Tag Archives: environment

The Green March Madness Tournament: Setting the 2018 NCAA Tournament Field According to Sustainability

With the Super Bowl in the rearview window and the calendar about to turn to March, the attention of the sports world is about to be completely focused on college basketball and the annual NCAA Basketball Tournament (March Madness). Every year, this 68-team tournament captures the attention of people across the country, whether they are diehard fans or non-sports fans who  are simply participating in the office pool.

Not only does the NCAA Basketball Tournament serve as fodder around the water cooler, with billions of dollars of productivity lost in the American workplace every year, not only in watching the games but also in the various (sometimes unconventional) methods people use to pick the winners in their bracket. You may have seen people choose winners based on which team’s mascot would win in a fight, by choosing the schools with the superior academics, or even by choosing winners based on who has the most attractive head coach (shout out to my alma mater, University of Virginia, that AOL astutely points out would win in this last scenario).

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So with the Selection Committee currently watching the last few games of the regular season as teams try to bolster their chances of making the NCAA Basketball Tournament, I thought I’d take a look at how March Madness would look if the field was selected based on each school’s efforts towards sustainability, energy efficiency, and environmentalism– call it the 2018 Green March Madness Tournament!

This article will take all eligible NCAA schools and create the field of 68 for a tournament, but playing it out won’t be all that interesting because the top seeds will obviously ‘win’ each match up until the Final Four. So keep reading to see the 68 teams that make the tournament and find out which top seed comes out on top– but stay tuned once the NCAA puts out the actual bracket for the NCAA Basketball Tournament because I’ll do a follow-up article and revisit this concept to see who would win each of those real-life matchups based on who rated higher on sustainability!



Metrics used

After extensive research, I found three different measurements and rankings that look at the efforts of colleges and universities across the United States to incorporate sustainable practices, energy-saving measures, and environmentally-friendly practices. The latest version of the data for these measures, which are explained in detail below, were pulled to serve as the metrics of who would participate in the 2018 Green March Madness Tournament.

The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) uses its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS) to measure how successfully institutions have been performing in sustainability matters. The mission statement of STARS details how it “is intended to engage and recognize the full spectrum of colleges and universities- from community colleges to research universities- and encompasses long-term sustainability goals for already high-achieving institutions as well as entry points of recognition for institutions that are taking first steps towards sustainability.”

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STARS is completely voluntary, transparent, and based on self reporting. Dozens of different metrics are included in the STARS measurements, including in the categories of curriculum (e.g., whether the institution offers sustainability-focused degree programs), campus engagement (e.g., whether sustainability-related outreach campaigns are held on campus), energy use (e.g., availability of clean and renewable energy sources on campus), transportation (e.g., inclusion of alternative fuel or hybrid electric vehicles in the institution’s fleet), and many more that are found in the credit checklist.

Based on performance based on these metrics, each school can earn up to 100 points and a corresponding rating of STARS Reporter, STARS Bronze, STARS Silver, STARS Gold, or STARS Platinum. Because STARS is self-reported, institutions can continually make improvements and resubmit for a higher score. However for the sake of this Green March Madness Tournament, the latest scores for all schools playing Division I NCAA basketball were pulled as of the beginning of February 2018, with any schools not participating in the STARS program receiving a score of zero.

The Cool Schools Ranking

The Sierra Club publishes an annual ranking called the Cool Schools Ranking to measure which schools are doing the most towards the Sierra Club’s broader sustainability priorities. The data for the Cool Schools Ranking largely comes from the STARS submissions as well, though with some key changes— the Sierra Club identifies the 62 questions of the STARS survey that they consider the most crucial to their definition of sustainability and put that data in a custom-built formula, they only use information submitted or updated to STARS within the past year, and they asked institutions to also detail what moves they have made to divest their endowment from fossil fuel companies (a question not asked by STARS).

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As with STARS, participation in the Sierra Club’s rankings is completely voluntary and transparent, ultimately resulting in a numeric value on the 1000-point scale to use for the rankings.  For the scoring towards the Green March Madness Tournament, all eligible teams had their Cool Schools Ranking score pulled and divided by 10 (so it would be on a 100-point scale like the STARS rating), while schools that were not included in the ranking were given a score of zero.

SaveOnEnergy Green Score

The last of the three rating systems used for the Green March Madness Tournament is the 2017 Green Score given by SaveOnEnergy.com. The goal of this scoring system is to give credit to institutions making “noteworthy progress in eco-friendliness and sustainability.” The SaveOnEnergy Green Score takes the top 100 schools in the U.S. News & World Report and awards them scores based on their Princeton Review Green Score, as well as state data on farmers markets, local public transportation options and walkability scores, density of parks in the area of the school, state data on clean and renewable energy options, and availability of green jobs.

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The data for the SaveOnEnergy Green Score is a mix of voluntary data (e.g., data submitted to the Princeton Review Green Score) and mandatory statistics (e.g., state data on energy options and green jobs). In the end, SaveOnEnergy takes all of these factors to create a final score out of 100– though the score is only published for the top 25 schools, and the remaining schools are ranked without their score displayed. To account for this, a best-fit equation was used to correlate ranking with the score of the top 25 schools and extrapolated that equation to determine a score for the remaining ranked schools. Schools that did not make the SaveOnEnergy Green Score list were given a score of zero.

