In his article, The Corrections: Jonathan Franzen’s Deeply Irresponsible Climate Change Article, Joe Romm, climate hawk, uses the nonsensical graphic shown below borrowed from U.S.News & World Report (also used here) in an attempt to stifle criticism of renewable energy.
|Screenshot from Climate Progress|
One could predict that Franzen's blasphemous epiphany in the New Yorker that we are not going to stop climate change by blighting “...every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines” would light Romm's hair on fire. However, it was Franzen's suggestion that conservation organizations like the Audubon society should be doubling down on what they do best, preservation of what remains, instead of diverting resources to climate change issues which they can't do anything about, that got the Audubon society's feathers in a bunch.
- Franzen is probably right about it being too late to stop climate change, although there is always hope.
- Because conservation groups tend to take their cues from the most vociferous climate hawks, who are also anti-nuclear energy, they are under the false impression that renewable energy can save the day.
Not so much ...Romm's corrections are in need of some correcting. Below are two bar charts that are the same as the one Romm provided above except I divided the bird counts by units of energy produced by each source. I had to break them into separate charts because the scale difference was so large.
|Annual Bird Deaths per GWh (see Footnotes 1 and 11)|
|Annual Bird Deaths per GWh (see Footnotes 1 and 11)|
You might guess that if there were, say, only two wind turbines on the planet that they would kill fewer birds than any other power source, because, well, there are just two of them, which is all Romm's borrowed graphic tells us. Imagine comparing the efficiency of cars with a bar chart showing how much gas the cars used in a year without any mention of how many miles each car drove. To make any sense at all, that bar chart would show miles driven by each car divided by gallons of gasoline used by each car, i.e., the chart presented by Romm to his readers is nonsensical and misleading.
The solar estimate in the chart presented by Romm does not represent the sum of all solar power in the United States as one would expect. It comes from a single solar thermal power plant, Ivanpah. From the source:
If this rate persisted yearlong, then Ivanpah might be killing 28,380 birds, which would be 3.6 times greater than the fatality rate I predicted.Click here to watch a video of a bird being "smoked" at Ivanpah. See Footnote 7 for energy produced.
An unexpected result from my efforts suggests that any attempt to provide the entire energy needs of the United States with a source having bird mortalities "per unit energy" similar to Ivanpah would kill up to 29.11/9.36 = 3 times more birds annually (see Footnote 1) than the "very crude approximation" of 24 million birds killed by climate change annually by U.S. coal, oil, and gas, electricity generation cited by the Vermont Law School study. This is an example of why we have to think critically about our choice of energy sources.
And yes, Franzen brings up the hoary complaint about wind turbines killing birds. What about the vastly larger number of birds that are killed by fossil fuels?Using a study suggesting that cats may kill upwards of 3.7 billion birds per year in the United States, the "cats kill more birds than wind" argument says that global warming has 154 times less annual impact (3.7 E+9 / 2.4E+7 = 154) on birds than cats do.
Part of the effectiveness of the "cats kill more" argument is that everyone assumes cats are not a big deal. But, as it turns out, our pet and feral domestic cats are one of the most environmentally destructive forces (of many thousands) we have unleashed on the planet. They have been implicated in the extinction of roughly 33 animal species around the world. Just today I received a solicitation from the Audubon Society that said "nearly a quarter of the United States bird species are slipping toward extinction."
Fortunately, nobody thought to use the "cats kill more birds than DDT" argument against regulations controlling the use of DDT to stop the bald eagle's slide toward extinction. Because raptors are at the top of the food chain pyramid DDT concentrates in their tissues. Another impact of being at the top of the food chain pyramid is that raptors will be far fewer in number than songbirds. The death of a single raptor will have an impact on their total population that may be an order of magnitude larger than a death of a single bird at the bottom of the pyramid.
You can see that this DDT analogy is a dead ringer for wind farms. Cats don't kill large birds like eagles or great horned owls, quite the opposite. Killing an eagle instead of a house sparrow is like killing a lion instead of a house mouse.
Maybe the "cats kill more" argument has had its day in the sun.
We can record power output, tortoise, bird, and salmon deaths, but we can't calculate the climate change impact to the ecosystem caused by one low carbon power plant. The only thing we can say with certainty is that any single power plant will make no measurable difference with respect to climate change. Ergo, environmentalists should continue to resist the building and operation of the most environmentally egregious energy projects, renewable or not. It will never be possible to calculate the number of salmon killed, if any, by climate change as a result of eliminating the low carbon energy from the Elwa river dam. We will one day be able to count the number saved by the dam's elimination.
The problem arises when climate hawks defend renewable energy projects regardless of immediate environmental impact because they see climate change as more important than immediate local ecosystem degradation. But I just demonstrated that if we power the world with Ivanpahs there would be few birds left to save from climate change. Of course, we aren't going to power the world with a single renewable source, but you get the picture.
It's quite disingenuous to claim that the elimination or prevention of a single particularly egregious project like, say, the Altamont wind farm, or Ivanpah, or the Elwa river hydro electric dam, or a new palm plantation in virgin forest, or mega-dam in a biodiverse part of the tropics can be blamed for the deaths of tens of millions of birds, desert tortoises, salmon, orangutans, or thousands of unique species, respectively because of climate change. Individually, each project will have no measurable impact on climate change. If collectively, there are enough bad apple renewable energy projects to matter, then collectively, they would be doing as much or more damage to ecosystems than they might be preventing thanks to their low carbon emissions.
