Renewable Energy Requires Vast Amounts of Natural Resources

| Monday, June 13, 2011 | 0 comments |
by Robert Bryce

IN April, Gov. Jerry Brown made headlines by signing into law an ambitious mandate that requires California to obtain one-third of its electricity from renewable energy sources like sunlight and wind by 2020. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia now have renewable electricity mandates. President Obama and several members of Congress have supported one at the federal level. Polls routinely show strong support among voters for renewable energy projects — as long as they don’t cost too much.

But there’s the rub: while energy sources like sunlight and wind are free and naturally replenished, converting them into large quantities of electricity requires vast amounts of natural resources — most notably, land. Even a cursory look at these costs exposes the deep contradictions in the renewable energy movement.

Consider California’s new mandate. The state’s peak electricity demand is about 52,000 megawatts. Meeting the one-third target will require (if you oversimplify a bit) about 17,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity. Let’s assume that California will get half of that capacity from solar and half from wind. Most of its large-scale solar electricity production will presumably come from projects like the $2 billion Ivanpah solar plant, which is now under construction in the Mojave Desert in southern California. When completed, Ivanpah, which aims to provide 370 megawatts of solar generation capacity, will cover 3,600 acres — about five and a half square miles.

The math is simple: to have 8,500 megawatts of solar capacity, California would need at least 23 projects the size of Ivanpah, covering about 129 square miles, an area more than five times as large as Manhattan. While there’s plenty of land in the Mojave, projects as big as Ivanpah raise environmental concerns. In April, the federal Bureau of Land Management ordered a halt to construction on part of the facility out of concern for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Wind energy projects require even more land. The Roscoe wind farm in Texas, which has a capacity of 781.5 megawatts, covers about 154 square miles. Again, the math is straightforward: to have 8,500 megawatts of wind generation capacity, California would likely need to set aside an area equivalent to more than 70 Manhattans. Apart from the impact on the environment itself, few if any people could live on the land because of the noise (and the infrasound, which is inaudible to most humans but potentially harmful) produced by the turbines.


Taxpayers Face Multibillion Dollar Loss from Auto Bailouts

by David Skeel

President Obama's visit to a Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio, on Friday was the culmination of a campaign to portray the auto bailouts as a brilliant success with no unpleasant side effects. "The industry is back on its feet," the president said, "repaying its debt, gaining ground."

If the government hadn't stepped in and dictated the terms of the restructuring, the story goes, General Motors and Chrysler would have collapsed, and at least a million jobs would have been lost. The bailouts averted disaster, and they did so at remarkably little cost.

The problem with this happy story is that neither of its parts is accurate. Commandeering the bankruptcy process was not, as apologists for the bailouts claim, the only hope for GM and Chrysler. And the long-term costs of the bailouts will be enormous.

In late 2008, then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson tapped the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Fund to lend more than $17 billion to General Motors and Chrysler. With the fate of the car companies still uncertain at the outset of the Obama administration in 2009, Mr. Obama set up an auto task force headed by "car czar" Steve Rattner.

Under the strategy that was chosen, each of the companies was required to file for bankruptcy as a condition of receiving additional funding. Rather than undergo a restructuring under ordinary bankruptcy rules, however, each corporation pretended to "sell" its assets to a new entity that was set up for the purposes of the sale.

With Chrysler, the new entity paid $2 billion, which went to Chrysler's senior lenders, giving them a small portion of the $6.9 billion they were owed. (Fiat was given a large stake in the new entity, although it did not contribute any money). But the "sale" also ensured that Chrysler's unionized retirees would receive a big recovery on their $10 billion claim—a $4.6 billion promissory note and 55% of Chrysler's stock—even though they were lower priority creditors.

If other bidders were given a legitimate opportunity to top the $2 billion of government money on offer, this might have been a legitimate transaction. But they weren't. A bid wouldn't count as "qualified" unless it had the same strings as the government bid—a sizeable payment to union retirees and full payment of trade debt. If a bidder wanted to offer $2.5 billion for Chrysler's Jeep division, he was out of luck. With General Motors, senior creditors didn't get trampled in the same way. But the "sale," which left the government with 61% of GM's stock, was even more of a sham.