Fact check: Bryce errs on emissions, land use

22 September 2013 by Michael Goggin Michael Goggin

Long-time wind-basher Robert Bryce has a new Bloomberg column questioning the ability of wind and solar power to deal with climate change.

While Mr. Bryce may not have his facts straight, he at least gets credit for persistence. Mr. Bryce has been pushing his misleading statistics on wind energy’s land use for years. That includes an opinion piece in the New York Times that has been rebuked by dozens of journalists and other experts for its numerous falsehoods as well as its failure to disclose that Mr. Bryce’s employer, the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy, has received large amounts of funding from major fossil fuel industry players like ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers.

The reality is that wind energy is making critical contributions to reducing the carbon pollution and other environmental impacts of our energy production. The wind plants now installed in the U.S. reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 100 million tons per year, the equivalent of taking 17 million cars off the road. Wind energy has accounted for more than 35% of all electric generating capacity installed over the last 5 years, and renewables combined accounted for 55% of all new capacity in 2012. Wind now reliably provides more than 20 percent of the electricity in Iowa and South Dakota and more than 12 percent in nine states, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. While there is obviously more to be done, U.S. wind energy capacity has nearly quadrupled over the last five years.

Wind energy has enjoyed tremendous growth because its costs have fallen by more than 40% over the last five years. This has been driven by improvements in technology as well as the creation of a domestic manufacturing industry that now produces more than 70% of the value in a wind turbine here in the U.S. As the lowest-cost zero-emission energy source, wind energy must play an essential role in any effort to solve our environmental problems.

Returning to land use, unfortunately for Mr. Bryce, repeating a falsehood does not make it true. After his first piece ran, a number of experts and other independent voices pointed out several critical mistakes in Mr. Bryce’s attacks on wind energy. First, Mr. Bryce overstates the actual land use requirements of wind energy by a factor of at least 20-50 by failing to mention that only 2-5% percent of the land within a wind plant is actually occupied by wind turbines and their supporting infrastructure, while the remaining 95-98% can continue being used for farming, ranching, or whatever its prior use was. In fact, a 2008 report by the George W. Bush Administration’s Department of Energy (DOE) concluded that obtaining 20% of the nation’s electricity from wind energy would use less land than is currently occupied by the city of Anchorage, Alaska.

Correcting for that mistake brings Mr. Bryce’s number down to a more reasonable number of 50 to 75 miles square for the land that is actually used. For comparison, that is equivalent to the combined area of a few large ranches in Mr. Bryce’s home state of Texas. Not bad for providing enough zero-emission electricity to replace the nearly half of U.S. electricity that until recently came from the U.S.’s 300 billion watts of coal-fired power plants, according to Mr. Bryce’s own calculations.

More importantly, one must compare the comparatively benign impact of installing wind turbines with the harmful and in many cases irreversible impact on the land caused by the extraction, transportation, and consumption of other fuels. Furthermore, because fossil and nuclear fuels are consumed when they are used, while wind energy’s fuel is never depleted, fossil and nuclear energy require that new land be continually mined in perpetuity. The DOE report mentioned above noted that 1,000,000 acres of new land are disturbed each and every year in the U.S. by coal mining, several times greater than the amount of land that would be disturbed once and only once by obtaining 20% of America’s electricity from wind energy.

It is unusual for someone from Texas to argue that there isn’t enough land to achieve something. Mr. Bryce should get out and speak with some of those farmers and ranchers who are hosting wind turbines on their land. For many family farmers and ranchers, farming the wind has made the financial difference that allowed them to stay on their farms. They’d tell him about the jobs, the landowner lease payments and property tax payments for them and their communities, or maybe even the 8 billion gallons of water that wind energy saves every year in Texas by displacing fossil-fired power plants with cooling systems that evaporate massive amounts of water.  During periods of long-term persistent drought, as most of Texas is now experiencing, water is an extremely valuable and limited resource and consuming water for fuel production and energy generation may not leave much for human and livestock consumption and crop growth.

Photo credit: David K. Clarke

Related articles on disinformation from Robert Bryce:

Fact check: More misinformation from Bryce on wind and birds, March 25, 2013
Fact check: Bryce off target on wind power jobs, September 19, 2012
Fact check: On turbine sound, it's Bryce vs. science, July 24, 2012
Big energy companies building wind farms? And that's bad?, June 18, 2012
Fact check: Bryce misleads on land use, wind power's potential, May 30, 2012
Fact check: Bryce missteps on wind and birds, March 8, 2012
Fact check: Bryce bypasses facts, bashes clean energy, February 24, 2012
Fact check: Bryce whopper on land use, January 19, 2012
Are these comments Robert Bryce doesn't want you to see?, December 23, 2011
Fact check: Bryce ignores renewable energy's benefits, attacks companies that make it, suggests they face a tax increase, December 21, 2011
Fact check: Bryce overlooks another convenient truth, December 14, 2011
Fact check: Bryce goes astray on jobs, land use, and more, November 22, 2011
Fact check: Bryce again misinforms on wind costs/benefits, October 20, 2011
Fact check: Bryce errs on incentives, wind's popularity, October 13, 2011
Fact check: Bryce whiffs on wind power and Texas heat wave, August 12, 2011
Robert Bryce, King of the NIMBYs, August 10, 2011
Fact check: Bryce out to lunch with latest anti-wind broadside, August 3, 2011
Fact check: Bryce, Bentek miss on emissions, July 20, 2011
Fact check: Bryce stumbles on land use, sound, steel, benefits, June 8, 2011
 

Power hungry? Or just on a low-fact diet? (Michael Goggin's review of Robert Bryce's book Power Hungry), July 2, 2010