John Locke Update / Research Newsletter (Archive)

Renewable energy facilities gobble up subsidies, natural habitats

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This week’s newsletter takes a look at renewable energy facilities in the news. For example, a new study from the Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University found a surprising (to researchers) ecological cost of solar installations in California, which has a much more aggressive renewable energy mandate than North Carolina:

The Carnegie study found that of the 161 planned or operating utility-scale solar power developments in California, more than half have been or will be built on natural shrub and scrublands totaling about 145 square miles of land, roughly the land area of the city of Bakersfield, Calif. About 28 percent have been built on agricultural land and 15 percent have been built in developed areas….

Hernandez said she was surprised to find that nearly a third of solar development is occurring on former cropland, perhaps because farmers are shifting from growing crops to using their land to generate electricity. California’s devastating drought may be responsible for farmers’ shift to solar, something one of the study’s co-authors is researching in more depth.

"We see that ‘big solar’ is competing for space with natural areas," she said. "We were surprised to find that solar energy development is a potential driver of the loss of California’s natural ecosystems and reductions in the integrity of our state and national park system."…

Assuming that 500 gigawatts of solar power may be needed to meet a future climate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, Hernandez’s team found that a region of California roughly equal to the land area of South Carolina may be needed to accommodate all the new solar power plant development. (Emphasis added.)

The staggering amount of acreage required by a subsidized energy facility built to satisfy state renewable energy mandates brings to mind a recent Carolina Journal report on Iberdrola Renewables’ $400 million, 300-megawatt Amazon Wind Farm that will cover 22,000 acres across Perquimans and Pasquotank counties in northeastern N.C.

CJ reported on wildly conflicting statements from Iberdrola on the facility’s use of incentives and subsidies. Spokesman Art Sasse had told CJ that "there are no incentives at any level" for the project’s development. But at an Energy Policy Council meeting, the tune was quite different:

At a recent meeting of the North Carolina Energy Policy Council, Eric Thumma, Iberdrola Renewables director of policy and regulatory affairs, told members that wind power is becoming increasingly competitive with traditional electricity sources.

"If wind is so competitive today, do you still need the federal, state, and local tax subsidies that you’re getting? Would you build this project without them?" asked council member John Brodman, an economist who is a retired deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Energy Department.

"This project clearly would not happen without those support mechanisms. We’re not at a point yet where we don’t need subsidies," Thumma responded….

Craig Poff, Iberdrola Renewables director of business development for the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern U.S., was quick to add: "There is no state subsidy there. That project does not qualify for the state [renewable] investment tax credit."

One presumes they’re not at that point yet of independence from forced support from taxpayers, but they’re almost there.

Also in California, a solar installation that had been praised by President Barack Obama and subsidized by his administration — $1.6 billion in loan guarantees and an additional $600 million in federal tax credits — has been shown to be polluting at "nearly twice the pollution threshold for power plants or factories in California to be required to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emission."

How can that be? Because something has to power the massive, sprawling solar facility when the sun doesn’t shine, and that something is natural gas:

The Ivanpah plant in the Mojave Desert uses natural gas as a supplementary fuel. Data from the California Energy Commission show that the plant burned enough natural gas in 2014 — its first year of operation — to emit more than 46,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

That’s nearly twice the pollution threshold for power plants or factories in California to be required to participate in the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions.

The same amount of natural gas burned at a conventional power plant would have produced enough electricity to meet the annual needs of 17,000 California homes — or roughly a quarter of the Ivanpah plant’s total electricity projection for 2014.

The plant’s operators say they are burning small amounts of natural gas in order to produce steam to jump-start the solar generating process. They said burning natural gas has always been part of the process.

Natural gas is used to preheat water that goes into boilers mounted on top of three 459-foot-tall towers at Ivanpah. This allows heat from the sun — captured by 352,000 mirrors — to make steam more quickly. The steam turns the turbines that produce electricity.

The Ivanpah plant off Interstate 15 near the Nevada border also has auxiliary gas boilers that kick in whenever cloud cover blocks the sun.

That one admission is rather interesting; plant operators stress the amount of natural gas burned is "small," yet that small amount of natural gas, if it had gone into generating electricity, would have produced one-fourth of the solar plant’s projected production. (It would not have cost federal taxpayers $2.2 billion in subsidies, either.)

The Ivanpah report draws to mind the permit request of Apple’s "100 percent" renewable-run solar facility in Maiden, N.C., for 44 diesel generators to help provide backup power to that facility.

The report also listed ecological impacts of the Obama administration’s touted facility:

Ivanpah was built on 5.6 square miles of mostly undisturbed public land that was home to desert tortoises, a species threatened with extinction, among other wildlife….

Biologists found many more desert tortoises, a species threatened with extinction, than expected during the construction of the Ivanpah solar plant. Teams of biologists gathered more than 175 of the reptiles from the site and found another 50 tortoise eggs that were later hatched in captivity.

In all, developers spent $56 million capturing, housing, relocating, and preserving and restoring tortoise habitat elsewhere.

It also mentioned in passing that "birds catch fire when they fly too close to the boilers."

Come to think of it, spontaneous avian combustion probably would count as an ecological impact. But consider the positive: at least they didn’t fly into wind turbine blades. As solar advocate and unintended green-power mayhem maven Neil Young sang, "It’s better to burn out…"

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Jon Sanders is an economist studying state regulations, that spreading kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. Serving as Senior Fellow of Regulatory Studies and also Research Editor at the John Locke Foundation, Jon gets in the weeds of all… ...

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