How 'Green' is Renewable Energy?

Editor's Note: With this post we welcome Andy Chrysostomou onto the Celsias writing team. Andy writes out of the United Kingdom, helping to further round out the international scope of our content. Welcome Andy!

We are being led to believe that renewable energy sources such as wind farms, solar panels, hydro-electric power plants and biofuels are the answer to our energy needs as we move into the 21st century. The question is though, just how environmentally sound are these energy systems?

One man that has looked into this issue is Jesse Ausubel, a professor of environmental science and director of the Human Environment programme at New York’s Rockefeller University. Professor Ausubel has produced a report published in the International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology that appears to conclude that nuclear power is more environmentally friendly than any of the above renewable energy sources (The Guardian).

Professor Ausubel has analysed the amount of power each method produces for each square metre of land it uses. The worst performer was found to be the damming of rivers for hydroelectric power at 0.1 watts per square metre, followed by biofuel crops and wind farms at 1.3 watts per square metre. The best performer was solar power, providing 6-7 watts per square metre. Prof. Ausubel describes in detail the impact of renewable energy generation in graphic terms:

  • Flooding the entire province of Ontario in Canada and capturing all of the rainfall, behind a 60 metre dam, would only provide 80% of the power produced by Canada’s 25 nuclear power stations.
  • To produce enough power to meet the US energy needs for 2005 with wind power alone would require wind farms with their supporting infrastructure, covering 780,000 square kilometres, an area the size of Texas.
  • A generator burning biomass fuel would consume crops from 250,000 hectares to produce the same electricity as a nuclear power station.
  • To meet electricity demand for the USA for one year would require solar photovoltaic cells covering an area of 150,000 square kilometres.
  • To power New York City with solar energy would take 12,000 square kilometres of solar cells, an area roughly the size of Connecticut.
It quickly becomes apparent where the whole report is heading. Basically it is saying that the only feasible ‘green’ option is nuclear. Well, I think perhaps the odds were always stacked in nuclear power’s favour with this study. The option of off-shore wind farms was not addressed. There is huge potential for floating off-shore wind farms to provide electricity without converting the whole of Texas into a one big wind farm. There is already a pilot off-shore floating wind farm being built in the North Sea. Biomass can be produced from waste products, both domestic and industrial, so there is not necessarily any need to convert land to intensive farming to provide the raw materials. This provides an elegant solution to two environmental problems, the disposal of organic waste matter and the production of electricity.

The area of micro-generation has incredible potential in reducing the reliance on bought-in electricity, and yet this was not taken into account in the study. There are many domestic solar and wind turbine systems available at the moment. More are being developed as demand grows. Yes, taking the approach to renewable energy Prof. Ausubel describes in his report will harm the environment and negate the benefits of renewable energy. Hopefully though, there are enough intelligent and committed individuals in both government and industry, and enough concerned citizens to make sure renewable energy is adopted in a way that benefits both us and the planet.

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  • Posted on July 30, 2007. Listed in:

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