Final Green March Madness Tournament score

In the end, all 351 schools that participate in Division I basketball (representing 32 different athletic conferences) were given a final score that was the average of the STARS score, the Cool Schools Ranking score divided by 10, and the SaveOnEnergy Green Score, so that the final score is also on a 100-point scale (the final scores for all schools can be found in this article’s accompanying Google Spreadsheet).

Before moving forward, let’s make clear that this ranking system is mostly just for an overview of sustainability scores among schools based on publicly available data, and it should by no means be considered comprehensive. Indeed, each of the three ranking systems make clear that there are many more schools that care about energy and the environment and are also making great strides that do not appear on these lists. These schools might not have the time or resources to submit their data, the submission of the data to these third parties was not a priority, or they simply weren’t included on the U.S. News & World Report Top 100 Universities list and so their data was not included in the SaveOnEnergy Green Score list.

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That being said, schools that take the time to report their sustainability are showing that doing so is a priority to them and demonstrating a commitment to the cause that should be applauded and recognized. While there are many schools that didn’t report their data that are certainly still environmentally friendly (indeed, about half of the schools in Division I basketball ended up with a score of zero for not appearing in any of the three lists, but it would be foolish to believe that none of those 178 schools are working towards energy efficiency and sustainability), the submission of data can be considered a sign that transparency regarding sustainability is important to those in charge and thus the reporting schools earn a well-deserved place in the Green March Madness Tournament scoring. For that reason, the rest of this article will unapologetically use the Green March Madness Tournament Score as the definitive factor to determine sustainability rankings of the schools.

Quick facts and figures

Before moving on to selecting which teams made the prestigious Green March Madness Tournament, let’s take a look at a few quick facts from the scoring:

  • 173 out of 351 teams registered a score greater than zero on the Green March Madness Tournament Score, meaning over 100 schools who registered a non-zero score will still find themselves on the outside looking in.
  • Even rarer, though, are teams that have scores in all three scoring metrics used. Only 33 teams have a non-zero score in all three metrics, while only 112 teams have a non-zero score in two or more metrics.
  • As shown below in the table of conferences and conference champions, the highest score went to American University of the Patriot League with 73.4, while the lowest non-zero score went to South Dakota State of the Summit League with 9.2.
  • Looking at each of the 32 conferences:
    • 4 conferences (Pacific-12, Big Ten, Ivy League, and Atlantic Coast) had 100% of their teams score greater than zero.
    • 2 conferences (Atlantic Sun and Northeast) had only a single team score greater than zero, thus making the crowning of a conference champion rather easy.
    • 5 conferences (Big South, Metro Atlantic Athletic, Mid-Eastern Athletic, Southland, and Southwestern Athletic) didn’t have any teams score greater than zero.

Selecting the field

Even though this is mostly a silly exercise, I still wanted to follow the protocol of the real NCAA Basketball Tournament Selection Committee when determining who should make this ‘Big Green Dance’ (and, in doing so, gained some respect for the massive amount of puzzle pieces they must juggle!). The process is famously intense, with 10 committee members spending countless hours keeping up with the college basketball landscape during the year, only to convene for a five-day selection process that requires hundreds of secret ballots.

The entire process is very detailed, but it can be boiled down as follows:

  1. All 32 conference champions receive an automatic bid into the tournament
  2. The next best 36 teams are then chosen as ‘at-large bids’ to bring the total field to 68 teams
  3. All 68 teams are ranked from top to bottom, regardless of their status as a conference champion
  4. The top four teams are ranked as number one seeds in each of the four regions, then the next four are two seeds, the next four are three seeds, etc.
  5. While placing teams into each region, care is taken to ensure that each of the four regions is fairly equally balanced and that teams that played each other during the season are prevented from  having a rematch in the tournament until the later rounds (teams can be bumped up/down by a seed or two to assist in these requirements)
  6. The last four teams to make the tournament in at-large bids and the last four teams to make the field altogether are paired off to compete in the First Four games, with the winners advancing to the remaining field of 64.

While the criteria used to rank teams for the Selection Committee include resources such as the Rating Percentage Index (RPI), evaluations of quality wins based on where the game took place and how good the opponent was, and various computer metrics, things are easier in the Green March Madness Tournament Selection Committee as we only need to use the single number result of the Green March Madness Tournament Score.

The 68-team field

The bracket

For the full suite of teams, conferences, and scores, refer to the accompanying Google Spreadsheet of final figures. Using these numbers and sticking to the above selection guidelines as much as possible, the following bracket is the official result for the 2018 Green March Madness Tournament Bracket:

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Breaking it down by each region for ease of reading:

The East region

The West region

The Midwest region

The South region

Note that the five conferences that didn’t produce a single team with a non-zero score would still get the automatic bids for their conference champion (four as play-in teams for the First Four and one more as a 16 seed without a play-in game), so perhaps they’ll draw straws to see who gets to go into the tournament. Regardless, they are in the bracket and labeled as that conference’s champion (placed in no particular order), just waiting to be beaten soundly by their respective sustainable opponents.

Analysis of the field

In terms of conferences, we see big winners come from the Pacific-12 (8 tournament teams) and the Big Ten (7 tournament teams), but in third is the surprise conference of the Ivy League (6 tournament teams) who is rarely in the conversation for getting more than a single team in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. On the other end of the surprises, the Big East and the Southeastern Conference (both major conferences that typically nab a handful of bids each) were kept to only one team each in the tournament.

