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The Dark Side of Green Energy

Posted on Sep 30, 2009
Flickr / langalex

Solar plants designed around heating a tower (as above) instead of a trough use much less water, but water is still a scarce commodity in the deserts where these projects are ideally located.

Renewable energy projects are sprouting up across the country, much to the delight of environmentalists. Or is it? Green power, it turns out, is very thirsty. Developers are requesting billions of gallons of water annually to cool, cleanse and maintain their solar farms and other projects—billions more than we may have.

Water usage isn’t the only speed bump on the road to an oil-free energy grid. In California, a desert tortoise managed to scrap plans to build a major solar plant in the Mojave Desert.

Environmentalists are running up against themselves as green energy transitions from a pipe dream to a real industry with its own interests—and lobbyists.

The country is eager for renewable power, but sometimes, as in California, slow and steady wins the race.  —PS

New York Times:

Here is an inconvenient truth about renewable energy: It can sometimes demand a huge amount of water. Many of the proposed solutions to the nation’s energy problems, from certain types of solar farms to biofuel refineries to cleaner coal plants, could consume billions of gallons of water every year.

“When push comes to shove, water could become the real throttle on renewable energy,” said Michael E. Webber, an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin who studies the relationship between energy and water.

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By john_heat, January 4, 2012 at 1:38 am Link to this comment

While I look forward to the day that I can run my furnace using renewable energy, there is still much improvement to be made in this industry as it is still in its infancy. Hopefully there will be more efficient technology and processes in the near future!

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By Dave, October 3, 2009 at 4:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

No ones figured this out? and nightgaunt:

I agree.  We should doing what we can to implement personal use of solar.  We can still have a grid.

Its a more reliable system overall when every building is its own power source.

Right now, if the wind blows too hard or if theres a thundertorm or a traffic accident, the power goes out.
That wouldnt happen if we all had our own supplies.
we all (most) use less energy at night anyway.  I saw somewhere a system that used photovoltaics to generate elctricity during the day and some of that electricity was used to seperate water into its H and O components.
The H was used to provide power at night.  I thought that was a pretty cool idea.

and i also agree that this was probably written by the oil company.  They are always looking to subvert truth with wacky arguments.

kinda like the way “medicare is going broke” is being used against healthcare reform.  I am so sick of their crap. (especially these lobbyists that pretendto be citizens on the net)
“if i had my way…Id have all of them shot”—Floyd…sort of.

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By Night-Gaunt, October 1, 2009 at 8:03 pm Link to this comment

My sentiments exactly because solar lends itself precisely to this personal use. We need to cover the earth with solar collectors from the new nano-full spectrum film to the present clunky panels. Couple that with energy miser technology. LCD/plasma screens are energy vampires. We must change not just our business model but the model of our lives. I don’t think we need sacrifice too much on how we live.

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By No one's figured this out?, October 1, 2009 at 10:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The inconvenient truth about renewable energy is that you have to change your business model unless all you want is a new way to despoil the planet.

It is idiotic to centralize renewable production in large “plants” that require maximum “efficiency” to produce maximum profit.  Idiotic.

Didn’t these so-called environmentalists and busines people learn ANYTHING from the personal computer revolution?

We know the only way a business person learns is through bankruptcy, sometimes repeated several times.  No one should count on them. 

We all live someplace.  Our homes have to be the power source.

Owners of multifamily housing must be mandated to produce the power on site.  With severe penalties if they fail to do so.

And if you can’t produce the power you “need” on your personal plot, maybe you have to reconsider your

Because of the terrible job they have done so far, the whole energy industry should be forced to shut down.

The new business model would be more like the one invented by Whirlpool and Henry Ford:  selling the end user the machine that does the task.

Just as many, maybe more jobs. And a lot less planetary pollution and inappropriate land use.

