Michael Shellenberger - Contributor
"A lot depends on journalists, who have until now been largely uncritical cheerleaders of renewables."
Grassroots opposition to solar and wind farms is growing and has nothing to do with fossil fuel interests, climate skepticism, or bureaucratic inertia. Indeed, most of it is motivated by concerns over the impact of renewables on the natural environment and quality-of-life.
The largest county in California, San Bernardino, last week banned the building of any more large solar and wind farms over the opposition of renewable energy lobbyists and labor unions. They did so on behalf of conservationists and locals seeking to protect fragile desert ecosystems.
In January, policymakers in Spotsylvania, Virginia voted to block the building of a solar farm, which would be the largest in America east of the Rocky Mountains, after local residents organized themselves in opposition out of concern over the impact on the environment, property values, and electricity prices.
And in the midwest, it is birders and conservationists, not climate skeptics and fossil fuel interests, who are organizing to block a massive new wind farm proposed for Lake Erie, a biodiversity hotspot for migratory birds and bats.
It’s not the first time scientists and conservationists have opposed renewables. Over the last decade, both groups have turned against two of the largest sources of renewable energies: biofuels, including corn ethanol, and biomass. Both had been long touted, like solar and wind, as climate solutions.
It all raises the question: with biofuels and biomass no longer accepted as “green,” is it only a matter of time before environmentalists similarly reject other forms of renewable energy, including solar and wind?
In response to the new consensus against biomass, the dominant proposal for 100% renewables, as proposed by Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson, relies entirely on hydro-electric dams, rather than biomass, to provide the stability to an electricity system that would be made significantly less stable with the influx of large amounts of unreliable solar and wind energy.
But in 2017, a group of scientists pointed out that Jacobson’s proposal rested upon the assumption that we can increase the amount of power from U.S. hydroelectric dams ten-fold when, according to the Department of Energy and all major studies, the real potential is just one percent of that.
Without all that additional hydroelectricity, the 100% renewables proposal falls apart. That’s because there’s no other way to store all of that solar and wind energy, given the inherent, physical shortcomings of battery technologies.
Does that mean the end is near for solar and wind farms?
Few experts believe they can continue to expand without continued federal subsidies, which are nearly 100 times greater than the ones for nuclear, and have been in place for over 25 years.
Solar and wind developers will no doubt go back to Congress with hats in hand, but they won’t likely have the support of very many policy experts. In 2012 I co-authored a report with experts from Brookings Institution and World Resources Institute, where we called for their gradual phase-out.
A lot depends on journalists, who have until now been largely uncritical cheerleaders of renewables.
I recently reviewed the last 50 years of the New York Times’ coverage of biofuels and biomass and was fairly appalled by what I found. Not only was its news coverage heavily slanted toward biomass and biofuels since the 1970s, the opeds it ran were consistently one-sided.
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