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The Chimera of Wind and Solar

b2ap3_thumbnail_Windturbine_sm.jpgMom raised me to be an environmentalist. That meant we took our newspapers to be recycled long before there was any curbside pickup, and she donated money to the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. The dream of the future was one where people got power from sun, wind and tides, and lived in clever, energy-efficient homes and drove electric cars. Paganism fit beautifully with this vision. I loved it that when I moved to California, that I could drive down I5 and see miles of wind turbines. I thought they were lovely. Still do.

But somehow, this form of power continues to be out of reach for many Pagans. It’s a dream, but not one our pocketbooks will allow. Now with the government subsidies going to green energy projects, and Europe fielding more wind and solar power, there is renewed hope among the Pagans I know that the dream will become a reality. I wish it were true. I don’t personally know any Pagans who have solar panels on their roofs or wind turbines in their back yards. And that is because it is expensive, and can demand technical know-how.

Please understand that I grew up believing that renewable energy could save the planet, and I've held that belief right up to this last year. But the numbers just don't add up. Germany is paying a high price for its use of solar power, as are the Dutch for their wind power. And these two countries have some of the most expensive electricity in the European union.

The first problem is that solar and wind have barely a fraction of the energy density of hydrocarbons. In order for us to produce the same amount of energy we would have to cover vast tracts of land with solar arrays or wind farms. The foot print is just ridiculously large. Of course none of these arrays would be anywhere near where the power was actually needed, so we would also have to build hundreds of miles of power lines. To which environmental groups have objected.

Wind power generating plants do not actually cut carbon emissions. That is because they MUST have some form of backup. And those backups are generators that are less efficient than your average coal fired power plant. There is a long list of other problems, well documented in the documentary Windfall. Solar does seem to be suited to residential applications, especially solar hot water, and under these circumstances, the back generators are not needed. But it is not a simple, or inexpensive proposition. If we are going to subsidize green power, giving tax incentives to people who set up solar hot water would be money well spent.

Wind power is so bad that it's not even worth pursuing unless civilization collapses. It kills bats and birds, including raptors, by the thousands, and if you live nearby a wind tower, they cause headaches and disrupt sleep. (incidentally, if the oil industry causes the death of a raptor, they have to pay a fine as per the endangered species act. Somehow wind farms - which cause far more raptor deaths - are exempt from such fines) There is much talk of putting them offshore, but if the sub-sonics are that bad, what about ocean creatures that depend on sonar to navigate? If we are upset by the Navy disrupting whale sonar, how much worse would a permanent installation be for these intelligent mammals?

So what happens to my desire to Honor the Earth when the myth of how best to generate energy gets exploded? I believe that religion needs to respond to the tough questions, and Paganism is no stranger to having its myths blown away by facts. Utopias are idealized situations that ignore the actual costs of a given path of action. (I have my own little utopian vision where all food is produced using permaculture methods. Which incidentally would cut carbon emissions.) It is those costs that demand we take a good hard look at our ethics and how the facts inform them.

Paganism has been influenced by Western Feminism and Environmentalism. But if we are going to be a viable religion past the 21st century, we need to figure out which values matter the most in these movements, and then continue forward, letting go of the myths.

Last modified on
Selina Rifkin, L.M.T., M.S. is a graduate of Temple University and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. In 1998 she graduated from the Downeast School of Massage in Maine. She has published articles in Massage Therapy Journal, been a health columnist, and published The Referral Guide for Complementary Care, a book that describes 25 different healing modalities. In 2006 she completed her Masters program in Nutrition with a focus on traditional foods, and the work of Weston A. Price.
Currently she is the Executive Assistant to the Director of Cherry Hill Seminary, the first Pagan seminary to offer Master’s degrees.


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Sunday, 31 March 2013

    On the other hoof, this Bloomberg report indicates that it's really just a matter of time before wind power is cost-neutral with fossils. Honestly, I think it's a "all-of-the-above" scenario that's necessary. And there's this new idea: NOTE: to keep out spammers, we don't have direct links in comments, but readers can simply highlight the URL, copy it, and paste into a browser to read the referenced article.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Monday, 01 April 2013

    Anne I responded to this once and it seems to have gotten lost, so I apologize if this repeats!

