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Major Inaccuracies Found in the Nature Conservancy’s “Energy Sprawl” Report

Monday, November 2nd, 2009 -

This blog posted was cross posted from Appalachian Voices Front Porch Blog. Research and reporting by Appalachian Voices’ Dr. Matthew Wasson.

As Congress was returning from the August recess, there wasn’t much news about the climate bill. The only energy-related news breaking through the coverage of the rancorous health care debates and town-hall tea parties was a study on “energy sprawl” published by five staff members of the Nature Conservancy.

“Renewable Energy Needs Land, Lots Of Land” was the headline of an August 28th story on NPR about the study.

“Renewable technologies increase energy sprawl,” was the headline summary on the journal Nature’s website.

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, in an Op/Ed published in the Wall Street Journal, summed up the message that was heard by legislators and the public from the news coverage of the study:

“we’re about to destroy the environment in the name of saving it.”

The interesting thing about the news coverage is that none of it addressed the actual analysis. The study didn’t actually measure the impacts of different energy technologies, but rather compiled estimates from a smattering of reports, fact sheets and brochures from government and industry sources in order to arrive at an acre-per-unit of energy figure for each energy technology. Those figures were then applied to the Energy Information Administration’s modeling of four climate policy scenarios under consideration by Congress.

So the coverage was generated not by the study’s results, but entirely by the assumptions that went into it about the relative impacts of renewable versus conventional energy technologies. Looking at the counter-intuitive findings (wind is 8 times as destructive as coal), it’s no wonder that the media took such an interest.

To put those assumptions in perspective, the habitat impact of the Mount Storm Wind Farm in the first image is assumed to be 25% greater than the impact of the 12,000 acre Hobet mountaintop removal mine in the second image (images are taken from the same altitude and perspective; the bright connect-the-dots feature in the windfarm image is the actual area disturbed):

MtStorm2  Mount Mine Site from 9 miles

“Garbage in, garbage out” is a concept most people are familiar with, but the problems with the “energy sprawl” study go farther than that.

When I taught a course in ecological modeling, we used a hypothetical study on acts of violence in industrialized countries to examine how you could generate any result you desire simply by choosing how to define an “act of violence.” For instance, if you wanted to show that the French are the most violent industrialized society, you might define rude treatment by waiters as an act of violence. The study does something very similar, but worse – it fails to define a consistent measure of land-use impact across the various energy technologies it purports to compare. It’s as though we defined “acts of violence” to include rude treatment only by French waiters, but not by German, English or American waiters.

While I won’t get into detail of the math and science (a full analysis and response is in preparation), here are just a few of the jaw-dropping errors and assumptions that went into the study:

  • A 2 megawatt wind turbine is assumed to disturb between 100 and 120 acres of wildlife habitat (smell test: does it really make sense that one of those wind turbines you always see on television is disturbing more than 100 football fields worth of land?). These estimates were not from published studies, but from portions of brochures discussing the area required for ideal placement of a windfarm. Instead of using additional estimates from those same brochures that only 3-5% of that area is directly impacted, the study used vaguely-worded, unreferenced and unsupportable biological justifications to include the other 95-97% in their analysis.
  • The acreage impacts of coal mining, from Wyoming to Alabama, were extrapolated from one mine in Illinois, and apparently one other mine, though no location, details or references were provided. In the case of Appalachian mining, a casual examination of available data reveals that many – probably most – Appalachian mines exhibit a “landuse intensity” 5 to 10 times higher than either estimate used in the study.
  • The impacts of blowing up a mountain and dumping resulting toxic-laden waste into nearby valleys and streams is treated as a comparable disturbance to, say, being located several hundred yards away from a wind turbine. Worse, fragmentation of habitat (the category that increased wind’s alleged impacts by 95-97%), was only considered for renewable technologies but not for nuclear and coal, despite a wealth of published studies showing fragmentation effects as much as five times greater than the footprint of a strip mine.