For individual teams, we find some other surprises. A number of perennial stalwarts of the college basketball scene find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on the outside looking in– 7 out of the 10 teams with the most NCAA Tournament appearances failed to receive a Green March Madness Tournament big (Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, Louisville, Duke, Notre Dame, and Syracuse). On the other side of the coin, five teams (Denver, New Hampshire, William & Mary, UC Riverside, and Bryant University) that have never made the NCAA Tournament have finally found success with the Green March Madness Tournament.

Another common exercise leading up to the announcement of the NCAA Basketball Tournament teams is looking at the bubble teams, those that are just on the edge of making the tournament but find themselves potentially falling just short.  The most painfully close bubble teams for the 2018 Green March Madness Tournament were the five teams that fell less than one point shy of an at-large bid: Louisville, Northern Arizona, Ohio State, IUPUI, and Arkansas. Most painful was Louisville who fell just 0.12 points shy of being the last team in (though maybe it was serendipity– who knows if Louisville would have had to vacate that appearance, too).

What did the top performing schools have in common?

Looking at the teams that scored particularly high and scored the best seeds in the Green March Madness Tournament, a couple of trends appear:

  • Sustainability-focused schools: It’s worth noting that every team that was ranked in all three metrics ended up with a good enough score to make the tournament. As previously noted, such commitment to ensuring data is delivered for all three metrics shows the cause of sustainability is a priority and these schools are naturally rewarded by being guaranteed to make the Green March Madness Tournament.
  • City schools: A common theme found in the upper half of the schools that made the Green March Madness Tournament is that the are located in or near major U.S. cities (including one seeds American University and George Washington, three seed Northwestern, four seed Columbia, six seed Boston University, seven seed Denver, and eight seed Miami (FL)). The reason an urban setting might help schools score well in these rankings is because cities are more likely to have local sustainability organizations to partner with the school, access to effective public transportation, high walkability scores, and other nearby resources from the community that can be used for the school as well. Each of these factors positively effects the ratings that go into the Final Green March Madness Tournament Scores.
  • Green states:  Outside of the city in which a school is located, the state a school is in (and the state’s relative ‘green-ness’) has significant impact. The top of the tournament seeding is populated with teams from states often considered particularly green by various metrics. For example, the annual state scorecard rankings from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE)  shows heavy representation from the top five states in the ACEEE scorecard in the Green March Madness Tournament: Massachusetts (Boston University, Harvard, Massachusetts), California (UC Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, UC Riverside, San Jose State, UC Irvine, Cal State Northridge, California, San Diego), Rhode Island (Brown, Bryant University), Vermont (Vermont), and Oregon (Oregon State, Portland State, Oregon, Pacific). Together, those five states account for over a quarter of the teams that made the Green March Madness Tournament, reflecting the benefits to institutions in states that commit to green jobs, renewable energy development, and other sustainability initiatives.

The National Champion

The downside of filling out our bracket based on the Green March Madness Tournament Scores is that by continuing through with the tournament, we won’t find any upsets and the top seeds will always win (again, we’ll revisit once the real NCAA Basketball Tournament bracket is released to see which of those teams would win based on sustainability). In the end, our Final Four is made up of all one seeds, as shown below, with the final champion being…

Drumroll…

 

American University! In the three times appearing in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Eagles have gone winless– but once the Green March Madness Tournament comes along they go all the way! Congratulations to them, and best of luck to all schools in the ‘real’ tournament in March, to all schools looking to improve their sustainability scores before next year’s Green March Madness Tournament, and to all of you in finding the best way to fill out the brackets for you office pool this year!

Sources and additional reading

Cool Schools 2017 Full Ranking: Sierra Club

March Madness bracket: How the 68 teams are selected for the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament: NCAA

SaveOnEnergy 2017 Green Report: Top Universities in the U.S.: SaveOnEnergy

The Sustainable Tracking, Assessment & Rating System: Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.  

Drilling in the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Reserve vs. Renewable Energy: The Drilling Debate, Economic and Environmental Effects, and How Solar and Wind Energy Investment Would Compare

In a first for this blog, the focus of this post comes directly from a reader request– so I’ll let this person’s words speak for themselves:

With Congress recently passing a bill allowing for drilling of oil and gas in Alaska’s Arctic National Wilidlife Refuge (ANWR), it got me curious (as a citizen of the sun-rich American Southwest) how much land would need to be covered in solar panels in order to generate the same amount of energy that would be found in these potential new oil and gas drilling sites. Obviously each energy source would have their individual costs to consider, but I am curious as to how efficient and cost-effective it would be to drill in the Alaskan arctic if there are cleaner and cheaper alternatives– it seems covering up the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona could be preferable to potentially harming some of the Alaskan environment and wildlife. Is drilling in this new area even an efficient and safe way for us to get additional oil and gas?
– Case

I loved the thoughtfulness and importance of this question and was inspired to immediately jump into research (also I was so happy to have a suggestion from an outside perspective– so if you read this or any of my other posts and you get inspired or curious, please do reach out to me!). From my perspective, this overall inquiry can be broken down into five questions to be answered individually:

  1. What is ANWR and what exactly did Congress authorize with regards to drilling in ANWR?
  2. How much potential oil and gas would be produced from the drilling?
  3. What are the economics associated with extracting and using oil and gas from ANWR?
  4. What are the environmental effects of that drilling?
  5. Can we do better to just install renewable energy resources instead of drilling in ANWR? How much capacity in renewable sources would be needed? How would the costs of renewable installations compare with the ANWR drilling?