    The Bloomberg report is a prediction that doesn't explain on what it is based. The idea of CO2 eating microbes in the air scares me. I don't want transgenic foods in my body, so I'm pretty darn sure I don't want transgenic microbes in my lungs.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Monday, 01 April 2013

    The Bloomberg article is just another prediction. It doesn't say anything of substance, making only the same airy, optimistic statements without citing any actual studies. Nor does it address the other issues with wind.

    The genetic engineering of biomolecules makes me very nervous. I am against transgenic organisms in food, so I'm pretty sure I don't want them in my lungs.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Sunday, 31 March 2013

    Germany gives subsidies for solar power and their strategy has worked.
    In the private sector new products for everyone are often subsidized by the rich who purchase computers and electric cars at initial high prices and thereby create the incentive for expanded production that lowers costs, making them available for the rest of us.

    Power generation is not usually suitable for this approach because it either is available to all of us or to none of us. Consequently Germany adopted public subsidies for accomplishing the same process. Deutsche Bank just stated that, in 2014, with less sun than almost anywhere in the US outside of Alaska, German solar power will be able to compete with conventional sources of electricity.
    Germany's seeking of solar power has been an enormous success.

    The technical breakthroughs keep on coming. To pick two very recent ones, the Niels Bohr Institut in Denmark has just announced breakthroughs in solar cell power development. Storing electricity has also bee n a major problem in converting to sustainable power generation, but in the US again a major breakthrough was recently announced. It could someday make charging electric cars as easy as driving them.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Sunday, 31 March 2013

    Actually, Anne, those links in your comment are working just fine.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Monday, 01 April 2013

    I am somewhat more optimistic about solar, and I did just hear about that carbon capacitor. That one is quite exciting! But I am still skeptical.
    I think is has a small residential application, but cannot replace hydrocarbons.

    Solar remains expensive, and it doesn't work at night. That means something else has to fill in. The plants that fill in run all the time. Where is the savings in either money or C02 if the alternatives have to run all the time? Some solar plants may produce 700MW at peak, but they don't do that 24/7 as a coal of nuclear plant would.

    Large solar arrays have other issues. If birds fly over them, they get vaporized.
    (The article says "burned," "vaporized" comes from my daughter who is finishing up her degree in engineering)
    The manufacture of solar panels is a filthy process akin to creating computer chips.

    And they need A LOT more space than coal fired plants, which means their effects on wildlife is substantial. This article says 500,000 acres.

    I find the all-glowing reports on wind and solar to be deeply troubling. I would not trust such reports for coal or nuclear. TANSTAAFL. The cost for wind certainly isn't worth it. Residential thermal solar would be. Residential PV might be. Solar plants, I'm still coming in with a "not worth it."

  • Sarah Buhrman
    Sarah Buhrman Monday, 01 April 2013

    I'm not sure why you keep saying that we have to have something fill in when there's no sun. I know people and of more people who use solar, and they turn on lights at night. Am I missing something that all of these people are lying?

    Also, why are the articles you are sourcing this opinion on over a year old? A quick search turned up TONS of more recent articles (like Feb of this year) that show the negative hype to be misinformed. Such as this one:

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Monday, 01 April 2013

    There is residential solar and industrial solar. Residential solar is solar panels on people's homes, and is either tied into the grid or uses battery storage. For the former, when the sun is shining, solar energy feeds into the grid. When its not, the home receives energy from the grid. If the house is entirely independent, then it can run on battery backup. This is very expensive and difficult, and most people don't do it.

    Industrial solar is that which feeds the grid directly, and is the large arrays that we've seen so many pictures of. But those don't have battery back up because we don't have batteries big enough to power multiple homes and industries. Solar and wind plants do not produce power all the time. Wind stops, the sun sets, or get covered with clouds. When those plants are not producing, generators, hydro-carbon, or nuclear plants fill the need. Without them, we would have blackouts. But these "backups" are problematic. Generator backups are far less energy efficient than a full scale plant.

    As to article you cited doesn't address any of the math. I don't enjoy math, which is why it's taken me so long to look closely at wind and solar. I see LOTS of happy optimism, and no real substantive argument from the media, or discussion of this within the Pagan community.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Monday, 01 April 2013

    So your solution is ....?

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 01 April 2013

    Everything we do has negative as well as positive effects if it makes a big difference in anything. The issue is minimizing the negative and maximizing the positive.

