Posts Tagged clean energy

Is There a Tradeoff Between Economics and the Environment?

Tom Konrad Ph.D.

California’s RETI process lends insight into the near-term prospects of Solar, Wind, Geothermal, and Biomass.  

In September, California’s Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) released their Phase 2A report, which outlined potential transmission corridors to collect renewable energy from Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) that had been identified in previous phases.  As part of Phase 2A, they also screened each CREZ for environmental impact, and the potential difficulty of obtaining land for renewable energy development.  

I previously looked at the results from Phase 1A and gained some insight into the cost of renewable energy technologies.  However, what renewable energy projects actually get built has to do with a lot more than just economics.  If it raises too many environmental concerns, such as infringing on endangered Mojave Ground Squirrel habitat, it isn’t going to get built.

Drawing on the spreadsheet "Supplemental Materials, CREZ Data" I put together the following charts, graphing the economics of each type of renewable energy in each CREZ against the expected environmental impact of that CREZ.  

Each circle represents one type of renewable energy at one of 35 CREZs.  Concentric circles in different colors appear where a single CREZ offers multiple types of renewable energy development.  The only difference between the two graphs is the size of the circles.  In the first graph, circle sizes represent the potential annual energy production (GWh/yr) of a CREZ, while circle sizes in the second shows power rating (MW.)  Geothermal and Biomass resources are relatively larger in the first graph because these are typically baseload technologies generating electricity near peak capacity all the time, while solar and wind are variable.

The cluster of circles in the middle right represent resources outside California: they were not rated for environmental concerns, so I assigned them an arbitrary value in the middle of the range in order to display them on the charts.

Economic/Environmental Tradeoff?

I found it surprising that there is little evidence of a tradeoff between economic viability of CREZ’s and environmental impact.  In fact, the circles in the graphs above are generally clustered along a line from the lower left (high environmental impact, bad economics) to the upper right (little environmental impact, good economics).  A tradeoff between economic viability and environmental concerns would manifest itself in a clustering along a line from the upper left (bad economics, little environmental impact) to the lower right (good economics, large environmental impact.)

Considering these four major renewable energy technologies, as they might be deployed in California, there is no real tradeoff between economics and the environment.  The best economics coincide with the least environmental impact.  If we were to include energy efficiency in the analysis, the trend would be even more pronounced: energy efficiency has the best economic profile of all, yet avoids the use of energy and hence does less harm to the environment.

The exception here is biomass.  The small green dots don’t show a pronounced trend in any direction, meaning that there may be some tradeoff for biomass.  Such a tradeoff would not be surprising, because harvesting plant matter on a large scale is bound to have significant ecosystem impacts.  Note that Biomass here does not include such technologies as waste to energy, which can be environmentally benign, or even an improvement compared to land filling.  In this study, the biomass in remote regions that do not yet have transmission, since lack of sufficient transmission was one of the requirements to be a CREZ.

With clean energy, it may actually be possible to do well while doing good.

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Votes for Clean Energy in Colorado

I vote in Colorado, and we actually have more initiatives on the ballot than in California. Again, from the perspective of a voter primarily concerned about climate change and clean, renewable energy, here are the propositions that are relevant. (I’ll spare you my opinion on if eggs should be people.)

Amendment 52 – Redirect severance tax revenues for road repairs. No.
A quick look at who’s backing this thing is enough to convince me it’s crazy. See my article on Colorado Republicans.

Amendment 58 – Ends a tax subsidy for the oil and gas industry. The saved money would be used to expand college scholarships, preserve wildlife habitat, support clean energy projects and help local communities deal with the impacts of oil and gas drilling. Yes.
I looked into this in detail as Policy Committee Chair for the Colorado Renewable Energy Society (CRES), which endorses the bill. Naturally the oil and gas drillers want to keep thier subsidies, which is why you’ve probably seen more ads against it than for it. See A Smarter Colorado for the other side’s take.

Boulder Initiative 1A. Yes. This would allow Boulder county to issue municipal bonds and use the proceeds for loans to help fund home energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements in residents’ homes. CRES has also endorsed this one, for pretty obvious reasons.

And, of course, if you care about clean energy, you’ll be voting for Mark Udall and Barack Obama. I used to like John McCain, and once even voted for him in a primary… back when he was a maverick. Now he’s just old, and in the pocket of his party.

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