Speeches & Floor Statements

The Perils of “Energy Sprawl”

Remarks by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander -- Given to Resources for the Future

Posted on October 5, 2009

First, I would like to thank Congressman Phil Sharp and Resources for the Future for organizing this forum and to salute your leadership, especially in coordinating the recent Outdoor Resources Review Group’s report recommending permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Last week I spent several hours watching Ken Burns’ film on our national parks and reading Douglas Brinkley’s new book, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America. Doing this reminded me that the men and women we honor today in the conservation movement and who founded most of the organizations you represent were not always so honored when they first spoke up. Many of those who spent the last century protecting our landscapes, air and water, and wildlife habitats were once regarded as trivial, eccentric, or went unnoticed. John Muir was an obscure hermit when he began to “preach nature like an apostle.” To some, Roosevelt must have seemed a little daffy when he declared he would protect pelicans and warned a country enamored with Manifest Destiny that we should “keep nature unmarred.” Lyndon Johnson made jokes about Lady Bird Johnson running around the White House, as he would say, “protecting flowers” with Laurance Rockefeller. But today we honor these and many others for having had the wisdom and the courage to recognize that preserving our natural heritage is essential to the American Character. Italy may have its art, India its Taj Mahal, but we have the Great American Outdoors. I believe that a new Nature Conservancy scientific paper, titled, “Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America,” will one day occupy a place among the pioneering actions that we honor in the conservation movement. The paper warns that during the next 20 years new energy production, especially biofuels and wind power, will consume a land mass larger than the state of Nebraska. This “energy sprawl,” as the authors termed it, will be the result of government cap and trade and renewable mandate proposals designed to deal with climate change. The paper should serve as a Paul Revere ride for the coming renewable energy sprawl. There are negative consequences, as well as positive effects, from producing energy from the sun, the wind and the earth. And, unless we are as wise in our response as the authors have been in their analysis, our nation runs the risk of damaging the environment in the name of saving the environment. The first insight in the Nature Conservancy paper is in describing the sheer size of the sprawl. The second insight is in carefully estimating the widely varying amounts of land consumed by different kinds of energy production. Finally, the paper suggests four ways to reduce carbon emissions while minimizing the side effects of energy sprawl on the landscape and wildlife habitat. The first recommendation is energy conservation. Second is generating electricity on already developed sites, as when solar panels are put on rooftops or when a chemical company uses byproducts from its production processes to make heat and power. The third recommendation is to make carbon regulation flexible enough to allow for coal plants that recapture carbon or nuclear power plants that produce no carbon or for international offsets. Fourth, the paper suggests careful site selection. This makes me think of my own experience as Governor 25 years ago when Tennessee banned new billboards and junkyards on a highway over which 2 million visitors travel each year to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Then, that decision attracted little attention. Today, it helps to preserve one of the most attractive gateways to any national park. But, as all of us know, if the billboards had gone up then, it would be almost impossible today to take them down today. The same will be true with wind turbines, solar thermal plants, and other new forms of energy production. My purpose here today is to challenge you and the organizations who have traditionally protected our landscape, air and water and wildlife habitat to do the same with the threat of energy sprawl. To ask you, first, to suggest to governments and policy makers and landowners before it is too late the best choices and the most appropriate sites for low-carbon or carbon-free energy production. And, second, I want to ask you to do something that gives many conservationists a stomach ache whenever it is mentioned--and that is to rethink nuclear power, because as the Nature Conservancy’s paper details, nuclear power in several ways produces the largest amounts of carbon-free electricity with the least impact. I learned a long time ago that it helps an audience to know where a speaker is coming from. Well, I grew up hiking and camping in the Great Smoky Mountains where I still live two miles from the park. As a Senator I have fought for strict emission standards for sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury because many of us still breathe air that is too polluted. I have introduced legislation to cap carbon from coal plants because I believe that human production of carbon contributes to global warming. I have helped to create 10,000 acres of conservation easements adjacent to the Smokies because it preserves views of the mountains and wildlife needs the space. I drive one of the