Question 1: What is ANWR and what exactly did Congress authorize with regards to drilling in ANWR?

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, has long been a flash point topic of debate, viewed by proponents of oil and gas drilling as a key waiting to unlock fuel and energy independence in the United States, while opponents argue that such drilling unnecessarily threatens the habitat of hundreds of species of wildlife and the pristine environment that’s been protected for decades. ANWR is a 19.6-million-acre section of northeastern Alaska, long considered one of the most pristine and preserved nature refuges in the United States. Having stayed untouched for so long has allowed the native population of polar bears, caribou, moose, wolverines, and more to flourish. ANWR was only able to remain pristine due to oil and gas drilling in the refuge being banned in 1980 by the Alaskan National Interest Conservation Act, with Section 1002 of that act deferring decision on the management of oil and gas exploration on a 1.5-million-acre coastal plane area of ANWR known to have the greatest potential for fossil fuels. This stretch of ANWR has since become known as the ‘1002 Area.’

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This 1002 Area of ANWR is at the center of the ANWR debate, as Presidents and Congresses have had to fight various bills over the past couple decades that sought to lift those drilling bans, doing so successfully until recently. At the end of 2017, with Republicans (who have long been pushing to allow such oil and gas exploration in ANWR) controlling the White House and both Houses of Congress, decisive action was finally made. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led by Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, voted in November to approve a bill that would allow oil and gas exploration, with that bill ultimately getting attached to and approved along with the Senate’s tax-reform package in December, with the justification for that attachment being that the drilling would help pay for the proposed tax cuts.

Specifically, the legislation that ended the ban on oil and gas drilling in ANWR did so by mandating two lease sales (of at least 400,000 acres each) in the 1002 Area over the next 10 years. The government’s royalties on these leases are expected to generate over $2 billion, half of which would go to Alaska and the other half to the federal government.

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Question 2: How much potential oil and gas would be produced from the drilling?

This really is the million dollar (or, rather, billion dollar) question, because part of the issue is that no one really knows how much fossil fuel is hidden deep under ANWR. The situation is a bit of a catch-22, as you cannot get a good idea for how much oil there is without drilling, but under the drilling ban you cannot explore how much there is. A number of surface geology and seismic exploration surveys have been conducted, and the one exploratory drilling project by oil companies was allowed in the mid-1980s, but the results of that study remain a heavily guarded secret to this day (although National Geographic has previously reported that the results of the test were disappointing). In contrast even to regions bordering ANWR in Alaska that have the benefit of exploratory drilling, any analysis of the 1002 Area is restricted to field studies, well data, and analysis of seismic data.

The publicly available estimates from the 1998 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) (the most recent one done on the 1002 Area) indicate there are between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable crude oil products and between 3.48 and 10.02 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of technically recoverable natural gas in the coastal plain of ANWR. Even though there is that much oil and gas that is technically recoverable, though, does not mean that all of it would be economical to recover. A 2008 report by the Department of Energy (DOE), based on the 1998 USGS survey and acknowledging the uncertainty in the USGS numbers given that the technology for the USGS survey is now outdated, estimates that development of the 1002 Area would actually result in 1.9 to 4.3 billion barrels of crude oil extracted over a 13-year period (while the rest of the oil would not be cost effective to extract). The report also estimates that peak oil production would range from 510,000 barrels per day (b/d) to 1.45 million b/d. These estimates must be taken with a grain of salt, however, as not only are they based on the use of now-outdated technology, but the technology to extract oil is also greatly improved. These technology improvements mean the USGS estimates could be low, but on the other side, oil exploration is always a lottery and recent exploration near ANWR has been disappointing. That’s all to say, current estimate are just that, estimates– which makes the weighing of pros and cons of drilling all the more complicated.

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The 2008 DOE report did not assess the potential extraction of natural gas reserves (note that much of the analysis and debate surrounding ANWR drilling focuses mainly on the oil reserves and not the natural gas reserves, likely because the oil is more valuable, cost-effective to extract, and in demand. Where relevant, I will include the facts and figures of natural gas in addition to the oil, but note that certain parts of this analysis will have to center just on the oil based the the availability of data).

To put that in context, the total U.S. proved crude oil reserves at the end of 2015 were 35.2 billion barrels, so the technically recoverable oil in the 1002 Area would account for 12 to 34% of total U.S. oil reserves. At the end of 2015 the U.S. proved reserves of natural gas were 324.3 TCF, making the technically recoverable natural gas in the 1002 Area equal to 1 to 3% of total U.S. natural gas reserves. Put another way, the the technically recoverable oil reserves would equal 218 to 599 days worth of U.S. oil consumption (using the 2016 daily average), while the natural gas reserves would equal 47 to 134 days worth of U.S. natural gas consumption (using the 2016 daily average).

Question 3: What are the economics associated with extracting and using oil and gas from ANWR?

In addition to the push towards ‘energy independence’ (i.e., minimizing the need for oil imports from foreign nations where prices and availability can be volatile), a main motivation for drilling in the 1002 Area of ANWR is the economic benefits it could bring. In addition to the $1 billion for the Alaskan government and $1 billion for the federal government from the leasing of the land, Senator Murkowski boasted that the eventual oil and gas production would bring in more than $100 billion for the federal treasury through federal royalties on the oil extracted from the land.