    Given the scale of the disaster in the Gulf, to mention only one of many, 500,000 acres (under 800 square miles or a square under 30 miles on a side) is truly tiny. Technology is constantly changing and for solar, improving. If gasoline were priced at anything like its true cost (such as factoring in a multi-trillion dollar war where oil was a major motive (as conservatives Alan Greenspan and Bush speech writer David Frum have noted) and a defense budget that is largely devoted to insuring supplies of oil) advances would be even faster because solar would already be competitive in many areas.

    Solar is getting cheaper at a rapid rate and oil is getting vastly more expensive to the planet and to society at a rapid rate.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Monday, 01 April 2013

    Solar is getting cheaper because the Chinese who make PV panels are pushing out the competition.

    Hydrocarbons are not going away because they are much, much more power dense than solar, and we need that for manufacturing. While I know plenty of homesteading types who are into self sufficiency, I don't know anyone who is willing to voluntarily give up computers, cars, and modern plumbing. There have been massive discoveries of natural gas in North America, let alone in the oceans and in other countries. Manufacturing is returning to the US because of these discoveries. I have huge concerns about the chemicals used in fracking. But even if New York state put a moratorium on it, Texas won't, nor will other states. That's 800 square miles would be only one of many such tracts of land that would be needed if we were going to replace hydrocarbons with solar.

    I agree that we don't pay the entire direct costs of the various fuels we use. That's why I oppose subsides (especially ethanol!!) But even if we did, solar would still be more expensive. There are 572 (give or take) coal fired plants in the US, 104 nuclear plants, (I'm making the assumption that you don't care for nuclear. By all means adjust the math if my assumption is incorrect) 493 natural gas plants (give or take). That is almost a million square miles of solar panels. The whole US, including Alaska, is just under 3 million square miles. And solar still much, much more expensive even if the price does come down. It will have to come down a very long way before it can compete.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 01 April 2013

    "Especially ethanol?" I strongly oppose the subsidies to ethanol myself and prefer a carbon tax so government does not try and pick the best technology, but compared to subsidies for oil they are a drop in the bucket. You did not mention subsidies for oil.

    As for the Chinese being the major reason solar is getting cheaper, first, if true that is still good for us and life on the planet and second, it is not true. They play a role, but technical discovery plays a larger one. The links I gave suggest major savings and are due to technological discoveries. Both report developments announced in March of this year and your paper is from 2008.

    And if oil is subsidized the arguments I made above for subsidies for oil substitutes makes more sense than if it is not. The 'free market ideal' is a libertarian wet dream that does not and has never existed.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Monday, 01 April 2013

    I am against all subsidies. I just happen to especially loathe the ethanol thing since it ties into food production.

    The Chinese have near complete control over the renewable energy market because they have 95% the mines that produce rare earth minerals. This will likely ease a bit in the future, but its not cheap to do so. China will undercut the price of rare earths in exports to any country that mines them, and military production, as opposed to consumer goods, will no doubt have priority in domestic manufacture.

    I'm happy for you that you have such faith. But when I look at the numbers, and mull over the economics, I just can't muster up that up.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Monday, 01 April 2013

    I would have to weigh all the options and there is a lot to look at. The point of the post is that there are no simple or spiritually obvious solutions. And if it does look easy, we really need to kick it around the block a few times and see what falls out. Many Pagans take the Environmentalist agenda without a grain of salt, treating it as if this political path were religious dogma rather than the political football it is.

    And no matter what we as Pagans think, we are a minority and unlikely to have a great influence over the actual commissioning of industrial level power plants. As a minority, our energy might be better spent on demanding transparency, safety and land reclamation rather than outright protest of hydrocarbons.

    Powering residential neighborhoods is open to a number of solutions, and solar may be among those solutions. I even think that micro nuclear could have a place. The Navy has operated small nuclear power plants for 50 years without incident.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 01 April 2013

    1. Can you please tell me what the "environmental agenda" is?

    2. Can you please name a Pagan or two who takes it "without a grain of salt?"

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Monday, 01 April 2013

    1. In general, an insistence on "sustainability" over any other human concern. This idea has an unspoken message that humans are a plague on the planet. (The latter is not something that I think most Pagans buy into, but some do.) And that "sustainability" determined and managed by government agencies.

