Thinking About Footprints

Sean Paige
By Sean Paige | On Feb 15, 2012 | No Comments | In blog

When they talk energy, Greens like to focus on this rather nebulous, gassy concept called a “carbon footprint,” arguing that it’s something we desperately need to reduce if we’re going to avert a climate change catastrophe. But maybe it’s also helpful, when debating energy trade-offs, to talk and think in terms of physical footprints: meaning, how much land or space is required by any one technology in order to generate an amount of power comparable to any other technology?

How many wind turbines, for instance, spread over how many acres, does it take to generate an amount of electricity comparable to one coal-fired power plant, situated on how many acres of land (setting aside, for the moment, critical differences in how reliably and affordably that energy can be generated and delivered to market)? This handy chart, which I borrowed from this informative blog post, helps lend some useful perspective to the energy trade-off debate that is easy to lose sight of when discussing much more sketchy, theoretical, hard-to-get-your-arms-around concepts like ”carbon footprints.”

This is particularly important when we weigh the merits of so-called renewables, especially wind and solar, which have a relatively large physical footprint as compared to conventional energy alternatives. It takes 724 wind turbines, covering 1,615 acres of land, to generate enough electricity to power a city of 100,000 for a year, according to the chart. But powering that same city for a year using natural gas would require 20 onshore natural gas wells VolumePills covering 8 acres.

This is just one of many factors worth considering when we debate trade-offs. But it’s not something I hear discussed much, 0r enough, possibly because environmentalists, even when they concede the need to discuss trade-offs (and many would prefer no to), seem to prefer that the discussion revolves around abstractions, like “carbon footprints,” rather than see it brought back to Earth, by talking about physical footprints.

Why does this matter? Because a backlash seems to be building against wind and solar, in large part due to the relatively large physical footprint they leave on the land. Wind- and solar-transformed landscapes and seascapes may initially have been tolerated as quirky novelties. But that novelty is wearing-off as the number of these facilities grows. This can’t be discounted as a factor in trying to determine whether these government-supported alternatives have real staying power, or whether – as I suspect – they’re just energy policy fads that may have captured the imagination of green-leaning politicians, but which will before long lose support among more practical folk, when their true costs, impacts, limitations and liabilities become as obvious as the scars they’re leaving on the land.

This bubble, like most government-created bubbles, is going to burst, even if the President manages to inflate the bubble more, temporarily, with his risky move to “double-down” on green stimulus. The signs of it are out there. The only question is, who will end up with the most egg on their face when the implosion finally comes?


Sean Paige

Written by Sean Paige

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