Renewable energy:  Scientists, governments, and significant elements of the business community now are in agreement that it is the basis around which we can build a low-carbon, sustainable, global energy economy. And yet, misinformation is being propagated by interests favoring the status quo.

A June 7 op-ed,  The Gas is Greener, by Robert Bryce in The New York Times is a sad example. Using rhetorical arguments and faulty calculations, Bryce argues that technologies such as wind and solar are somehow more environmentally destructive than natural gas and nuclear energy. This opinion is at odds with the findings of the several hundred analysts who developed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources released last month. It is also at odds with the community of nations who reviewed and endorsed the report and its finding that 17 to 77 percent of global energy needs could come from renewable energy by 2050.

So, what is the truth? Can we build this new energy economy?

Consider the example of California, where detailed and extensively reviewed assessments have shown that with integration and coordination we can readily meet the mandate that one-third of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. In projecting the impact of this mandate, Bryce makes several errors, each substantially increasing his estimate of its difficulty. He first ignores the 18 percent of California electricity that already comes from renewable sources, and then inexplicably bases his calculations on peak historic demand rather than the total annual consumption that is subject to this mandate.

This selective lens allows Bryce, like many nay-sayers, to overestimate new infrastructure requirements by over 400 percent. Moreover, both wind and solar are compatible with many other land uses and neither can be said to spoil the land they sit on in any way analogous to fossil fuel extraction or nuclear waste storage. The most important innovations?  Policy and market access.  The wind and solar industries face enormous market incentives to minimize their environmental impacts and both have impressive track records of ongoing innovation in this area.

Meeting a 33 percent renewable electricity mandate nationwide would require on the order of 800 square miles (2,072 square kilometers) of total area–much of which could be on the tops of buildings or in the case of wind, integrated into existing farmland (as is already the case in many wind farms). This is less than twice the size of Edwards Air force base, and less than one third of the area of forest estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to have already been destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Critics of the green energy economy often omit key information from consideration in making arguments about the material requirements of energy technologies as well. Bryce, for example compares the steel used for construction of wind and natural gas turbines, neglecting to mention that a gas turbine is only a very small part of a natural gas facility. More importantly, natural gas has substantial fuel production and waste stream infrastructure and impacts. Studies from the EPA indicate that “fugitive” greenhouse gas emissions  associated with natural gas extraction may be far greater than previously thought, diminishing the advantage it is presumed to have over coal,  the dirtiest fuel in widespread use. In contrast, an operating  wind turbine or solar panel requires no fuel inputs and creates no waste stream.

Those of us who have done the math and thus are convinced that a cleaner, safer, and more durable energy infrastructure is worth pursuing, and can be achieved, know that it will be built on a diverse platform of energy technologies. In all likelihood, this will include the natural gas and nuclear power that Bryce advocates, as well as solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources that he unconvincingly criticizes.

What we need most of all is an honest discussion with clear life-cycle, or ‘cradle to grave’ criteria to evaluate the benefits, drawbacks, and roles of each technology and the policy best suited to achieving our societal goals. The most basic lesson from our national innovation and industrial capacity is that we will achieve that which we plan.  Clean energy exists as an option, if we choose to invest in it and to implement systems solutions.

This post was written with guest bloggers Sam Borgeson, who studies low-carbon energy infrastructure, and Kevin Fingerman, who serves as vice-chair of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels.  Both are doctoral students in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley.


  1. brian andrew uren
    manilla austraila
    July 8, 2011, 10:04 pm

    the best way to get somthing is to do it…..people know a lie when hear or read one ..the world wil be better of if you stop talking and started doing ..IF we all remove one light from one room in our homes and never replce it .THAT will do more than all the talk in the world .. … Brian Andrew Uren..

  2. Dwight E. Howell
    Lawrence County TN
    July 8, 2011, 6:07 pm

    I’ve done some readying on how things have worked out in Europe. The Scottish and others have been badly burned by their wind farms. The power often was not available when they needed it most which during the winter meant they had to use other sources or people would have frozen. They spent a lot of money and were promised vastly more than they got by about 40% based on the report I read. They still have to keep their old fossil fuel burning systems in a useable state and ticking over as back up or purchase power from nuclear from the continent. Other countries have also been burned though many are now determined to go green and close out nuclear but I’d bet any amount of cash they are going to run into catastrophic power outages if they try to put it into practice.

