Monday, February 14, 2011

Who Should Lead Our Renewable Energy Policy?

The Department of Interior plans to make millions of acres of mostly pristine desert land in America's southwest available to energy companies as part of its solar energy development proposal.   Much of this energy development will take place in California's deserts, and threatens to drive rare plants and wildlife to extinction.  The light is shining so brightly on Interior's misguided proposal that we have forgotten a promising effort by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to build renewable energy on already-disturbed land instead of our treasured open space.

There is a need for the Department of Interior to reform its renewable energy siting process, which prompted it to draft its solar energy development proposal, and there is certainly a need to increase America's generation of clean energy.  But where we generate this energy is just as important as why we need to -- preservation of our natural resources.    So why does Washington's premier policy proposal to increase clean energy production ignore a reasonable compromise in favor of an alternative that will decimate an ecosystem?  In its draft environmental review for the program, Interior fails to consider other alternatives to generate renewable energy, such as rooftop solar, or developing on private lands.

Yet another government agency is getting it right.  It's just that nobody is paying attention.  The EPA's RE-Powering America program has identified 1.2 million acres of contaminated or already-disturbed lands potentially suitable for solar energy development.  Only a fraction of this total would be necessary to meet project renewable energy demand.  The sites include abandoned mines, decommissioned land-fills, and industrial sites.  These sites are of very low economic value to the communities we live in, so building on these sites is unlikely to present economic conflicts.  And because the land is already-disturbed, environmental impacts would likely be minimal.

Just imagine if BrightSource Energy had invested in developing on lands identified by the EPA instead of building on BLM-administered land in California -- we would not be losing 5.6 square miles of pristine desert habitat; we would not be displacing or killing over 50 desert tortoises; we would not be driving a rare and little-understood desert plant close to extinction; we would not be fragmenting a fragile yet inspiring ecosystem.  So why is the Department of Interior--an agency charged with caring for public lands and ensuring their value to future generations--also tasked with accommodating big energy companies?

If Washington is serious about truly "green" energy, it would consider sparing the natural beauty of public land and work to create incentives for development on EPA's list of disturbed lands.

5 comments:

  1. Sometimes I can't help but feel that the only thing green about it, is the color of the money these energy speculators will be making.

    Blood money made by the sacrifice of our last remaining wilderness.

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  2. 1.2 Million acres of land 'potentially suitable' for solar energy production, VS 400,000 acres of land absolutely suitable for solar energy production.

    What is the cost difference to build out thousands of MW of production capacity in either scenario?

    How much more needs to be built on the EPA land due to lower generating efficiencies VS the higher efficiencies of the BLM land?

    What is the average 'parcel size' of the EPA land VS the BLM land? Sure, the EPA may have 3 times the land pinpointed, but if the vast majority are plots that are relatively small, now you'll have to build multiple generation sites, costing more money, and taking longer to build, compared to building massive generating plants.

    I'm all for building out on previously disturbed land and land that does not have sensitive ecosystems on or near it. But I doubt it's just as simple as you are intending readers of your blog to believe it is. There moat definitely are downsides to going the EPA route and I'd bet you $100 most of that comes down to $$$$$$$$. Lots of $$$$$ in increased costs, further driving the cost per MW even higher, making your job, as a proponent of renewable energy, even more difficult....

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  3. I have a personal interest in seeing solar grow in the Mojave desert. As a Land owner I believe the Laws that are written are to protect are enviroment and are there for a very good reason. I hope the EPA can fairly present there information to the policy makers on Solar and the continued growth of this new industry. Believe the first thing to remember when negotiating new terms for change is never give up your gains. Private, disturbed lands and roof tops should be the launching pad for solar. Truly the industry must prove its worth. Good policy can make it happen.

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  4. Mr. Timeattack,
    My understanding is that the rents that energy companies have to pay to build on BLM/public land is actually quite high, so I'm not sure that the EPA's proposed lands would be more expensive from a rent standpoint. Please do visit the EPA website -- many of the properties are located in areas considered to be optimal for solar.

    Regardless, if our goal is to allow energy companies to build in a way that is most profitable to them, then we would allow them to destroy our environment, build dirty coal plants, drill for natural gas on sage grouse habitat, and use mountain-top removal coal mining. Our aim is to promote a sensible energy policy -- solar energy will not be green if it leads to the destruction of an entire ecosystem.

    The bottom line is that there are plenty of better places to build solar than pristine public land in the Mojave Desert.

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  5. @Morongobill, businesses and governments sometimes had their way to pretend and acted greedy with their implementations to a place that can make them as the superior.

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