

    There sure is a LOT of development of public lands and their “assets” proposed for Harry Reid’s Nevada. Maybe the Senator’s goal is to make the whole state look like the torn up landscape of the Carlin Trend zone of Barrick and other foreign gold mines that will in a decade or two leave nothing but a wasteland behind.

  4. avatar Salle says:

    Every time I leave comments at the Obama site, I argue against large wind or solar generator farms. A couple reasons would be habitat and conservation/preservation but also the security issues. Dismantling of the massive and homely gridwerks we have strewn all over the continent would facilitate reclamation of vital resources that could be recycled for components of new, smaller, localized wind generation systems.

    I like the rooftop generators designed for low speed and erratic/variable wind availability. Turbines that work well in cities, like Chicago where they have been researched but they’d work in most cities. Storage is the thing that should be considered for consistency and security.

  5. avatar John Lasseter says:

    Thanks for this, Ralph. Bad link for the “Green Energy vs Actual ‘Green’ Energy”. It should be:
    http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/SolarDesert.html.
    — – –
    Thanks John! I have fixed it because of your help. RM

  6. avatar Salle says:

    I think I posted this link on another thread a day or two ago but it bears re-posting:

    http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/503/index.html

  7. avatar todd says:

    Ralph,

    I don’t think the ethanol/oil comparison is appropriate. Ethanol as currently produced leads to more CO2 emissions than oil. Building a new transmission line to put more renewables online will clearly reduced CO2 emissions — yet will lead damage to other natural resources. It is well accepted in the large-scale renewable community that the primary limitation to bringing more generation online is the lack of transmission capacity. I don’t know enough about the Zia project to comment on it, but folks are crazy (and wrong) to think that we are going to transition off fossil fuels without new transmission lines. Distributed generation is fun to think about and has a place, both near and far term, but putting intermittent generation devices on everyone’s rooftop will lead to transmission nightmares (and blackouts).

    There is no free lunch here. The left is at risk looking like obstructions to every idea when they push against renewables. When the left says “no” to one approach, it has to have a viable alternative to put in its place …. and that alternative has to have merit.

    Cheers,
    Todd

  8. avatar Brian Ertz says:

    todd,

    you don’t need to tear up new swaths of habitat if you decentralize production — produce it near where it’s consumed.

    also – new transmission lines & new renewables DO NOT reduce CO2 emissions — that’s because they DO NOT replace coal-fired power plants — they supplement them. Utility-scale renewables don’t mitigate climate change – they mitigate increased energy costs associated with increased consumption (by externalizing actual costs of energy production onto wildlife habitat rather than atmospheric CO2). Hiding the actual cost of energy production away from market-choices and onto other values is the same failed model that got us into this mess – with the new marketing gimmick of a shiny new technology that lets us all pretend we’re making a “green” decision. It’s a lie – and will be a lie until we commit to paying the actual/honest cost for energy.

    I have yet to find an answer to the question about which coal-fired power plant(s) will be decommissioned should renewables go online.

    As utility-scale renewables transfer the externality costs from additional atmospheric CO2 (assuming a new coal-fired power plant is the only alternative) onto wildlife and landscapes – they mitigate actual market forces that have been demonstrated to decrease consumption — like higher costs of energy. Reduced consumption associated with heightened cost would actually decrease CO2 emission – but so long as there is “cheap” energy produced on the back of costs we don’t see – there is no market incentive to conserve.

    it’s the same broken model – the same dishonest market — which is likened to ethanol in that ethanol just shuffles the deck to make it look green — the same is true with utility-scale renewables.