first plug-in electric hybrid cars because I believe electrifying half our cars and trucks is the quickest way to clean the air, keep fuel prices down, reduce foreign oil use and help deal with climate change. And I object to 50-story wind turbines along the Appalachian Trail for the same reason I am co-sponsor of legislation to end the coal mining practice called mountaintop removal—not because I am opposed to coal plants or wind power in appropriate places, but because I want to save our mountaintops. * * * Let me offer a few examples to paint a clearer picture of what this energy sprawl might look like in 20 years. As the Nature Conservancy paper notes, most new renewable electricity production will come from wind power which today provides about 1.5 percent of our country’s electricity. Hydroelectric dams produce about 7 percent of our electricity and some of them are being dismantled. Solar and all other forms of renewable electricity produce less than 1 percent today. President Bush first suggested that wind power could grow from 1.5 percent to 20 percent by 2030 and President Obama has set out enthusiastically to get this done. In fact, the combination of presidential rhetoric, taxpayer subsidies and mandates have very nearly turned our national electricity policy into a national windmill policy. To produce 20 percent of America’s electricity from wind turbines would require erecting 186,000 1.5-megawatt wind turbines covering an area the size of West Virginia. According to the American Wind Energy Association, one megawatt of wind requires about 60 acres of land, or in other words, that’s one 1.5 megawatt wind turbine every 90 acres. These are not your grandmother’s windmills. They are 50 stories high. Or, if you are a sports fan, they are three times as tall as the skyboxes at the University of Tennessee football stadium. The turbines themselves are the length of a football field, they are noisy and their flashing lights can be seen for up to twenty miles. In the eastern U.S., where the wind blows less, turbines would work best along scenic ridge tops and coastlines. National Academy of Sciences says up to 19,000 miles of new high voltage transmission lines that would be needed to carry electricity from 186,000 wind turbines in remote areas to and through population centers. So many wind turbines can create real threats to wildlife. The Governor of Wyoming has expressed concern about protecting the Sage Grouse’s diminishing population in his state as a result of possible habitat destruction from wind farms. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that each wind turbine in this country kills as many as seven or eight birds each year. Multiply that by 186,000 wind turbines and you could predict the annual death of close to 1.4 million birds per year. Then there are the solar thermal plants, which use big mirrors to heat a fluid and which can spread over many square miles. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar recently announced plans to cover 1,000 square miles of federally owned land in Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico and Utah with such solar collectors to generate electricity. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who has spent most of her career trying to make the Mojave desert a national monument, strongly objected to a solar thermal plant in the desert on federal land just outside the Mojave National Preserve that would have covered an area 3 miles by 3 miles. Plans for the plant were recently canceled. The only wind farm in the southeastern United States is on the 3,300 foot tall Buffalo Mountain in Tennessee. The wind there blows less than 20 percent of the time making the project a commercial failure. Because of the unavailability of wind power, renewable energy advocates suggest that we southeasterners use biomass, a sort of controlled bonfire that burns wood products to make electricity. Biomass has promise, to a point. Paper mills can burn wood byproducts to make energy. And clearing forests of dead wood and then burning it not only produces energy but can help to avoid forest fires. According to the Conservancy’s paper, biofuels and biomass burning of energy crops for electricity take the most space per unit of energy produced. For example, the Southern Company is building a new 100 megawatt biomass plant in Georgia. Southern estimates it will keep 180 trucks a day busy hauling a million tons of wood a year to the plant. One hundred megawatts is less than one-tenth the production of a nuclear plant which will fit on one square mile. To produce the same amount of energy as one nuclear plant would require continuously foresting an area one-third larger than the 550,000 acre Great Smoky Mountain National Park. You can make your own estimate of the number of trucks it would take to haul that much wood. That is the second important insight of the Nature Conservancy report: a careful estimate of the widely different amounts of land each energy-producing technique requires. The gold standard for land usage is nuclear power. You can get a million megawatt hours of electricity a year—that’s the standard unit the authors chose—per square mile, using nuclear power. The second most compact form of renewable energy is geothermal energy. To generate the same amount of power, coal requires four square miles, taking into account all the land required for mining and extraction. Solar thermal takes six square miles. Natural gas takes seven square miles and