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However, these theorized economic benefits to drilling is strongly disputed by the plan’s opponents, with president of the Wilderness Society noting that ‘the whole notion that you are going to trim a trillion-dollar deficit with phony oil revenue is just a cynical political ploy.’ When digging into the numbers more closely, the $1 billion to the federal government from leasing the land would end up offsetting less than 0.1% of the $1.5 trillion in tax  cuts to which the drilling provision was attached (while some analyses question whether the land would gather that much in reality, noting the estimates assume oil leases selling for 10 times what they sold for a year ago when domestic oil was scarcer and more expensive).

Outside of the federal revenue, the money coming to the Alaskan government would be even more influential, which is why the charge to open ANWR to drilling is often led by Alaskan policymakers. In fact, while a majority of Americans oppose drilling in ANWR, most Alaskans are cited as supporting responsible oil exploration. While that may seem counterintuitive, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation explains that “a clear majority of the North Slope support responsible development in ANWR; they should have the same rights to economic self-determination as people in the rest of the United States.

In addition to the money raised by the government is the potential economic benefit to the country from the extraction of the oil. According to the previously mentioned 2008 DOE report, the extraction of the ANWR oil would reduce the need for the United States to import $135 to $327 billion of oil. This shift would have a positive benefit to the U.S. balance of trade by that same amount, but the reduction of reliance on imported foreign oil would only drop from 54% to 49%, and the effect on global oil prices would be small enough to be neutralized by modest collective action by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), meaning U.S. consumers would likely not see an effect on their energy prices.

The last economic consideration would be the worth of the oil and the cost to the companies doing the drilling to extract and bring to market the oil products. A study done by the researchers at Elsevier found that the worth of the oil in the 1002 Area of ANWR is $374 billion, while the cost to extract and bring to market would be $123 billion. The difference, $251 billion, would be the profits to the companies— which theoretically would generate social/economic benefits through means such as industry rents, tax revenues, and jobs created and sustained.

So in short, the decision about whether or not to drill in ANWR has the potential to cause a significant economic effect for the federal and Alaskan state governments, the oil companies who win the leasing auctions, and those who might be directly impacted from increased profits to the oil and gas companies. As with all analytical aspects of ANWR drilling, though, the exact scale of that effect is hotly debated and subject to the great uncertainty surrounding how much oil and gas are technically recoverable from the 1002 Area. Further, the amount of oil that is economically sound to recover and put into the market (not to mention the price oil and gas companies would be willing to spend on leasing this land) is entirely depending on the ever-fluctuating and difficult to forecast price of crude oil, adding further potential variability to the estimates.

Question 4: What are the environmental effects of that drilling?

As previously noted, drilling in ANWR is an especially sensitive environmental  subject because it is one of the very few places left on Earth that remains pristine and untouched by humanity’s polluted fingerprint. The vast and beautiful land has been described by National Geographic as ‘primordial wilderness that stretches from spruce forests in the south, over the jagged Brooks Range, onto gently sloping wetlands that flow into the ice-curdled Beaufort Sea’ and is often called ‘America’s Serengeti.’ In terms of wildlife, ANWR is noted as fertile ground for its dozens of species of land and marine mammals (notably caribou and polar bears) and hundreds of species of migratory birds from six continents and each of the 48 contiguous United States.

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While the exact environmental effects of oil exploration and drilling are not known for certain, the potential ills that can befall the environment and wildlife in ANWR include the following:

  • Oil development is found to be very disruptive to the area’s famed porcupine caribou, potentially threatening their existence (an existence which the native Gwich’in people depend upon for survival), with the Canadian government even issuing a statement in the wake of the ANWR drilling bill reminding the U.S. government of the 1987 bilateral agreement to conserve the caribou and their habitat;
  • ANWR consists of a biodiversity that’s so unique globally that the opportunity for scientific study is huge, and any development of that land is a threat to that existing natural biodiversity in irreparable way;
  • The National Academy of Sciences has concluded that once oil and gas infrastructure are built in the Alaskan arctic region, it would be unlikely for that infrastructure to ever be removed or have the land be fully restored, as doing so would be immensely difficult and costly;
  • Anywhere that oil and gas drilling occurs opens up the threat of further environmental damage from oil spills, such as the recent BP oil leak in the North Slopes of Alaska that was caused by thawing permafrost; and
  • Not only do the direct effects of drilling for oil in ANWR need to be considered, but also the compounding effects that the eventual burning of that oil must be weighed. The use of the oil contained underground in Alaska will only serve to increase the effects of climate change in the Arctic, where temperatures already rise twice as quickly as the world average. The shores of Alaska are ground zero for the effects of climate change, with melting sea ice and rising sea levels causing additional concerns for survival of both wildlife and human populations that call Alaska home. The most climate-friendly way to treat the oil underneath ANWR would be to leave it in the ground.

Question 5: Can we do better to just install renewable energy resources instead of drilling in ANWR? How much capacity in renewable sources would be needed? How would the costs of renewable installations compare with ANWR drilling?

Part 1: Can we just install renewable energy instead of drilling?

At the crux of the original question was whether the country would be better off if we diverted resources away from ANWR drilling and instead developed comparable renewable energy sources. While this question is rooted in noble intent, the reality of the situation is that it would not always work in practice to swap the energy sources one-for-one.

