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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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The true price of power

I have long known that there is nothing remotely `green' about putting wind farms all over the countryside, with their eagle-slicing, bat-popping, subsidy-eating, rare-earth-demanding, steel-rich, intermittent-output characteristics. But until I read Robert Bryce's superb and sober new book Power Hungry, I had not realised just how dreadfully bad for the environment nearly all renewable energy is.

Bryce calculates that one Texas nuclear plant generates about 56 watts per square metre. This compares with 53 for gas turbines, 1.2 for wind, 6.7 for solar or 0.05 for corn ethanol. Sorry, but what is so green about using 45 times as much land - and ten times as much steel - to produce the same amount of power? It does not surprise me that those with vested interest in renewables close their minds to this, but it genuinely baffles me that other people don't get it.

I've dealt with bird killing elsewhere, but Bryce contrasts the prosecution of Exxon for killing 85 birds in uncovered tanks with the fact that:

Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy estimates that between 75,000 and 275,000 birds per year were being killed by U.S. wind turbines. And yet, the Department of Justice won't press charges. `Somebody has given the wind industry a get-out-of-jail-free card' Fry told me.

Bryce goes on to show that wind power does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions. At all. Even in Denmark, with its unique ability to switch Norwegian hydro plants on and off when needed:

If Denmark's huge wind-power sector were reducing carbon dioxide emissions, you'd expect the Danes to be bragging about it, right? Well, guess what? They're not...The September 2009 study by CEPOS [a Copenhagen think thank] said that Denmark's wind industry `saves neither fossil fuel consumption nor carbon dioxide emissions'.

Then there's the need for long transmission lines to link up remote renewable power plants with customers. Recently wind farms in Oregon were forced to feather their blades because they were producing far too much power for the local grid during a sudden storm. The solution is better linkage between local grids, but that means more pylons. Wind alone will require 40,000 miles of new power lines - covering an area the size of Rhode Island.

Then there are the rare earths, or lanthanides. The wind industry relies almost entirely on neodymium-iron-boron magnets, importing all the neodymium from China.

Environmental activists in the United States and other countries may lust mightily for a high-tech, hybrid-electric no-carbon, super-hyphenated future. But the reality is that that vision depends mightily on lanthanides and lithium. That means mining. And China controls nearly all the world's existing mines that produce lanthanides.

Bryce's book is more than a demolition of renewable energy. It contains a fascinating and detailed account of the shale gas revolution and of the latest developments in modular nuclear technology. It makes a persuasive case that this century will be dominated by `N2N' energy - natural gas to nuclear - and that the consequence of the rise of both will be continuing steady decarbonisation of the economy. This is the best book on energy I have read. It confirms my optimism - and my rejection of the renewable myth.