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“Small IS Beautiful”! Robert Bryce Pushes Nuclear Power by Quoting Famous Author Who Called It “an Ethical, Spiritual, and Metaphysical Monstrosity”

By Stephen Lacey  

"“Small IS Beautiful”! Robert Bryce Pushes Nuclear Power by Quoting Famous Author Who Called It “an Ethical, Spiritual, and Metaphysical Monstrosity”"

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The NY Times has published an error-riddled op-ed by Manhattan Institute disinformer Robert Bryce.  The piece makes a decidedly schizophrenic and misleading case against renewable energy in California.  Bryce argues that because large-scale renewable energy projects have some local environmental impact, we should avoid developing them and instead focus on much more dangerous fossil fuels and nuclear.

The former “paper of record” should be embarrassed to run pro-dirty-energy disinformation from someone so widely refuted (see “Debunking Robert Bryce’s power hungry gusher of lies“).  In particular, Bryce actually has the chutzpah to quote economist E. F. Schumacher’s famous line “Small is beautiful” to promote fossil fuels and nuclear power — when Schumacher wanted us to get off of fossil fuels and was strongly anti-nuke!

Doesn’t anybody at the Times use Google for even the simplest fact checking anymore?

Climate Progress contacted Bill McKibben, who wrote the Foreword to a re-release of Schumacher’s 1973 classic, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.”   We asked him what he thought about Bryce quoting Schumacher this way.  He replied:

I’d say it’s roughly the equivalent of saying “Thoreau would approve of my sprawling Arizona subdivision plan because he lived outside of town himself.”

The full op-ed is worth debunking in detail because Bryce is pushing a bunch of anti-clean-energy talking points that are becoming popular in conservative circles.  Progressives need to know how to debunk them.  We’ll try to cover the key points here with useful charts.

UPDATE:  See the featured comment by Mike Roddy.

THE SOLAR THERMAL MYTH

Bryce says that solar is a poor option because California will need to rely mostly on centralized solar thermal generation (concentrating solar power) to meet its renewable energy targets:

The math is simple: to have 8,500 megawatts of solar capacity, California would need at least 23 projects the size of Ivanpah, covering about 129 square miles, an area more than five times as large as Manhattan.

This is a red herring. While California has indeed put its support behind a handful of large-scale solar projects, the split between distributed PV and centralized solar plants may be much closer than that. In fact, a recent analysis from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission finds that California will be meeting more than half of its solar targets with distributed PV:

A 2009 analysis of California’s 33% RPS by the state’s Public Utilities Commission modeled a number of different scenarios and found that solar PV will indeed play an important role — albeit, substantially less than CSP in some scenarios. The interesting thing about this report is that it was written in 2009 before solar PV prices had fallen another 35% and project development costs had fallen 20%. Yet the CPUC report makes “no assumptions about the cost trajectory (up or down) of particular technologies over time due to potential transformation of the market.”

Even so, the report finds: “Under the Solar PV Cost Reduction sensitivity, the total costs of the (High Distributed Generation) Case are very similar to the costs of the 33 percent RPS Reference Case.” And with prices and costs coming down dramatically over the last couple years since the report was written, we are indeed in the “Cost Reduction sensitivity” range.

The CPUC report also states that, “dramatic cost reductions in solar PV could make a solar DG strategy cost-competitive with central station renewable generation.” Since the time that report was written, “ferocious cost reductions” in solar PV have indeed put it the technology in line with centralized solar plants, according to a piece of analysis from GTM Research.

This is not meant as an argument against CSP. Clearly, large-scale solar thermal plants are going to play a very important role in California’s RPS given that they provide electricity that better matches a utility’s day-long demands. But to assume that California will only be able to meet its targets with centralized generation ignores the reality of where the cost-curve for solar PV is going.

Presumably, if Bryce is so concerned about the environmental footprint of projects he would have focused on the fact that utilities are signing GW worth of contracts for distributed projects that serve loads locally; have virtually zero impact on the surrounding environment; and reduce the need to generate electricity from expensive, carbon emitting peaking natural gas plants.

THE MYTH RENEWABLES TAKE UP TOO MUCH LAND

There’s no doubt that the increased development of large-scale plants will take up space — sometimes in undisturbed areas. But Bryce throws around land-use figures without any context at all.

