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The Environmentalist’s Dilemma

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

About 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas, drivers on Interstate 15 reach a section of the Mojave desert called the Ivanpah Valley. For most travelers, the valley is a nondescript landscape of creosote bushes, cactus, and sand; but devotees of the desert sometimes leave the main road to see much more. The uninterrupted views of the surrounding mountains are especially crystalline on early spring mornings when unusual plant species like the Mojave Milkweed and the Desert Pincushion are in bloom. Several birds that nest in the valley, including the burrowing owl and the loggerhead shrike, have protected status under federal law, as does a reptile called gopherus agassizii, or desert tortoise.

BrightSource Energy, a firm that plans to develop a 390-megawatt solar complex in the valley, has been counting the tortoises it would have to relocate in order to proceed with the project, and BrightSource’s census takers are finding far more than they, or anyone else, expected. Since the history of successfully relocating this tortoise is not encouraging, and since the small reptile has an ever-growing cohort of protectors, BrightSource is no longer as sure as it once was that this project, at the scale proposed, will be feasible.

Currently, the Bureau of Land Management has about twenty solar, wind, and geothermal projects under various stages of development review in the desert Southwest — Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California — and two more wind projects in Oregon. All of these face varying degrees of opposition from environmental groups. Some are also being contested by Native American tribes, whose objections are both environmental and cultural, in that some of the lands are considered sacred burial grounds.

Environmental advocates of renewable and sustainable energy can find their colleagues’ objections nettlesome and embarrassing.

For environmental advocates of renewable and sustainable energy, their colleagues’ objections can be both nettlesome and embarrassing. The Mojave is ideally situated for solar development; these desert lands are bombarded with more of the sun’s rays than almost any place on earth, and that sunshine conveniently arrives at the perfect time to be converted to electricity to meet the peak power requirements of large nearby population centers: Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego, and the megalopolis that combines Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles counties. Since more than one million acres of the Mojave have already been excluded from such development by a law sponsored by U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein in 2009, projects like BrightSource’s become an even more important element in fulfilling California’s ambitious plan to obtain at least 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Feinstein’s original proposal was to exclude over 2.5 million acres, but that was scaled back in the face of opposition from unions who foresaw an enormous loss of construction jobs. But the same groups that encouraged the set-aside in 2009 — organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society — continue to push for further restriction of energy development on any public lands that come close to being in pristine condition. There is some irony in the fact that the main reason such lands are “pristine” is that they were unsuitable for any other kind of development. Except for their mostly newly discovered environmental sanctity, these desert areas would have been the cheapest land upon which to develop solar resources.

In some locations, wind power can compete in the marketplace even without production tax credits, but solar still heavily relies on subsidies or renewable energy mandates to compete with fossil fuel. So, until renewables have become fully competitive in the marketplace, does the outcome of these struggles between environmental supporters and opponents of utility-scale projects really matter?

The answer is surely yes. Geothermal, like wind power, is already competitive in many locations; meanwhile, solar energy’s costs are decreasingly fairly rapidly. The price of silicon — the primary raw material in solar — has fallen dramatically; so have engineering costs, as successful techniques are increasingly replicated and perfected. Since solar power is intermittent, there are additional expenses of integrating backup power sources, but more efficient technology is bringing those costs down as well.

By some estimates — most recently one from Duke University in July 2010 — solar has reached the point where new construction is cheaper than the estimates for new nuclear construction in the United States. Solar facilities come nowhere close to matching the costs of existing coal-fired plants, but if new coal plants are required to capture and sequester their carbon emissions — a proposal that is steadily gaining political force — then solar begins to compete even with coal

Some estimates show solar has reached the point where new construction is cheaper than the estimates for new nuclear plants.

The only expense for utility-scale solar that isn’t falling, as BrightSource and its competitors well know, is the cost of land acquisition and site development. Endless demands for supplemental environmental reports and the constant threat of lawsuits can’t stop solar development entirely, but they can surely slow it to a crawl. Environmental groups may spend even more to fight natural gas and coal power plants, but when they oppose fossil fuels they’re taking on mature industries that have plenty of resources to fight back. Solar is an infant industry, and it doesn’t take too much to suffocate an infant in the crib.

