An article appeared in the Dallas Morning News on Nov. 3—and was reprinted on the front page of the Nov. 8 Austin-American Statesman business section—with the title “Can clean energy plug hole in Texas oil patch?”. This article made us stop and think about some of terminology mistakes we make when we talk about energy.
The article uses several terms, including advanced energy, clean energy, and capacity, that require closer consideration.
First, the reporter is correct to qualify the use of the term “advanced energy” by the Texas Advanced Energy Business Alliance and does not use the term verbatim in his article. Wind, water, wood, and solar have been used to produce energy for centuries, and in a chronological and technological sense, energy production from fossil fuels and nuclear is more advanced. Using wind and solar to generate electricity is more novel, but calling it “advanced energy” is obvious political advocacy.
However, the headline uses the term “clean energy” without any similar qualification. Media outlets have consistently parroted this term and the term “green energy,” both introduced by political activist groups, for so long that they are now part of the common lexicon. Wind and solar might be “cleaner” than fossil fuels in terms of air pollution—though the U.S. has reduced air pollution so much that our air quality is very close to natural levels—but wind and solar are far from being “clean” in an absolute sense. They require far more land and materials than denser forms of energy such as fossil fuels and nuclear, posing threats to wildlife and natural habitats.
Calling wind and solar generation facilities “farms” is a similar form of subtle advocacy, an attempt to brand those forms of electricity generation as more natural and appealing to city-dwellers’ idealized images of the agrarian lifestyle. While wind turbines and solar panels are often located on or near farms, they are industrial machines just like any power plant, with massive amounts of supporting infrastructure and transmission lines. The processes to fabricate the steel, fiberglass, and silicon that make up those machines is extremely energy- and materials-intensive.
Many news articles also confuse the generating “capacity” of wind with the actual amount of electricity it generates. For example, the Dallas Morning News article says that wind capacity in Texas is almost 24,000 megawatts (that number is actually already higher) and claims that is enough to power nearly 5 million Texas homes at peak demand. While a fossil fuel plant will generate at 100% of its capacity during peak times almost all the time, wind in Texas averages only about 26% of its capacity during peak times, never above 45% and sometimes as low as 6%. With a 6% capacity factor, 24,000 megawatts of wind capacity can only reliably power about 300,000 homes.
There is also a tendency to confuse “renewable” with “unlimited.” Wind and solar are very diffuse forms of energy, which means that we must capture that energy over a large area. In fact, replacing the energy generation of a single coal power plant, which might take up a couple of square miles including the land to mine the coal, would require 27 square miles of solar panels and more than 100 square miles of wind turbines. And we know open land is far from unlimited. We currently use only 0.5% of our available land for energy production, and we may have to use up to 10 times that much to power our grid with wind and solar alone.
There is no such thing as “good energy” and “bad energy,” because all forms of energy production involve tradeoffs. If we all spoke more clearly about those tradeoffs, especially those journalists who write about energy, our national conversation about energy would benefit tremendously.