3E Intelligence

The most interesting energy news last week dealt with the negative environmental aspects of renewable energies, as Jesse Ausubel, one of the leading US academics on energy and climate change policies, launched a damning attack on the “green” credentials of renewable energy projects. Ausubel looked at the vast areas of land that would have to be used to ramp up the use of solar, wind and biomass energy and concluded that renewables are not as green as they are claimed to be. His conclusion: “To reach the scale at which they would contribute importantly to meeting global energy demand, renewable sources of energy, such as wind, water and biomass, cause serious environmental harm. Measuring renewables in watts per square metre that each source could produce smashes these environmental idols“.

Furthermore, Ausubel advocates the use of more nuclear in combination with the production of hydrogen to decarbonise our economy. “Nuclear energy is green,” Ausubel claims, “considered in Watts per square meter, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors”.

More on this story in New Scientist and the Guardian.

Clean energy expert Joe Romm (the author of the excellent “Hell and High Water“) debunks most of Ausubel’s arguments on his Climate Progress blog, questioning Ausubel’s figures and his belief in the nuclear hydrogen future.

In March 2007, the European Union set itself an ambitious target of 20% use of renewables for its energy consumption by 2020. According to a report by Greenpeace and the Europan Renewable Energy Council, half of the world’s energy needs in 2050 can be met by renewables and improved efficiency.

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  1. Mr Ausubel says renewable energy sources, such as crops, which are grown for biomass energy production rather than food, cover too much land.Besides the problem of land misuse, Ausubel raises other concerns of similar undesirable consequences of renewables: wind power produces low-frequency noise and thumps, blights landscapes, interferes with TV reception, and injures or kills birds and bats; dams kill rivers; and solar power would require that large areas of land be essentially “painted black” with photovoltaic cells.

    My thoughts on the matter…

    Wind Power:

    *Low-frequency noise and thumps, interferes with TV reception — well, not even worthy of retort.
    *Blights landscapes – much more preferable to coal, nuclear and plants of the like. Some actually find it appealing (considering wind farms are typically placed in baron desolate areas) in a modern-art sort of way (myself included).
    *Injures or kills birds and bats – unfortunately true, but to a minimal extent. Lets compare that to the damage burning fossil fuels does to humans, the environment and wildlife, hmmm…

    Hydro – Dams kill rivers – not if done responsibly. Now lets compare hydro to the irresponsible practice of mountaintop removal – coal mining where mountains are reduced to moonscapes with the “waste” (everything but the coal) being pushed into valleys below, destroying countless streams and rivers in the process.

    Solar – Solar power would require that large areas of land be essentially “painted black” – again, hardly worthy of retort…but I cannot resist. Today technologies are being perfected enabling PV cells to invisibly reside within windowpanes, be painted on to homes via exterior house paint, and already can replace conventional roof shingles…not to mention the tremendous efficiency and engineering strides being made in the industrial side of solar energy.

    Nuclear -A multinational program (including European Union, the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea) to develop nuclear fusion technology, which involves a safe “green” method of fusing together atomic nuclei as opposed to the present dirty, dangerous practice of splitting atoms is under way. However, it would be a lot further along if it were not for funding issues – hmmm…a rather costly (in more ways than one) fossil fuel driven war comes to mind. This potential method of nuclear power is technically proven, feasible and the only method that is”green” and worthy of pursuit!

    Truth be told, in the U.S. anyway, renewable energy has always been treated as a partisan political football vs. a business, economic or environmental agenda item. Consequently, for decades, unpredictable federal policies have hindered our nation’s investment, development and adoption of renewable energy technologies, and has led to increased dependence on foreign oil…all to often from countries that do not have our best interest in mind! As a result, renewable energy is “technically’ just now coming into its own.

    Jesse Ausubel’s report appears to be a desperate plea for attention from someone no longer on center statge. But, I guess desperate times call for desperate measures. Benjamin Franklin (with his pros & cons approach) would have had a field day with his report.

    To be fair, the report does make some valid points, the practicality of corn-based ethanol and greater focus on hydrogen, for example.

    However, to paint all “renewables” with one broad negative stroke, is irresponsible, beneath his stature and (assumed) knowledge that time is of the essence, and although not all of renewable options available today are perfect, significant steps must be taken to address the looming consequences of peak oil and climate change…today! There is no one or two magic bullets or energy utopia…

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