It’s obvious that the authors of this study don’t spend a lot of time thinking about coal mining (the fact that they refer to underground or deep mines as “pit” mines is revealing). That could partly explain the distorted picture the study gives of the impacts of coal mining, but the assumptions are so consistently weighted against renewable energy that it gets hard to ignore. If the pattern of assumptions so consistently tilted against renewables and in favor of coal and nuclear doesn’t raise a red flag, consider the language used in the study. The EIA’s “No International Offsets/Limited Alternatives” scenario, which would emphasize rapid expansion of renewable energy technologies (and which purportedly creates the most “energy sprawl”), was renamed the “Few Options” scenario by the authors. A real gem of a PR strategy from the group that came up with “energy sprawl.”

As for the policy options that the study’s results (and assumptions) favor, the “Core” scenario from the EIA’s analysis of the Warner-Lieberman climate bill was renamed the “CCS” scenario – shorthand for carbon capture and storage. This could also represent a real tipping of the hand as to the policy priorities at the Nature Conservancy. That, in turn, would go a long way toward explaining the blind spot the Nature Conservancy possesses regarding the wholesale destruction of the most biologically diverse forests and streams on the continent through mountaintop removal coal mining. The fact that plants installing CCS will need to consume at least 15-30% more coal to produce the same amount of electricity (if and when CCS becomes available), would cause a little cognitive dissonance in anyone concerned about the environment but supportive of widespread CCS deployment.

What the study didn’t look at

From the perspective of communities impacted by coal mining, a study on energy impacts that looked no further than the land area affected by mining was never going to carry much weight anyway. EPA biologist Gregory Pond, who published a study in 2008 showing the loss of entire orders of insects downstream from mountaintop removal mines, told the news media when the study was released:

“While habitat degradation from mountaintop mining is what one sees on the surface, we found that chemical effects are quite pronounced and limit much of the expected biodiversity from what were once naturally rich, diverse Appalachian stream systems.”

The most important factors in the “what the study doesn’t look at” category, however, are the impacts of energy on people and communities. The thousands of people in Appalachia without access to clean and safe drinking water do not show up in the “energy sprawl” study’s land impact estimates. The photo on the right of a child in Prenter, West Virginia, is the lead photo of a remarkable piece of reporting from the New York Times that provides a lot of insight into the awful tragedies faced daily by families in Appalachia who are forced to drink and bathe in water polluted with coal waste.

The authors of the “energy sprawl” study stated explicitly that aquatic and health issues are not what the study was about, and it wouldn’t be fair to blame them for any failure to address those problems. It’s the inevitable distortions of the study that do the most violence to those fighting for safe homes and clean drinking water in coal and uranium-bearing regions. The lead author addressed some of those distortions directly, shortly after Senator Alexander’s “We’re destroying the environment in the name of saving it” op-ed. Here are a few excerpts from his post on the Nature Conservancy’s blog:

First, climate change is the big threat to America’s wildlife (and to our communities). Severe climate change has the potential to imperil many more species than energy sprawl.

Moreover, we show in our paper that most of the energy sprawl from now to 2030 will happen regardless of whether or not there is a comprehensive climate bill. By far the largest amount of energy sprawl will come from biofuel production, driven by the renewable fuel standard and other laws already in place.

So I say to everyone writing or blogging about energy sprawl: If you are concerned about energy sprawl, then fight for energy efficiency!

The Nature Conservancy’s tireless efforts to support energy efficiency, build awareness of climate change, and bring climate policy to the table deserve both thanks and respect. But the concept of “energy sprawl,” now that it has been associated with such a distorted picture of the impacts of wind, solar, coal and nuclear technologies, adds nothing but confusion and false impressions to the debate over climate.

The study also does a lot of harm to those working to reduce the impacts of mining and to promote green jobs in their communities. “Nature Conservancy says wind and solar are more harmful than coal” is a talking point that will be repeated in mine permit hearings, utilities commission proceedings, letters to the editor and at coal rallies across the country for years into the future.

There is no way to repair the concept of “energy sprawl” at this point. Environmental and climate advocates would do well to strike that buzzword from their lexicons and literature entirely.

