The Trouble with the Geography of Renewable Energy

Support for carbon taxes is related to geography, not just political ideology.

It’s also important to look at identification driven by the production of energy. Miners, and people who live in communities dependent on coal, will be pro-coal; so Wyoming is Republican, and the Democrats are losing West Virginia. Similarly roughnecks and their communities in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas will be pro-oil and gas, and indeed vote Republican. Up to now, the production of energy in the USA has meant fossil fuels, and has been so concentrated in a few states that it hasn’t figured on the national map. But renewables change things. Here’s Mitt Romney joining the queue of Republican presidential hopefuls signing a wind turbine blade in a factory in Newton, Iowa. (Credit: Talk Radio News Service.)

Iowa now gets 20% of its electricity from wind, almost at the Danish level. When Iowa farmers look at wind turbines, they don’t see a visual nuisance blocking the noble horizons of the Plains, they see the wings of busy geese laying golden eggs of rent. Politicians can no more oppose tax credits for wind energy in Iowa that the boondoggle of subsidies for ethanol.

Other renewable energy industries also vest interests in rents and jobs and probably create identification. How is this growing producer effect likely to play out over the coming decades?

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has a nice set of maps of US renewable energy resources. I’ll reproduce a few below the jump. You can download others, and hi-res versions. (Warning: quite large page).

Solar PV – concentrating solar is very similar only it’s more picky and you shrink the isoquants:



At present geothermal is is numerically insignificant. I put it in because I bet this will change. Geothermal is the Mercedes of renewable energy: it’s expensive but top quality. Ãslandsbanki (the Icelanders are experts on this) give the capital cost per kw capacity at $4,000, against $2,600 for solar PV and $1,900 for wind. Since the big cost in geothermal is drilling, a mature technology, geothermal costs aren’t likely to come down as fast as those of its rivals are doing. However, with hot dry rock fracking , there is orders of magnitude more recoverable geothermal energy than used to be thought. It’s technically beautiful: reliable (95% capacity factor, beating everything else), safe, frugal with land. As we push the load management envelope with cheap but variable wind and solar, geothermal will compete with storage for the high-cost zero-carbon baseload. For a taste of geothermal’s future, check out this Australian consultant’s newsletter. This is no longer a a research field but a buzzing baby industry, complete with boosterism, takeovers, stock-market warnings, and talk about “plays”.

I’ll leave out biomass, because it’s either marginal (sewage and sawmill waste), a boondoggle (corn ethanol) or dependent on unpredictable future technologies like fermentation from cellulose using GM-ed bugs, far too uncertain to draw a resource map.

Take my three resources, together more than enough to meet all US energy needs. The overall picture is clear. Colorado has everything. South and West of Colorado has solar. North-East of Colorado (the Plains) has wind. The Rockies have geothermal. The Northeast has nothing apart from offshore wind (which generates temporary construction jobs but not rents).

Speculations on the implications:

1. The transmission costs of electricity, on a par with those of oil and gas, are low enough that price differentials are unlikely by themselves to drive settlement patterns. But the concentration won’t do anything to stop the demographic and economic shift to the Sunbelt.

2. The concentration of renewable resources in largely Republican regions may help explain the relatively slow take-up of renewable energy in the USA compared to other developed countries, and the continuing opposition to carbon taxes. However, their rapid development will erode this opposition.

3. If the Democrats play this right (especially ensuring that landowners and local communities benefit) and the Republicans wrong (following denialists rather than Schwarzenegger), the situation offers an opportunity for the Dems to erode Republican support in its heartland.

4. The politics of the national electricity grid, making very slow progress, are made much more difficult by the regional divides. It’s only essential to the North-East.


PS While I’m about it, my simple hydraulic model of energy politics predicts that the Keystone XL pipeline will never be approved. The green forces against were just strong enough in 2011 to get it suspended. Suppose a revised route comes up for decision in 2013. These forces will be that much stronger: reflecting gigawatts more of wind and solar farms and their supply chains, and a significant fleet of electric cars.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]