Looking at the way in which petroleum (which includes all oils and liquid fuels derived from oil drilling) was used in the United States in 2016 using the below graphic that is created every year by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (a DOE national lab), we find that 35.9 quadrillion Btus (or quads) of petroleum were consumed. This massive sum of oil energy (more than the total primary energy, regardless of fuel type, consumed by any single country other than the United States and Canada in 2015) is broken down as 25.7 quads (72%) in the transportation sector, 8.12 quads (23%) in the industrial sector, 1.02 quads (3% in the residential sector, 0.88 quads (2%) in the commercial sector, and 0.24 quads (1%) in the electric power sector. Meanwhile, the 28.5 quads of natural gas goes 36% to the electric power sector, 34% to the industrial sector, 16% to the residential sector, 11% to the commercial sector, and 3% to the transportation sector.

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(side note– I think this is one of the most useful graphics created to understand the U.S. energy landscape every year. I have it printed and hanging at my desk and if you are trying to learn more about the different energy types and relative sizes of the energy sector then I recommend this as a great graphic to always have handy)

Compare this breakdown with some of the non-fossil fuels:

  • 100% of wind power (2.11 quads) goes to the electric power sector;
  • 99% of hydropower (2.48 quads) goes to the electric power sector, with the rest going to the industrial sector;
  • 70% of geothermal power (0.16 quads) goes to the electric power sector, with the rest going to the residential and commercial sectors (using geothermal as a heat source as a direct substitute for the electric power sector); and
  • 58% of solar power (0.34 quads) goes to the electric power sector, while 27% goes to residential sector (in the form of residential solar generation or solar heating, essentially a direct substitute for the electric power sector), 12% goes to the commercial sector (also basically a direct substitute for the electric power sector), and less than 1% goes to the industrial sector.

We see that renewable energy sources are capable of displacing a large chunk of the electric power sector, particularly the types of renewable sources like wind and solar that could be installed in vast open land like the original question asked. However, the oil and gas resources that are the subject of the ANWR debate are largely not powering electricity generation, and as such renewable energy sources cannot easily displace most of the uses of the oil and gas.

The issue with thinking ‘why don’t we not drill and instead just invest in renewable energy’ is that in today’s world, there are lots of uses of energy that can only be served, or at least can only be served optimally, by oil products. For example, renewable fuel replacements for jet fuel are not very promising on a one or two generation timescale and 43% of industrial heating applications require temperatures (above 750 degrees Fahrenheit) that cannot be met by electric means or renewable heating technologies. And regarding the millions of cars on the road, the most pervasive and entrenched oil use in daily life, the looming transition to electric vehicles is taking a long time for a reason– not the least of which is that gasoline’s energy density remains unmatched to deliver power in such a safe, economical, and space-efficient manner. Indeed when analysts or journalists speculate about the world using up all of the oil, what they’re really talking about is the transportation sector because other sectors already largely utilize other fuel types. So when considering where renewable energy can replace fossil fuels, it is important to note that the transportation sector and industrial sector are powered 95% and 72%, respectively, by oil and gas, and that there are sometimes technological, institutional, and infrastructure-related reasons for that that go beyond price and availability.

That said, we are experiencing the eventual shift of some energy uses away from fossil fuels– notably in the transportation sector– but many of these shifts will take time and money to convert infrastructure. Many continue to study and debate whether we’ll be able to convert to 100% renewable energy without the aid of fossil fuels (with some concluding it’s possible, others that it’s not), and if so how far away are we from such an energy landscape. Even considering that it will take 10 years from passing of legislation to beginning of actual ANWR oil production, the American energy mix is only expected to change so much in the next few decades (see the Energy Information Administration forecast for renewable energy, natural gas, and liquid oil fuels below), and for better or worse fossil fuels look to be a part of that mix.

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The most significant area in which renewable energy can continue to make headway is the electricity generation sector, the sector that is most suited for renewables even though they only account for 17% of total generation as of 2017. In the meantime, though, fossil fuels like oil and gas will play a crucial role in the energy markets and the potential windfall of resources laying readily underground will continue to be seen as valuable to oil and gas companies (though it is important to ask whether, in the midst of increasing availability of shale oil, will the energy markets need the ANWR oil or will the oil companies even want to gamble on the risky and expensive play).

Part 2: But theoretically, how much renewable energy would need to be installed to account for the energy that would be extracted from ANWR?

All that said, though, for the sake of the academic exercise originally asked, let’s ignore the differences between fuel types and assume that by leaving all the oil and gas from the 1002 Area in the ground and instead installing renewable energy sources (i.e., wind and solar farms) we can extract the same amount of energy for the same needs.

The 2008 DOE report estimated between 1.9 and 4.3 billion barrels of crude oil would be extracted in a developed ANWR. This amount of oil can be converted to between 10.5 and 23.9 quads. The peak extraction according to the DOE report would end up being between 867 and 2,464 gigawatt-hours (GWh) per day.

The 1998 USGS Survey pegged the technically recoverable pegged the technically recoverable natural gas at between 3.48 and 10.02 TCF, which easily converts to between 3.48 and 10.02 quads. Because the DOE report did not break down how much of the technically recoverable natural gas would actually be economical to extract, we’ll assume for simplicity’s sake that it all will be extracted (there’s enough uncertainty in the estimates in all of the USGS and DOE numbers that we need not worry about exactness, but rather make the estimates needed to get an order of magnitude estimate). Without any estimates about the rate of extraction expected from the natural gas, we’ll make a very back-of-the-envelope estimate that it will peak proportionally with oil and reach a maximum rate of 274 to 990 GWh per day.