Admittedly, there is skepticism about solar energy’s competitiveness in any case, especially following the Solyndra fiasco. But the proximate cause of Solyndra’s bankruptcy was the fact that other solar technologies became so much cheaper (raising the question why the Obama administration remained so intent on subsidizing a company whose future depended on solar energy remaining expensive). Moreover, Solyndra and similar companies were geared mainly to the rooftop market, not to the large solar farms to be erected in the Mojave. Not only do small rooftop arrays tend to be costlier to install, they’re often situated in latitudes where the amount of available sunlight is as little as one fourth that of the desert.

Utility-scale installations have historically been cheaper than rooftop panels because they depended upon a simpler technology. Essentially, these big desert projects employed reflective mirrors to capture enough of the sun’s heat to boil water, thus creating steam to drive turbines. Now, even utility-scale projects are switching to panels that create energy through a direct photovoltaic process. In fact, the developers of one very large complex, called Blythe Solar, determined that it made sense to redesign the entire project because silicon panels have become so cheap. (The new proposal would also require far less water, but the design change has led the Bureau of Land Management to withdraw the permit pending a new round of environmental studies.)

Environmentalism against itself

Whatever their misgivings, almost every major environmental organization is on record in support of almost all forms of renewable energy. The Friends of the Earth holds itself out as a particularly strong advocate of solar energy. Recently, the foe even threatened to sue the British government over planned reductions in its subsidies for rooftop solar panels. Then there’s the Environmental Defense Fund, which reported with approval a 2008 Scientific American article that lays out a detailed plan for a “massive switch to solar power,” and notes that at least 250,000 square miles of land in the southwestern United States are suitable for solar power plants.

Equally enthusiastic is the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose website says:

Massive concentrating solar-power plants will be built in the Southwest, providing clean electricity for millions of homes and businesses in the region. California’s Blythe Solar Power plant, the world’s largest, is expected to go online by 2013. According to Sandia National Labs, costs are expected to fall to about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2020, a price competitive with those at new coal- or gas-fired power plants.

But on next page of that same nrdc website, doubts begin to appear. A section called “Renewable Energy Meets Wildland and Wildlife Conservation” says that “Certain sensitive lands — such as parks, monuments, and wildlife conservation areas — and ecologically sensitive marine areas are not appropriate for energy development . . . nrdc does not endorse locating energy facilities or transmission lines in such areas.”

The oldest and possibly the most influential environmental organization is the Sierra Club. Its website also extols the virtues of wind, geothermal, and biomass, and shows particular enthusiasm for solar energy, which it describes as “the cleanest, most abundant, renewable energy source available, and the U.S. has an ample and infinite supply of sun . . . Solar is not only clean, it is affordable.” 

However, there is an ongoing dispute within the club; several of Sierra’s local chapters don’t want large solar installations anywhere near them. Skeptical outsiders may see their environmental opposition as nimbyism in formal attire, but within the club it’s taken seriously. Events last year give a flavor of the controversy. In late 2010 Sierra’s board issued a memo declaring that “After much deliberation, the Board of Directors made a difficult decision this week not to try to block BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar project in the Mojave Desert.” Then, in early 2011 Sierra filed a lawsuit against the nearby Calico Solar project. That suit — eventually dismissed — claimed that the developer had made insufficient efforts to mitigate damage to the desert tortoise, the fringe-toed lizard, the beardtongue desert wildflower, the golden eagle, and the bighorn sheep. In the words of the petition:

The need for increased renewable energy generation does not grant solar energy companies a free pass to ravage pristine desert habitat under the false claim of “clean energy.” There is plenty of solar potential on already-disturbed land and rooftops that can be tapped so we can save our desert ecosystems for future generations to enjoy.

Sierra’s former executive director, Carl Pope, had some difficulty navigating the cross currents, even though he steered a careful path on such issues during his seventeen year tenure. Perhaps the Sierra Club’s board thought it could continue to finesse the conflicts between the national policy and local chapters’ interests by appointing a new executive director, Michael Brune, and naming Pope as chairman. However, Pope eventually resigned the chairmanship as well. Upon departing he observed, “If we don’t save the planet, there won’t be any tortoises left to save.”

