Letters

Spring 2012
Small Green Footprints

To the editor:
Robert Bryce’s article [“Get Dense,” Winter 2012] provides an interesting discussion of how to obtain energy and food from our natural resources. Interesting, but incomplete.

Let’s begin with nuclear plants. A properly functioning plant has a very small territorial footprint—say, 250 acres. But if disaster strikes, that footprint will expand to the size of the resulting exclusion zone. Chernobyl’s exclusion zone is over 400,000 acres. Fukushima’s exclusion zone is not yet settled.

The average coal plant occupies even less than 250 acres. But when you also look at how many acres of land are devalued by the emissions of soot, sulfur, nitrogen oxides, and mercury from the plant, that footprint becomes far larger. Add the acreage of freshwater lakes whose fish become inedible from the mercury, and the footprint expands, while the power density of the coal plant declines. Let’s also add the footprint of the moonscapes created by mountaintop removal and the lands degraded by tailings contamination in the Appalachians.

Compare these to the humble windmill. In order to be useful, a windmill does occupy some land, and it must be at least some distance from the next windmill. But the turbine doesn’t exclude other uses for the land. The low-level hum they produce is easily dwarfed by the din of traffic on the roads nearby and is really an issue only for hypochondriacs.

Omri
Via e-mail

Robert Bryce responds:
As my article makes clear, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that’s particularly true when it comes to energy and power systems. The letter makes a good point about the footprint of nuclear plants. We’ve had a couple of disasters. Chernobyl was clearly the worst. We don’t yet know about Fukushima. A year after the event, it appears that the fears about radiation-related devastation have been vastly overstated. Coal, too, has a significant footprint. No question. But the critics of coal, nuclear, and other conventional energy sources focus almost solely on the negatives. What about the positives?

Cheap, abundant, reliable flows of electricity distinguish modern economies from the also-rans. Demonizing coal and nuclear is easy. What about providing electricity to the 1.7 billion people who don’t have it? The answer to that question is being made obvious by countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and China, all of which have seen their coal use increase by more than 100 percent over the past ten years. Sure, China is putting up a few wind turbines. But China is building a whole lot more coal and nuclear plants than wind projects. It’s easy for critics in the U.S. and other Western countries to demonize coal and nuclear when they have access to always-on electricity. It’s harder to make the case that coal (and nuclear) is bad in cities like Hanoi, Jakarta, and Beijing.

It’s true that wind energy may be compatible with agricultural uses in very rural areas. But that’s not where the conflict is happening. Instead, the global backlash against large-scale wind projects is occurring because so many projects are being built too close to homes. I find Omri’s dismissal of people who are suffering from turbine-produced infrasound and low-frequency noise as “hypochondriacs” offensive in the extreme.

Try telling Dave and Rose Enz, a couple from Wisconsin who have abandoned their home because of wind-turbine noise, that they are hypochondriacs. (You can read Mr. Enz’s statement on my website, robertbryce.com.) Dozens of other people have suffered similar fates, all in the name of “green” energy.