Environmentalists vs. Renewable Energy

Posted on Wed 06/29/2011 by


By Rael Jean Isaac

It’s become a truism that environmentalists want alternative energy—from wind, sun, water—to replace our reliance on fossil fuels. The trouble with this truism is that it isn’t true. Yes, in the abstract, environmentalists are all for so-called “renewable” sources of energy.  But when it comes to specific projects it’s another story.  It’s rare to find a renewable energy project of any significance that has not been challenged by environmental groups.

Take Brightsource Energy’s  massive Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert, which will cover 5.6 square miles with mirrors to produce 370 megawatts of energy.  (This is the amount of energy produced by a small coal plant, underscoring just how small solar energy is in the overall national energy mix, a mere one tenth of one percent.)  California’s  Governor Schwarzenegger endorsed it enthusiastically.   In September 2010 the California Energy Commission unanimously approved the project and federal approval by the Obama administration—along with a $1.6 billion federal loan for the $2 billion project—followed.  Seven months later Google, that star of the progressive corporation firmament, announced it would invest $168 million in the plant. It even seemed environmentalists were on board since several of the largest outfits were invited to give their input and had not vetoed it.

But this seeming bulldozer of a coalition of green right-thinkers was challenged by a southern California group called the Wildlands  Conservancy which opposed the plans on the usual assortment of grounds: it would threaten endangered species, destroy rare plants, use vast amounts of water, require unsightly transmission lines and destroy native American religious sites. David Myers, the Wildlands Conservancy’s executive director, summed up the objections:
“It would destroy the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem.” Endangered species  did the trick, at least in the short term.  In April 2011 the Obama administration halted the building of two-thirds of the project when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management found  more than 600 desert tortoises could die as a result of construction. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to determine if finishing the project puts the species in jeopardy.

Can anyone doubt the environmentalist storm Boone Pickens would have unleashed if his proposal to build wind farms through the great plains from Texas to the Canadian border had gotten so far as the drawing board?  If in doubt look at the furor Cape Wind, in Nantucket Sound, has produced. The $2.5 billion Cape Wind project, the first offshore wind farm in U.S. coastal waters,  took a decade (and $45 million) to run the legal gauntlet and line up local, state and federal approvals.   A slew of environmental groups have filed lawsuits  charging Cape Wind with violating the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act,  the Clean Water Act,  the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act.  Then there’s the suit filed by the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes claiming Cape Wind violates tribal protections laws because they need an unobstructed view of Nantucket Sound to carry out spiritual sun greetings and the turbines would disturb the seabed which contains sacred ancestral land.

While, remarkably, Cape Wind has thus far survived the  onslaught, it is by no means out of the legal thicket.   In March 2011 Western Watersheds, a conservancy group, and a Native American cultural group sued on the grounds that federal officials had illegally “rushed” approval because they wanted the project to meet the funding deadline for multibillion dollar federal credits due to expire at the end of 2010.  Moreover, thus far it is having trouble finding customers for its energy output, projected to begin in 2013.  Because a 2008 Massachusetts law mandates that at least 15% of energy be produced by renewable sources by 2020, Cape Wind has been able to sell half the power it expects to produce to the utility company National Grid at more than twice the price of conventional power. It is counting on the state mandate to force other utilities to the table (if it surmounts the endless legal challenges).

As for hydropower, which unlike solar and wind is economically viable, environmentalists have long disliked it.  More than a dozen environmental groups in Ohio banned together to block the development of a  hydroelectric dam on the Cuyahoga River to replace the existing dam, built in 1912.  Although it’s a “green energy project” complete with fish-migration assistance, the environmental groups want the existing dam torn down with no replacement.  And indeed, under environmentalist pressure, quite a few dams are being torn down, letting the rivers run free, but with no hydroelectric power to replace what is lost.

Frustrated by the endless opposition to new energy projects, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched Project No Project, a web site that reports on thwarted energy infrastructure projects. Of roughly 300  projects delayed or outright killed over the last few years, 65 were for renewables.  Delay is often synonymous for death since over time the projects run out of financing and expire.

Environmental groups continue to aver their strong commitment to renewable energy—somewhere else. Where is a slippery issue.  For example, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC)  and National Audubon released a Google Earth map of the western United States showing areas they believed should be off limits for renewable energy development.  Three weeks later  the NRDC issued a clarification—it did not mean to green-light the remaining areas for energy development.

Scientist-writer Peter Metzger was prophetic when, in the 1970s, he said that environmentalists are enthusiastic about energy sources as long as they do not exist and predicted the same hostility to solar energy should it become viable.

