The Ivanpah solar plant went online last week, but the cost to wildlife–particularly birds–won’t be known for at least two more years.
Reports that the giant solar thermal array featuring more than 300,000 reflective panels and steam-driven turbine towers have been “killing and singeing” birds by heating the air to around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit near the towers, according to reports.
You can view pictures of the deceased birds here.
All power sources involve tradeoffs, but to date, wind and solar have generally avoided discussing the topic, often quickly shifting to pointing out the costs of other energy sources in defending their own environmental impacts.
Policy directives aimed to support the technologies often override such environmental concerns, as they did with Ivanpah:
Ivanpah can be seen as a success story and a cautionary tale, highlighting the inevitable trade-offs between the need for cleaner power and the loss of fragile, open land. The California Energy Commission concluded that while the solar plant would impose “significant impacts on the environment … the benefits the project would provide override those impacts.”
The plant’s effects on birds is the subject of a current two-year study.
But the cost of electricity from solar sources is and will remain higher than other natural resources, like coal, for the foreseeable future, according to the Energy Information Administration:
The Energy Information Administration says that it will cost new solar thermal plants 161 percent more to generate one megawatt hour of power than it costs a coal plant to do in 2018 — despite the costs of solar power being driven downward.
On average, conventional coal plants cost $100 to make one megawatt hour, while solar thermal plants cost $261 for the same amount of power. This data, however, does not take into account the impact of federal, state or local subsidies and mandates on power costs.
The solar thermal installation built by BrightSource Energy received at $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy in 2011. That loan was secured in no small part due to political connections, according to The Heritage Foundation.
Higher electricity costs as a result of policy directives and crony capitalism, something the Solar Energy Industries Association was readily willing to admit:
Resch said a key issue for the industry will be maintaining government policies that encourage development, including tax credits for solar projects that are set to expire in 2016 and government loan guarantees. “The direct result of these policies is projects like Ivanpah,” he said.
Once again, however, the claim that solar energy is a “free” or “no cost” energy source has been upended. Another BrightSource project is receiving similar concerns:
In response to BrightSource’s blueprint for its second big solar farm in Riverside County, near Joshua Tree National Park, biologists working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told state regulators that they were concerned that heat produced by the project could kill golden eagles and other protected species.
“We’re trying to figure out how big the problem is and what we can do to minimize bird mortalities,” said Eric Davis, assistant regional director for migratory birds at the federal agency’s Sacramento office. “When you have new technologies, you don’t know what the impacts are going to be.”
Ivanpah may be the first large utility-scale solar thermal installation in California, and also the last:
Though Ivanpah is an engineering marvel, experts doubt more plants like it will be built in California. Other solar technologies are now far cheaper than solar thermal, federal guarantees for renewable energy projects have dried up, and natural gas-fired plants are much cheaper to build.
That means the private sector must fill the gap at a time when building a natural-gas fired power plant costs about $1,000 per megawatt, a fraction of the $5,500 per megawatt that Ivanpah cost.
“Our job was to kickstart the demonstration of these different technologies,” Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in an interview high up on one of the plant’s three towers.
The plant is projected to produce approximately 380 megawatts “during the peak hours of the day,” according to BrightSource.
A technology that costs 5.5 times more to build and that delivers electricity that is 161 percent more expensive than coal, and that secures it’s funding through political connections is not the job of the Department of Energy–or taxpayers’ dollars–nor to “kickstart the demonstration of these different technologies.”
Not when it produces just 0.24 percent of the electricity in the United States in November 2013, according to the EIA.
Filed under: Archive, Hydraulic Fracturing, renewable energy
Periodically, the Independence Institute’s Energy Policy Center will take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in energy stories from around the United States and abroad, and bring the best (and worst) of those stories to your attention.
1. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell may have violated Colorado Open Meetings Law under its sunshine statutes by shutting out members of the press while visiting Moffat County on Tuesday. The meeting in Colorado centered on the status of the sage-grouse, a species whose designation could affect energy projects in the northwest portion of the state:
As she was leaving, Leavitt Riley said she saw Jewell in a car in the parking lot and the driver-side door was open, so she approached Jewell “and she said the press was not allowed at this meeting,” Leavitt Riley recalled.
