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Green Power, Red Lights

Environmental activists have yet to meet an energy project they won’t try to stop.

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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Among those alleged errors was potential harm to wildlife—first and foremost, the endangered Desert Tortoise. According to the Sierra Club, California failed to “fully mitigate” the project’s possible effects on tortoise habitat. That will be a difficult charge to prove, because California extensively reviewed the tortoise issue and required the project to adopt numerous tortoise-protection measures: perimeter fencing; the development of a desert tortoise “translocation” plan; strategic placement of parking areas, transmission lines, and roads; reporting requirements upon the discovery of injured or dead tortoises; and the project’s acquisition and maintenance of 10,300 acres hospitable to tortoises in “compensatory habitat mitigation.” 

And amidst the Sierra Club’s various complaints about the project’s effect on desert tortoises, one noteworthy fact goes unmentioned. The commission’s survey of the approved 4,600-acre project site detected only 10 tortoises.

Three years ago, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke to a Yale audience on environmentalist opposition to clean energy projects. “They say that we want renewable energy, but we don’t want you to put it anywhere. . . . I don’t know whether this is ironic or absurd, but, I mean, if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.” 

The Sierra Club’s Calico Solar lawsuit certainly calls to mind the governor’s complaint. So does the separate federal lawsuit filed by Californians for Renewable Energy and other organizations to overturn Interior’s approval of Calico and five other desert solar projects. And another case, in which a Native American tribe convinced a federal judge late last year to issue a preliminary injunction blocking Interior’s approval of another solar energy project.

The term NIMBY—“Not In My Back Yard”—long ago came to summarize the local opposition to nearby infrastructure development. Fossil fuel projects are accustomed to local and environmentalist opposition. But ironically, renewable energy projects may give rise to even more local or environmentalist opposition. The bigger a project’s geographic footprint, the more environmental resources it implicates, and solar and wind projects have the biggest footprints of all. In Energy at the Crossroads, scientist Vaclav Smil noted that the generation of electricity using solar involves a “power density” of 20 to 60 watts per square meter. Wind scored even worse, at 5 to 20 watts per square meter. “This is in great contrast to the extraction of fossil fuels and thermal generation of electricity,” Smil writes. “These activities that define the modern high-energy civilization produce commercial energies with power densities orders of magnitude higher, ranging mostly between” 1 to 10 kilowatts per square meter. 

In other words, as Peter Huber and Mark Mills conclude in The Bottomless Well, “no conceivable mix of solar, biomass, or wind technology could meet even half our current energy demand without (at the very least) doubling the human footprint on the surface of the continent.”

And the generation facilities—the solar and wind farms themselves—are only part of a project’s total environmental impact. The sites best suited for renewable energy generation tend to be far from the industrial and population centers that they are built to serve. The Mojave Desert solar projects and far-offshore wind farms are not being created to power nearby desert- or island-dwellers. Nor are the wind farms envisioned for the Midwest and Great Plains intended only to power family farms. Instead, those projects will serve distant demand via long-distance transmission lines, crossing state borders, passing through numerous communities, and perhaps affecting endangered species and federally protected wetlands. 

In short, renewable energy projects face immense regulatory challenges. Which raises a critical question: Why is the federal government spending billions of dollars on renewable energy when federal and state laws stand as obstacles to the subsidized projects’ prospects?

If Congress and the president continue to subsidize utility-scale wind and solar projects—in an effort to decrease reliance on foreign energy sources, to diversify domestic energy supplies, to reduce emissions, or for other reasons—then regulatory reform appears to be necessary. Effective regulation is neither a rubber stamp nor a bureaucratic morass. Rather, it intelligently balances the relevant competing priorities: 

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