Romm's mirror image and arch enemy (his intensely partisan political pundit counterpart on the right) may distort these findings, using them to claim that all solar energy, or possibly all renewable energy, is worse than fossil fuel. But that's what happens when a problem degenerates into a political battle rather than an engineering study. The truth becomes largely irrelevant. The "end justifies the means" is all fine and good but the road to hell has become a parking lot.
Not all wind and solar projects are created equal of course. The goal is to minimize the number of bad apples in the barrel, separate the wheat from the chaff and all that, which is easier said than done because, believe it or not, like all for-profit corporations, those that build wind and solar farms are also far less interested in ecology than profitability.
Back in 2005 biofuels were seen as the answer to oil. George Monbiot was the first to suggest that they may be worse than fossil fuels, many followed. You will be hard pressed to find even a climate hawk defending corn ethanol or palm oil biodiesel anymore. Cellulosic ethanol never happened.
Plans to displace coal by burning wood and bales of switchgrass are likely another case of the cure being worse than the disease. Read Dirtier than Coal, a joint effort by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace. See chart below.
After reading what I just wrote above, you might be wondering if we really have the low carbon energy technology to pull this off, especially considering that climate hawks like Romm are anti-nuclear energy.
You would not be the first to wonder that.
A team of Google engineers assembled to find a way to displace fossil fuels with renewable energy (the RE<C "renewables cheaper than coal" project), concluded that the combination of today's low carbon energy sources, renewables and nuclear, can't prevent climate change. We need better technology and lots of it.
Read Google Engineers Conclude that Renewable Energy Will Not Result in Significant Emissions Reductions. They didn't conclude that we're doomed. They concluded that we need better weapons ..or we are doomed.
A study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund titled Low-Carbon Re-Industrialization concluded that unless humanity immediately ramped up to its historically demonstrated maximum world war level of industrial output to replace fossil fuels, we will never get there. That study was done over five years ago. See chart below from that study:
From the Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Outlook 2015: "The total renewable share of all electricity generation increases from 13% in 2013 to 18% in 2040 in the Reference case."
It's only a prediction but keep in mind, 70% of our renewable energy used for electricity consists of hydro and biomass and that electricity generation only accounts for about 40% of our energy, so we are talking about renewables going from about 5.2 percent of total energy to about 7.2 percent, of which only a few percent will represent wind and solar.
If climate change unfolds as predicted by climate researchers ...game over. However, as my version of Romm's bar chart demonstrates, by picking the wrong energy sources it is entirely possible to accelerate ecosystem degradation above and beyond what we might expect from climate change, or more likely simply fall far short of slowing climate change while destroying more of nature trying. We could very well make things worse through the accelerated degradation of local ecosystems. Climate hawks are obsessed with wind and solar. They rarely mention the other half of the climate change problem, which is the need to extract and store CO2 in carbon sinks other than the ocean.
Footnote 3) Estimates of bird collision mortality at wind facilities in the contiguous United States
Footnote 4) BrightSource solar plant sets birds on fire as they fly overhead
Footnote 5) Fluid Minerals Operations – Reducing Preventable Causes of Direct Wildlife Mortality
Footnote 6) Conversion factors
Footnote 7) Ivanpah Solar Plant Picking Up Steam
Footnote 10) Nuclear Kills More Birds than Wind?
WindI've seen the study for the wind estimate before and it appears pretty rigorous to me. Understand that the main concern with wind isn't just the total number of birds killed, but the kinds of birds killed. Common songbirds or introduced pests like starlings are not the problem. As I stated before, killing an eagle instead of a house wren is like killing a lion instead of a house mouse. See Footnote 8 for energy produced.
NuclearAlthough the chart Romm uses shows that nuclear has one of the lowest bird kill ratios, I left it off my charts because the study the ratio came from didn't pass peer review.
Oil and GasThe source for the oil and gas bird kill estimates can be found here and estimates deaths from extraction in the field. See Footnotes 8 and 9 for sources used to calculate resulting energy services.
Coal (and gas)The source for this came from a study that estimated birds killed by a combination of coal mining and by the coal and gas power plants themselves, which often have tall smokestacks that can be hazards at night to migrating birds etc.This is the same study dismantled by a peer review that calculated nuclear kills almost 2.5 times more birds per unit energy than wind.
The updated 2012 version of the 2009 source U.S. News linked to (found at NUKEFREE.ORG) estimated that coal and gas together, used for electricity production killed about 512,000 birds annually. That number leaps 50 times to 24 million birds annually if you accept the author's assumption that the portion of global warming caused by U.S. coal and gas for electricity is killing 24 million birds annually. How did he come up with that number? He found a study that estimated total avian deaths over the next 38 or so years as a result of climate change, adjusted it for the U.S. contribution of emissions, and then divided by 38 years, as if bird deaths would be a linear function rather than exponential (page 275). There isn't the slightest evidence that 24 million birds are being killed from the U.S. contribution to climate change annually. The author described this estimate as a "very crude approximation." In any case, I left his calculation in the bar chart to show how it compares to an Ivanpah powered country.
Photo at top of article adapted from a Raymond Shobe photo via Flickr Creative Commons