Space May Be the Final Frontier for Some Renewables

The transformation of landscapes to accommodate 'friendly' energy technologies like solar and wind are not inconsequential concerns, says a former Interior official.
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A former Bush administration official now working with an environmental nongovernmental organization sounded a note of caution about a potential downside — and a major one — to renewable energy darlings like wind and solar.

Lynn Scarlett, the former deputy secretary of the Interior, now a consultant with the Environmental Defense Fund, was referring to the extent of land transformation caused by even benign energy sources.

In energy-hungry California, for example, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order calling for a third of electricity production to come from renewable sources by 2020. But such efforts promise to be land-intensive. The solar array President Obama recently visited at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, for example, covers 140 acres. A project proposed for Carrizo Plains area of California's Central Coast would perch on 12.5 square miles.

In a keynote address to a conference on energy efficiency, organized by the Institute for Energy Efficiency at University of California, Santa Barbara, Scarlett said the development of solar, wind and other renewable projects needs to be closely monitored and not automatically given uncritical approval.

She singled out the impact of huge photovoltaic installations in the desert, suggesting they can adversely impact the delicate landscape and unique wildlife and plant habitat. Students at the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, also at UCSB, have noted that approving renewable energy projects as individual items instead of looking at their total impact may miss cumulative harm done to species like desert tortoises and bighorn sheep.

Other voices have also been raised against similar developments, some of which can swallow up several square miles of often remote country with mirrors or windmills, which in turn require new transmission lines and other infrastructure, deepening the dent on the landscape.

And yet ...

Two academics studying the most energy production compared to the amount of land transformed caution that land transformation alone cannot gauge total land-use impacts since it does not "convey the duration of land use and recovery, and any functional degradation."

The full recovery of some coal-mined lands is expected to take several hundred years, says the report by professor Vasilis Fthenakis, founder and director of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis at Columbia University, and associate research scientist Hyung Chul Kim, while safely containing spent nuclear fuel would need around 10,000 years of land occupation.

In addition, says the report, "accounting for secondary effects, including water contamination, change of the forest ecosystem and accidental land contamination," will make the advantages of photovoltaics even greater.

Their research, to be published later this year, compares energy sources by the hours of electricity produced per square meter of land transformed. It shows that photovoltaic comes out ahead of wind, hydro, biomass, coal, natural gas and nuclear.

Fthenakis and Kim looked at all stages of production for each type of energy, from extracting resources, through electricity generation, to the disposal of waste.

Fthenakis, who is also principal investigator for the National Photovoltaic Environmental Research Center at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, factored in the productive lifetime of different energy installations and the time needed for the landscape to regain its natural state.

"The photovoltaic-fuel cycle transforms the least amount of land per (gigawatt hour) of electricity generated among the renewable technologies we assessed," says the research report.

The researchers noted that renewable technologies generally transform more land than conventional electricity sources. Biomass, with its need for vast growing areas for various plants and trees, has the greatest effect on land transformation

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