Burn this blog post after reading.

cross-posted with Huffington Post and iLoveMountains.org

Wind Power Educational Forum Scheduled

Friday, October 23rd, 2009 -

Contact: Jessica Hocz
Wind Power Educational Forum Scheduled
Mountain Valleys RC&D
10-22-2009 Alternative Energy Manager
828-649-3313, ext.5

Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation & Development, Blue Ridge Resource Conservation & Development, Toe River Valley Watch and the UNCA Environmental Center are sponsoring ‘Wind Power Educational Forums’ on November 11th in Asheville at UNCA’s Owen Hall and on November 12th in Spruce Pine at Mayland Tech.

The forums will consist of speakers from Appalachian State University, the North Carolina Sustainability Association, North Carolina State Legislators, representatives of commercial wind developers and various environmental groups. Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation & Development will also present their Alternative Energy for Farms project.

The economic opportunity and environmental implications of developing wind energy in Western North Carolina will be discussed, for both for small and large-scale projects. North Carolina Senate Bill 1068, which has passed in Senate and will go to the House next May, will be discussed. If Senate Bill 1068 is passed the opportunity for clean, renewable, large-scale wind energy in Western North Carolina will be eliminated. There will also be discussion on local counties’ efforts to adopt local ordinances related to responsible wind development.

The meetings will begin to at 6 pm each night and are expected to last until about 7:30pm. Light refreshments will be served at both meetings. For more information please contact Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation & Development at 828-649-3313, ext 5.

Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation & Development is an organization that seeks to encourage wise use of our natural and human resources as well as economic development that is balanced with the natural environment. Members work toward common objectives to improve the overall quality of life for residents and the overall quality of our natural resources.

Minnesota Cities Cooperate to Develop Renewable Energy

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009 -

The cities are part of an 11-city consortium called the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (MMPA) that is trying to meet the state’s progressive renewable energy mandates. All 11 cities are erecting recycled windmills that should be generating electricity by year’s end….

Read the story here…


NC Senate Votes to ban wind in WNC

Thursday, August 6th, 2009 -

RALEIGH – The N.C. Senate voted today to ban the commercial generation of wind energy in mountain counties. Supporters of the ban argued that the construction of large wind turbines on mountain ridges would ruin the natural beauty of the mountains. Environmentalists say that the state should be encouraging wind power, not limiting it. Read the news here in the Winston-Salem Journal.

Boone Community Solar Initiative Update

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 -

It’s been a while but AIRE’s community solar demonstration is finally producing electricity and reducing Boone’s carbon footprint. Here’s a brief update and look ahead to some next steps. Keep in mind the purpose of our first project was to illuminate the barriers to community-based renewable energy, and then create solutions to those barriers.

Here’s our progress so far:


  • 2.5 kw solar PV installed atop AIRE’s office at the Greenhouse.


  • Small, but significant, design details had to be ironed out between town inspector and installers. (For example, what standard for grounding will Boone adopt?)


  • Utility interconnection standard had to be created. We can’t connect to the grid without this. We connect to New River Light & Power; BREMCO sells power to New River. New River will have to develop an interconnect standard for the town of Boone, which we understand they will do. It may take a few months. BREMCO and New River will have to sort out their legal agreements over power supply in order for us to begin selling power back to the grid.
  • Then we awaited town inspection. Since Boone isn’t San Jose, California where solar panels are commonplace (“like wall-to-wall carpet”), the town didn’t have inspection protocols for solar. After convalescing from surgery, the town inspector blessed our system, and it began producing solar electricity on Friday, July 31st.


  • Real-time performance data will be up on AIRE website by August 7th, but for now you can see daily updates on how the system is performing.
  • Finalize memberships and donations on the above project (more on this shortly; remember this is a community-owned project)
  • Launch “1-megawatt campaign” to solarize Watauga

Talk of these “barriers” isn’t meant to place blame on anyone. On the contrary, AIRE looks forward to working with community and energy partners to improve policies and relationships concerning renewable energy.

We will announce a meeting date in the very near future with an attorney and CPA to answer questions about your participation via memberships and donations.

Thanks once more for you interest and dedication in making locally produced, community owned renewable energy a reality.

