A Look at “Sustainable” Energy

What is “sustainable energy” and is solar and wind power really as sutainable as we think? The dictionary defines sustainable as a process which is able to be maintained over time. From an environmental perspective, sustainability not only pertains to how resources are harvested, but also how they are disposed of, the manner in which they are harvested, and the after effects of their usage. From an economic perspective, sustainability would be related to the returns upon investment, meaning that the resources obtained must be worth the time, labor, and capital funneled into an endeavor. Let’s analyze this as it pertains to different types of power

The above chart shows the returns on investment per acre for various kinds of power plants. Although there has been a craze over solar energy for the past few decades, one acre of solar panels, which can cost upwards of $400,000.00 per acre, produce less than 0.004 MW of electricity per acre. Geothermal and wind power are slightly better, at 0.03 and 0.05 MW per acre, however, if you take into account the costs of construction of geothermal and wind infrastructure, the returns begin to look fairly meager, although they do have smaller footprints, and both are less costly than solar. The winner by far is coal, which produces 1.39 MW of power per acre. It’s worth saying here that nuclear power produces much more than coal per acre, although it is the most fraught with safety and environmental concerns. Hydroelectric and power from CNG are the closest contenders which would be considered more environmentally friendly.

Granted, there are issues with all sources of power. What I’m constantly astonished to find is that no one ever discusses the sustainability of land use with respect to these sexy, overly hyped, “carbon neutral” power sources. When considering the acreage necessary to power all of California using solar and wind power, we suddenly find that solar power and wind alone would be unsustainable to power the state, even if every rooftop, every strip of farmland, and every square acre of space were covered with panels and turbines. Those panels may seem to be taking up what appears to be dead space in the middle of the desert, but that desert is still a habitat for roadrunners, jackrabbits, endangered tortoises, deer, mountain lions, iguanas, and protected plants such as Joshua Trees. In addition, consider the monetary cost to taxpayers of spending millions on a project which produces so little returns.

This in no way is meant to undercut the benefits of solar power. Solar panels on private rooftops and in backyards that feed back into the grid are of benefit. In fact, the largest wind farm in California actually leases space from private individuals which have allowed wind turbines on their property. In effect this allows those turbines to be spaced out so that they will be less of a monolithic presence, and perhaps might even minimize the damaging effects to migrating birds and the ravages created by huge, noisy, habitat intrusive wind power farms. Granted, there are issues with coal power, including the safety of coal miners working to get the coal out of the ground, and issues with carbon emissions. However, new technologies allow for many of the carbon emissions produced by coal plants to be recaptured, as shown in this clip. Carbon emissions from coal can be greatly reduced compared the the coal power of previous generations. Even with the many issues with coal power, it is still one of the most efficient sources of power which can be produced in any weather conditions, can be turned on instantly to compensate for low production from other sources, which can prevent the rolling blackouts seen commonly in California, and more recently, Texas. Our power sources should be as varied as our diet. Just because it seems sexy and cool to eat tofu, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also eat some mixed greens, carrots, chicken, and even some chocolate.

This month there was an unfortunate record set for lithium battery fires all over the country. The pandemic has confined people to their homes, and there has been a much larger disposal rate of these toxic batteries into the regular trash. When they get mixed in with recycling and other types of waste which are incinerated, disaster results. Lithium fires are devastating, produce toxic fumes and contaminants which seep into our groundwater, and are exceedingly difficult to extinguish. The hazards of storing lithium batteries are so well known in the insurance industry that few automotive facilities can now become insured to refurbish the batteries on hybrid cars. What this means is that the old batteries end up in landfills, since there is virtually no lithium recycling industry presence anywhere in the United States. The government, when deciding to mandate electric cars, should consider what will happen to the batteries in eight to ten years when they are no longer in service. Perhaps California, will send the batteries to their neighbors in Nevada and Arizona, as it also continues to import dirty power from other states to supplement the shortfall of their “carbon neutral” production.

Published by DeepInThought

I have deep thoughts which plague me daily. Putting them in writing is my therapy, and pretty much a primal need.

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Notes On Liberty

Spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed

Why Evolution Is True

Why Evolution is True is a blog written by Jerry Coyne, centered on evolution and biology but also dealing with diverse topics like politics, culture, and cats.


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