petroleum seventeen. Photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight directly into electricity require 14 square miles and wind is even more dilute, taking 28 square miles to produce the same unit of electricity. These differences in land use are pronounced even though the paper’s analysis is conservative. The authors include upstream inputs and waste disposal as part of their estimate of an energy producer’s footprint. They add uranium mining and Yucca Mountain’s 220 square miles to the area our 104 nuclear reactors actually occupy. If one were to consider only each energy plant’s footprint, to produce 20 percent of U.S. electricity would take 100 nuclear reactors on 100 square miles or 186,000 wind turbines on 25,000 square miles. Visualize the difference this way. Thru hikers regularly travel the 2,178 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. A row of fifty story wind turbines along that entire 2,178-mile trail would produce the same amount of electricity produced by 4 nuclear reactors on four square miles. So, because of these wide differences, policy makers have the opportunity to choose carefully among the various forms of producing carbon-free electricity as well as to think about where such energy production should or should not go. These are the four ways that the Nature Conservancy suggests we approach those decisions: First, focus on energy conservation. This is the paper’s preferred alternative to energy sprawl - and it is hard to see how anyone could disagree. To cite just one example, my home state of Tennessee leads the nation in residential per capita electricity use. If Tennesseans simply used electricity at the national average, the amount of electricity we would save each year would equal that amount produced by two nuclear power plants. Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists have said that fuel efficiency standards are the single most important step our country can take to reduce carbon emissions. The second recommendation for dealing with energy sprawl is end-use generation of electricity which usually occurs on already developed sites. One example of this is the co-generation that occurs at a paper factory that uses waste product to produce electricity and heat to run its facility. The most promising example is likely to be solar power on rooftops. In other words, since rooftops already exist, covering them with hundreds of square miles of solar panels would create no additional sprawl. There still are obstacles to the widespread use of solar power. In the southeast, solar still costs 4-5 times what TVA pays on the average for other electricity. There is the obstacle of aesthetics. But companies are now producing solar film embedded within attractive roofing materials—although this costs more. And there still is the problem that solar power is only available when the sun shines and, like wind, it can’t be stored in large quantities. But unlike wind, which often blows at night when there is plenty of unused electricity, the sun shines when most people are at their peak power use. As former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger wrote in the Washington Post, because of their intermittency, wind and solar systems have to be backed up by other forms of electricity generation – which adds to cost and land usage. The third recommendation is to make carbon regulation flexible, allowing for carbon recapture at coal plants, for nuclear power and for international offsets. So far the sponsors of climate and energy bills in the Congress haven’t heeded this advice. In fact, both the Waxman Markey bill in the House and the Bingaman energy bill in the Senate contain very narrowly defined “renewable energy” mandates. Instead of allowing states to choose their methods of producing the required amount of carbon-free electricity, the legislation heavily tilts toward requiring wind power. For example, the legislation allows existing and new wind turbines, but only new hydroelectric. It does not count nuclear power, municipal solid waste, or landfill gas as “renewable.” In the same way, 75 percent of the so-called “renewable electricity” subsidies enacted since 1978 have gone to wind developers. A study by the Energy Information Administration shows that wind gets a subsidy 31 times that of all other renewables combined. These policies have created a heavy bias toward the form of renewable electricity—wind power—that would consume our treasured mountaintops and can be very destructive to wildlife. And a national policy that also encourages wind power in the southeast where the wind barely blows makes as much sense as mandating new hydroelectric dams in the western desert where there is no water. It is my opinion that if we are truly seeking to reduce our carbon output, the policy that would create the least energy sprawl would would be a “carbon-free electricity standard,” allowing for the maximum flexibility for those renewable electricity techniques that consume less land and require fewer new transmission lines. Finally, the Nature Conservancy suggests paying attention to site selection for new energy projects. This is where those of you who represent organizations who have spent a century protecting wildlife and treasured landscapes could be of the greatest help in asking the right questions and providing wise answers. For example, should energy projects be placed in National Parks? In National Forests? If so, which forests and which energy projects? Should