"Long before it's in the papers"
January 28, 2015


Renewable energy wrecks environment, scientist claims

July 24, 2007
Special to World Science  
Updated July 25

“Re­new­able” en­er­gy is­n’t green. That’s the claim of a prom­i­nent sci­ent­ist with Rock­e­fel­ler Un­ivers­ity in New York, who played an early role in bring­ing the is­sue of glob­al warm­ing to pub­lic at­ten­tion.

The sun sets be­hind a wind farm near Mon­tezuma, Kan­sas. (Im­age cour­te­sy U.S. In­t’l In­for­ma­tion Pro­grams)

Writ­ing in a schol­arly jour­nal, Jes­se Au­subel, di­rec­tor of the un­ivers­ity’s Pro­gram for the Hu­man En­vi­ron­ment, has now is­sued a scath­ing re­as­sess­ment of the “re­new­able” en­er­gy sources that are sup­posed to save hu­man­ity from pol­lu­tion and glob­al warm­ing. 

The cli­mate change is be­lieved to be caused by emis­sions of heat-trapping gas­es from use of tra­di­tional en­er­gy sources.

Meet­ing glob­al en­er­gy de­mands through so-called re­new­able sources—build­ing enough wind farms, dam­ming enough riv­ers, and grow­ing enough bi­o­mass—will wreck the en­vi­ron­ment, Au­su­bel ar­gues. Bi­o­mass con­sists of plants and an­i­mal wastes used as fu­el.

The so­lu­tion? “If we want to min­i­mize new struc­tures and the rape of na­ture, nu­clear en­er­gy is the best op­tion,” Au­su­bel said. But long­time re­new­able-en­er­gy ad­vo­cates are skep­ti­cal.

Ausubel’s pa­pe­r ap­pears in the cur­rent is­sue of the In­terna­t­ional Jour­nal of Nu­clear Gov­ern­ance, Econ­o­my and Ecol­o­gy, a jour­nal that pub­lishes many pro-nu­clear pow­er pa­pers. Au­su­bel an­a­lysed the amount of en­er­gy that each so-called re­new­able source can pro­duce. He al­so com­pared the strain on na­ture caused by re­new­ables with the de­mand for space of nu­clear pow­er. “Nu­clear en­er­gy is green,” he wrote. Con­sid­ered in terms of power pro­duced per amount of land used, “nu­clear has as­tro­nom­i­cal ad­van­tages over its com­peti­tors.”

Tech­nolo­gies suc­ceed, he wrote, when they enjoy econ­omies of scale—si­tu­a­tions in which lar­ger-scale prod­uction leads to more ef­fi­cient pro­duct­ion. But re­new­a­bles don’t work that way, he added.

Jim Pier­obon, di­rec­tor of com­mu­nica­t­ions for the Amer­i­can Coun­cil on Re­new­able En­er­gy based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., said Ausubel’s claims should­n’t be ac­cept­ed at face val­ue. 

There are val­id cri­tiques of some spe­cif­ic re­new­able en­er­gy sources, “rel­a­tively cred­i­ble ar­gu­ments,” he said. But a blan­ket cri­ti­cism such as Au­su­bel’s “begs for a more thor­ough dis­cus­sion,” he added. “We think the po­si­tives [of re­new­able energy] stand up very well.”

Ausubel’s re­search fo­cus­es on a mix of en­vi­ron­men­tal and in­dus­t­ri­al themes. He was an or­gan­iz­er of the first U.N. World Cli­mate Con­fer­ence in 1979, which played a key role in call­ing at­ten­tion to glob­al warm­ing. He was al­so an orig­i­na­tor of the field of in­dus­t­ri­al ecol­o­gy, the sci­ence of in­ter­ac­tions be­tween in­dus­t­ri­al pro­cesses.

Ausubel said a con­sid­era­t­ion of each so-called re­new­able paints a grim pic­ture of the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of re­new­ables.

Hy­po­thet­ic­ally flood­ing the en­tire prov­ince of On­tar­i­o, Can­a­da, and dam­ming the wa­ter would only gen­er­ate 80 per­cent of the to­tal pow­er out­put of Can­a­da’s 25 nu­clear pow­er sta­t­ions, he ex­plains. Put an­oth­er way, each square kilome­tre (247 ac­res) of dammed land would pro­vide the elec­tricity for just 12 Cana­di­ans.

Bi­o­mass en­er­gy is al­so hor­ribly in­ef­fi­cient and de­struc­tive, he con­tin­ued. To pow­er much of the Un­ited States, vast ar­eas would need to be shaved or har­vested an­nu­al­ly. To get the same elec­tricity from bi­o­mass as from one nu­clear plant would re­quire 2,500 square km (618,000 ac­res) of prime Io­wa land. “In­creased use of bi­o­mass fu­el in any form is crim­i­nal,” said Ausubel, adding that eve­ry au­to­mo­bile would re­quire a pas­ture of one to two hectares (2.5 to five ac­res.) “Hu­mans must spare land for na­ture.”