“I said, do you realize more than a dozen elected officials were in it? She said the tour was open to the press but this was a closed meeting” and then drove away, Leavitt Riley said.
She said the newspaper is pursuing the matter with the Colorado Press Association. No one with the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s office was available for comment Tuesday night.
2. From Lachlan Markay at the Washington Free Beacon–a Politico column riddled with inaccuracies from anti-fracking activists:
A pair of prominent environmentalists penned a column Tuesday for Politico Magazine attacking hydraulic fracturing littered with dishonest and incorrect claims.
“If you calculate the greenhouse gas pollution emitted at every stage of the production process—drilling, piping, compression—it’s essentially just coal by another name,” McKibben and Tidwell wrote.
The claim is frequently sourced to Cornell scientists Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, who have found significantly higher life cycle emissions than are found in other studies.
Numerous government agencies, environmentalist groups, and academics have panned Howarth and Ingraffea’s work on the issue and produced their own studies showing relatively low life cycle emissions from natural gas.
“Their analysis is seriously flawed,” according to three Cornell colleagues, professors in the university’s departments of earth and atmospheric sciences and chemical and biological engineering.
3. Michael Bastasch at The Daily Caller highlights a report on the social benefits of fossil fuels:
Burning off carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to provide cheap electricity may have affected the climate, but the benefits of a carbonized economy far outweigh the costs, according to a new study.
The pro-coal American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) released a study showing that the benefits of carbonized fuel, like coal, to society are 50 to 500 times greater than the costs. Over the past two-and-a-half centuries increased fossil fuel energy production has helped more than double global life expectancy and increase global incomes 11-fold.
4. North Carolina State University issued a study finding that increasing the use of electric vehicles “is not an effective way to produce large emissions reductions”:
“We wanted to see how important EDVs may be over the next 40 years in terms of their ability to reduce emissions,” says Dr. Joseph DeCarolis, an assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State and senior author of a paper on the new model. “We found that increasing the use of EDVs is not an effective way to produce large emissions reductions.”
The researchers ran 108 different scenarios in a powerful energy systems model to determine the impact of EDV use on emissions between now and 2050. They found that, even if EDVs made up 42 percent of passenger vehicles in the U.S., there would be little or no reduction in the emission of key air pollutants.
Emails Show EPA’s Denver “Listening Tour” Stop A Collaboration Between Agency, Environmentalist Orgs
Emails published this week by the Washington Free Beacon’s Lachlan Markay illustrate a pattern of coordination and cooperation between the Environmental Protection Agency and external environmentalist groups, including the use of at least one agency event to “pressure” an Xcel Energy executive at the Denver stop of a 2013 “listening tour”:
The emails, obtained by the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (EELI) through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, could fuel an ongoing controversy over EPA policies that critics say are biased against traditional sources of energy.
Emails show EPA used official events to help environmentalist groups gather signatures for petitions on agency rulemaking, incorporated advance copies of letters drafted by those groups into official statements, and worked with environmentalists to publicly pressure executives of at least one energy company.
In October, the EPA launched an 11-city “listening tour” to gather commentary and input on carbon pollution regulations, and scheduled a stop in Denver. While Colorado houses the EPA Region 8 office, critics then questioned why the tour skipped states like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Colorado’s neighbor to the north, Wyoming–all states that produce more coal, with Wyoming the number one coal producing state in the country.
The documents shed light on part of the deliberation process, with Markay revealing how the “EPA decided on the locations for those hearings after consulting with leading environmentalist groups.”
According to emails written by EPA Region 8 administrator James Martin, the selection of “listening tour” stops had more to do with applying pressure to a related industry–natural gas–and singled out one industry executive in particular, while bypassing “friendlier forums” in California and Washington.
“San Fran and Seattle would be friendlier forums but CA has no coal plants and WA is phasing out its one plant,” Martin wrote. The recipient was Vicki Patton, general counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
“Choosing either may create opportunities for the industry to claim EPA is tilting the playing field,” Martin told Patton. “Denver would not have that problem.”
