Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Energy Sprawl and the Green Economy

Posted on September 17, 2009

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently announced plans to cover 1,000 square miles of land in Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah with solar collectors to generate electricity. He is also talking about generating 20 percent of our electricity from wind. This would require building about 186,000 50-story wind turbines that would cover an area the size of West Virginia, not to mention 19,000 new miles of high-voltage transmission lines. Is the Federal Government showing any concern about this massive intrusion into the natural landscape? Not at all. I fear we are going to destroy the environment in the name of saving the environment. The House of Representatives has passed climate legislation that started out as an attempt to reduce carbon emissions. It has morphed into an engine for raising revenues by selling carbon dioxide emission allowances and promoting renewable energy. The bill requires electric utilities to get 20 percent of their power mostly from wind and solar by 2020. These renewable energy sources are receiving huge subsidies all to supposedly create jobs and hurry us down the road to an America running on wind and sunshine, as described in President Obama's inaugural address. Yet all this assumes renewable energy is a free lunch, a benign so-called sustainable way of running the country with minimal impact on the environment. That assumption experienced a rude awakening on August 26 when the Nature Conservancy published a paper entitled ``Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America.'' The report by this venerable environmental organization posed a simple question: How much land is required for the different energy sources that power the country? The answers deserve far greater public attention. By far, nuclear energy is the least land intensive. It requires only 1 square mile for one reactor, that is to produce 1 million megawatt hours per year, enough electricity for about 90,000 homes. Geothermal energy, which taps the natural heat of the Earth, requires 3 square miles. The most landscape consuming are the biofuels ethanol and biodiesel, which require up to 500 square miles to produce the same amount of energy. Coal, on the other hand, requires 4 square miles, mainly for mining and extraction. Solar thermal heating, a fluid with large arrays of mirrors and using it to power a turbine takes 6 square miles. Natural gas needs 8 and petroleum needs 18. Wind farms require over 30 square miles. This sprawl has been missing from our energy discussions. In my home State of Tennessee, we just celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America's most visited national park. Yet there are serious proposals by energy developers to cover mountains all along the Appalachian chain from Georgia through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, all the way up to the White Mountains of New Hampshire with 50-story wind turbines because the wind blows strongest across mountaintops. I can tell from the Presiding Officer's smile that she is thinking of the strong winds on the White Mountains which are among the strongest in the entire United States of America. Let's put this into perspective. We could line 300 miles of mountaintops from Chattanooga, TN, to Bristol, VA, with wind turbines and still only produce one-quarter of the electricity we get from one reactor on 1 square mile at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar nuclear plant. The 1,000-square mile solar project proposed by Mr. Salazar would generate on a continuous basis 35,000 megawatts of electricity. You could get the same output from 30 new nuclear reactors that would fit comfortably on existing nuclear sites. And this does not count the thousands of miles of transmission lines that will be needed to carry the newly generated solar power through and to population centers. There is one more consideration. Solar collectors must be washed down once a month or they collect too much dirt to be effective. They also need to be cooled by water. Where amid the desert and the scrubland will we find all that water? No wonder the Wildlife Conservancy and other environmentalists are already opposing solar projects on some western lands. Renewable energy is not a free lunch. It is an unprecedented assault on the American landscape. Before we find ourselves engulfed in energy sprawl, it is imperative we take a closer look at the advantages of nuclear power. Madam President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a summary of the Nature Conservancy paper entitled ``Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency,'' which was published on August 26. There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: Abstract Concern over climate change has led the U.S. to consider a cap-and-trade system to regulate emissions. Here we illustrate the land-use impact to U.S. habitat types of new energy development resulting from different U.S. energy policies. We estimated the total new land area needed by 2030 to produce energy, under current law and under various cap-and-trade policies, and then partitioned