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February 24, 2011


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Sorry, you're right to be. It's even one of the few things I wouldn't mind subsidizing a bit besides myself.

Well, without subsidies, solar thermal electricity costs about $0.26/kWhr. We can get nuclear electric power for closer to $0.12/kWhr. That's a fair bit of subsidy, and Nuclear's environmental impact isn't so much worse than solar's (Solar plants do need to eat up a fair bit of space that could have you know, tortises and bunnies living there) that I'm not sure I really buy that the subsidy is warranted.

OTOH, burning coal is pretty much up there with gang-raping baby seals from an environmental (or even public health) standpoint, so I'll support just about anything that keeps a coal plant from opening, or even closes one.

Oh, and I'm less impressed with Robert Moses' developments. The population density they support really isn't all that high. Manhattan, the residential and non-residential parts combined, has a density of about 100 people/acre. The two housing projects I checked the densities of were 200 and 300/acre. Manhattan land use is about 23% residential and 12% mixed commercial/residential. So the residential land makes up a little over a third of the total area, do the density of the residential parts is... 300/acre. And it's the population density that will drive the environmental savings. Since the Moses-style developments are the same, or lower than the city average, that means the non-Moses parts of the city have to be the same or higher. Don't really see what Moses accomplished there.

Cost source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source

Massive improvements in the quality of life without sacrificing density.

Well, hardly makes it a sad thing for the environment that we haven't made any more. And I suspect that putting the same money into dispersed non-massed developments could have had similar improvements in quality of life.

Eric, did you click the link?

And with more rigorous links, go here. Click those links.

And then ask your question again. I don't think you'll need to, though.

Moses, by the way, is a metaphor. This post is not about high-rise housing.

Yes, I clicked the link. Read it more carefully and read your other link (which, actually, I'd read before). Perhaps more disturbingly, I've read large chunks of NYC's zoning laws. And I readily agree with the premise that higher population densities have enormous returns for the environment and even for human welfare and quality of life, and that most zoning laws that limit population density are wrong-headed in the extreme. And therein lies my lack of interest in Moses. He repeatedly and persistently diverted money from in-city public transportation projects to build roads (he's basically the father of the Long Island Parkway system that created the urban sprawl that is modern Nassau county, and his public housing projects, built on Le Corbousier's "Towers in a Park" model, do not support a higher population density than the alternatives, and with all the mandated open space, not really that much more than blocks of brownstones (one urban renewal area of brownstones owned by NYCHA has a density of 220 people/acre, higher than some (but not all) tower-in-a-park style housing projects).

But here, we'll use Moses as a metaphor for Solar power, and my objection to it. Solar, when you do the math, and look at the details, closes fewer coal plants than say, nuclear. Moses' developments, when you do the math, don't actually help population density, and kinda make it harder to increase it later. Sure, Moses got things built for NYC, but they didn't help things from a population density perspective. Sure, solar plants will help replace coal, but when you do the math, are the solar subsidies required to make these plants a cost-effective way of accomplishing that goal?

Possible legitimate concerns:

1) It's going to involve bulldozing a couple of hundred thousand acres of pristine Mojave Desert. Note that solar power plants want flat land as close as possible to urban centers. That's exactly the sort of land that developers have been building stuff on already for a while now. So if it's not developed already, it's often because it's of significant environmental value.

2) Solar power plants use tremendous amounts of water. The steam that runs the turbines can be reclaimed, but it must be cooled to condense back to water. You're in a desert; how do you cool stuff? Well, the cooling in "wet" solar plants -- which is the most common model -- is done by evaporating water.

There are also "Dry" solar plants that use giant cooling fins. But these are less efficient, thus, more expensive, thus less popular. Some solar projects will use reclaimed wastewater from nearby towns, but there is a limited amount of wastewater to go around.

So: a lot of these plants will be thirsty water-users in a desert where water is already a major economic and environmental constraint.

