The False Promise of Renewable Energy

by | Jun 4, 2001

A cacophony of calumny has greeted suggestions that America begin drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Outer Continental Shelf, and other public lands, in search of oil and natural gas, to ease our spreading energy crisis and help rein in prices. The Sierra Club, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), and others say drilling is unacceptable […]

A cacophony of calumny has greeted suggestions that America begin drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Outer Continental Shelf, and other public lands, in search of oil and natural gas, to ease our spreading energy crisis and help rein in prices. The Sierra Club, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), and others say drilling is unacceptable and multiple use is “out of the mainstream” of American thought.

Accompanying the chorus of condemnation for fossil fuels, predictable paeans of praise are being warbled for renewable fuels, as the only true, “appropriate” path to energy security. But all renewables are not equal in the eyes of the environmentalists.

Hydroelectric power dams up streams, interferes with migratory fish, and impairs the “wilderness experience” of river rafters. Burning wood causes serious air quality problems (hydrocarbons and soot, in particular) and requires that trees be cut down, a definite no-no among greens. Geothermal suffers from the insurmountable problems that natural heat sources are few and far between . . . and located near magnificent wonders like Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Parks. And soaring natural gas prices have sent fertilizer prices into the stratosphere, making biomass more costly to grow and ship than it will fetch on the open market. So these renewable fuels are no longer quite politically correct, environmentally defensible, economically possible, or socially “responsible.”

That leaves us with but two alternatives to the nuclear and fossil fuels that have powered our progress and prosperity for decades. Solar and wind power have long been touted as the answer to prayers for inexhaustible, non-polluting energy sources. But can they live up to their advance billing?

Even today, their total contribution stands at less than 0.5 percent of America’s energy needs. Aside from their still-high cost, the primary drawbacks for solar and wind power are that they are intermittent; there is no economic way to store the electrical energy for use at night, on cloudy or windless days, and during peak usage hours; and their environmental impacts are significant and negative.

Producing 50 megawatts of electricity using a gas-fired generating plant requires between 2 and 5 acres of land. Getting the same amount from photovoltaics means covering some 1,000 acres with solar panels (assuming a very optimistic 10 watts per square meter (W/m2) or 5 percent peak efficiency), plus access for trucks to clean the panels. Using the sun to meet California’s energy needs would require paving over tens of thousands of acres of desert habitat, sacrificing what the Wilderness Society calls “some of the most beautiful landscapes in America,” and with it their resident plant and animal life.

A 50 mw wind facility requires even more land: some 4,000 acres (assuming an optimistic 6 W/m2). Even wind power’s most ardent supporters grudgingly admit that the notion of thousands of these “futuristic looking” (a euphemism for ugly) towers looming 100 to 200 feet above the rolling hills is not something they yearn to have in their own back yards.

Wind facilities in Texas and California have been called a “visual blight.” Residents near Texas’ Altamont Pass facility say noise from the turbines is “unbearable.”

Vocal California activists have railed for years against offshore oil platforms on the horizon off Santa Barbara. Are we to believe they will find vast “energy farms” of giant windmills more tolerable?

Noise and visual blight are only the beginning of wind power’s adverse environmental consequences, however. Even the relatively small number of wind turbines that exist today kill some 500 hawks, vultures, eagles, and other raptors every year, along with thousands of other birds. The Sierra Club has aptly called them “Cuisinarts of the air,” and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has actually suggested that wind farm operators might be prosecuted and jailed for killing federally protected birds. How’s that for an incentive to get into the business?

On a national scale, the environmental impacts of solar and wind power become truly staggering. Former Deputy Energy Secretary Ken Davis has calculated that, to produce the 218 gigawatts of additional electricity America will need by 2010, using only wind or solar power, we would have to blanket 9,400,000 acres with wind mills or solar panels. That’s nearly 10 percent of California . . . an area equal to Connecticut, Delaware, and Massachusetts combined!

Perhaps some photovoltaic panels will be located on roofs, and some of the land in between windmills can be used for farming and grazing (which greens also dislike). However, the total acreage affected by these “Earth-friendly” energy sources would still run into the millions. By contrast, developing the 6 to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil estimated to be in ANWR’s distant coastal plain would disturb only 2,000 acres.

Our nation–and California in particular–has lived in a world of energy alchemy and make-believe for long enough. It’s high time we recognized there is no free lunch or magic elixir. Tough decisions must be made if progress, prosperity, and opportunity are not to become only a dim memory.

–Paul Driessen is a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and principal of Global-Comm Partners, in Fairfax, Virginia. Made available through

Publisher’s Note: CM is not opposed to “renewable energy” so long as it is not forced upon people by the initiation of force.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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