National Clean Energy Summit Dismissive of Dangers

Political officials and energy industry executives gathered in Las Vegas today to discuss renewable energy policy at the National Clean Energy Summit (NCES).  Many of the headline speakers at NCES were focused on the country's most vexing issue, jobs, with just a very thin veneer of "green" to make it seem like they were talking about something new.   The overall tone of NCES was disappointingly dismissive of the proven dangers of Big Solar and Wind energy, with few voices reminding the attendees that all Big Energy--even solar and wind--exact a toll on the environment.  The reluctance of national leaders to acknowledge the ecological impact that their policy will have on the land is not much different than political candidates denying the science behind climate change.

The NCES website was adorned with an image of a large transmission line pylon, and the image of a towering white turbine occasionally flashed on the screen for streaming video coverage of the conference, a sad reminder that the conference failed to think beyond an old energy paradigm that requires massive destruction of public lands.  Distributed generation, such as rooftop solar, is a far more efficient and dependable option for meeting our renewable energy demand.

Several transmission lines--a hallmark of the old paradigm of central station energy generation--cross the Antelope Valley in the western Mojave Desert to feed the hungry Los Angeles basin.  Massive wind farms in nearby Tehachapi have spawned new transmission lines, costing ratepayers millions of dollars. One of the wind farms is currently being scrutinized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service after killing at least 6 Golden Eagles.
Blind to the Impacts
At the conference, California Governor Jerry Brown repeated his Qadhafi-esque pledge from July to "crush opposition" to big solar and wind projects, according to a Tweet by San Jose Mercury News reporter Dana Hull.  Governor Brown apparently remains flippant about the dangers of such projects to public lands and wildlife, although his administration is also pursuing rooftop solar initiatives.  Governor Brown went so far as to say that solar panels on public lands could provide shade for desert tortoises, according to another Tweet from Hull, who attended the event.  Apparently Brown has not read the report from his Independent Science Advisors , which warned that large-scale solar facilities could have far reaching negative consequences on desert ecosystems.  Desert tortoises do no coexist with industrial energy sites, despite Brown's off-the-cuff attempt to humor a crowd full of big energy cheerleaders.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that Brightsource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System will kill or displace at least 140 adult tortoises, and probably hundreds of tortoise hatchlings during construction and operation.  The BLM reports that it is processing applications for dozens of solar energy projects in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts that will blanket hundreds of square miles with industrial development on mostly pristine wildlands.
Also at the conference, Chairman Yusuo Wang from Chinese firm ENN had this to say about America's southwestern ecosystems, according to the Las Vegas Sun:  "with most of its land being either desert or sandy wasteland, Nevada holds real potential for solar energy farms."  ENN apparently has its sights set on the exploitation of America's ecosystems at the same time that China is tearing apart countries from Southeast Asia to Africa for coal and oil.

All of these policymakers are determined to spearhead the largest and quickest industrialization of public lands our country has ever experienced, and they want to do it under the misnomer title of "green" energy.  As of this summer, the Bureau of Land Management was processing applications for over a thousand square miles of wind and solar facilities in just California.  And these projects would only meet about a quarter of California's peak energy demand.

The red blotches on this Google Earth image show the approximate locations and boundaries of solar and wind applications on public lands in California and Arizona.  I'm working on adding the Nevada projects.  Among these red blotches are over 20 square miles of solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley, over 100 square-miles of wind energy projects near Tehachapi, and massive proposed wind projects just north of the Grand Canyon.  These red blotches will probably need to be multiplied at least 3 or 4 times to meet our peak energy demand.
Betting on the Wrong Horse
Our national leaders continue to beat the drum of large solar and wind energy projects, but distributed generation can create and sustain even more clean jobs in local communities.  The Sierra Club recently teamed up with Sungevity, a successful solar leasing company that makes it affordable for homeowners to go green and install panels on their rooftop.  With proper feed-in-tariffs and legislation to free up Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE)--a means of financing personal solar installations--clean and local energy can be even more accessible to Americans.

As the Independent Science Advisors stated in their report to California, we should seek to avoid a renewable energy policy that will lead to regrets in the future, and instead build our renewable energy capacity in our cities or on land that is already-disturbed.  We did not follow a "no regrets" policy decades ago when America saw a proliferation of hydropower dams--also a form of renewable energy--blocking rivers across the country.  Now we are embarking on ambitious plans to remove these dams to restore ecosystems and bring fisheries back to life.    Desert ecosystems are less forgiving and take much longer to revive, but such science had no place at the conference this week.    

It sounds like the National Clean Energy Summit turned out to be a pep rally for corporate energy, absent any thoughtful consideration of past mistakes and future traps.   One lone tweet of reason came from the Wilderness Society, whose representative was either in attendance or watching the streaming video, stating "how & where we develop renewable energy is key."  Let's hope we figure that out before it's too late.

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