Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Move to Water?

In my last post, I described some of the recent literature that analyzes the land intensity of various forms of energy production.  Renewable energy sources often are criticized as land-intensive, and several studies have attempted to quantify this claim.  One study not mentioned in my last post seems to suggest, for example, that all of the earth's "land area" would be consumed by soy if we used soy diesel to meet one-hundred percent of 2010 energy demand.  (Note that this data purportedly comes from a study by Professor Clinton J. Andrews et al., but Andrews does not list the study under his publications--nor does the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which hosted a conference at which cnet claims Andrews presented an early version of the study.  Even if the study does not in fact suggest that the earth would be covered in soy if we relied on soy biodiesel for all of our energy, it's an interesting scenario to imagine.)  The Nature Conservancy also has estimated that renewable technologies like wind and solar photovoltaics are more land intensive than some traditional fuels, such as coal and natural gas. 

If energy infrastructure takes up valuable land that could be put to better use, such as housing people or businesses or providing valuable habitat for endangered species, why not place it on top of existing infrastructure--a trend that is becoming more common--or put it on the water?  Should we begin to think of water as the next frontier for energy, in other words?  According to the New York Times, perhaps yes.  The Times reported yesterday that start-up companies have successfully built solar pontoons that produce energy from the sun while floating on top of water.  Planned offshore wind and transmission projects, too, are growing--in part because they do not compete with existing land uses.  (Stronger wind resources also often blow over water, and much of the electricity-hungry human population lives close to water.)  In March 2011, Canada concluded its environmental assessment of a large proposed offshore wind project off the coast of British Columbia, and the company anticipates that it will begin construction "within two years of receiving an energy purchase agreement."  Other offshore wind projects in progress in North America include, among others, the Mid-Atlantic Wind Park near Delaware; Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound (for which the Department of the Interior approved a Construction and Operations Plan yesterday); and Garden State Offshore Energy.  For a useful list of offshore wind projects in various stages of planning and development, see

With all this talk of wind on the water, let's not forget about solar--as the New York Times has reminded us.  Technological advances in offshore drilling rigs suggest that floating solar power plants are not a mere pipe dream.  Perhaps competition over the ocean's surface will eventually inspire the heated disputes that arise from today's scarce land resources.  The Macondo blowout--which occurred one year ago today--might suggest that ocean use disputes, if not battles for ocean space--already loom large. 

-Hannah Wiseman

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