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Utopian dreams of wind, water and sun

Cambridge is committed to reducing fossil fuel use through several binding covenants. In 1999, the City Council resolved to join Cities for Climate Protection, which “set[s] targets and strategies to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

On the state level, the Renewable Portfolio Standard mandates that “electricity suppliers must provide a minimum percentage … from eligible renewable energy resources.” This year the figure is 8 percent, with 1 percent added every year “with no stated expiration date.”

Most global warming activists argue for greater urgency. Al Gore once called for “100 percent zero-carbon electricity” by 2020. Our Cambridge Protection Plan, adopted in 2002, happily adopted a more moderate goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2010, which we failed to accomplish, due to strong economic growth in the city. Some scientists state that reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases of 75 to 85 percent are likely to be required to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. This plan does not propose actions that would result in such deep cuts in emissions.

I say “happily” because, although it makes sense to explore all potential energy resources through the free market, mandating a switch to 100 percent wind, water and sun is foolhardy. A recent paper, “Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power,” in the journal, “Energy Policy,” cited in the recent New York Times story, “Life After Oil and Gas,” unwittingly illustrates how unrealistic this goal is.

According to the lead author, Mark Z. Jacobsen, “It’s absolutely not true that we need natural gas, coal or oil – we think it’s a myth.” The authors “suggest producing all new energy with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050.”

Jacobsen provides a shopping list that details what will be required to move to a post-carbon future.

· 3,800,000 5-MW wind turbines. After decades of subsidies for wind power, the worldwide total of wind turbines stands at 200,000. The goal of 3.8 million is astoundingly quixotic, and 5 MW is a big daddy of a wind turbine. GE makes three sizes – 1.5 MW, 2.5 MW and 4.1 MW. Adding millions of turbines will have a devastating effect on our rural landscapes, and the industrial-scale slaughter of birds and bats might lead to a real silent spring.

· 49,000 300-MW concentrated solar plants. According to Wikipedia, “CSP is being widely commercialized … bringing the global total to 1095 MW.” And Jacobsen is calling for 14.7 million MW? Not to mention the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) resistance to building transmission lines from sunny places.

· 40,000 300-MW solar PV power plants. Wikipedia lists 82 solar PV plants worldwide larger than 30 MW. The largest is 250 MW and all but 10 are less than 100 MW. Several larger plants – as in two or three – are under construction. 40,000 new plants?

· 1.7 billion 3-KW rooftop PV systems. Northern Tool is selling 920-watt panels for $3,500, or $11,400 for 3000 watts. At this price, 1.7 billion PV systems would cost $19.4 trillion. I wonder if we can get free shipping with Amazon Prime?

· 5,350 100-MW geothermal power plants. The worldwide geothermal capacity in 2010 was 10,700 MW. We would have to multiply by a factor of 50 to reach this goal.

· 270 new 1,300-MW hydroelectric power plants. Wikipedia lists 26 dams under construction that will come on line in the next decade, totaling 110,671 MW, compared to the 351,000 MW needed. Of the 26 projects, however, 15 are in China and four in Brazil. In the U.S.? Zero. We tear down dams here rather than build them.

· 720,000 0.75-MW wave devices. According to Jacobsen, current power delivered by wave energy converters as electricity is 0.000002 terawatts. This technology may be promising but it has encountered numerous technical difficulties. Most wave farms have a capacity in the neighborhood of 20 MW. The 540,000 MW needed here, like everything on the list, is a gargantuan undertaking compared to existing capacity.

· 490,000 1-MW tidal turbines. You’d think with all the world’s tidal currents flowing by, we would have figured out this technology by now, but it remains largely undeveloped. FDR proposed damming up Passamaquoddy Bay near his summer home on Campobello to harness the tides, and a study was commissioned in 1924, and again in 1961. The world’s first tidal stream power station opened in 2007 in Strangford Loch, Northern Ireland. It has a capacity of 1.2 MW. Only 489,998.8 MW to go. A close friend, who’s a marine biologist on the Bay of Fundy, hates the idea, believing it will disrupt marine life and tidal patterns.

Unfortunately, rather than buttress his argument, Jacobsen’s projections undermine his utopian conclusion that we don’t need fossil fuels or nuclear power. Let’s hope the City Council doesn’t get any crazy ideas about switching Cambridge to WWS (wind, water, and solar).

Peter Wilson is secretary of the Cambridge Republican City Committee and a resident of Huron Avenue.