  9. avatar Brian Ertz says:

    p.s. –

    first – the production-side alternative is to decentralized production

    second (& best) – the consumption-side alternative is to reduce consumption – either via implementing efficiency technologies with the machines and gadgets that use the energy – and/or by making the decision to NOT USE energy more valuable than the decision to WASTE energy.

    third – NO. The suggestion that ‘the left’ must have an alternative other than “no” is a false suggestion – it’s a dishonest manipulation of what “the left” is actually saying — the act of saying “NO” is a constructive alternative – it’s “YES” to wildlife, habitat, viewsheds, etc. And reducing the conversation to “YES” / “NO” alternatives is never a proposition that is conducive to a responsible consideration/conversation for any number of values that ought be considered.

    As mentioned above – the utility-scale renewable energy development industry is attempting to make centralized renewables artificially competitive by externalizing costs onto wildlife habitat, public landscapes, crooked subsidies, etc. This artificial competitiveness is contingent on the dishonesty/obfuscation of actual costs – on allowing consumers to pay for energy without paying for the destruction to other values that are an inevitable result of tackling the “problem” from this production angle.

    When activists “obstruct” the expedited development of energy by ensuring that projects are subject to the same legally mandated environmental analysis and planning that any other use is subject to — that necessarily re-introduces a consideration for the cost to other values…

    I was speaking to a friend who’s been involved in wind investments awhile ago – he mentioned that “serious” investors steer clear of projects proposed for public lands because of the uncertainty associated with the potential for environmental litigation to sour the project, thus the investment.

    This is a good thing – and it demonstrates the constructive contribution of “the left” who are willing to (as so-may put it) say “NO” – the degree to which investors are deterred from tearing up wildlife habitat to construct turbines is the degree to which “the left” have successfully incorporated a value representing wildlife into the production cost of proposed projects. This is a direct market incentive that helps steer investors toward developers that are competently planning in a way that avoids impact to wildlife, habitat, viewsheds, etc. It is a more honest market that incorporates more of what we value – that’s a good thing.

    The longer that activists can hold out and SAY YES to preserving landscapes, the more likely decision-makers are to find solutions that honestly account for the values that activists have been pushing for — the more “competitive” (both politically and economically) alternatives like decentralized production will become.

    As mentioned above — renewables don’t mitigate climate change – they mitigate the effect of increasing demand heightening energy costs by ginning up a new way to obfuscate the actual cost of our energy choices…

    Putting a FREEZE on new power plant construction (or just the relative brakes associated with environmental activism utilizing environmental law), or a carbon-tax, or any other mechanism that fosters a more honest accounting of the true cost of energy production — is a drop in the bucket that steers the market incentives toward implementation of efficiency of consumption-technologies, implementation of decentralized production, and toward an honest market that makes the choice to not to WASTE more valuable than waste.

  10. avatar Salle says:

    “You may be and American, however, contrary to popular marketing strategies you cannot have it all.”

  11. avatar sheila says:

    thanks for bringing up this important subject.

    surprisingly, todd, powerlines are nowhere near benign, and the enormous mess of GHG emissions from a recent powerline near San Diego was considered a non-mitigatable factor in the EIS, which was written by the CPUC, because, even with carbon offset purchases, it would take 12 years of 100% renewable energy running at full capacity down the line to offset just the GHGs spewed from the line itself. never mind offsetting coal, dead carbon sinks, or the construction of these big power plants – it couldn’t even start on that for the first 22% of its functional lifetime. that is hardly a recipe for emissions reductions!

    point of use solutions are neither quaint, little or dismissible. the US Govt. determined that even using the super-cheap, less efficient “thin film” PV, 90% of US electricity needs could be generated just from installing PV on brownfields located within urban load centers. that is huge! and it doesn’t even factor in the amount that could be generated on rooftops, parking garages, sides of buildings, etc. no new transmission needed, no dead habitats, no eminent domain, no destroyed property values and blighted viewsheds, no Big Energy monopolists. just clean, green power, right where it’s needed, lots of local jobs, improved property values, economic stimulus, etc.