there be generous taxpayer subsidies for renewable energy projects within 20 miles of the Grand Tetons or along the Appalachian Trail? What about the large amounts of water needed for solar thermal plants or nuclear plants? Should turbines be concentrated in shallow waters 20 miles or more offshore where they can’t be seen from the coast and transmission lines run underwater? Couldn’t turbines be located in the center of Lake Michigan instead of along its shoreline? Should there be renewable energy zones, such as the solar zones Secretary Salazar is planning, where most new projects are placed—and where are the most appropriate locations for those zones and their transmission lines? In a recent op ed in the New York Times, the Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to place wind turbines in the Atlantic and run transmission lines underwater than to build new transmission lines to carry wind power from the Great plains to Boston? Should the subsidies for cellulosic ethanol be larger than those for corn ethanol, or should there be no subsidies at all? Should there be a special effort to encourage conservation easements on private lands that protect treasured viewscapes and habitats? According to the Wall Street Journal, on August 13 Exxon Mobil pleaded guilty in federal court to killing 85 birds that had come into contact with crude oil or other pollutants in uncovered tanks of waste-water facilities on its properties. The birds were protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which dates back to 1918. The company paid $600,000 in fines and fees. Should the Migratory Bird law be enforced against developers of other energy projects – for example, renewable electricity and transmission lines? One wind farm near Oakland California estimates that its turbines kill 80 golden eagles a year. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that the 25,000 wind turbines in the United States kill between 75,000 and 275,000 birds per year. “Somebody is getting a get out of jail card free,” Michael Fry of the Bird Conservancy told the Journal. And what would be the fine for the almost 1.4 million birds that 186,000 turbines might kill? This raises the question of whether there should be some parity among all energy companies in the application of laws and policies. For example, oil and gas companies receive taxpayer subsidies but they bid to lease and drill on federal land or waters and then pay a royalty for the privilege. Should taxpayer subsidized renewable energy companies also be required to pay a royalty for the privilege of producing electricity on federal lands or waters? And, if so, could this be a source of permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation fund or other conservation projects on the theory that if the law allows an environmental burden it ought to require an environmental benefit? Based on estimates from the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office, taxpayers will pay wind developers a total of $29 billion in federal subsidies over the next 10 years to increase windpower production from 1.5 to 4 percent of our total electricity. There are an estimated 500,000 abandoned mines in our nation, 47,000 in California alone. To date, Congress has allocated a total of about $4 billion for their cleanup and the end of the cleanup is nowhere in sight. Would it not be wise before the energy sprawl occurs to require bonds on federal lands for the removal of energy equipment that is not used anymore? Wind turbines wear out in 20-25 years. Solar thermal farms can cover hundreds of acres. Policies, subsidies and prices can change. In Germany, for example, a prominent maker of solar equipment recently suggested cutting the government subsidy for solar equipment because it is permanently raising prices of German-made products and Germans are buying cheaper panels made in China. In other words, the Germans are subsidizing Chinese manufacturing. If the large U.S. subsidies for wind power were to disappear—as was promised when they were created—or if solar panels went on rooftops instead of in thermal plants, it might be a good idea if someone were required to take away the abandoned equipment. * * * This brings me to my last point, which is to ask you to rethink nuclear power. In our country, fears about safety, proliferation, and waste disposal have stymied the “atoms for peace” dream of large amounts of low-cost clean reliable energy from nuclear power. Twelve states even have moratoria against building new nuclear plants. Still, the 104 U.S. reactors built between 1970 and 1990 produce 19 percent of America’s electricity and, as I have said, 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity. I believe that what Americans should most fear about nuclear power is this: the rest of the world will use it to create low-cost, carbon-free electricity while we—who invented the technology—will not. That would send our jobs overseas looking for their cheap energy. And it would deprive us of the technology most likely to produce large amounts of carbon free electricity to help deal with climate change—and to do it in the way least likely to harm the landscape and wildlife habitats. Look at what the rest of the world is doing. Of the top five emitters, who together produce 55 percent of the carbon in the world, only the U.S. has no new nuclear plants under construction. China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, recently upped its goal for nuclear reactors to 132. Russia, the number three emitter, plans two new reactors every year until 2030. Of the next two emitters, India has six reactors under construction and ten more planned. Japan already has 55 reactors, gets 35 percent of its electricity from nuclear, has two under construction and plans for ten more by 2018. