Robert Bryce’s Latest Anti-Clean-Energy Screed is Off by Factor of 100s (or more) in Its “Wind Power Density” Figure

There are so many fallacies in fossil fuel flack Robert Bryce’s latest book, “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper,” it’s hard to know where to start. Here are just a few that cry out for correction.

  • Bryce claims that “many natural resources are, in fact, getting Cheaper” (for some weird reason he repeatedly capitalizes the word “cheaper”). Except that Bryce ignores the fact that oil has gone from around $20 per barrel in the late 1990s/early 2000s to around $100 per barrel today.  In reality, of course, what’s really plummeted has been the prices of solar and wind.
  • Bryce claims that “coal will not go away, because coal is a fuel of necessity for producing electricity.”  He further claims that China and India will inexorably race towards building new coal-fired power plants. Except that, since he wrote his book, that has changed dramatically, with China possibly “ready to kick [the] coal habit” and  India “eyeing mega-solar.”
  • Bryce calls people who believe we should transition rapidly from dirty energy to clean energy “degrowthers.” Of course, that’s completely backwards: in fact, it’s proponents of dirty, depletable energy who would prevent the world from growing in a sustainable fashion for decades/centuries to come, while proponents of clean, renewable, infinitely abundant energy would enable (and celebrate) such growth. Not to mention the fact that continued reliance on dirty, carbon-based energy will cause catastrophic, runaway global warming, impoverishing billions in the process. Details, details.
  • Perhaps most egregious of all, Bryce laughably claims that wind energy has an “incurable density problem,” in that supposedly it only produces “1 watt per square meter.”  This is utter nonsense. As this article (reviewing a previous screed by Bryce) explains, a conservative estimate for wind power density would be more like “110 watts per square meter as opposed to Bryce’s assertion of 1.2 watts per square meter.”
  • One problem is that “Bryce is calculating that 100% of the territory associated with a wind project is solely attributable to the wind program in terms of energy density,” when of course “wind farms are typically multi-use areas with, for example, farmers continuing to farm the land around the turbines.”  This is absurd, analogous to “attacking solar pv on the basis of power density when that pv is replacing roofing shingle — e.g., the space would be ‘unproductive’ for the energy system without the pv deployment.” (Note: also see this Grist article by John Farrell debunking Bryce.)
  • Another problem is that Bryce “does not – in any way – account for depletable vs renewable…A wind farm could, in theory, produce indefinitely from the same site” while “[f]ossil fuel resources (coal, oil, natural gas) will deplete.” Bryce simply refuses to engage seriously on the issue of resource depletion.
  • In sum: “Bryce misleads through selective and distorting citation of material; his work is a classic example of ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’. He is frequently quite selective in presenting/discussing information. “
  • Need further evidence that Bryce is wildly wrong in his assertions about wind power density? According to the Iowa Energy Center, administered through Iowa State University: “For a typical 15 mph site in Iowa, the actual average wind power density is about 400 W/m2.” That would mean Bryce is off by a factor of 400 on his estimate for average power density for wind energy, at least for land-based wind power based in Iowa.  Also note that if the wind turbine is located offshore, it wouldn’t take up any land at all that would be used for other purposes, making Bryce’s assertions even more absurd.
  • Also, according to the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium, you can get to 600 W/m2, 700 W/m2, or even 800+ W/m2 with offshore wind power (also see the table from NREL below, which has power densities as high as 2,000 W/m2). So, again, Bryce is wildly off in his “one watt per square meter” assertion. And he’s getting more off base every year that goes by, as wind turbines get taller,more and more powerful (e.g., see this one) and  “denser” in terms of the power they can capture.f
  • According to Bryce, in addition to wind’s supposedly “deleterious impact on wildlife” (yes, he suddenly pretends to care about wildlife after touting the virtues of oil, coal and gas, the extraction and consumption of which causes enormous damage to ecosystems) and “how 500-foot-high wind turbines blight the landscape” (as opposed to blowing up mountains, spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, tearing up swathes of pristine Canadian forest to dredge up filthy tar sands oil?). Bizarre.
  • Bryce claims that if “policy makers wanted to replace all that coal-fired capacity with wind turbines – at 1 watt per square meter – they would need to set aside…land area the size of Italy.”  Of course, given that Bryce is off by a factor of hundreds (or higher), it’s more like 1/500th or 1/1000th the size of Italy. Thus, instead of “116,000 square miles,” it’s closer to 100-200 square miles of wind turbines, a miniscule area which of course could be located offshore, to replace all the coal-fired power in the U.S. Yet again, Bryce is not even close in his assertions.
  • Bryce also claims “intermittency” is a problem, when Germany and other countries have actually proven that as renewable power increases as a share of the country’s grid, stability actually improves!
  • Amazingly, Bryce even repeats the utterly debunked nonsense about noise from wind turbines and various health problems.
  • On climate change, about which there is no scientific dispute to speak of, Bryce says he’s “agnostic,” with inane comments like “regardless of what you think about carbon dioxide emissions” and “we don’t know for certain the ideal concentration” of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” In a rare moment of honesty, Bryce admits that he “can’t talk knowledgeably about polar vortexes, cosmic rays [sic], ice cores,” that he is “bored” by all this science about “hockey sticks” and what-not.  Yes, Robert Bryce is “bored” with his subject material. Need we say more?
  • While Bryce admits that “natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas,” including through methane leakage, he waves it all away with the magic of the “invisible hand,” claiming that the “gas industry in the United States has a big incentive to reduce leakage and therefore have more product to sell.”  Except for one problem: if that’s the case, then why hasn’t the gas industry raced to do just that?
  • Appallingly, Bryce also waves away mass extinction due to global warming and other environmental consequences of fossil fuel use, noting breezily: “Some species will disappear…Parts of paradise will be paved. But we cannot forsake human creativity, economic productivity…stop economic development.” Wow.
  • Bryce further sets up a bizarre, false dichotomy between continuing to do things the way we’ve been doing them – fossil fuels forever! – and the strawman of humanity “retreat[ing] back to the grinding poverty that stunted so many lives in the past…”  This is almost like a parody, in that nobody could possibly believe such nonsense — right? Except that Robert Bryce apparently does.
  • Of course, the “think tank’ Bryce works for is paid good money by fossil fuel interests to do just that.  So, it’s unlikely that Bryce is – as he says – so much “optimistic to the point of idiocy” as “serving his paymasters to the point of absurdity.” Let’s further keep in mind that this is the same guy who regularly attacks subsidies to wind power but not the massively larger ones to fossil fuels, and who refuses to answer the simple question as to whether he receives direct or indirect support from the fossil fuel industry.
  • One final point: what is the deal with this credulous, positive review in the New York Times of Bryce’s pro-fossil-fuels, anti-clean-energy screed?  Among other things, the reviewer, Fred Andrews, simply repeats Bryce’s wildly false claim that “the average power density for wind energy is about one watt per square meter.” Most likely, the reviewer simply knows little if anything about energy and environmental issues (he is retired, but formerly was a “deputy Metro” editor at the Times). Note that Andrews also identifies the Manhattan Institute not as fossil-fuel-funded propaganda factory, which is what it is,  but neutrally (and inaccurately) as “a conservative research group.” As DeSmogBlog has correctly argued: “The Times’ opinion page editors should [ask] a few direct questions of op-ed contributors like Bryce about their funding,” because by “failing to implement this simple standard, the Times enables the printing of industry propaganda on its influential opinion pages.”

The bottom line is that Robert Bryce has outdone himself with this book.  Perhaps we might suggest a change in title, from “Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper” to something more accurate, like “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics?”