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Wishful thinking won’t replace fossil fuels

I thank Chris Carrick (Energy Program Manager at Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board) for his concern that I may have gotten my calculations incorrect regarding how much solar and wind energy the world needs to replace fossil fuels with solar and wind (“We can’t make enough renewable energy to avert climate disruption,” April 22, 2020; “Renewable energy is doable, and necessary,” May 4, 2020). And I honestly would be delighted to find my calculations and opinions wrong.

My colleague Edward Hinchey and I checked whether Carrick was correct when he stated that only 0.6% of the land area in the continental United States, about 12 million acres, would be needed for America to “meet U.S. electricity demand.” I assume he was addressing my fundamental point that solar and wind cannot effectively replace fossil fuels as our main energy source. The U.S. Energy Information Agency compiled the actual “footprint” of solar and wind energy production installations, and from these we calculated that solar arrays would minimally need to cover an area the size of California, about 120 million acres, 10 times more land dedicated to solar and wind farms than what Carrick cited.

A recent Stanford University study showed that New York state alone would need to build 4,020, 5-megawatt land-based wind turbines (less than 1,200 have been built since 2000 and none larger than 3-megawatt); 12,700 off-shore 5-megawatt wind turbines (there are no currently operating offshore wind turbines in New York state); 387 concentrated solar plants (currently there are no concentrated solar plants in New York); 828 50-megawatt photo-voltaic plants, and over a 5.5 million rooftop solar arrays to meet New York’s own power needs. How could this rationally be done in the next 15 years, even if we had the resources to do it (which we don’t) given pervasive local resistance to large installations including offshore wind, such as Cape Vincent (never built), and Cape Wind (Cape Cod, Massachusetts), which took nine years to get regulatory approval.

Regarding the availability of rare elements needed to go green, we contacted Carrick’s source, Morgan Brazilian (Colorado School of Mines), who referred us to his testimony to the U.S. Senate. Within his statement, he included one sentence implying there may be sufficient amounts of rare elements on earth to go solar and wind. Other than this, he focused his testimony on the difficult economic, societal and environmental problems getting them out. Readers need to understand how much new mining will have to be done. Great Britain recently concluded that they would need two times the entire world’s current production of cobalt and neodymium, three-quarters of its lithium and half of its current copper to meet its own desires to go green by 2050. Just Great Britain! Less than 1% of the world’s population.

My colleague and I conclude, as inconvenient or unpleasant as it may be for some, that the world and even the United States at the current time cannot “electrify” all the energy provided by fossil fuels mostly through solar and wind. Thinking so constitutes a conceptual illusion as pernicious as pretending COVID-19 would not be worse than our annual flu, or thinking modern nuclear power engineering has not changed in the last 50 years. Most of all, we find cherry-picking information to match wishful thinking and ignoring clear and present societal, economic and technical realities serves no purpose to meaningfully limit climate disruption before it creates a perpetual state of economic and societal disruptions comparable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Readers are free to request copies of our calculations and copies of the direct references we relied upon for our analysis in response to Mr. Carrick. Send emails to disiegel@syr.edu.

Donald I. Siegel Emeritus Professor, Syracuse University

President Geological Society of America

Managing Partner, Independent Environmental Scientists Inc.