    sure, to hit a REAL 90% number, one would need to invest in storage solutions, but the fact remains that local, point of use generation is cheaper, faster, better for the environment, taxpayer AND ratepayer than remote Industrial Wind or Solar and long transmission lines. if we were to start allowing ratepayers to own it and be paid for feeding power into the grid, we will also start seeing the most effective consumption-reduction policy ever implemented. it has proven better than raising prices, rationing, or efficiency tech at reducing actual energy consumption – it’s using the best of the free market to the benefit of ratepayers and the environment alike. 45 nations are already doing this, but we are stuck in the stone age, thanks to Big Energy mercenaries!

    so, we need to get serious about demanding policies and projects which encourage local, point of use solutions, and STOP killing our wilderness for profit. there is no excuse, not even global warming, because there is a better alternative that is ready now. Loans, Feed In Tariffs, and generous tax treatment for ratepayer-producers are a good start.

  12. avatar TimothyB says:

    From a strictly personal belief, I wouldn’t touch an investment in alternative energy with $5.00 of my own money. Why? Brian pretty much makes the point for me. There are too many people that have too many objections that would risk my investment. Sure there are better ideas and some are likely very viable options. But that is not the way business works YET.

    The Results? A lack of alternative energy investors and a lack of commitment that will eventually result in higher cost energy and less energy use. I’m sure there will be far more investment in coal, oil and gas as the price creeps up (or shoot up) again during the next 12 months. More investment in this type of energy will lead to more requests for leases on BLM and public lands. Not sure a Business Plan like this is the proper way to do business but if it works for the conservationist side of the house, then so be it.

    With that said, I guess I should invest my $5.00 in the oil companies as they will, at worst, be a less risky investment and at best, make me money. Or I can wait until the laws and policies are straightened out so investment in alternative energy makes financial sense. In any case, we all win. The energy companies make money, our public lands remain off limits to wind and solar power and…wait, who comes out the big winner?

  13. avatar Brian Ertz says:

    TimothyB –

    good luck investing $5 in oil & gas.

    if the only way giant wind & solar are to be competitive with existing oil & gas is to make them artificially competitive by divorcing a valuation of their impact to wildlife and landscape from the cost of development – then that lie ain’t worth it. there are other solutions and the people who are responsible for whatever inaction you might imagine are not the ones pointing the finger at the environmental costs of big wind & solar development — the people who are culpable are those who’ve framed the choices in this way. there are alternatives that are more viable & more sustainable.

    oil & gas is subject to the same public scrutiny with regard to environmental analysis on public landscapes. just wait for the squeals coming from these industries’ PR machines should the sage-grouse listing decision appear unfavorable to them in the near future..

    the same people who are skeptical of giant wind & solar development are the ones that are pushing to bring the hammer on oil & gas when no one else would. and for the same reasons – to preserve western landscapes and wildlife — and that line of reason is supposed to shut up and fold up when industrial wind & solar come to carve up the western landscape so Las Vegas or Las Angeles can keep their sprawl ?

    there will always be a thousand reasons to compromise away the best habitats and the most imperiled species by taking the standard off of the wildlife, landscape, and existing protections – and a thousand willing to do so with each reason.

    stop the oil & gas drilling – not the voices concerned with wildlife.

  14. avatar kt says:

    TimothyB –

    Your talk about investments makes it sound like your view of solar and wind is All or Nothing. What folks who care about public lands and wildlife – and really the future of the last undisturbed big landscapes in the American West – is that solar and wind are critical – but the broken Big Energy Company Model is dead wrong. Energy production needs to be done as close as possible to where it is used, taking advantage of all those parking lots, rooftops, and marginal lands. Not only are less disturbed public lands too valuable to butcher because of their values for biodiversity, aesthetic and other non-material reasons, they are too valuable for “producing” clean water, clean air, serving as a carbon dioxide sink, buffering the effects of climate change, etc. Invest your $5 in a company that does Rooftop solar – not Big remote-sited industrial Wind or Solar.