One of the Sierra Club’s most difficult decisions involved not solar power, but wind turbines. The Cape Wind project, off Cape Cod near Martha’s Vineyard, divided not only environmental groups, but even families. At the national level, Sierra ultimately followed the Union of Concerned Scientists in supporting Cape Wind; Michael Brune called it “a huge victory for clean energy.” But that decision left deep scars within the local chapter, where opposition to the project was strong. Similarly, a Pennsylvania Sierra club has bitterly opposed ridge-top wind projects in the Allegheny Mountains.

Throughout the country, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and similar groups have members on both sides of particular renewable energy projects. But the ensuing conflicts reach well beyond the organizations, and catch all who seek rational energy solutions in an expensive crossfire. If science were the primary referee, such internal disputes would be mere speed bumps on the road to enlightened energy policy. Unfortunately, something deeper than scientific analysis is driving this process.

What is cast as the need to protect the habitat of the desert wildflower or the views of residents of Martha’s Vineyard really reflects a fundamental difference in values between two factions. Both put a high priority on the environment, but they do so in very different ways, and science may never resolve their differences.

The first group is the preservationists; their godfather is the Sierra Club’s founder, John Muir, who made it his mission to remind his fellow man of the majesty of the wilderness, best exemplified by the Yosemite Valley. Some preservationists trace their roots back even further to Henry David Thoreau, whose retreat to Walden Pond — to better appreciate nature in its unspoiled state — is embedded in American mythology. When Thoreau emerged from his solitude, he penned lines like, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Thoreau’s words were amplified by the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the romantic landscapes of the artists of the Hudson River School.

The second group is the conservationists. They may share Muir’s and Thoreau’s appreciation of nature in the wild, but see the role of man differently. Whereas preservationists see science and industry as threats to the environment, conservationists believe that scientific and industrial progress must be the environment’s savior. Conservationists have their own historical figureheads, chief among them Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt. As director of the National Forestry Service, Pinchot convinced the federal government to protect forests from the unsustainable logging practices allowed under lax or nonexistent regulation by the states. As a member of Roosevelt’s administration, Pinchot strongly influenced the president’s decision to radically expand the national park system.

Preservationists see science and industry as threats; but conservationists see progress as the environment’s eventual savior.

Pinchot and Muir were once great admirers of each other’s work, but controversy flared between them when Muir read that Pinchot favored allowing sheep to graze in forests. When the two met in a Seattle hotel lobby in 1897, Muir demanded to know if this was true. When Pinchot confirmed that it was, Muir told him that he wanted nothing more to do with him.

Years later, much worse was to come. Pinchot strongly favored the plan to create a dependable source of drinking water for San Francisco by damming the Tuolomne River and creating a huge reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. As the scheme gained momentum, Muir was beside himself. The Hetch Hetchy was as beautiful and wondrous as Yosemite, and he thought destroying it by flood was environmental sacrilege. Muir and his Sierra Club allies fought the project for years, but the O’Shaughnessy Dam (named for the San Francisco engineer who supervised the project) was finally completed in 1923.

The Hetch Hetchy controversy continues to this day. Every few years brings a new campaign to dismantle the dam and let the valley return to its natural state. Some, including Sierra’s Pope, have argued that proposals to remove the dam are often politically motivated attempts to divide the environmental community. It is probably more accurate to say they’re attempts to capitalize on environmental schisms that already exist. The current proposal to restore Hetch Hetchy is spearheaded by California state Senator Dan Lungren, who previously hadn’t seemed to have met a dam he didn’t like.

In any case, environmental groups are getting other dams decommissioned and removed, particularly in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Preservationists see dams as major assaults on nature, threatening marine species by changing rivers’ ecology and threatening the land by changing the rivers’ flow. Hydroelectric power is still by far the nation’s leading source of renewable energy, but if the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Wilderness Society won all their dam removal battles, this would no longer be so.

In fact, if other sources of renewable power — sun, wind, geothermal, and biomass — were developed only at the rate that the Department of Energy currently projects, the nation would actually experience a net loss of renewable power in the next decade. Solar power is only a small part of the decade’s projected energy output, and without some large-scale desert projects will surely remain so.