the area impacted among habitat types with geospatial data on the feasibility of production. The land-use intensity of different energy production techniques varies over three orders of magnitude, from 1.9-2.8 km\2\/ TW hr/yr for nuclear power to 788-1000 km\2\/TW hr/yr for biodiesel from soy. In all scenarios, temperate deciduous forests and temperate grasslands will be most impacted by future energy development, although the magnitude of impact by wind, biomass, and coal to different habitat types is policy-specific. Regardless of the existence or structure of a cap-and-trade bill, at least 206,000 km\2\ will be impacted without substantial increases in energy efficiency, which saves at least 7.6 km\2\ per TW hr of electricity conserved annually and 27.5 km\2\ per TW hr of liquid fuels conserved annually. Climate policy that reduces carbon dioxide emissions may increase the areal impact of energy, although the magnitude of this potential side effect may be substantially mitigated by increases in energy efficiency. The possibility of widespread energy sprawl increases the need for energy conservation, appropriate siting, sustainable production practices, and compensatory mitigation offsets. Introduction Climate change is now acknowledged as a potential threat to biodiversity and human well-being, and many countries are seeking to reduce their emissions by shifting from fossil fuels to other energy sources. One potential side effect with this switch is the increase in area required by some renewable energy production techniques. Energy production techniques vary in the spatial extent in which production activities occur, which we refer to as their energy sprawl, defined as the product of the total quantity of energy produced annually (e.g., TW lu-/yr) and the land-use intensity of production (e.g. km\2\ of habitat per TW hr/yr). While many studies have quantified the likely effect of climate change on the Earth's biodiversity due to climate-driven habitat loss, concluding that a large proportion of species could be driven extinct, relatively few studies have evaluated the habitat impact of future energy sprawl. It is important to understand the potential habitat effects of energy sprawl, especially in reference to the loss of specific habitat types, since habitats vary markedly in the species and ecosystem processes they support. Within the United States, the world's largest cumulative polluter of greenhouse gases, concern over climate change has led to the consideration of a cap-and-trade system to regulate emissions, such as the previously proposed Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S. 2191) and the Low Carbon Economy Act (S. 1766). Major points of contention in structuring a cap-and-trade system are the feasibility and desirability of carbon capture and storage (CCS) at coal plants, the creation of new nuclear plants, and whether to allow international offset programs that permit U.S. companies to meet obligations abroad. The rules of a cap-and-trade system, as well as technological advances in energy production and changes in the price of fossil fuels, will affect how the U.S. generates energy. In this study we take scenarios of a cap-and-trade system's effect on United States energy production and evaluate each scenario's impact on habitat due to energy sprawl. Our scenarios are based on the Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast of energy production in 2030 under current law (the ``Reference Scenario''), including the renewable fuel standard of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and under three cap-and-trade scenarios: the ``Core Cap-and-Trade Scenario'', where the full Lieberman-Warner Climate Change Act is implemented; the ``Few Options Scenario'', where international offsets are not allowed and where new nuclear production and coal production with CCS are not possible; and the ``CCS Scenario'', where Congress enacts the Low Carbon Economy Act, a cap-and-trade system more favorable to coal with CCS. Under each scenario, we first estimate the total new land area in the U.S. needed to produce energy for each production technique as a function of the amount of energy needed and the land-use intensity of production. We examine the effect of U.S. climate policy on future energy sprawl using energy scenarios based on proposed legislation, building on a body of literature on this topic. Note that our analysis focuses only on U.S. land-use implications, ignoring other, potentially significant international land-use implications of U.S. climate policy. Second, we use available information on where new energy production facilities would be located to partition this area among major habitat types. We calculate the new area directly impacted by energy development within each major habitat type, but do not attempt to predict where within each major habitat type energy development will take place, nor possible indirect effects on land-use regionally or globally due to altered land markets. Our analysis provides a broad overview of what change in the energy sector will mean for area impacted in different natural habitat types, recognizing that such a broad analysis will inevitably have to simplify parts of a complex world.