Sustainable energy: How green is your wind farm?

Posted: Dec 9, 2019

Somewhere in the California desert, the Mohave ground squirrel is safe from solar panels, for now.

After being sued over concerns for the critter, the developer Solar Millennium withdrew plans for its 250-megawatt solar station. It’s just one of a flurry of legal protests to several large-scale solar plants planned for construction on public lands in Nevada and California. The Sierra Club is fighting the Calico Solar Project in California on behalf of the desert tortoise. The Quechan tribe doesn’t want a different proposed solar project in the Imperial Valley adversely affecting its ancestral land. Several additional suits grind ahead.

Setting aside the legitimacy of these suits, they bring to the fore the issue of developing renewable energy sources on public lands. Now, while the future of solar energy in six southwestern states is under consideration, and wind energy guidelines are being established (two issues currently open for public comment), is the time to commit ourselves to striking a balance.

The Department of the Interior manages one-fifth of this nation’s land mass and more than 1.7 billion acres offshore, both of which amount to a massive amount of renewable energy production potential. The Bureau of Land Management manages nearly 21 million land acres in 11 western states with great wind power prospects, and about 29 million acres that would be well-suited for solar power production. Geothermal power is a possibility on 140 million acres in the western states and Alaska. Excluded from consideration, of course, are all national parks, wilderness areas and most national monuments.

Two years ago, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued an order “making the production, development, and delivery of renewable energy top priorities.” Since then, opposition to pursuing that mandate has derailed national, and many state-based, commitments to developing renewable energy resources.

I don’t often find myself suggesting that environmental groups get real, but something has to give.

Let’s not forget why we need to domesticate our energy sources: America exports hundreds of billions of our hard-earned dollars annually to buy the oil we need to keep our power turned on. Let’s remember why we need to diversify away from our traditional domestic energy sources: coal mining and burning is deadly and destructive. Natural gas drilling is increasingly using “fracking,” a controversial mining technique whose ruinous powers, including groundwater contamination, are now beginning to be exposed. And extracting oil shale uses upwards of three barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil (the last time I checked, water was not an elastic commodity in the West).

I’m not advocating paving paradise to put up a parking lot, or that the Mohave ground squirrel be sacrificed at the altar of alternative energy, or that the Endangered Species Act be flouted or circumvented. Nor am I suggesting that every project that comes along be rubber-stamped.

A collaborative approach in which the least hotly-contested sites are chosen for development, perhaps with the help of reputable groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, might be worth a try. Just as we carefully consider uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and drilling in Bridger-Teton National Forest (two other issues now open for public comment), we need to look at renewable energy development on public lands as a possible threat to that environment, and continue to do careful environmental assessments, and to consider additional objections through a rigorous pubic comment period. We must be tireless stewards of intact wildlands, which contribute immeasurably to species adaptation and carbon sequestration, made necessary by greenhouse gas expulsion and climate change. We need to consider that, while the immediate benefits of a federal project may be felt by a select group of people (say a solar plant for fueling million of homes in California), it actually does contribute to solving a national problem.

Alongside our conservation efforts, we need to be committed to honoring the “multiple use” mandate imposed on certain public lands. And we need to be thoughtful when applying our wildlife regulations, including the Endangered Species Act, which specifically states that the designation of critical habitats can “take into consideration the economic impact” of limiting the uses of those areas.

In short, we have to take some risks to reap the rewards of being fossil fuel-free. We have to be willing to work through the paradox of compromising some of our natural bounty in order to save it, and we have to do it now.

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