That environmentalists seek to block “green energy”  projects is not necessarily bad news since wind and solar projects are hugely expensive, require massive taxpayer subsidies, and for all the hoopla about “green energy jobs” are in fact net job killers. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration solar power requires over $24 in subsidies per megawatt hour of electricity compared to less than 50 cents for coal.  Wind power comes in about the same as solar, requiring over $23 in subsidies per megawatt hour.   As for jobs, the American Wind Energy Association (the lobby for wind energy) reports no increase in overall U.S. wind industry jobs despite the fact that $2 billion in stimulus money was assigned for wind power job creation.  Most of the money went to foreign companies.

Europe, which led the way on green energy, is now backing off.  Verso Economics, a British economic consulting firm, found that renewable energy destroyed 3.7 jobs for every job it created in the United Kingdom  and  the government’s  mandates  on  renewables cost consumers $1.8 billion  in 2009-10. Studies in Spain concluded that 2.2 jobs were lost for every job created.  In Germany  subsidies in the solar industry run as high as $240,000 per worker.   The Danes pay subsidies of about $400 million a year to wind producers and unsurprisingly pay the highest electricity rates in the EU.  Seeing the economic handwriting on the wall, Holland has become the first country in Europe to abandon the European Union’s renewable energy targets.

As we noted, much as they may oppose concrete projects, environmentalists have boundless enthusiasm for renewables in the abstract, the category into which government mandates fall. Under pressure from environmentalists, twenty nine states have enacted mandates,  generally requiring that renewables (with hydropower specifically excluded in some definitions) provide between 15-20% of all energy  by 2020.   The Institute for Energy Research has found that electricity prices are almost 40% higher in states with mandates (in New York they are double) and although mandates may not be the only reason, they clearly contribute.    In New Mexico in 2010 consumers were fighting a 21.2% increase in electric rates as a result of a 2009 law that set renewable mandates at 10% for 2011 (and 15% by 2015). In Montana the legislature is already considering repealing its mandate after a study by American Tradition Institute and the Montana Policy Institute found Montana’s  mandate would result in the loss of 1,874 jobs by 2015 and an additional $225 million in electricity bills for consumers.

The costs would be even more devastating were the assorted mandates to be fulfilled—which they are most unlikely to be.   For example, Washington State set a deadline of June 2009 for biofuels to provide 20% of the fuel used by state owned vehicles—the date came and went with biofuels providing a mere 2%.  In a rare glimmering of sanity the California legislature failed to pass a bill upping the mandate for renewables from 20% to 33%.  All of this has not deterred Congressional Democrats from proposing legislation to create a national 15% mandate for renewables.

If environmentalists succeed in halting renewable projects, making fulfillment of mandates even more unlikely, inadvertently they will be doing the taxpayer a good turn.  The problem is that environmentalists are also seeking to stop cold what the Wall Street Journal calls the real energy revolution—the potential of natural gas from shale to transform U.S. energy production.   As the Journal notes, as recently as 2000 shale gas was 1% of U.S. gas supplies; today it is 25%.  And it is a real job producer—72,000 jobs in Pennsylvania alone in less than two years.  Environmentalists are throwing everything they can come up with at it, hoping something sticks .  Fracking (i.e. hydraulic fracturing of rock, the method by which the gas is released) contaminates drinking water, releases toxic chemicals, causes cancer, causes earthquakes,  adds to pollution (via the trucks hauling materials to the sites).  The New York Times, in its lead article of June 26, came up with a novel means of attack—shale gas is doomed because it is a money loser, with gas too cheap in relation to the costs of production.  (It doesn’t seem to occur to the Times that if the supply of gas falls off  because it is uneconomical to produce at current prices,  prices will rise and gas has a huge way to go before it approaches the cost of wind or solar energy.)

The general public, supportive of the hazy goal of “preserving the environment” on which environmental organizations raise funds, finds it hard to credit that cutting edge environmentalism is, and has been for decades, about cutting the supply of energy,  not finding alternative sources.    Indeed, John Holdren, Obama’s energy czar, in 1973 declared that the goal must be to “de-develop the United States.”

Future generations will surely look back in amazement at the process by which the most powerful country on earth denied itself the one essential for its continued dominance. Obsessed with scenarios of doom worthy of Chicken Little (a world rendered uninhabitable by pollution or global warming), it took refuge in fantasies of a pre-modern utopia before, in the words of David Brower, director of the Sierra Club and then of Friends of the Earth, “we began applying energy in vast amounts to tools with which we began tearing the environment apart.”
I am indebted to the Heartland Institute’s monthly newspaper Environment and Climate News for much of the material on environmentalist opposition to renewables and the impact of environmental mandates.

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributor Rael Jean Isaac is co-author (with Erich Isaac) of  The Coercive Utopians.

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