Preservationists are often accused of making the best the enemy of the good, but this argument is unlikely to reduce their zeal for protecting deserts. It is precisely within the desert’s fragile ecosystems that threatened plant and animal species assume an importance that nonbelievers seldom grasp. The desert’s natural state is one of deprivation, and those who revere these parched landscapes see the inhabitants that roam among scrub pines and creosote bushes as heroic survivors, constantly threatened by nature. To see those threats compounded by man becomes almost too much. The more emotion one invests in preserving desert tortoises, burrowing owls, and bighorn sheep, the more sacrilegious it seems for strangers to approach their habitat with an insouciance that sees little but empty land.

Make no big plans

In opposing large-scale renewable projects, preservationists have other allies. There are environmentalists who would not agree that every wilderness must remain untouched, but who still don’t care for the big projects that threaten those areas. One strong ally is Amory Lovins, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a renewable energy consulting firm and think tank, whose clients have included bp, Dow, General Motors, Mitsubishi, and numerous electric and gas utilities. In pursuing his environmentalist agenda Lovins emphasizes science and economics, not romanticism. It was from that perspective that, in February 2009, he wrote a guest post for a New York Times blog, asking: “Does a Big Economy Need Big Power Plants?”

Lovins compared thousand-megawatt power plants to Victorian steam locomotives: “magnificent technological achievements that served us well until something better came along.” He insisted that future power plants should be small-scale facilities that can be effectively networked by smart grids, thus being made safer because they’d be more diversified. Lovins had good things to say about renewable energy, but only in the form of “distributed renewables,” i.e., panels on rooftops, parking lot surfaces, and such. Small plants would also be easier to finance, needing smaller capital outlays that markets can more easily digest. All of this was so clear to Lovins that he concluded by asking, “What part of this story does anyone who takes markets seriously not understand?”

Well, how about this part: Since the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow equally throughout the country, doesn’t it make more sense to install large facilities where they can optimize nature’s beneficence? San Diego might some day be able to power itself entirely by solar panels on rooftops and parking lots, but that won’t leave much power to export elsewhere. Seattle, meanwhile, won’t be well placed to follow San Diego’s example; its residents could use some wind power from the Columbia River Gorge. We wouldn’t even save on transmission costs by “distributing” all power generation, since so many new lines are needed anyway — especially if the “smart” networked grids that Lovins so admires are to become a reality.

In addition to preservationists, conservationists, there is another environmental faction: the no-growth contingent.

Lovins’s views on centralized versus decentralized solar power may be more nuanced than his blog suggests, but he certainly reinforces his bridges to the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other powerful advocates of renewable energy and conservation whose charters invariably favor small over big. Proposals for distributed energy, including rooftop solar panels, play well to an environmental community for whom the slogan “small is beautiful” — popularized by Ernst Schumacher’s 1973 book of the same title — still resonates.

Schumacher’s timing was propitious. Reeling from the Western World’s first oil shock, many were especially receptive to Schumacher’s indictment of capitalist excesses, which he mainly ascribed to the fact that companies, institutions, cities, and systems had grown too big. Schumacher’s latter-day adherents now see every supposed evil of globalization as associated with capitalistic gigantism, best countered by environmental minimalism. In fact, one group — aptly called the Preservation Institute — has made Schumacher’s book the reference point of its charter.

This contrasts with prevailing views in the first half of the 20th century, when the surest way to impact policy was to promote big projects. The spirit was captured in a phrase attributed to Chicago architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” That early 20th-century philosophy was later taken to absurd extremes by the city planner that environmentalists love to hate: New York City Parks Commissioner and power broker Robert Moses. During Moses’s tenure, more freeways were built, more urban renewal projects undertaken, and more old neighborhoods demolished in New York City than at anytime before or since.

By the 1950s, reaction had already begun. As anti-freeway revolts worked their way into the dna of environmental organizations, projects that disturbed large parts of the built environment drew greater opposition. So large proposals to disturb the unbuilt environment were destined to be even more controversial. “Urban sprawl” has now become a fighting phrase, and a few years ago the Nature Conservancy coined a related term — “energy sprawl” — subtly conveying the notion that large solar-farms or wind-farms enable the same kind of careless land grabbing as does freeway construction.