Martin continued on the choice of Denver. “The gas industry has way more presence here, too. One last point in its favor–it will make Roy Palmer nervous!” wrote Martin.
As Markay points out, Palmer is an executive at Xcel Energy, the state’s largest utility.
Markay also noted that Martin used a personal email address for official EPA business, a claim the EPA had first denied but that the released documents later substantiated.
Among other findings revealed by the internal emails, demonstrating a pattern of cooperation:
Nancy Grantham, director of public affairs for EPA Region 1, which covers New England, asked an organizer for the Sierra Club’s New Hampshire chapter to share the group’s agenda so EPA could adjust its messaging accordingly in an email dated March 12, 2012.
By Amy Oliver Cooke and Robert Applegate
As Ron Binz campaigns to be confirmed as the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, much of the emphasis has been on his position as an activist for what he considers to be low or no carbon energy sources, predominantly Big Wind. (Forget the fact that wind requires an enormous amount of carbon emissions in the manufacturing of gigantic wind turbine.)
But Binz’s no carbon advocacy is hypocritical.
While Binz now advocates for lowering carbon emissions, he was instrumental in shutting down Colorado’s lowest carbon emitting power source, the Fort St. Vrain nuclear plant, which eventually converted to natural gas – a technology he now calls “dead end” when it comes to carbon emissions.
As head of the Office of Consumer Council (OCC), Binz successfully argued before the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that the power plant did not work correctly and that the shareholders of the company running the plant must pay for the capital costs rather than customers using the electricity. (This is when Binz cared about ratepayers)
More stringent regulations and the burden of the extra cost upon the shareholders ultimately forced the plant to close as a carbon free, nuclear power source. This “regulating to death,” as stated by previously employees of the plant ultimately came at the cost detriment of electricity customers who paid for the decommissioning and subsequent recommissioning as a carbon emitting natural gas plant.
His position on natural gas has flipped too. In 2010, as chair of the PUC Binz took a lead role in negotiating the terms of the controversial fuel switching bill HB 1365 titled “Clean Air; Clean Jobs Act.” At that time, Binz championed a mandated fuel switch from coal to natural gas. Apparently Binz thought natural gas was a clean fuel in 2010 but isn’t now. Too bad ratepayers didn’t know that in 2010. It would have saved them more than $1 billion dollars, but then Binz’s concerns for consumer costs have flipped too.
According to the most recent Form 10-K that Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest investor owned utility (IOU), filed with the Security and Exchange Commission dated December 31, 2011, electricity generation from natural gas was more than double the price of electricity generated from coal in Colorado.
A table on page 18 of the report shows that in 2011, Xcel produced 76 percent of its electricity from coal at a cost of $1.77 per MMBtu while natural gas cost $4.98 per MMBtu while providing 24 percent of Xcel’s electricity.
As more and more of Xcel’s electricity is mandated to come from natural gas thanks to HB 1365, the fuel switching bill and the cornerstone of what former Governor Bill Ritter coined the “new energy economy,” along with additional regulations and out right bans on hydraulic fracturing, Xcel ratepayers should get used to spending more and more on their electricity bills.
Energy Policy Center Director Amy Oliver Cooke has fun talking energy, especially when wearing a hot pink “Mothers In Love with Fracking” t-shirt. Thanks to Tom Barry of The Villager for this photograph and his article on the American For Prosperity (AFP) event that featured Dick Morris. AFP invited Amy to be the warm up act to discuss Obama’s energy policy.
The disgraced former EPA regional official forced out after Senator James Inhoff (R-Oklahoma) posted a video of his enforcement philosophy for fossil fuel companies has found a home with the Sierra Club and its anti-coal campaign.
Al Armendariz will take over leadership of the group’s “Beyond Coal” campaign office for Austin, Texas, on July 15.
He’ll coordinate efforts to move the Lone Star State away from coal-fired electric generation and toward wind, solar and other low-carbon alternatives, said Beyond Coal director Bruce Nilles in an interview.
Armendariz, former administrator of EPA Region 6, resigned last spring after a video surfaced revealing his “enforcement philosophy” for oil and gas developers to be analogous to the Roman crucifixion of the “first five villagers” in a conquered territory.
