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All-renewable energy in California? Sorry, land-use calculations say it's not going to happen

All-renewable energy in California? Sorry, land-use calculations say it's not going to happen
  (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

Back in 2012, the environmental organization 350.org and its leader, Bill McKibben, took a “Do the Math” tour across America to talk about “the terrifying math of the climate crisis.” Alas, it appears McKibben has since developed an allergy to simple arithmetic.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, McKibben declared that California legislators should pass Senate Bill 100 this month, committing the state’s utilities to getting all of their electricity from renewable sources by 2045. But McKibben’s essay didn’t use any numbers to explain how it could be done. That’s because the math behind the 100%-renewable-energy scheme exposes the folly of the entire concept, particularly when it comes to land use.

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Proving that SB 100’s goal is unrealistic can be done by looking at the data published by Stanford civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Jacobson. Jacobson, whose energy scenarios have been touted by McKibben for years, puts together state-by-state tallies that show the amount of wind and solar energy that would be required to achieve 100% renewable energy across the entire economy, including electricity generation, transportation and industry. Achieving that goal in California, Jacobson estimates, would require about 124,608 megawatts of onshore wind-power capacity, 32,869 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, and 236,243 megawatts of solar-energy capacity.

To expand renewables...would require wrecking vast onshore and offshore territories with forests of wind turbines and sprawling solar projects.


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Let’s examine the solar numbers first. Last year, global solar capacity totaled about 219,000 megawatts. That means an all-renewable California would need more solar capacity in the state than currently exists on the entire planet. Sure, California can (and will) add lots of new rooftop solar over the coming decades. But Jacobson’s plan would also require nearly 33,000 megawatts of concentrated solar plants, or roughly 87 facilities as large as the 377-megawatt Ivanpah solar complex now operating in the Mojave Desert. Ivanpah, which covers 5.4 square miles, met fierce opposition from conservationists due to its impact on the desert tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species under the federal and California endangered species acts.

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Wind energy faces similar problems. The Department of Energy has concluded in multiple reports over the last decade that no matter where they are located — onshore or offshore — wind-energy projects have a footprint that breaks down to about 3 watts per square meter.

To get to Jacobson’s 124,608 megawatts (124.6 billion watts) of onshore wind capacity, California would need 41.5 billion square meters, or about 16,023 square miles, of turbines. To put that into perspective, the land area of Los Angeles County is slightly more than 4,000 square miles — California would have to cover a land area roughly four times the size of L.A. County with nothing but the massive windmills. Turning over even a fraction of that much territory to wind energy is unlikely. In 2015, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban large wind turbines in unincorporated areas. Three other California counties — San Diego, Solano and Inyo — have also passed restrictions on turbines.

Last year, the head of the California Wind Energy Assn. told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “We’re facing restrictions like that all around the state…. It’s pretty bleak in terms of the potential for new development.”

The anti-turbine restrictions have had an effect. In 2017, California had 5,632 megawatts of installed wind capacity — that’s 153 megawatts less than what the state had back in 2013.

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Don’t count on offshore wind either. Given the years-long battle that finally scuttled the proposed 468-megawatt Cape Wind project — which called for dozens of turbines to be located offshore Massachusetts — it’s difficult to imagine that Californians would willingly accept offshore wind capacity that’s 70 times as large as what was proposed in the Northeast.

To expand renewables to the extent that they could approach the amount of energy needed to run our entire economy would require wrecking vast onshore and offshore territories with forests of wind turbines and sprawling solar projects. Organizations like 350.org tend to dismiss the problem by claiming, for example, that the land around turbines can be farmed or that the placement of solar facilities can be “managed.” But rural landowners don’t want industrial-scale energy projects in their communities any more than coastal dwellers or suburbanites do.

The grim land-use numbers behind all-renewable proposals aren’t speculation. Arriving at them requires only a bit of investigation, and yes, that we do the math.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the producer of the forthcoming documentary “Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.”

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