Nevertheless, in the field of solar power, some very big plans still show up in places that demand serious attention. In the January 2008 Scientific American magazine’s cover story — the one so admired by the Environmental Defense Fund — Ken Zweibel and two other engineers detailed a “Grand Plan” for converting the entire electric grid of the United States to solar energy by 2050. It called for no miraculous technological breakthroughs but plenty of new solar farms, power lines, and compressed-air storage facilities. Also, the plan would require 46,000 (noncontiguous) square miles. Although that’s less than five percent of the total area of seven southwestern states, a considerable portion would no doubt have used state or federally owned land. The plan’s price tag was estimated at $420 billion. Clearly the authors of the article and the editors of the magazine were seeking Burnham’s “magic that stirs the blood.”

Engineering professors Mark Jacobson of Stanford and Mark Delucchi of the University of California at Davis would go even further. In their own Scientific American cover story (November 2009) the professors proposed — perhaps more as a thought experiment than a concrete plan — that a combination of energy from “wind, water, and sunlight” could provide all of the world’s energy by 2030.

Which brings us back to companies like BrightSource and Blythe Solar, which need many square miles of land to build solar plants to power thousands of homes. BrightSource understands that the desert tortoise and other threatened species are far from the only obstacle. The companies must also win over skeptics who now see big solar as a further manifestation of giant corporatism. (Never mind that no current solar plant or wind farm comes anywhere close to the output of large coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants. Those conventional facilities are already up and running, so have achieved a certain threshold level of acceptance.)

Cheap energy and its discontents

In addition to preservationists and minimalists, yet another environmental faction has curbed its enthusiasm for renewable energy. This is the no-growth contingent, who see population growth and resource development as weaknesses of the capitalist system. One surprising name that shows up here is Amory Lovins. He surely wasn’t speaking for his corporate clients when he wrote in a 1977 article in Mother Jones:

If you ask me, it’d be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won’t give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other.

Lovins wrote those words only two years after Paul Ehrlich made the point even more harshly: “Giving society cheap energy at this point would be equivalent to giving an idiot child a machine gun.” Ehrlich, best known as the author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb, had been touring the country heralding the twin dangers of population growth and nuclear energy. While Lovins’s views may have moderated somewhat since the 1970s, there is little evidence that Ehrlich’s have. Ehrlich’s bête noire at the time was nuclear energy, but no source of energy that enabled rapid population expansion was any better. Indeed, he saw mass starvation on the horizon.

Today, there are environmentalists for whom Ehrlich’s pessimistic predictions haven’t been proven wrong, only delayed. Richard Heinberg, in a 2011 book, The End of Growth, writes that “resumption of conventional economic growth [is] a near-impossibility. This is not a temporary condition; it is essentially permanent” (Heinberg’s emphasis). He lists the factors that make this so: resource depletion, negative environmental impacts, and continued financial disruptions. In an earlier book, Powerdown, Heinberg explains how this relates to the false promise of cheap energy, renewable or otherwise:

Every time we humans have found a way to harvest a dramatically increased amount of food or fuel from the environment, we have been presented with a quantity of energy that is, if not entirely free, at least cheap and abundant relative to what we had previously. Each time we have responded by increasing our population, and correspondingly, the load on the environmental systems that sustain us. Each time we have ended up degrading the environment and creating the conditions for a crash.

Would environmental organizations that follow the Ehrlich-Heinberg philosophy ever support a Scientific American plan to develop an entirely solar-powered electrical system by 2050? Hardly. The anti-growth contingent is inclined to raise increasingly novel objections to any massive plan for a lasting source of cheap energy. Their goal is less energy, not cheaper; and the way to ensure less energy is by making it more dear.

Energy efficiency: Trump card or wild card?

