One of the many – legitimate – concerns about the shale gas boom is that it is causing industrialization of the landscape, as thousands of wells are drilled (currently in Pennsylvania – hundreds of thousands eventually) and tens of thousands of miles of pipelines and infrastructure are constructed. While these impacts can be managed, they are large, and will get a lot larger.
But opponents of shale gas should be careful what they wish for. If we were to bypass natural gas and go straight to a reliance of renewable energy, we would still not be able to avoid landscape industrialization.
As I wrote here, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has issued a study that says that renewable electricity generation - from technologies that are commercially available today - is “more than adequate” to supply 80 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050. This excellent summary provides a great overview. It also illustrates something that needs to be acknowledged: impacts and tradeoffs.
To be sure, getting to 80% renewable generation is an essential goal. And gas can be a bridge that we can use to reach it. But it will not come without cost to the environment, because no form of energy generation is totally benign.
To get to 80 percent renewable energy penetration, NREL says that on-shore wind power, for example, will have to grow from well less than 10 percent of generation today (about 10 gigawatts) to more than 40 percent (560 gigawatts) by 2050:
That implies enormous increases in the number of deployed wind turbines – and thus in developed ridgetops in the eastern U.S. What will be the impact to birds, bats, habitats, wildlife, and viewsheds - all concerns that have been expressed about growth in wind power? There are approaches to mitigate these impacts, and research and new technologies are being developed to further reduce impacts. But there will be costs.
And then there is transmission. Getting to 80 percent renewables implies the need for construction of 110-190 million miles of new transmission and 47-80,000 miles of new intertie capacity, according to NREL. Again, there will be enormous habitat fragmentation and myriad other impacts as transmission towers and power lines spiderweb across the landscape.
There is no free energy lunch.
Vision, commitment, investment, stakeholder involvement, and smart planning are all urgently needed as we make our future energy choices.