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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Appalling Dishonesty in Robert Bryce's "Gas is Greener" Op-Ed

I suppose we should expect this sort of thing from someone supported by the Koch Industries/Foundation (their money has come from oil & natural gas), but it's still disappointing that the New York Times would print the Op-Ed.

Now, my title is perhaps overly harsh, because (unlike some other Manhattan Institute Op-Eds) there is a perfectly legitimate point at the core of the Op-Ed. This point is that solar power and even more so, wind power, do, in fact, have some significant environmental costs. Second of all, (unlike some other conservative groups/institutes) the Op-Ed implicitly acknowledges that global warming exists and that greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for it, and at least he isn't praising "clean coal" in the article.
However, it's rather dishonest to claim that natural gas is "low-carbon"; the natural gas industry itself claims that for an equivalent amount of energy, burning natural gas releases 55% as much carbon dioxide as coal. That's not close to as bad as coal, of course, but it is hardly "low." Moreover, with natural gas, you have to worry about the fact that its principle component, methane, is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; drilling inevitably results in leaks of natural gas that would have otherwise overwhelmingly stayed underground.

However, by far the most dishonest part of the article is the part pertaining to California's new mandate for 33% of its electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2020.

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.

Now, the last sentence, while not the most egregious part of the paragraph, nevertheless is pretty bad. It sets up a straw man of assuming that increased solar capacity will have to be from building large-scale solar projects at all. It can be from solar panels on rooftops. In fact, The Luskin Center at UCLA recently released a major, detailed study estimating that Los Angeles County alone has a potential rooftop solar capacity of 19,000 megawatts, which, using Robert Bryce's numbers, would meet the 1/3 renewable requirements of the entire state of California on its own.

However, the worst and most dishonest part of the article is this:

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.

What's so dishonest about that? It ignores all of renewable energy capacity/production California already has; primarily hydroelectric, wind and geothermal, with some biomass and a bit of solar. If you look at data files from the Energy Information Administration and do some calculating in the spreadsheets that they provide, you will see that back in 2009, California was already generating 26.09% of its electricity from renewable sources.

In fact, for the first three months of 2011, California already MET its renewable energy standard (35.47% of its electricity was from a renewable source). Now, this is primarily from significantly higher-than-usual hydroelectric generation rather than from the smaller increase in capacity for wind, solar (and maybe geothermal?). Nevertheless, if they installed another 17,000 MW of capacity of renewable, California would easily be getting a majority of its electricity from renewable sources.

I have not talked up the additional geothermal capacity in California, but it does exist (Disclaimer: I am invested in two geothermal companies).

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