Distributed Generation (Community-based energy)

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009 -

The raging wind policy war in North Carolina exposes a vast gulf in understanding, and in limited cases, the inability to carry on a civil discourse to explore difference. This has a polarizing effect on the discourse and creates a blind spot for the third way– “distributed generation” or community-based renewable energy. Certainly some favor utility-scale wind farms in the present struggle, however, AIRE favors community-based renewables, and in some areas wind is a viable resource. The scale of community wind is NOT utility-scale wind farm though, as some claim. (Note: The article below discusses sun-baked Southern California. NC must have a more diversified generation mix of renewables, including appropriately scaled wind.)

See this from Fast Company:
“The evidence is growing that privately owned, consumer-driven, small-scale, geographically distributed renewables could deliver a 100% green-energy future faster and cheaper than big power projects alone. Companies like GE and IBM are talking in terms of up to half of American homes generating their own electricity, renewably, within a decade. But distributed power — call it the “microgrid” — poses an existential threat to the business model the utilities have happily depended on for more than a century. No wonder so many of them are fighting the microgrid every step of the way.”

Read the entire article here:

Lets Refine the Debate: AIRE’s view on wind

Monday, July 20th, 2009 -

In the volatile debate on wind power permitting in North Carolina (SB1068), it seems that the only versions of the story being told are utility-scale wind farms and anti-wind. In other words, it’s a polarized, “all or nothing” framing of the issue as shaped by the media and the over-simplified public rhetoric. Here’s a closer look at both “sides” and at a third way, community-based renewable energy, toward a sustainable energy future that few seem to consider. Wind has to be a part of a multi-element energy strategy. Don’t ban wind. Let’s change the debate.

The anti-wind rhetoric makes sweeping claims. Here are the significant ones and AIRE’s response to them:

  • (1) The “mountains are pristine and windmills will mar the landscape.” Some environmentalists and real estate developers alike share this refrain. Clearly, other forms of rapacious development have a long history of inflicting environmental damage. This isn’t to excuse unregulated wind energy development though. Responsible and appropriately scaled and sited wind can help preserve our ridges.
  • (2) We should use more “traditional” energy sources like coal and nuclear because they are cheaper and more reliable. The counter-response is first, just because something is traditional doesn’t mean it is good. Coal is dirty, unsustainable, and inefficient.
  • (3) Anti-wind voices also claim wind is heavily subsidized, ignoring that coal and nuclear are massively subsidized. True, wind is subsidized, however, coal’s generous subsidy by comparison is off the charts. The externalized costs of mining, public health effects, air quality and climate change render the subsidy claim moot.
  • (4) Some argue, that yes, wind is great as long as the turbines are “somewhere else” and connected to smart grids. But if we ship off our energy production we ship off local jobs, local tax bases, and we disempower communities. It relegates us to being consumers, when we should be producers too.
  • (5) Because of our excessive consumption, wind’s contribution to the grid would be insignificant. This admission ought to be most embarrassing. Translated, this is like saying, “if we (‘other people’) used less, maybe wind would be important.”

The pro-wind arguments center on environmental claims of necessary and rapid transition to renewables and efficiency, and the possibility for greening the economy, especially the green jobs such a transition would create. This is also a sweeping claim. Within pro-wind circles there are several distinct positions including a far less controversial version called community wind. Community wind in WNC would not be the same as a “wind farm” a pejorative term in the current debate. This is completely glossed over in the media coverage of SB1068. Yet the original version of the bill did recognize the important distinction. Unfortunately, a few senators want to foreclose on community wind.

AIRE advocates community-based renewable energy including wind, solar, micro-hydro, energy efficiency and conservation. Wind has to be a part of the energy mix! In other words, lets employ a diversity of technologies at community-scale, including wind, to help our state become more energy self-sufficient. Wind and solar alone could make us 40% energy self-reliant (1), and with twenty billion dollars a year hemorrhaging out of NC annually, we have, in essence, an economic stimulus that we can fund ourselves! What’s more, a recent Rocky Mountain Institute (2) report reveals that North Carolina ranks a sub-par 27th in the United States on energy efficiency. In other words, we generate $3.34 of state GDP for every kilowatt hour of electricity consumed compared with New York, which reaps $7.18 for each kilowatt consumed. Translation– we are throwing money away in North Carolina.

