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Renewable Energy: Myth vs. Fact

Myth: Offshore wind power isn’t a viable renewable energy option.

Fact: Offshore wind has existed for about 20 years, and has become an important part of Europe’s energy mix. Europe’s total installed offshore wind capacity was about 2 gigawatts in 2009 – or about the size of a very large nuclear power plant, with an additional 100 gigawatts of proposed or developing projects. Some of the United States’ best wind resources lie off the coasts – which have the added benefit of being near large population centers where the electricity is needed.

Myth: Offshore wind power is too expensive.

Fact: Offshore wind can supply electricity at competitive prices today. According to a 2007 Black & Veatch report, the cost of electricity from offshore wind power could range between 8.3 cents to 13.1 cents per kilowatt hour, or a similar price to that which residential consumers now pay. As the offshore wind industry matures, the cost of energy will continue to fall; the same cannot be said of non-renewables and nuclear power plants.

Myth: Environmental organizations and local residents oppose offshore wind farms.

Fact: There is substantial support for offshore wind energy. A recent survey found 82% of Mid-Atlantic residents are in favor of offshore wind farms, and 67% would support the placement of turbines even if they could be seen from land. Perhaps the most contentious offshore wind farm – Cape Wind, which is proposed off Massachusetts’s Nantucket Sound – has significant support locally. In 2009, a University of Delaware poll found 57% of Cape Cod residents now support Cape Wind, up from 44% in 2005.

Myth: Offshore wind farms will hurt recreational and commercial fishermen.

Fact: Offshore wind turbines cause minimal impacts to commercial and recreational fishing, and the wind industry is working actively with the fishing industry to ensure this continues. The proposed Cape Wind Farm will place turbines far apart to allow trawlers to navigate in a relatively straight line. Research also suggests that offshore wind farms may actually improve fish stocks by providing habitat – similar to artificial reefs.

Myth: We can’t rely on wind power, because the wind doesn’t always blow.

Fact: Wind power is a reliable if imperfect energy resource. The smart thing to do is to diversify investments in a variety of renewable energy resources. Wind, combined with other renewables and a smart-grid, will be more reliable and emit zero carbon. This will stabilize energy prices and increase energy security all the while mitigating climate change. (Fossil fuels are just as unreliable: in 2008, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike inflicted significant damage to the nation’s oil and natural gas infrastructure, affecting production into December 2008.)

Myth: Wind power needs “back up” power, like natural gas.

Fact: As more renewable energy is developed, the nation’s electricity supply will balance renewable energy supplies with regional demands. Studies have shown that significant investment in offshore wind on the Atlantic Coast would virtually always be producing electricity – so if the wind stops blowing in Massachusetts, South Carolina’s offshore resource may supply power to the Northeast.

Additionally, diversifying our energy portfolio to include other renewable energies like solar, biomass, geothermal and fuel cell technologies, as well as employing efficiency, will guarantee the lights stay on. Finally, if all else fails and back-up power from natural gas power plants is necessary, we would be that much less exposed to the price volatility of natural gas, as well as its environmental and climate change impacts, if the natural gas was supplemented with renewable energy.

Myth: Wind turbines are bad for the environment because they kill so many birds and bats.

Fact: Compared to other factors, such as buildings and domesticated cats, wind turbines kill minimal amounts of birds. A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report estimated wind energy is responsible for less than 0.003% birth deaths caused by human (and feline) activities. There is no evidence that fatalities caused by wind turbines result in measurable demographic changes to bird populations in the United States.

Numerous studies on European offshore wind farms confirm these developments have a minimal risk for avian life. Furthermore, wildlife will be more negatively impacted by climate change, unless our society moves away from the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are much worse for birds than wind turbines. A recent study showed that fossil fuel power plants can kill 17 times as many birds as wind energy on a per-energy-unit basis.

Myth: Wind turbines will harm the earth’s climate by changing/slowing down the planet’s winds.

Fact: In comparison with other anthropogenic activities, the climate impact of wind power is negligible. The continued burning of fossil fuels and unsustainable development inflicts the greatest harm on the earth’s climate. If wind energy generated enough electricity to meet current electricity usage, this would amount to about 6% of all other wind disturbances, like reforestation efforts and tall buildings. This would have no significant impact on global wind patterns. Additionally, wind turbines could have a side benefit of decreasing temperatures at higher latitudes, offsetting the anticipated warming caused by greenhouse gases.

Myth: Unlike other renewable energies, future offshore wind costs will not decrease dramatically.

Fact: Even though total world offshore wind capacity is more than 2 gigawatts, offshore wind is still a relatively new industry. New technological breakthroughs, such as higher capacity turbines using direct drive generators, and floating turbine technologies, will help to decrease the cost of energy generated. On the East coast, offshore wind energy will be price competitively with other renewables transmitted across the country, and even locally sited conventional generation like natural gas power plants.

Myth: Offshore wind farms won’t be able to withstand a hurricane.

Fact: Turbines are designed to shut down in excessive wind (often 50-60 miles per hour) by “feathering” blades so they don’t catch wind, and applying breaks. Wind farms located in hurricane prone areas can be designed to withstand winds in excess of 150 mph (67.056 m/sec) – or a Category 4 hurricane.

Myth: In order to tap renewable energy, hundreds of billions of dollars are needed to build thousands of miles of new transmission lines to upgrade the “grid”.