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), worldwide there are 53 reactors under construction in 11 countries, mostly in Asia. South Korea gets nearly 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear and plans another eight reactors by 2015. Taiwan gets 18 percent of its power from nuclear and is building two new reactors. In the West, France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear and has among the lowest electricity rates and carbon emissions in Western Europe (behind Sweden and Switzerland which are both half nuclear.) Great Britain has hired the French electric company EDF to help build reactors. Italy has announced it will go back to nuclear. So where does this leave the United States? Well, we still know how to run reactors better than anyone else; we just don’t build them anymore. Our fleet of 104 plants is up and running 90 percent of the time. We have 17 applications for new reactors pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission but haven’t started construction on any new ones - and the 104 we currently have in operation will begin to grow too old to operate in twenty years. That is why I believe the U.S. should build 100 new nuclear plants in 20 years. This would bring our nuclear-produced electricity to more than 40 percent of our total generation. Add 10 percent for hydroelectric dams, 7-8 percent for wind and solar (now 1.5 percent), 25 percent for natural gas (which is low-carbon) and you begin to get a real clean—and low-cost-- electricity policy. According to the National Academy of Sciences, construction costs for 100 nuclear plants are about the same as for 186,000 wind turbines. New reactors could be located mostly on sites with existing reactors. There would be little need for new transmission lines. Taxpayer subsidies for nuclear would be one-tenth what taxpayers would pay wind developers over 10 years. As for so called “green jobs”, building 100 nuclear plants would provide four times as many construction jobs as building 186,000 turbines. And, of course, nuclear is a base load source of power operating 90 percent of the time, the kind of reliable power that a country that uses 25 percent of the energy in the world must have. Wind and solar are useful supplements but they are only available, on average, about one-third of the time and can’t be stored in large amounts. And what about the lingering fears of nuclear? Obama Administration Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, says nuclear plants are safe and he wouldn’t mind living near one. That view is echoed by the thousands of U.S. Navy personnel who have lived literally on top of nuclear reactors in submarines and Navy ships for 50 years without incident. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission agrees and its painstaking supervision and application process is intended to do everything humanly possible to keep our commercial fleet of reactors safe. On the issue of waste, Dr. Chu says there is a two step solution. Step one is store the waste on site for 40 to 60 years. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission agrees this can be done safely, perhaps even for 100 years. Step two is research and development to find the best way to recycle fuel so that its mass is reduced by 97 percent, pure plutonium is never created, and the waste is only radioactive for 300 years instead of 1 million years. That kind of recycling would take care of both the waste and the third fear of nuclear power, the threat that other countries might somehow use plutonium to build a bomb. One could argue that because the U.S. failed to lead in developing the safe use of nuclear technology for the last 30 years, we may have made it easier for North Korea and Pakistan to steal or buy nuclear secrets from rogue countries. * * * Now, let me conclude with this prediction: taking into account these energy sprawl concerns, I believe the best way to reach the necessary carbon goals for climate change with the least damage to our environment and to our economy will prove to be (1) building 100 new nuclear plants in 20 years, (2) electrifying half the cars and trucks in 20 years; we probably have enough unused electricity to plug these vehicles in at night without building one new power plant; (3) putting solar panels on our rooftops. To make this happen, the government should launch mini-Manhattan projects like the one we had in World War II: for recycling used nuclear fuel, for better batteries for electric vehicles, to make solar panels cost competitive, and in addition, to recapture carbon from coal plants. This plan should produce the largest amount of electricity with the smallest amount of carbon at the lowest possible cost thereby avoiding the pain and suffering that comes when high-cost energy pushes jobs overseas and makes it hard for low-income Americans to afford their heating and cooling bills. My fellow Tennessean Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for arguing that global warming is the inconvenient problem. If you believe he is right, and if you are also concerned about energy sprawl, then I would suggest that nuclear power is the inconvenient solution.