    I’m not saying to not use alternative energy sources when they work but we don’t know what we don’t know and until we know how to make the alternatives cheap and reliable betting your future on them is going to ruin economies and may kill more than a few.

  3. Dan Kammen
    Washington, DC
    July 8, 2011, 5:52 pm

    The discussion of renewable energy subsidies is important.

    The other side of the equation, however, are the very large subsidies in place for fossil fuels:

  4. […] your math, Bryce. Photo: themacgirlThis post originally appeared on the Great Energy Challenge blog, in partnership with National Geographic and Planet Forward. This article was coauthored by […]

  5. DavidC
    Worcester, MA
    July 8, 2011, 2:50 pm

    The point of subsidies is to help renewables achieve the economies of scale needed to be competitive–or cheaper– than fossil fuels. Also, fossil fuel costs are rising–look at crude prices almost 4x higher since the recession. It looks like ~$4/gal gas is the new norm–unless maybe renewables get traction/scale needed to significantly reduce oil demand. Coal is a different animal and will likely be relatively cheap for a long time–as long as you don’t factor in the environmental and human health costs. There’s an example of a regressive cost, I think.

    Another point: ideally, subsidies for renewables would be non-specific, so the best technologies and processes would come to the fore–vs. whatever the current political favorites are, examples being corn based ethanol, and some of the Obama picks for subsidies and PR visits.

  6. Tom C
    July 8, 2011, 10:15 am

    At what cost? Mandated renewable programs will require imposition of additional bureaucracy. The costs of such energy now is heavily subsidized. Coal & other subsidies are large, but per kW hr are small compared to ANY renewable (except hydro)–and yes, I have done the math on this. These costs will come at the expense of the lower income earners due to the very regressive nature of such imposed regulation. And forcing them before the costs of production have fallen, will impose significant burden on the individual, not to mention the company. I am glad that CA is the testing ground for all of this mandated energy policy manipulation. It suits the general popular political mood there and fortunately, for the rest of us, the cost will not be imposed on the vast majority of Americans. And thus far, it seems to have been a big driver for jobs…..mostly ones leaving the state due to unreasonable costs of doing business. Going green-adding on more straw on the camel’s back.

  7. Marianne Lavelle
    July 8, 2011, 10:05 am

    Thanks for the great comments! For more on renewable jet fuel, which was just approved by the international standards-setting body, ASTM, this past week, here’s a story we did here at National Geographic:

    As Jet Fuel Prices Soar, A Green Option Nears the Runway

    And here’s a story we did on an effort in California on waste-to-fuel:
    A Fuel That Doesn’t Go To Waste

  8. Sergiu Rusu
    July 7, 2011, 1:33 pm

    All this talking about green energy is not taking into consideration the potential of organic waste energy (biogas). Take as an example what Amsterdam is doing with it’s waste.

  9. Sam Borgeson
    UC Berkeley
    July 6, 2011, 10:09 pm

    Cranios, you are correct that technological innovation will be required before renewable energy can be used to meet most or all of our needs. Planning and support for this type of innovation are very important issues for the future of our energy infrastructure and economy. Are you doubtful that we as a people will be up to the challenge? We believe that it can be done, despite the gloomy predictions of pessimists.

    By the way, since you appear to be evidence oriented, you should know that biofuel testing in airplanes is well under way, including partial blends in 747s and military jets. It’s a pretty good start, don’t you think?

    Boeing has flown bio fuels:

    The US Navy is testing biofuels in their jets:

  10. Cranios
    July 6, 2011, 5:03 pm

    Wow, this is a fact-packed article now, isn’t it? This Bryce fellow skewed the truth (as did the IPCC, in the other direction), so he becomes representative of all green non-believers. Then, a bunch of unsupported generalizations about non-believers follows. How scientific and persuasive!

    Sure, green energy has some promise. But will it fill the majority of our power needs? Not by any stretch of the imagination using present technology, it won’t.

    The first time I see a green-powered 747 flying overhead, I’ll be a believer!