Just two years ago, the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Sierra Club was instrumental in getting the Colorado General Assembly to pass HB10-1365 mandatory fuel switching away from coal to natural gas. That love affair ended abruptly last month when the national headquarters announced that it no longer supported natural gas as a “bridge fuel” for electricity generation.
Senator Inhoff told EENews that Armendariz’s new position was no surprise to him, “At least at the Sierra Club, he won’t get into so much trouble for telling the truth that their agenda is to kill oil, gas and coal.”
Sound energy policy must be rooted in fact rather than fiction and reason rather than emotion. Recently, the Institute for Energy Research released a well-researched, extensively-cited, easy-to-read primer on energy. We encourage you to read all 68 pages of Hard Facts: An Energy Primer. For those who want a cliff notes version, a few key facts are provided below.
- In 2011, the United States produced 23.0 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it the world’s largest natural gas producer.
- In 2011, the United States produced 5.67 million barrels of oil per day, making it the world’s third largest oil producer.
- Proved conventional oil reserves worldwide more than doubled from 642 billion barrels in 1980 to more than 1.3 trillion barrels in 2009.
- The United States is home to the richest oil shale deposits in the world—estimates are there are about 1 trillion barrels of recoverable oil in U.S. oil shale deposits, nearly four times that of Saudi Arabia’s proved oil reserves.
- The United States has 261 billion tons of coal in its proved coal reserves. These are the world’s largest coal reserves and over 27 percent of the world’s proved coal reserves.
- The United States produces nearly 1.1 billion short tons of coal a year, making it the world’s second largest coal producer.
- China produces over 3.5 billion short tons a year.
- The United States has 486 billion tons of coal in its demonstrated reserve base, enough domestic coal to use for the next 485 years at current rates of consumption. These estimates do not include Alaska’s coal resources, which according to government estimates, are larger than those in the lower 48 states.
- The federal government leases less than 3 percent of federal lands for oil and natural gas production—2.2 percent of federal offshore areas and less than 5.4 percent of federal onshore lands.
- The world could hold more than 700 quadrillion (700,000 trillion) cubic feet of methane hydrates—more energy than all other fossil fuels combined.
Renewables and Nuclear:
- In 2011, wind power produced 1.2 percent of the energy used in the United States.
- In 2011, solar power produced 0.1 percent of the energy used in the United States.
- Total federal subsidies in fiscal year 2007 were $24.34 per megawatt hour for solar-generated electricity and $23.37 per megawatt hour for wind, compared with $1.59 for nuclear, $0.67 for hydroelectric power, $0.44 for conventional coal, and $0.25 for natural gas and petroleum liquids.
- In fiscal year 2010, the subsidies were even higher. For solar power, they were $775.64 per megawatt hour, for wind $56.29, for nuclear $3.14, for hydroelectric power $0.82, for coal $0.64 and for natural gas and petroleum liquids $0.64.
- In 2011, hydroelectric power contributed 3.3 percent of the energy used in the United States and 7.9 percent of the electricity.
- Today, there are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States and construction began for all of these reactors prior to 1974.
- Since 1970, the six so-called “criteria pollutants” have declined by 63 percent, even though the generation of electricity from coal-fired plants has increased by over 180 percent, gross domestic product has increased by 204 percent, energy consumption has increased by 40 percent, and vehicle miles traveled have increased by 168 percent.
- Energy use per person in the United States fell 12 percent between 1979 and 2010 from 359 million BTUs to 317 million BTUs per person.
- Energy intensity—energy consumption per dollar of GDP—fell by 52 percent between 1973 and 2011.
- In 2010, China was responsible for 24 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. In comparison, the United States, the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, emitted 17 percent of the global total.
- China’s CO2 emissions increased by 167 percent between 1999 and 2009, while CO2 emissions from the United States decreased by 4.4 percent over the same 10-year period.
- Renewable energy subsidies were 49 times greater than fossil fuel subsidies when comparing the amount of energy produced per dollar of subsidy.
- In 2009, renewables received a 77 percent share of total federal energy incentives while fossil fuels received a 13 percent share but produced 7 times the energy.