We want distributed power that can use existing transmission and distribution lines, not massive centralized corporate wind farms. More importantly, we want to keep more dollars in our strapped local economies and make the electric grid more reliable. With community-owned energy, we can invest in our communities rather than send our hard earned dollars elsewhere. And we can do this with wind as part of the mix. Community-scale wind projects are not “as tall as the Bank of America in Charlotte” even though the mythology has led us to believe it unquestionably. We can do this without wind farms, or “industrial wind” as the anti-winders exhort. And we can even do this while prohibiting development of our vast federal lands, state parks, and lands in conservation easements. In fact, only a small percentage of WNC’s windy land would be “permitted” under SB1068. Wind farms will not be “everywhere” as opponents claim. This diversified energy approach can help heighten public awareness, and lead to a more resilient economy and a better quality of life.

Governor Purdue’s transition team reported that communities need a direct role in their energy futures. To ban wind power from the resource mix would be a very costly choice. It would be like banning solar energy in Tucson. Let’s not be bound by old thinking. Leave community wind in SB1068!

  • 1. Ferrel, John; Morris, David. 2008. Energy Self-Reliant States: Homegrown Renewable Power. Institute for Local Self Reliance. Policy Brief. November 2008. Minneapolis, MN.
  • 2. Mims, Natalie; Bell, Mathias; Doig, Stephen. 2009. Assessing the Electric Productivity Gap and the U.S. Efficiency Opportunity. Rocky Mountain Institute. Snomass, CO. Note: these figures are adjusted for a variety of biases inherent in differing state economic composition.

We should keep in mind that U.S. Forest Service lands are designated “multi-use” and have been the site of massive clear-cutting, mineral extraction, hydroelectric damming, communications infrastructure, and other damaging uses. USFS Wilderness Areas or National Recreation Areas deserve rigorous protection from all development including wind, and AIRE would concede all such federal lands as well. Also, AIRE does not advocate wind development in the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Great Smoky Mountain National Park viewsheds. As for lands in conservation easements, AIRE recognizes the dedicated work, vision, and success of the conservation movement and agrees that these lands should be explicitly off-limits to wind development. AIRE has held that the provisions in SB1068 would be sufficient to effectively eliminate wind development on federal lands. However, it is a reasonable and productive concession to make this explicit in the bill’s language in order to move wind development forward in a controlled fashion.

Upcoming Workshops from the Western North Carolina Renewable Energy Initiative

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 -

The Southern Appalachian region contains abundant and readily available wind, solar, and microhydro resources for producing home-grown, clean, and renewable energy. The Western North Carolina Renewable Energy Initiative (WNCREI) is an Appalachian State University Energy Center (ASUEC) project dedicated to helping create a sustainable energy future for our region.

The WNCREI is proud to host the 2009 workshop series to empower groups and individuals with the tools and resources to pursue wind, solar, microhydro and alternative fuel technologies for energy independence. We have partnered with national leaders to bring you the most comprehensive educational and hands-on experience possible.

For full detail, visit http://www.wind.appstate.edu/workshops/workshops.php

Construction of Appalachian State University’s 100 kW Turbine Moves Ahead

Friday, April 24th, 2009 -

The construction of the Appalachian State University Renewable Energy Initiative’s 100 kW turbine is well underway. Check out the pictures below of the wind turbine’s tower assembly . Once more, the High Country has taken the lead once in North Carolina wind energy with the state’s largest electricity producing turbine.

Nice work Appalachian State University – students, faculty, and staff – and to you as well Boone, NC!

Workers preparing tower base for 100kW wind turbine

Workers preparing tower base for 100kW wind turbine

Close up of the structural steel rebar for wind turbine tower base

View depicting the depth of the wind turbine’s tower base

Wind turbine tower base filled with concrete ballast

Wind turbine tower portion waiting to be raised!

AIRE - pioneering community-owned renewable energy
a fiscally sponsored project of Inquiring Systems Inc.
164 South Depot St. • Boone, North Carolina 28607 • info@aire-nc.org • phone: 828.268.5022
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