When environmental groups oppose large solar- or wind-energy projects, they sometimes offer vague suggestions for alternative locations. But since that approach leaves environmentalists vulnerable to the charge of nimbyism, the preferred argument is to avoid using resources to develop new energy sources, renewable or otherwise, and instead become more energy efficient. The Sierra Club’s national Energy Resources Policy puts it this way:

Energy efficiency — using improved technology and operations to deliver the same energy services with less fuel — is the foundation on which all of our other recommendations are based . . . Clean Efficient Vehicles . . . More Efficient Transportation Modes . . . More Efficient Communities . . . Building and Appliance Efficiency Standards . . . Clean Energy Funding . . . Distributed Generation

So when Southern California Edison wanted to construct power lines through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to bring renewable geothermal power into San Diego, a big part of the local Sierra Club chapter’s opposition involved calculating the energy San Diego could save through conservation measures. When NextEra, a Florida-based utility company that is currently the nation’s largest wind-farm developer, proposed a modest installation in Marin County, California, local conservation groups strenuously objected to wind turbines in a sensitive coastal habitat, capping their argument with multiple illustrations of how Marin residents could easily save more energy than would be produced by such a large-scale utility project.

Californians do take energy conservation and efficiency seriously. While the nation’s and California’s per capita energy consumption were nearly the same in 1975, the national average has since risen about 80 percent, while California’s has remained nearly flat. Two factors remove a little luster from that statistic: 1) During those 43 years, California lost most of its energy-intensive manufacturing industry, and 2) a greater percentage of the state’s population has clustered in its most temperate climate zones. Nevertheless, the California legislature and Public Utilities Commission have devised some effective incentives for encouraging energy efficiency.

The effectiveness of conservation and efficiency can, however, be exaggerated. Several years ago, Dian Grueneich, a California puc member, said:

Energy conservation has to be the highest priority of all our energy needs . . . The payback is phenomenal. For every dollar that our utilities spend on energy conservation they save two dollars. The other dollar is available to reinvest. We do not need 2,000 new power plants as Dick Cheney called for. Through our investment in energy efficiency we will not need any new power plants. We will just replace old ones as needed.

Not any new power plants? California may take some pride in its per capita energy use, but its total consumption has climbed at quite a rapid rate, as has its population. There are still zero-population-growth advocates, who would like to see immigration, legal or otherwise, slow to a trickle. But few environmental groups are in that camp. In June 2009, the Federation for Immigration Reform surveyed 25 major environmental groups and found that only three took a stance on immigration reduction, even though nineteen agreed that population growth was a problem. After bitter debate, the Sierra Club decided to remain among the neutrals.

Even if population growth did somehow slow dramatically, the relation between energy efficiency and reduced consumption is problematic. Occasionally the correlation is direct, as in the United States between 1975 and 1980 — when the first mandate of automobile fuel-efficiency standards and a general decline in the economy occurred simultaneously. Usually the situation is different. As efficiency helps make energy cheaper in terms of the useful work that it can do, demand rises. This phenomenon was observed as long ago as 1865 by William Jevons, an English economist who studied the effect of coal usage, noting that James Watt’s engine was so much more efficient that William Newcomen’s. Did coal consumption decrease? Of course not. Its use spread widely and continued to spread even as further efficiencies were implemented. As Jevons put it, “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

These days, Jevons’s paradox is often referred to as “the rebound effect.” As efficient methods drive down the price per unit of output, industry after industry, and society after society, have found ever more extensive uses for energy. Some environmental groups who want to believe otherwise still dispute the evidence. A thoughtful article by David Owen in the December 20, 2010, New Yorker magazine, which brought data on the Jevons effect up to date, was met with objection by Amory Lovins and scorn by David Goldstein, a blogger for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Lovins harked back to the success of the fuel standards in the 1970s, and Goldstein used California’s recent history, notwithstanding that California’s energy use continues to expand, and its per capita consumption has ceased to decline.

Energy efficiency is an important element of a sound energy policy, but it isn’t a substitute for new power plants. Driving up the cost of new solar- and wind-power facilities won’t spur energy efficiency; it will reinforce reliance on fossil fuels.

Unholy alliances

In their laser-like focus on exotic subspecies and unspoiled vistas, preservationists have provided unintentional aid and comfort to unexpected quarters. “Energy sprawl” has become a popular term among environmentalists who want to keep the desert and other wilderness areas pristine, but the term has also become useful for proponents of nuclear energy.