    But now that you brought up investments, given all the talk from Big politicians in both parties about giant Corridors and industrial corporate (and increasingly foreign) controlled “green” energy plants, I spent a bit of time last night Googling: hedge fund wind power – and guess what? Hedge funds (and thus the investments of many powerful people) are indeed involved in betting on the same old corporate industrial model of Energy for wind and solar. That, I believe, is part of the reason there is talk of the next stimulus Bill throwing tax dollars at the same old broken Model – instead of making each of us and our communities more energy efficient and “productive”.

    It’s just like all the talk of Roads in the stimulus Bill. That is the same old broken model. We don’t need more big roads that just encourage people to squander more gasoline, we need more public transit, rail, etc.

  15. avatar kt says:

    Sheila – That is really important information. You mean these huge transmission lines spew greenhouse gases? I just found this:

    http://kdfuller.blogspot.com/2008/01/big-transmission-lines-and-global.html

    It describes a potent greenhouse gas chemical I did not even know existed — sulphur hexafluoride — as being emitted by transmission line equipment.

    “Project construction and the escape of sulfur hexaflouride, a very potent greenhouse gas, from electrical transmission equipment over the life of the transmission line would result in significant greenhouse gas emissions.

    Is this describing the project analysis you meant?

  16. avatar Robert Hoskins says:

    I urge Ralph and Brian to keep bringing up this issue of big wind and solar vs. little wind and solar, and others to keep discussing it. It involves the larger issue of changing the paradigm of how we produce and use energy, and partakes of the even larger issue of political and cultural freedom. My own interest in the issue comes from the study of what I referred to earlier as “hydraulic despotism,” a term coined by historian Karl Wittfogle to describe the autocratic states of the far east that ruled their populations through control of a critical resource–water. The term could just as easily be used to describe the threats posed by the centralized control of energy production and use. This country is well on the way to resource despotism, and all values not directly tied to profit are at risk.

    RH

  17. avatar Salle says:

    Lest we forget the rolling blackouts in Calif. caused not by actual shortages of power but manipulation of flow by the non regulated crooks at enron who did it deliberately to effect political change within the state and probably to “punish” Californians for not voting for Bu$h in 2000…

    Here’s an interesting interactive timeline, produced by NRDC, on the environemental legacy of Bu$hCo:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/07/8-years-of-bush-and-the-e_n_155986.html

  18. avatar Salle says:

    A NYT editorial on energy efficiency in the US:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/19/opinion/19mon1.html?_r=1
    – – – – –
    This should be post. I will put it up. RM

  19. avatar Wyo Native says:

    Salle, the blackouts in California started before the 2000 election was even held.

    But if you want to get technical about Enron’s involvment in rolling blackouts and spot market prices, you need not look farther than the Clinton Admin who deregulated the market in 1998 that afforded Enron to have the manipulation power they had.

    With the drought of the late ’90s and we were left with a lack of power being generated in Idaho and the Northwest at the hydroelectric generation stations. This along with the deregulation caused a perfect storm that allowed Enron to take advantage of the situation at the expense of the little folks.

    The spot market prices also allowed FMC in Pocatello to close shop (which is a good thing) and sell it’s block power contracts on the spot market and make more money by only trading a commodity rather than producing a product.

  20. Salle and Wyo Native,

    The deregulation that led to Enron’s ability to create a false, self-enriching energy shortage actually began during the first Bush Administration and fully developed during the Clinton Administration.

    However, for the legal framework to develop that would allow this, first there had to be a national electrical power grid.

    This grid is certainly useful allowing one area of the country to feed electricity to another. It reduces the total generation capacity needed. On the other hand, it is not a robust system, and with deregulation it became a mechanism for massive fraud.

  21. avatar Salle says:

    Thanks, Ralph. That was precisely my point.

  22. avatar todd says:

    You all seem to have the answers. Go for it.

    All I can say is that I am involved in a science-based project (as opposed to a politics-based or values-based project) to move Santa Fe to 90% renewables — (this is your equivalent of local generation) — and it is tremendous challenge (probably not doable) given the current transmission infrastructure. I am also involved in a science-based project that is looking across the Western US to identify where/when/how to put renewables onto the grid. The latter appears much more doable than the former assuming an upgrade of the transmission lines.

