Argument: McMansions can’t truly be green

I’ve blogged before about how some have argued green McMansions are possible. Here is a counterargument from Los Angeles:

After all, McMansions require huge amounts of energy to assemble their building materials and move them to job site.  Furthermore, the houses themselves are massive, which means enormous heating and air conditioning bills, even if their windows are double-paned, their walls padded with extra insulation, and their restaurant-sized refrigerators and stoves Energy Star rated.

Then we need to consider their multiple bathrooms and heated outdoor pools and spas, the most energy intensive features of modern houses.

Other McMansion features also have their detrimental environmental effects.  During demolition they release dust and asbestos into the air.  After construction, their large patios, pools, spas, and double driveways reduce natural open space.  Combined with their elimination of parkway trees and landscaping for driveway cuts, the cumulative result is a heat island with less penetration of rainwater.

Last, but certainly not least, we need to factor in their transportation system.  All McMansions are built on single-family residential lots located away from bus stops and transit stations.  This is why McMansion residents rely on their cars to get around; the only difference being that most of their vehicles are large, thirsty SUVs.

While I suspect while there are some who would never allow a large McMansion style house to be considered green, I look at this list of objections and think that they all could have solutions within the near future. The last one might be the hardest part; while there are McMansions located in denser neighborhoods, typically constructed in a teardown situation, the stereotype is that these homes are located on big lots in exurbs. Add this to the fact that suburban lots and houses are tied into the American Dream and it may be easier to retool a lot of energy consuming devices than push Americans to live in denser communities.

Solar and wind energy sprawl

Here is a different kind of sprawl: in order to produce large amounts of electricity from solar and wind power, solar and wind installations will need a large amount of land:

But there’s the rub: while energy sources like sunlight and wind are free and naturally replenished, converting them into large quantities of electricity requires vast amounts of natural resources — most notably, land. Even a cursory look at these costs exposes the deep contradictions in the renewable energy movement…

The math is simple: to have 8,500 megawatts of solar capacity, California would need at least 23 projects the size of Ivanpah, covering about 129 square miles, an area more than five times as large as Manhattan. While there’s plenty of land in the Mojave, projects as big as Ivanpah raise environmental concerns. In April, the federal Bureau of Land Management ordered a halt to construction on part of the facility out of concern for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Wind energy projects require even more land. The Roscoe wind farm in Texas, which has a capacity of 781.5 megawatts, covers about 154 square miles. Again, the math is straightforward: to have 8,500 megawatts of wind generation capacity, California would likely need to set aside an area equivalent to more than 70 Manhattans. Apart from the impact on the environment itself, few if any people could live on the land because of the noise (and the infrasound, which is inaudible to most humans but potentially harmful) produced by the turbines…

Not all environmentalists ignore renewable energy’s land requirements. The Nature Conservancy has coined the term “energy sprawl” to describe it. Unfortunately, energy sprawl is only one of the ways that renewable energy makes heavy demands on natural resources.

The commentator goes on to recommend using more nuclear and natural gas power as “have smaller footprints.” Is this claim of “sprawl” just a distraction to keep people away from these energy uses? Sprawl is not usually a word you want to be associated with. It implies the wasteful and haphazard use of land, typically referring to the American suburbs where cookie-cutter subdivisions, strip malls, and asphalt (roads and parking lots) have covered open land.

There is still American land that could be used as 5.6% of American land is developed (though farmland might be getting more expensive). What if these power plants were built on land that is already unusable or not arable? Of course, any kind of use would displace animal habitats and disrupt open space – there seem to be more stories these days about the ill effects of wind farms on both nearby animal and human life. But is open space or renewable energy more important? The real question here is whether the use of large amounts of land for green energy is a worthwhile tradeoff compared to other energy sources.

(The use of “a Manhattan” as a unit is interesting: I think it is supposed to represent a recognizable and decent sized chunk of land. We are told you would need “more than 70 Manhattans” to provide electricity for California. But compared to the vastness of the United States, this unit size is silly. Manhattan is 23 square miles so “More than 70 Manhattans” is at least 1,610 square miles. Rhode Island, “the nation’s yardstick,” has 1,045 square miles of land or about 1,500 square miles if you include water (according to the Census). If we roughly multiplied California’s needs times 8 (308 million total Americans divided by California’s roughly 37 million people), we would need about 13,500 square miles for green energy – this is a little bigger than Maryland as a whole. The US has 3.79 million square miles. So there would be room for this green energy (though you would then have to factor in transmission lines) somewhere in the United States.)

h/t Instapundit and The Volokh Conspiracy