For example, in 2009 Robert McDonald of the Nature Conservancy published an academic paper measuring the projected land-use requirements of various fuel sources. McDonald compared the number of square kilometers needed to produce a terawatt hour of energy each year. (One terawatt is equal to one trillion watts.) By far the most economical is nuclear power at 2.4 square kilometers. Coal requires about ten, and natural gas about eighteen. Solar photovoltaic comes in at about 37 (which makes it less than half as intensive as wind power, and a whopping ten times less intensive than corn ethanol. Biomass and cellulosic ethanol require even more land).

McDonald wrote his study while congressional cap-and-trade legislation was still very much alive. He wanted to call Congress’s attention to the amount of land needed if the legislation’s goals were to be attained, and to the location where the greatest land impacts would occur under various energy development scenarios. He titled the paper “Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America.”

“Energy sprawl” has become a popular term for environmentalists, but it has also become useful for proponents of nuclear power.

Shortly after the study was published, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, a longtime advocate of nuclear energy, wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal that cited McDonald’s report extensively and concluded that “Renewable energy is not a free lunch. It is an unprecedented assault on the American landscape. Before we find ourselves engulfed in energy sprawl, it’s imperative we take a close look at nuclear power.”

McDonald quickly responded in a Nature Conservancy blog that his study “does not mean that The Nature Conservancy is somehow against renewable energy generation . . . the energy sprawl report should not be taken as an endorsement of nuclear power by The Nature Conservancy.” Maybe so, but McDonald’s report did include statements like this: “Third, our results suggest that energy sprawl is less severe when the cap-and-trade bill is more flexible, allowing for ccs [carbon capture and storage], new nuclear plants, and international offsets.”

Beyond the question of nuclear power, the need to utter disclaimers about sequestering the co2 emissions from coal can really give environmentalists heartburn. Burning coal without emitting carbon dioxide is seen by the coal lobbyists as the industry’s redemption. As they remind legislators, coal is still America’s most plentiful fossil fuel. Coal will never be clean, but it can be scrubbed of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, and coal ash can be disposed of with a high degree of safety. The one thing that no one has yet found a way to do economically is to capture and store coal’s carbon emissions.

That isn’t for lack of trying. Both in the United States and in China, Herculean efforts are underway to make carbon-free coal a realistic possibility in the market. For that to occur, two things must happen to change the industry’s economics: 1) Carbon emissions must become expensive, either through cap-and-trade or taxation, and 2) competing carbonless energy forms must also be very expensive. At the moment, Congress is quiescent on the issue of carbon emissions, but the Environmental Protection Agency is working hard to create such regulations on its own. As to the price of competing carbonless energy — including nuclear, solar, and wind — that variable is increasingly in the hands of environmental organizations that can drive up permitting costs and land costs, even as the cost of materials and engineering are coming down. Making low-carbon-emission coal (or nuclear) more economically attractive on a relative basis may not be an outcome the Sierra Club or many other national environmental groups seek, but their search for perfection can lead there.

If mainstream environmental groups take on large-scale solar, wind, and geothermal with the same mindset they’ve had toward the nuclear industry for the last 40 years, they might achieve a similar result. The country’s last nuclear plant was approved in 1977 and finally built in 1996. There are several plants now in various stage of planning and preliminary construction, but costs have risen so dramatically that it isn’t even certain these will ever be built. Meanwhile other newly proposed plants have already been dropped. Since the de facto moratorium on new nuclear development is almost entirely the result of lobbying and litigation by environmental groups, it is ironic that the nuclear industry is now using more recent environmentalist arguments to claw its way back into the game.

As for the current contest against large-scale renewable power, the outcome is still in the balance. Solar power is not nuclear power (unless you call the sun a huge nuclear-fusion reactor), and solar certainly doesn’t have the huge catastrophic possibilities that nuclear fission has. But if the solar industry has to run a gauntlet of lawsuits over every other acre upon which panels and transmission lines can be laid out, very little solar development will happen, at least in America. At some level, environmental groups understand how much of this issue is in their hands. How will they use their power?