Fact: While it’s true that most of the onshore wind resources are in the middle of the country, offshore wind farms can be built near major urban (demand) centers, without the need for transnational transmission lines. Offshore wind power does not need to wait for a whole scale replacement of the country’s transmissions system.

Regardless of renewable energy, we need to invest in upgrading electricity transmission lines and to build new electricity facilities to meet rising energy demand. Transmission lines are antiquated and are based on technology from the 19th century. These lines must be upgraded to increase transmission efficiencies, reduce electricity costs for consumers, and increase grid reliability.

Myth: Renewable energy isn’t cost competitive even with government subsidies.

Fact: All forms of energy, including fossil fuels and nuclear, receive subsidies. In 2007, $5.5 billion was spent on Federal energy subsidies to support the fossil fuel industries. Additionally the use of fossil fuels exacts hidden costs to society, namely, in negatively impacting human health and the environment – costs that are not incorporated in the final price to consumers.

A National Academies of Science report highlighted non-climate damages, such as premature death, from fossil-fuels totaled more than $120 billion in 2005. The study monetized non-climate damages at $32 per megawatt hour of electricity from coal, and $16 per megawatt hour for natural gas, and zero for renewables.

Myth: Renewable energy can’t supply significant amounts of reliable energy.

Fact: According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s most recent renewable energy maps, the U.S. has 228,081 gigawatts in theoretical potential for renewable energy. This figure represents more than 200 times the current installed electrical capacity in the United States. We’re only using a small sliver of our potential. As such, renewables can meet our current electricity consumption several times over.

Myth: Switching to renewable energy will not create U.S. jobs.

Fact: The green energy revolution is creating a whole range of jobs from engineers, contractors, manufacturers, and suppliers. As of 2008, 85,000 people are employed in the wind industry. Of the wind turbines installed in the United States in 2008, nearly half of the components of these turbines are sourced domestically. If we were to get 20% of our electricity from wind power by 2030, this would create 258,755 construction jobs per year and 216,578 operations-related jobs per year.

Myth: Developing countries like China and India should cut their carbon emissions before the United States does.

Fact: Both China and India have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions. The U.S. risks falling behind in global competition for renewable energy technology, like offshore wind turbines; China is making a massive investment in renewable energies and has even built its first offshore wind farm while the U.S. has yet to do so.

Myth: Renewable energy, like solar and wind power, use too much space and cause “energy sprawl".

Fact: This supposed “energy sprawl” pales in comparison to the potential damages of climate change. Some renewable energy technologies, such as wind, allow for mixed use of the land. For example, the proposed Cape Wind farm would occupy 0.12 percent of the total project area (19.41 acres) of 25 square miles. (The diameter of these wind turbines will range from 16.75 ft to 18 ft.) This area would also allow the wind park to act as an artificial reef to promote marine life growth while still preserving recreational sailing and fishing.

Myth: Our energy policy should take an “all of the above” approach – including oil, coal, gas, nuclear, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Fact: Taking an “all of the above” approach would lead to the construction of natural gas and coal plants with life spans of 30 and 60 years, respectively. This would serve to delay greenhouse gas mitigation efforts and would make such efforts more expensive in the long run. The best way to mitigate climate change and ocean acidification, and to also strengthen our energy security, is to take action today by investing in renewable energies and energy efficiencies.

Myth: Coal is cheap and carbon sequestration is a better option for cutting carbon emissions.

Fact: Coal’s market price does not reflect its true cost to society. A 2009 National Academies of Science report monetized non-climate damages from using coal at $62 billion annually. More than 90% of the costs were associated with pre-mature death.

Taking into account coal’s steep cost for society, coal is actually one of the most expensive energy sources! While the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is appealing, clean coal is going nowhere fast. The main hindrance to CCS is cost. A carbon price of $58-$66 is needed to make CCS viable. To reduce carbon dioxide emissions via CCS by 20% by 2050 will cost $100 billion dollars per year for 40 years. For $4 trillion, we’re better off investing in renewables to make an even bigger emissions reduction.

Myth: Nuclear power is a better option for cutting carbon emissions.

Fact: While nuclear generates zero carbon emissions, it has a whole set of environment problems. Constructing nuclear power plants is very carbon-intensive, uses vast amounts of concrete for construction, and requires a long lead time of 10 years or more. Nuclear is also dependent on a non-renewable fuel source, uranium.

Based on 2006 nuclear electricity generation and current technology, there is enough fuel for 100 years. However, with the global nuclear renaissance, we’re going to run out of fuel much sooner. And there are no long-term storage facilities in the U.S. for spent fuel rods, which means nuclear waste is being stored at power plants without the adequate facilities. All these factors show that nuclear power is a carbon intensive endeavor that exposes us to unnecessary risks.

Myth: Energy efficiency is the best way to cut carbon emissions.

Fact: Greenhouse gas emissions are a result of energy production and consumption. Energy efficiency reduces energy used, but doesn’t eliminate the need for energy. A combination of energy efficiency and clean energy technologies is the only option to reduce carbon emissions to zero.

Myth: Natural gas should be considered as a stop-gap solution for the near future.

Fact: Natural gas is a non-renewable energy resource that emits greenhouse gases, and is subject to price volatility. Over the last ten years, there have been five instances of price spikes, most recently in 2008. Unconventional gas, which has doubled U.S. natural gas reserves, is seen as a boon. However, extracting unconventional natural gas requires fracking, which could pollute groundwater and/or cause other environmental damage.