We are agnostic on energy resources. It is our strong belief that the choice of energy resources should come from the demands of the free market, and not from the preferences of policymakers, lobbyists, or special interest groups. Subsidies only encourage lawmakers to pick winners and losers in the energy industry that distort the market and end up costing consumers more.
This post will be the first in series on hydraulic fracturing (”fracking”), in which Independence Institute research associate, Donovan Schafer, will take on specific issues related to fracking. In this post he focuses on the claim that fracking will deplete Colorado’s water resources. Enjoy!
Two recent articles—one in the Denver Post and another in the Huffington Post—present the issue of water depletion as it is commonly presented by those who oppose fracking. Wendell G. Bradley, in the Denver Post, urges lawmakers to “cut off fracking’s unconscionable amounts of water use,” while Gary Wockner, in the Huffington Post, warns that fracking would use up the “last drop in the bucket of Colorado’s rivers.”
These views simply do not reflect reality. In January, the Colorado Division of Water Resources, the Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission issued a joint report estimating that fracking would account for just eight-hundredths of a percent (0.08%) of Colorado’s annual water usage—far less than what we use for recreational purposes (5.64%) and slightly more than what we use to make fake snow (0.03%).
But fracking is different—these authors claim—because the water is left in “deep subterranean cavities,” and thus fracking “permanently remove[s] billions of gallons of water from the hydrologic cycle.” This statement gives the false impression that fracking can significantly affect the hydrologic cycle. It cannot. The hydrologic cycle is not a fixed supply of freshwater, but rather a constantly recharging system that begins with the nearly infinite expanse of the oceans.
Just for fun, let’s accept the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prediction that sea levels will rise by one foot during the next century. A few simple calculations show that it would take one hundred million (100,000,000) frack-jobs, each using 5 million gallons of water, to counteract the predicted one-foot rise in sea level. In other words, the oceans which serve as the starting point for the hydrologic cycle cannot possibly be affected by hydraulic fracturing in any significant way—and even if they could be affected, the general effect would be to counteract the threat of rising sea levels, which we are constantly warned about.
Some of the fracking nay-sayers, seem to concede these points, but then they go on to assert that there is still a problem. They warn that even a small additional use of water will be enough to completely dry up the system. Consider Gary Wockner’s line of reasoning:
It is true that the state of Colorado contains millions of acre feet of water, and that fracking may only need a small percentage of it. But more importantly and to the point, it is also true that fracking is a brand new use of water . . . . Fracking would certainly contribute to being the last drop in the bucket of Colorado’s rivers.
But this, too, is misleading. Every drop of water withdrawn requires, by law, approval from water permitting authorities. Furthermore, these permitting authorities cannot simply give away the proverbial “last drop.” Currently, by law, all new water uses must be balanced against current water uses. To quote the CDWR Report, “water cannot be simply diverted from a stream/reservoir or pumped out of the ground for hydraulic fracturing without reconciling that diversion with the prior appropriation system.” Claims that fracking will gobble up the last drop are just plain nonsense.
In the face of claims like those presented in this post, remember these three points:
- Fracking would present a mere 0.08% of Colorado’s annual water usage;
- Even though some water is left underground, the amounts of water involved cannot possibly have an appreciable effect on the hydrologic cycle, because that cycle is fueled by our massive oceans;
- And, lastly, the added water uses from fracking will not suck the system dry, because current laws require that new uses be reconciled and balanced with current appropriations.
Stay tuned for more coverage of the specific fracking issues that you need to know about.
On energy policy, Governor-elect John Hickenlooper is perhaps the most masterful politician I’ve ever encountered.
Coal, climate change, costs…these matters engender passions. They get people riled up. So it’s an awesome political trick that Hickenlooper has been elected mayor of this country’s finest city, and then governor of this country’s finest state, without revealing what he thinks on energy policy.
Hick’s record is maddeningly equivocal. He’s a geologist, who used to work in the hydrocarbon business, so you know he has the experience to be serious. Yet his energy legacy as Denver mayor is a silly, toothless Climate Action Plan, designed primarily for grandstanding.