Adding the cumulative crude oil and natural gas extracted from the 1002 Area would be between 14.0 and 33.9 quads— an amount of energy that would find itself somewhere between the total 2016 U.S. consumption of coal (14.2 quads) and petroleum (35.9 quads). Adding the peak rate of oil and gas extracted from ANWR would imply the total peak of oil plus natural gas of between 1,140 and 3,454 GWh per day (we’re again playing fast and loose with some natural gas assumptions here). This range of rates for the peak energy being pumped into the total U.S. energy supply will be the numbers used to compare with renewable energy rather than the cumulative energy extracted.*

*The reason for this is because it is the best basis of comparison we have to the renewable nature of solar and wind. Why is that? At first glance it would seem that once the cumulative fossil fuels are used up that the installed renewables would then really shine as their fuel is theoretically limitless. However that would be an oversimplification, as every solar panel and wind turbine is made from largely non-renewable sources and the technologies behind them have a limited lifespan (about 25 years for solar panels and 12 to 15 years for wind turbines). As such, every utility-scale renewable energy plant will need replacing in the future, likely repeatedly over the decades. So while the renewable energy sources will not dry up, it is still important to look at the sources from a daily or yearly capacity basis instead of cumulative energy production. Additionally, energy (whether oil or renewable energy) is not extracted and transported all at once, that process takes time. Because of this, energy markets center around the rate of energy delivery and not the cumulative energy delivery.

So given our target range of 1,140 to 3,454 GWh/day, how much solar or wind would need to be installed?

Solar

The reader who asked this question comes from prime solar power territory, so let’s start there. In 2013, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) released a report on how much land was used by solar power plants across the United States. With regards to the total area (meaning not just the solar panels but all of the required equipment, buildings, etc.), the generation-weighted average land use was between 2.8 and 5.3 acres per GWh per year, depending on the type of solar technology used. Using the most land-efficient technology (2.8 acres per GWh per year using increasingly common technology that tilts the solar panels to track the sun throughout the day), this amount of solar power would require about 1,166,000 to 3,530,000 acres, or about 4,700 to 14,300 square kilometers, of land.

Source

For reference, in the sun-bathed state of New Mexico, the largest city by land area is Albuquerque at 469 square kilometers. Given that, to equal peak potential oil output from the 1002 Area of ANWR woudl required solar power plant installations with land area about 10 to 30 times greater than Albuquerque. With the whole state of New Mexico totaling 314,258 square kilometers, the amount of land required for solar installations would be between 2 to 5% of New Mexico’s entire land area (put another way, the lower end of the land-requirement range is the size of Rhode Island and the upper end of the land-requirement range is the size of Connecticut).

Wind

Wind energy is set to take over as the number one American source of renewable energy by the end of 2019, a trend that is likely to continue in the future. One reason for the increasing capacity of U.S. wind power in the electric power sector is its ability to be installed both on land and in the water (i.e., onshore wind and offshore wind). Depending on whether the wind power installed is onshore or offshore, the efficiency, cost, and land-use requirements will vary.

NREL also conducted studies of the land-use requirements of wind energy. For both onshore and offshore wind installations, based on the existing wind projects studied, the wind power generating capacity per area (i.e., the capacity density) comes out to an average of 3.0 megawatts (MW) per square kilometer. As with the solar power land-use requirements, note that this figure goes beyond the theoretical space required by physics but includes all required equipment and land-use averaged across all projects.

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Operating at 100% capacity, that 3.0 MW per square kilometer would translate to 72 megatwatt-hours (MWh) produced per square kilometer each day. However utility scale wind power does not operate anywhere near 100% due to the prevalence of low wind speeds and changing directionality of winds, among other reasons. NREL’s Transparent Cost Database indicates that offshore wind operates at a median capacity factor of 43.00%, while onshore wind operates at a median of 40.35% capacity. Accounting for these figures, the land use of offshore wind energy comes out to 31.0 MWh per square kilometer per day, with onshore wind energy averaging 29.1 MWh per square kilometer per day. To reach the 1,140 and 3,454 GWh per day from peak-ANWR-oil would thus require about 33,000 to 100,000 square kilometers of area for offshore wind energy and about 35,000 to 107,000 square kilometers of land for onshore wind energy.

Using the same references points as with solar, wind energy resources would require an area roughly between 71 to 228 times the size of Albuquerque, between 11 and 34% the size of New Mexico, or a land-use requirement between the sizes of Maryland and Kentucky. It might seem jarring to realize just how much more land would be required for wind energy than solar energy, but multiple papers appear to support the notion that total land needed for utility-scale wind energy requires as much as six to eight times more land area than utility-scale solar energy on average. Indeed, the land-use required by renewable sources is one of the biggest costs of the energy at this time. If we’re willing to accept nuclear power as a source of clean, though not renewable, energy, then the technology currently outperforms them all by leaps and bounds– requiring 7 to 12 times less land than the same amount of solar power. But obviously nuclear power comes with its own set of political and environmental challenges, furthering the sentiment that there is not one and only one energy that will ever check all of the boxes and meet all of our needs.

Part 3: How would the costs of that scale of renewable energy sources compare with the previously discussed costs of drilling in ANWR?