Wind energy projects require even more land. The Roscoe wind farm in Texas, which has a capacity of 781.5 megawatts, covers about 154 square miles. Again, the math is straightforward: to have 8,500 megawatts of wind generation capacity, California would likely need to set aside an area equivalent to more than 70 Manhattans.

That’s a lot of land. But how much, really? Tom Gray of the American Wind Energy Association addresses the issue of wind specifically in a response to Bryce’s assertions:

While the boundaries of wind farms may be large, wind turbines actually use very little land. A 2008 study by the Department of Energy under the Bush Administration found that if wind power provided 20 percent of America’s electricity, the actual space occupied by wind turbines, related equipment such as substations, and service roads would be less than half the size of the city of Anchorage, Alaska. That is because 95 to 98 percent of the land within a wind farm’s boundaries remains available for ranching, farming, wildlife habitat, recreation, or other compatible uses.

(And by the way, since Bryce mentioned the Roscoe, Texas wind farm — if you talk to Cliff Etheridge, the local cotton farmer who made the project happen, his community would have collapsed without it. But I digress.)

Again, let’s give those land needs a bit more perspective. Tom Kenworthy, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who has focused heavily on western environmental issues, shares his thoughts:

In Western terms, that’s not much. That 129 square miles is roughly 83,000 acres, about one-fifth of the fire currently burning in AZ. It’s a third smaller than Ted Turner’s Montana ranch. The solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement currently being prepared by DOI has two alternatives: a “zones” approach that covers roughly 600,000 acres, and a preferred alternative that looks at 22 million acres as potential solar development lands.

Does that mean there won’t be local environmental problems and conflicting land-use issues? Of course not. Those are serious issues the industry needs to address with appropriate environmental reviews and good relationships with local communities. But Bryce neglects to mention the land-use impacts associated with mining, drilling, roads construction and waste disposal in the natural gas and nuclear industries. Just throwing out a bunch of seemingly-large land-use numbers without an appropriate comparison to the technologies he advocates for doesn’t do any good.

THE TRANSMISSION MYTH

So how about the transmission issue? Bryce also raised the argument that renewables can’t succeed because they’ll always need new transmission:

Industrial solar and wind projects also require long swaths of land for power lines. Last year, despite opposition from environmental groups, San Diego Gas & Electric started construction on the 117-mile Sunrise Powerlink, which will carry electricity from solar, wind and geothermal projects located in Imperial County, Calif., to customers in and around San Diego. In January, environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit to prevent the $1.9 billion line from cutting through a nearby national forest.

There’s a lot of debate in the business about how much transmission will be required to access remote renewables. Certainly, there will need to be a fair amount new transmission in high-resource areas of the country. But are they necessary to meet California’s requirements?

Some would say the direct link between renewable energy development and transmission requirements hasn’t been proven. In fact, a former transmission planner at San Diego Gas & Electric, Jaleh Firooz, argued last summer in the Natural Gas and Electricity Journal that renewables are often used as an excuse to develop new transmission.

“This effort is not surprising considering that network upgrades create more rate base and therefore higher profits for IOUs,” writes Firooz. “However, if progress toward renewable resource goals is the public policy objective, the focus on network upgrades is entirely misplaced.”

The Sunrise Powerlink line would cost about $200 million a year to build. But Firooz says that the congestion charges in the entire state of California were only $176 million in 2008 – arguing that ratepayers would be better off if congestion were dealt with through re-dispatching generation and increasing distributed renewables.

There are no reasonable assurances that spending billions of dollars to implement these transmission plans would materially improve the state’s ability to meet its renewable energy objectives or lower the risk of blackouts. Generally, it is assumed that higher transmission operating margins translate into a lower risk of system failure. However, most wide-spread system failures have been the result of poor maintenance or operator error, and depending on the circumstances, higher transmission margins may not protect against these failures.

Will we need more transmission to develop some of these large-scale wind, solar and geothermal projects in remote areas? Yes. Are they always necessary? It depends on how you plan. If Bryce were so concerned with the increase in transmission on the environment, perhaps a plan to invest in distributed energy rather than centralized, transmission-dependent resources would be a good idea?

THE ABSURD MISUSE OF SCHUMACHER

No. Instead, while invoking Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” quote, he pushes for natural gas and nuclear.