    We are all on the same team here. My issue that there is a tremendous amount of value-laden statements (like local generation is good and centralized generation is bad) that are not tied to the current reality. Push all you want to local generation (I am in support of it), but if the grid can not withstand the intermittency of the sources it will be a big step backwards for renewables (a la US diesels of the 70s).

    Cheers,
    Todd

  23. avatar Jason says:

    “Hiding the actual cost of energy production away from market-choices and onto other values is the same failed model that got us into this mess – with the new marketing gimmick of a shiny new technology that lets us all pretend we’re making a “green” decision. It’s a lie – and will be a lie until we commit to paying the actual/honest cost for energy.” What are the “actual” costs of energy? Are they the same for every utility? In every market? I see references to externalities all the time but I’m looking for some serious data.

  24. avatar Salle says:

    But Todd,

    What’s wrong with phasing-out the behemoth gridwerks and recycling it into other products for future generation and localized options? Massive mileage of powerlines will perpetuate the idea that undeveloped habitat is the “way to go” unless other options can be offered to offset the remaking/restoring of the Titanic.

    So I would suggest that we start thinking about decentralization, even telling the big power companies that they don’t win this time. And if they choose to throw temper tantrum ~ like Russia just did with the EU and Ukraine… Then we’d better be able to rely on ourselves, which is what we ought to be doing in the first place. In order to avoid having such events disrupting our energy independence, we should convert to independence first.

    Once upon a time, these power generators were regulated. Regardless of who may have facilitated such an administrative error, it needs to be reinstated and cleansing the system of corruption and greed addressed immediately. I don’t care if we have to nationalize the system, we’ve already done it with the banks… More people require access to power (food storage, heat…) than they do savings and loans corporations.

  25. avatar todd says:

    Salle,

    You say “So I would suggest that we start thinking about decentralization” which implies that there has not been much thinking about it to date. Has it occurred to you that maybe lots of folks with expertise in generation and transmission have been thinking about it? And the fact that it has not happened is not because of the big bad power companies, but is because it is economically and structurally challenging (to say the least). I understand that it is a new day and that which was not possible yesterday might be possible tomorrow, but that does not change the underlying vulnerabilities of the transmission grid.

    Cheers,
    Todd

  26. avatar Salle says:

    Actually, I was inferring that “we” to mean the general public, who seems only to picture the turbine and solar collector farms with major powerline structures coming out of them and that they would/could be located in some far away, out of sight location ~ like the undeveloped areas of the interior west.

    I think the reason they don’t think of any other places is because they don’t really know what could be out there… if it isn’t some location with buildings and teeming with humans, it must not have any or much value so why not put all that stuff there? And that when you see ads about wind and solar power for the future, they are showing extant farms in the middle of seemingly undeveloped land areas and that’s all. No possibility of individual generator systems that they could be using now in their homes and work places. Perception is critical at this time.

  27. Todd,

    I’m glad a person with your values and competence is working to find the best places to put renewable on the grid because it is going to happen one way or another.

  28. avatar vickif says:

    Hello all, nice to see you are all still pndering the issues since I was last here.
    I have a very good friend, a brilliant man, who is a mechanical enginerr. He is quite innovative and is strongly looking for a new career direction that would enable him to begin a business that in green motivated. I told him I think he should begin a company that builds small scale solar grids, or design and manufacture roof top turbines, and many other suggestions. I also felt it necessary to ask you all.
    I can do the business end-and thanks to you all- I am trying to do the greener job. What ideas do you have? The man I am referring to is not just intellegent, he is an inventor :). I think if more people like him began their own green companies we would be much better off. If the government does it, we are looking at larger grid conversion as opposed to localized grids. Any suggestions you have would be welcome and appreciated.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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