Considering these results for the amount of land required by solar or wind energy resource to equal the peak oil and gas output of drilling in ANWR, the true scale of the potential energy resources underground the Alaska region really becomes clear. Further, it becomes clear just how difficult it would be to offset all of that potential energy by building utility-scale renewable energy generation. But the remaining question is how would the costs (both financial and environmental) of drilling in ANWR compare with the costs of the same capacity of renewable energy generation?

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Economically, the government (both state and federal) is only set to really profit from the drilling in ANWR because the area is government-owned and the money paid by the oil companies to lease the land for oil exploration would go directly to the government and because the government would also take a royalty on the profits made from said oil (a method to raise revenue also looking to be repeated in the sale of offshore drilling in almost all U.S. coastal waters). So while there will always be some degree of money provided to the government from renewable energy sources (e.g, through taxes), the land being used for our hypothetical vast solar or wind farms must come from the sale of government-owned land to provide the same sort of government revenue injection as drilling in ANWR. With wind power, at least, federally leasing for offshore wind farming has started to become somewhat common, though from 2013 to 2016 that only generated $16 million for the leasing of more than one million acres.

In terms of the noted benefits of helping U.S. energy trade by reducing the amount of oil that would need to be imported, the same can be said for a comparable amount of renewable energy– if that renewable energy is offsetting the import of fossil fuels, say for the electric power sector, then an equal effect on U.S. energy trade would be achieved.

In terms of the rough cost to install that amount of renewable energy, we can estimate total costs based on the levelized costs of energy (LCOE), which compares different methods of electricity generation based on costs to build, maintain, and fuel the plant over the lifetime. If we ignore the economic benefits that renewable energy sources enjoy from tax credits, the regionally-weighted LCOE’s of solar and wind power generation sources entering service in 2022 are 73.7 cents per MWh and 55.8 cents per MWh, respectively (compared with 96.2 cents per MWh for nuclear and 53.8 to 100.7 cents per MWh for natural gas, depending on the type of technology used). Compared with the total ANWR costs to extract of $123 billion to reach the 14.0 and 33.9 quads equivalent, the cost for solar would be between $3.0 billion and $7.3 billion and the cost for wind would be between $2.3 billion and $5.5 billion (again emphasizing the uncertainty in how much oil/gas is actually under ANWR as well as the very rough-estimate nature of these cost estimates). These numbers are just for the generation, not to mention the cost for transmission and distribution. However, with state-of-the-art renewable energy technology, it’s important to note that the costs are constantly decreasing and these estimates ignored the current tax credits allotted for renewable energy installations.

While renewable energy sources are seen as more environmentally friendly due to being carbon neutral, there are some environmental effects that cannot be ignored. Any energy source that takes up land is potentially displacing wildlife and using water and other resources. Further, just because the energy source is carbon neutral does not mean that the manufacturing, materials transportation, installation, or maintenance of those renewable plants are without emissions. Solar cells are also known to use some hazardous materials in their manufacturing. Regarding wind energy, extensive studies have had to be conducted on the danger wind turbines pose to birds, bats, and marine wildlife, though largely the conclusions of those studies has been that the impacts to such wildlife is low. Large wind turbines have also caused some concerns of public health regarding their sound and visual impact, but careful siting and planning is able to mitigate these concerns. So while the environmental effects of these renewable source are not nonexistent, they do appear to be much more manageable and avoidable than those of drilling for oil and gas.

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Conclusion

Even with the caveat that’s necessary to repeat throughout this post that all the numbers and calculations this analysis is based on are best-guess estimates and averages, much can be gleaned from looking at the results all together. Especially when you consider that the technologies involved for all discussed energy sources are constantly improving and each can be optimized for a particular region (such as using solar energy in lieu of wind energy in particularly sunny areas), the answer of how to best answer the energy future questions of the United States and the world is always going to be a strong mix of energy sources. There is no silver bullet, even among renewable energy resources, but rather heavy doses of appropriate renewable energy sources and nuclear energy sources will need to be mixed with the responsible use of fossil fuels for immediately visible future. Since the United States is quite unlikely to go cold turkey on fossil fuels overnight, the continued supply of crude oil products is going to be necessary for the time being. And the potential costs of largely relying on foreign imports to meet that demand are going to be feared by government and industry leaders alike. As such, it can be of no surprise that the massive resources of oil and gas underneath ANWR have been a continued focus of politicians and the oil industry for decades. However, none of that is to dismiss the legitimate environmental concerns the opponents have with sacrificing one of the last true areas of untouched wilderness in the United States to the predominantly-financial-based goals of drilling proponents, and if indeed the U.S. oil markets can prosper without drilling then that needs to be seriously considered.

The debate of whether or not to drill in ANWR is surrounded with so much uncertainty, along with passion on both sides. Because of this, the answer of what to do is not clear cut to many. The best thing you can do is educate yourself on the issues (I highly recommend a thorough read of the links in the ‘sources and additional reading’ section, as so much has been written about this topic that there is an unbelievable amount of information to learn) and stay informed as it evolves. Like it or not, drilling in ANWR is an inherently political debate and that affords all U.S. citizens the right, even the duty, to take your informed opinion and be active with it– call your Congressional representatives, join in the debate, donate to action groups. While the opening ANWR land for leasing to oil companies in the recently passed tax bill was the most significant action in this policy debate in years, the lengthy nature of the legislature and leasing process assures that the matter is anything but settled.

Sources and additional reading

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.