    2. Any Pagan I know who is politically Liberal. I have never heard any critique of the idea of "green power" outside the very few Libertarian Pagans I know personally. And they don't say it in groups. I have only heard "green power" accepted as gospel in blogs. There is always the assumption that it is uniformly wonderful and will solve lots of problems. Perhaps you know of some differing opining that can share here. It would certainly make me feel better.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Monday, 01 April 2013

    1. You equate supporting sustainability with (secretly?) thinking people are a plague. Is this a rhetorical sleight of hand or is it based on your ability to read minds? Everyone but fools puts sustainability very high on their list of things we should care about. Hardly any environmentalist but the most pessimistic has used the plague term or anything like it. More often we use "fools" to describe a certain portion of the population... Most of us seek ways to harmonize people with natural processes.

    2. I am a Pagan and have written for academic and environmental publications for many years and am cited repeatedly in discussions of deep ecology. Your generalizations are factually wrong. You commit the same error as those on the left who say all right wingers are racists. Some are. Some aren't. Until a person can make at least that distinction they are incompetent to make generalizations about the right. The same holds in reverse.

    If they have any rational basis your views probably come from believing right wing and 'libertarian' attacks on environmentalism rather than taking the time to read serious environmental discussions and debates. There was quite an extensive discussion when Dave Foreman made his "cancer" statement. Too bad you never noticed it.

    There is not space here to develop my point but the latest issue of The Independent Review (a classical liberal/libertarian journal) has a letter by me criticizing an economist who attacked environmentalism, combined with his reply. I also occasionally publish articles in it, thereby hopefully giving you pause in your desire to make invidious generalizations about philosophical, ideological, and spiritual positions you do not fully grasp. Since you identify with libertarians you might look it up.

    I also have a rather extensive discussion of Pagans and wilderness up at Patheos. You might be surprised to learn your generalizations do not come close to fitting- and it is "liked" by a lot of people so I am not speaking just for myself.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Tuesday, 02 April 2013

    No, of course I don’t. And if you had read my other posts you would see that. But perhaps you are more interested in picking a fight since we are no longer talking specifically about wind and solar. Let me give you some examples. Emma Restall Orr in her book Living with Honor urges veganism as a moral path. I support vegansim as an ascetic practice appropriate for individuals who wish to subdue the body. (not something I understand, but asceticism well known in the Classical world) But suggesting this way of living is a good idea for everyone is destructive to human health and fertility.

    Enviromentalists have made sure that people in Africa cannot use DDT to kill the mosquitos that cause malaria. This has been one of the factors that has kept Africa from being able to join the modern world, and why so many there continue to suffer.

    Perhaps we should discuss what you mean by sustainability. My vision doesn’t include blackouts. How about yours? I’m sure I could come up with a blog post on the matter.

    I trust you mean that Mr. Foreman’s comments were refuted with vigor? That’s good to know. I assume this didn’t happen online or I’m sure you would have provided a link. Mr Forman is exactly the sort of person that I oppose. But clearly his is the attitude that influenced Ms. Orr.

    You invited me to make a generalization. A generalization is of course not nuanced. It was your choice to interpret it the way you did. An alternative course would have been to ask more questions to obtain a deeper understanding rather than implying that I was stupid and perhaps lazy. I’m thrilled that you have people that like your writing. That’s very nice!

    I don’t subscribe to the Independent Review. I wish I could, it looks interesting. I would love to read that essay and your response.

    I had read your essay on Patheos this last weekend and quite enjoyed your distinctions between house, home, and temple. I am however, somewhat ambivalent about the wilderness issue. To be sure, there were places that the native peoples treated as temples. But for the most part, they lived there. As to the plains being lightly inhabited, Dobyns estimates 90 to 112 million people in the Americas. The Hopewell culture covered the Mississippi river valley. Yosemite was not “wilderness” in the sense that no humans lived there. The idea that place is better or more sacred without humans is exactly what I’m talking about. The wider, non-Pagan culture indeed lacks spiritual wisdom when it comes to how we manage lands. But I don’t think setting them aside as “wilderness” is necessarily the right answer. And if Pagans are being influenced by the likes of Mr Forman, I think that path lacks spiritual wisdom as well.

    Areas treated as wilderness in marginal rainfall areas degrade if they do not have regular grazing activity, turning into deserts. Is that dry, degraded land more sacred because no humans are managing it?

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Monday, 01 April 2013

    I'm in agreement that powering neighborhoods is a great place to start and I'm hoping to add solar when we reroof our home in the next decade or so.

  • Selina Rifkin
    Selina Rifkin Monday, 01 April 2013

    Grid tied? or are you wanting to go off grid? Or are you talking solar hot water? I'd like to do the latter at some point.

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