November 14, 2011

The Lousy, Myopic & Biased NYT views on Cleaner Energy

Two days ago I was having a couple of drinks with some friends. Among the many topics over which we blew off steam, someone mentioned an article about clean energy on the NY Times by Robert Bryce stating that Gas is Greener. Since I am someone concerned with the state of the planet (we pay for wind energy, we recycle glass/paper/cans, we even use biodegradable diapers for our toddler) I was intrigued by that statement. I mean, I am open-minded. Al Gore could be all wrong and all the over-priced eco-friendly services and eco-friendly diapers we use could make no difference to improve the world we live in (although to be honest the current heat wave in the US is a nagging reminder that he might not be that crazy after all) or even worse: these so called eco-friendly energy sources could, the NYT article stated, be actually more harmful to the environment than the traditional non-eco-friendly ones.

If you have not (or do not intend to) read the above mentioned article, it basically states the following: wind turbines are massive steel structures (200 tons each) that produce 4 MW/h of electricity whereas a natural gas turbine requires only 9 tons to make and produces 43 MW/h. With this piece of info, Robert Bryce goes on to state that:

...however you crunch the numbers, the takeaway is the same: the amount of steel needed to generate a given amount of electricity from a wind turbine is greater by several orders of magnitude. Such profligate use of resources is the antithesis of the environmental ideal.

Having an article of a well-respected national newspaper confirm that you have been for years overpaying 30% for electricity that you thought was cleaner (I am reminded of this every month, believe me) when in reality it is actually more harmful to the environment, can make you feel dumb. "I am the guy who 'drank the kool aid'!", I lamented after reading the article the first time.

So I had a closer look at Mr. Bryce's numbers. It turns out, they are lousy -Incredibly lousy and incomplete, actually. Bryce utterly ignores some basic high-school arithmetic principles, such as comparing two variables in the same scale. His whole argument is "one wind turbine uses 200 tons of steel while a natural gas one uses only 9, that's a lot of energy squandered in the wind turbine" and "producing 1/6 of California's energy with solar requires solar panels covering an area the size of 70 Manhattans". That's it. No quantification of the energy resources used to make the steel for the wind turbine, no measurement of the impact of the 70 Manhattans area. And most importantly, no consideration whatsoever of the greenhouse gases that won't go into the environment by installing the wind turbines.

To have a fair comparison you have to bring the two alternatives to the same scale and then compare what's the best. So I crunched some numbers:  
So, to produce the extra steel necessary to make a "dirty" wind turbine, a total of 5,460,919.20 pounds of CO2 were released (13,680x191x2.09), or 2,477.03 metric tons of CO2. But wait! Installing a 1 Mw/h wind turbine avoids releasing 2,600 Metric Tons of CO2, so it's not all bad after all. CO2 is bad for the environment, right? (climate change deniers, please go along, this article is not about proving Al Gore's right, it's about how lousy this NYT op/ed is).

Thus, if 2,477 extra tons of CO2 were released to produce a wind turbine instead of a natural gas turbine, it takes a 4MW/h wind turbine only 87 operating days (2,477/10,400*365) to "pay" the "cost" of CO2 emissions of that extra steel. After day 88 the wind turbine is cleaner, while the natural gas turbine will continue releasing 111,800 tons of CO2/year (43MW x 2,600) until it's shut down or replaced with a cleaner one.

The same analysis could be done of the 70 Manhattans of solar panels. Bryce makes no attempt to measure its impact. We're not talking about chopping 70 Manhattans worth of Amazon Forest. They'd be installed in the Nevada desert, where there's only sand and life is almost non existent. He could have tried, but he makes absolutely no effort to measure its impact in any form.

So, you can still say that the wind turbine is cleaner. Phew. For moment I felt pretty silly. If you are a climate change denier and are still reading this, hat's off to you. You might have guessed by now I think we're screwing the planet so bad that I feel compelled to do something. Too bad the NYT publishes articles so ill-informed. But hey, at least it was an op/ed section. People should be able to read and judge what they're reading with their own criteria. I have mine.

--Update: 1-13-2012

Apparently somebody brought to Mr. Bryce's attention how lousy his op/ed was. Today I checked out the same article online and to my surprise, a very different (and much more convincing) article appeared under "The Gas is Greener" title. Now he takes real examples of wind farms to base his estimation of the area size that would be affected by new wind farms, including the mention of some legal obstacles to building them even in the desert. At the bottom of the article, a vague, modest, almost hidden clarification in small print reads: 
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on June 8, 2011, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: The Gas Is Greener.
(A "lousy version", that is).


  1. Mi estimado Chino,por tu salud mental creo que valio el esfuerzo para sentirte bien de por que estas pagando mas electricidad... Pero OK es mas limpia que el gas... de acuerdo.. pero volvemos a lo mismo.. no hay suficiente espacio en EUA para poner la cantidad de turbinas eolicas, que puedan remplazar la energia consumida en el pais.... No digo que este mal que uses panales desechables, y demas es lo correcto ... Pero pensar que la energia eolica es la solucion para evitar el exceso de contaminacion en el mundo .. creo que es igual de tendencioso que Mr. Bryce's ... Recommended reading .. The end of energy obesity, by Peter Tertzakian.. energy economist ... Muy bueno .. es un economista que trabaja en una consultora Canadiense que se llama Arc financials ... una eminiencia en el tema ...

    1. Estamos de acuerdo que eolica es mas limpia que gas.
      Cuando dices que no hay espacio para poner turbinas eolicas, hay que sustentar. Estadisticas y fundamentos mi estimado.
      Y lamento decirte que estas equivocado. Si hay espacio para turbinas. El pico de necesidades electricas de california es 52,000 megawatts (ver mismo articulo de Bryce). Una turbina de 1MW ocupa 100 pies cuadrados de terreno ( O sea, 5.2MM de pies cuadrados dan energia a toda California, lo cual equivale a 48.3 hectareas. 48 hectareas es un cuadrado que mide 7km x 7km. Y esto es asumiendo que instalas turbinas de 1MW (hay de mas capacidad). Por supuesto que hay espacio.
      Gracias por la recomendacion del libro... le echare un vistazo.