3) The BLM is being /very strongly encouraged/ to approve these projects with minimal or no environmental review.

The relevant division was set up to review a handful of projects per year. It has not received nearly enough funding to be able to review the current explosion of projects. (As of a few months ago, the fast track alone was 34 projects covering 300,000 acres. Total proposals were something like six times that.) Even if they were determined to do a proper review of every submitted EIS, they just couldn't -- and that's before we index in political pressure. Which is real, and severe. (The alliances in favor of large solar thermal development are just as weird as the Sierra - Aztlan - teabagger thing you cite above, and they're pretty clouty.)

Note that this is going to be a problem for a long time to come; given the current political constellation, "more funds for BLM oversight of public lands" probably is somewhere between "more NEA grants for exploration of nudity in religious art" and "renewal of subsidies for ACORN". So the BLM can't now do its job right, and won't be able to for years to come either, as this industry grows into adolescence and develops its long-term regulatory and resource use patterns.

So, while I'm cool with the idea of solar thermal development /in general/, I'm twitchy about some of the details on the way it's actually likely to proceed. Which means, in turn, that while I don't love to see a barrage of lawsuits, I suspect it's the current least bad solution in a situation where the regulator won't or can't do its job.

Doug M.

Echoing Doug's concerns, while I am generally pro-environment, I'm not sure the concerns here are outrageous. The Sierra Club would like to preserve natural parks, and Native Americans would like to see a religious site preserved.

Is there a reason to fast-track the BLM's review here? If so, what is it?

@Eric: IIRC, you grew up in Park West, in Manhattan Valley, right? I remember walking across Central Park from the above-pictured towers to another, remarkably similar neighborhood. (No, this isn't relevant to anything.)

At some point, I will post something more on nuclear power. There are solid reasons to favor photoelectric and solar thermal over nuclear power, given the American political context.

@Scott: with the caveat that Doug raises good points about the BLM, the problem is that time and regulatory uncertainty can kill otherwise viable projects. It's hard to set up financing, particularly today. Moreover (again, with the caveat that Doug raises good points) I find it difficult to take most of the environmental objections (save one) particularly seriously in the face of the huge gains that come from phasing out natural gas in favor of solar.

@Doug: Good points. AFAIK, water is only an issue with the Genesis Project, but it is an issue. It shouldn't be, given California's rather irrational use of the stuff, but overhauling the way the Colorado River is governed smacks of utopianism.

I am really curious now about your reasons to prefer electric. You've been dismissive of the idea that regulatory uncertainty is hindering nuclear power in America in the past, no? Am I mistaken, or is solar different?

That's exactly the sort of land that developers have been building stuff on already for a while now

Finally, something to do with all those foreclosed/not really foreclosed because the bank thinks it's not worth seizing/can't find the note properties.

Scott: you mean solar, right?

At some point, I'll put up some nuclear posts. Right now, I'll just point out that capital costs create the big barrier to nuclear projects, not regulatory hurdles.

(In fairness, some of the high capital costs are due to safety requirements, but I have seen no evidence that those requirements are ineffective or fail reasonable cost-benefit tests.)

I didn't say this before? There is, of course, a lot more detail. (Like the lumpiness of capital costs for nuclear plants are more important than the their levelized cost per MW --- there are people in New Mexico working on a potential game changer in that respect.) But the general point holds: regulatory (and legal) concerns are second-order for nuclear projects.

Regulatory problems are also low for solar projects --- but legal concerns are first order. Doug makes a good case that the regulators are falling down on the job.

The question for solar, then, is the following: Which is worse, no serious regulation with lots of construction or no serious regulation with lots of lawsuits and much less construction?

In other words, how high is the cost of building a solar project on environmentally-sensitive land? I have a gut feeling that the answer to that question is "very low."

My gut is not a good guide, however, although it may be worth noting (as you know, Scott) that my emotional predilections are usually in favor of greater regulation and tighter limits.

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