Such profligate use of resources is the antithesis of the environmental ideal. Nearly four decades ago, the economist E. F. Schumacher distilled the essence of environmental protection down to three words: “Small is beautiful.” In the rush to do something — anything — to deal with the intractable problem of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental groups and policy makers have determined that renewable energy is the answer. But in doing so they’ve tossed Schumacher’s dictum into the ditch.

All energy and power systems exact a toll. If we are to take Schumacher’s phrase to heart while also reducing the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions, we must exploit the low-carbon energy sources — natural gas and, yes, nuclear — that have smaller footprints.

Not!

It’s hard to know what is more amazing, that Bryce would have the chutzpah to quote Schumacher to promote fossil fuels and nuclear — or that the NY Times would let him.

You can  access most of Schumacher’s book, “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered” through Google Books here.  He has a whole chapter, “Nuclear Energy – Salvation or Damnation?” which you can find online in full here.  This is what Schumacher really believed:

Of all the changes introduced by man into the household of nature, large-scale nuclear fission is undoubtedly the most dangerous and profound. As a result, ionising radiation has become the most serious agent of pollution of the environment and the greatest threat to man’s survival on earth. The attention of the layman, not surprisingly, has been captured by the atom bomb, although there is at least a chance that it may never be used again. The danger to humanity created by the so-called peaceful uses of atomic energy may be much greater. There could indeed be no clearer example of the prevailing dictatorship of economics. Whether to build conventional power stations, based on coal or oil, or nuclear stations, is being decided on economic grounds, with perhaps a small element of regard for the ‘social consequences’ that might arise from an over-speedy curtailment of the coal industry. But that nuclear fission represents an incredible, incomparable, and unique hazard for human life does not enter any calculation and is never mentioned. People whose business it is to judge hazards, the insurance companies, are reluctant to insure nuclear power stations anywhere in the world for third party risk, with the result that special legislation has had to be passed whereby the State accepts big liabilities. Yet insured or not, the hazard remains, and such is the thraldom of the religion of economics that the only question that appears to interest either governments or the public is whether ‘it pays’.

The chapter ends:

No degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make ‘safe’ and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages. To do such a thing is a transgression against life itself, a transgression infinitely more serious than any crime ever perpetrated by man. The idea that a civilisation could sustain itself on the basis of such a transgression is an ethical, spiritual, and metaphysical monstrosity. It means conducting the economic affairs of man as if people really did not matter at all.

Yeah, “Small is Beautiful” is a cry for nuclear power … to be avoided.  Note that the prescient argument Schumacher makes —  the uninsurability of nuclear power —  hasn’t changed for decades (see here).

If Bryce and the NY Times can’t be bothered to read the original book, how about the Wikipedia entry for “Small is Beautiful“:

In the first chapter, “The Problem of Production”, Schumacher argues that the modern economy is unsustainable. Natural resources (like fossil fuels), are treated as expendable income, when in fact they should be treated as capital, since they are not renewable, and thus subject to eventual depletion. He further argues that nature’s resistance to pollution is limited as well. He concludes that government effort must be concentrated on sustainable development,

Bryce’s entire analysis is as absurd as his mis-quoting of Schumacher’s book.  Let’s end with three quotes from the book:

  1. Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful.
  2. The most striking thing about modern industry is that it requires so much and accomplishes so little. Modern industry seems to be inefficient to a degree that surpasses one’s ordinary powers of imagination. Its inefficiency therefore remains unnoticed.
  3. The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds. If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty, and chaotic.

– Stephen Lacey, with Joe Romm

FEATURED COMMENT:  Mike Roddy (long-time commenter):

The argument that solar will use vast amounts of land is especially insidious, because the gas and coal companies have succeeded in selling this to environmental NGO’s. The amount of desert required to power the entire country from solar is roughly.3% of our land base. Developers are now showing diligence in accounting for threatened species and not taxing local water supplies (most new solar thermal plants are dry cooled).

Meanwhile, these same environmentali organizations have enabled enough industrial logging projects to result in 95% of US native forests being logged, dramatically reducing sequestration ability and ecosystem health. This damage is close to 25% of the US land base, for toilet paper and two by fours.

It appeared to me that local Mojave environmental organizations have been penetrated by the fossil fuel companies. There is plenty of land in the Mojave, and even if a small percentage of it is sacrificed, the reward is far greater. In Joshua Tree National Park, for example, rangers have told me that local flora face much greater damage from climate change than whatever solar plants would do. In fact, it’s happening already.

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