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By knobcreekfarmer, October 1, 2009 at 10:27 am Link to this comment

“reverse electrolysis” (i.e.. the hydrogen fuel cell) takes more energy, as input,
than what you get out of it in energy. Or, it has a negative EROEI (Energy return
on energy invested). Ever read the first law of thermodynamics?

Don’t get me wrong, I am planning on installing a PV system this year, but the
thing that is never talked about in AE is scaleability. This holds true for all the
other science fiction energy saviors “they” have come up with to date.

We can not scale up AE to anything close to what we currently use. Plus the rare
earth minerals needed to make these technologies work are in short supply
and, yes, is as finite as fossil fuels.

Yes we need to use energy more intelligently and continue research but at
some point, soon I believe, we all will have to trade in our Starbucks gift cards
for some heirloom seeds and a hoe.

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By Night-Gaunt, October 1, 2009 at 8:57 am Link to this comment

They either need to come up with a non-polluting substitute for water, or generate their own through reverse electrolosis which can also generate electricity with that water!

We need to have solar collectors on every building so that we won’t need quite so many central solar-electric generating plants in the first place.

We need to stop with the idea of cleaner coal is a fools errand. Even if you do make it a small % cleaner it won’t be much good in the long run.

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By Hulk2008, October 1, 2009 at 8:23 am Link to this comment

Whenever humans have tried to thwart nature the predictable occurs - nature adapts eventually and the humans either move on or perish.  The water problems in the west have been there from pre-history on; trying to build more and more cities in arid zones is futile.  As several have stated already, we need to use energy more intelligently instead of trying to get more of it.  e.g. swapping out incandescent bulbs and replacing with CFLs (and later LEDs), using more efficient devices in place of older inefficient ones. 
    But the cost to get smarter is expensive - totally worth it.

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By ardee, October 1, 2009 at 3:52 am Link to this comment

This article fails utterly to consider the fact that so-called “green energy” is in its infancy. The more we devote resources to the industry the more new technologies will be forthcoming.

I cannot help but suspect this article was written by, or at the behest of, the oil and coal folks.

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By Fat Freddy, October 1, 2009 at 3:21 am Link to this comment

I didn’t read the entire NYT article, but I can tell you, you don’t necessarily need water to cool something. The transmission in your car is cooled by oil. It serves a dual purpose; to lubricate, and cool. The radiator in your car is actually separated into two parts, one for anti-freeze (engine coolant), and one for transmission fluid (some cars have a separate trans fluid cooler). And oil is reusable (in this case, however, it does break down over time), it just needs to be filtered.

And, anyone who proposes a solar farm, that doesn’t take into consideration the cleaning of the “optics”, is a fool.

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By knobcreekfarmer, October 1, 2009 at 12:55 am Link to this comment

Mike is right. We have lived in a time where almost anything is possible. Possible because we live in an age cheap and abundant energy, an age of oil.

As oil production continues to fall and AE is finally presented in a reality based view, a view that even in very best case scenario it will not equal 1/10 of fossil fuel output, people of the industrial/consumption world will be forced step back. Not just single step back but many steps back. Back to a low energy, low consumption lifestyle where words like “Economic Growth” and “Profit” are considered extinct.

“GDP actually mesures the rate at which the economy is extracts useful natural resources running them through the econmic system and deposing of them as toxic waste in our air water and soil.” -David Korten

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By Laugher, September 30, 2009 at 7:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have a solar powered calculator that has never required me to fill it with water that was designed more than 20 years ago

Not saying that they don’t water for the big ones, but I seriously doubt the scale to which this is a problem.
What seems to be missing is a comparison to traditional power plants
According to my quick google search
“The United States Geological Survey says that 48 percent of freshwater withdrawals nationwide are for electric power production.”

So currently about 50% of our water is used in our power plants.  Is the author suggesting that solar power would increase that %?  If he is he does not provide the facts to support such a claim

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By Mike, September 30, 2009 at 5:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is just further proof that the real solution is conservation and a cultural shift away from engery-intensive consumerism. There is no magic bullet to make the unsustainable sustainable.

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