Wind and solar energy come in for similar cri­ti­cisms un­der Au­su­bel’s pen, but he prai­ses nu­clear en­ergy.

The full foot­print of ura­ni­um min­ing might add a few hun­dred square kilome­tres and there are con­sid­era­t­ions of waste stor­age, safe­ty and se­cur­ity, he ad­mitted. Yet the dense heart of the at­om of­fers far the small­est foot­print in na­ture of any en­er­gy source, he said; nu­clear en­er­gy, en­joy­ing from economies of scale, could mul­ti­ply its pow­er out­put and even shrink the en­er­gy sys­tem. “Re­new­ables may be re­new­able but they are not green,” he said.

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“Renewable” energy isn’t green. That’s the claim of a prominent scientist with Rockefeller University in New York, who played an early role in bringing the issue of global warming to public attention. Writing in a scholarly journal, Jesse Ausubel, director of the university’s Program for the Human Environment, has now issued a scathing reassessment of the “renewable” energy sources that are supposed to save humanity from pollution and global warming. The climate change is believed to be caused by emissions of heat-trapping gases from current energy sources. Meeting global energy demands through so-called renewable sources—building enough wind farms, damming enough rivers, and growing enough biomass—will wreck the environment, Ausubel argues. Biomass consists of plants and animal wastes used as fuel. The solution? Nuclear energy, Ausubel declares. But longtime renewable-energy advocates are skeptical. Ausubel’s paper appears in the current issue of the International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, a journal that publishes many pro-nuclear power papers. Ausubel analysed the amount of energy that each so-called renewable source can produce in terms of Watts of power output per square metre of land disturbed. He also compared the destruction of nature by renewables with the demand for space of nuclear power. “Nuclear energy is green,” he wrote. “Considered in Watts per square metre, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors.” On this basis, he argued that technologies succeed when economies of scale form part of their evolution. No economies of scale benefit renewables. More renewable kilowatts require more land in a constant or even worsening ratio, because land good for wind, hydropower, biomass, or solar power may get used first. Jim Pierobon, Director of Communications for the American Council on Renewable Energy based in Washington, D.C., said Ausubel’s claims shouldn’t be accepted at face value. There are valid critiques of some specific renewable energy sources, “relatively credible arguments,” he said. “But to say as a blanket statement” that renewable energy is harmful, “begs for a more thorough discussion.” Pierobon acknowledged that he hadn’t read Ausubel’s paper yet, and that he would need more information to offer more complete comments. Ausubel’s research focuses on a mix of environmental and industrial themes. He was an organizer of the first UN World Climate Conference in 1979, which played a key role in calling attention to global warming. He was also an originator of the field of industrial ecology, the science of interactions between industrial processes. Ausubel said a consideration of each so-called renewable paints a grim picture of the environmental impact of renewables. Hypothetically flooding the entire province of Ontario, Canada, and damming the water would only generate 80% of the total power output of Canada’s 25 nuclear power stations, he explains. Put another way, each square kilometre (247 acres) of dammed land would provide the electricity for just 12 Canadians. Biomass energy is also horribly inefficient and destructive, he continued. To power a large proportion of the United States, vast areas would need to be shaved or harvested annually. To obtain the same electricity from biomass as from a single nuclear power plant would require 2,500 square km (618,000 acres) of prime Iowa land. “Increased use of biomass fuel in any form is criminal,” said Ausubel, adding that every automobile would require a pasture of one to two hectares (2.5 to five acres.) “Humans must spare land for nature.” Turning to wind Ausubel points out that while wind farms are between three to ten times more compact than a biomass farm, a 770 square-kilometre (190,000-acre) area is needed to produce as much energy as one 1,000 Megawatt electric nuclear plant. To meet 2005 US electricity demand and assuming round-the-clock wind at the right speed, an area the size of Texas, approximately 780,000 square kilometres, would need to be covered with structures to extract, store, and transport the energy. One hundred windy square metres, a good size for a Manhattan apartment, could power an electric lamp or two, but not the laundry equipment, microwave oven, plasma TV, and computer. New York City would require every square metre of Connecticut to become a wind farm to fully power all its electrical equipment and gadgets. Solar power also comes in for criticism. A photovoltaic solar cell plant would require painting black about than 150 square kilometres plus land for storage and retrieval to equal a 1,000 Megawatt electric nuclear plant. Moreover, every form of renewable energy involves vast infrastructure, such as concrete, steel, and access roads. “As a Green, one of my credos is ‘no new structures’ but renewables all involve ten times or more stuff per kilowatt as natural gas or nuclear,” Ausubel said. While the full footprint of uranium mining might add a few hundred square kilometres and there are considerations of waste storage, safety and security, the dense heart of the atom offers far the smallest footprint in nature of any energy source. Benefiting from economies of scale, nuclear energy could multiply its power output and even shrink the energy system, in the same way that computers have become both more powerful and smaller. “Renewables may be renewable but they are not green,” asserts Ausubel. “If we want to minimize new structures and the rape of nature, nuclear energy is the best option.”