Monday, May 28, 2012

Sierra Club Turns 120 Years Young

The Sierra Club was founded 120 years ago on 28 May 1892.  A year later, the first volume of the Sierra Club Bulletin detailed one member's account of a trip from the Mojave Desert mining town of Daggett, California, to Furnace Creek in what would eventually become Death Valley National Park in a piece titled "Through Death Valley".

After departing Daggett and enduring a rough journey on the first day, the member described the timeless experience of waking up to a cool desert dawn, refreshed from a good night's sleep under the stars:
"The next morning dawned bright and clear. As I threw off my blankets my first impression was that I was in a perfect paradise. All about us were the beautiful yuccas, stretching their spiny arms in all directions, while beneath them was a perfect carpet of gorgeously colored flowers, some like white satin, others a beautiful blue, while from every bit of shaded ground, like golden daisies, nodded a beautiful yellow flower (Anisconia acaulae), filling in the background of this carpet and throwing the other colors into stronger relief. The sound of birds was heard on all sides, conspicuous among them being the beautiful song of Le Conte’s thrasher, which sounded like a solo with all the chirpings and warblings of other species as a second part of the melody."
Let's keep the desert wild.

Neon Desert

I was struck by the bright colors of the lichen on the lava rock, and a blooming chia (Salvia columbariae) in the foreground. This was taken at the cinder cones in the Mojave National Preserve.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sierra Club Lobbying for Wind Industry; Wind Industry Lobbying Against Wildlife

It's an odd situation when the Sierra Club provides unconditional support to an industry that describes wildlife and conservation goals as "obstacles," lobbies to weaken the environmental laws we have fought hard to institute and enforce, and enjoys comfortable access to a White House promoting an "all of the above" energy policy that is taking its toll on our climate and our public lands.  In a blog post titled "Americans Agree With President Obama: Wind Is the Way," Sierra Club Director of Clean Energy Dave Hamilton calls for the renewal of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) that has driven the wind industry's expansion onto wildlands in recent years,  yet the wind industry simultaneously ignores the Club's conservation concerns and dismisses guidance from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to avoid impacts on protected and endangered bats and birds.

The wind industry is not as toxic as coal, but it has about as much regard for conservation as its fossil fuel counterparts, according to documents from last year's American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) board meeting.  In a policy environment where conservation and wildlife have taken a back seat to the mantra of "jobs, jobs, jobs," it is even more imperative that the Sierra Club not simply mimic AWEA's lobbyists, but instead add the value that is direly needed in Washington-- a conservation organization that can maintain a green ethic.  That does not mean we need to be industry's foe, but we must act as a concerned party that wants clean energy to protect -- not sacrifice -- biodiversity and treasured landscapes.  We cannot be that advocate for conservation when we hand our "green halo" over to an industry that shows little respect for the land.

Two Sierra Club Positions: Lead or Follow?
The AWEA board documents essentially outline their plans to exploit environmental groups to achieve industry goals, and they identify the Sierra Club as one of their acquiescent "eNGOs".  Mr. Hamilton's most recent blog post, like his previous pro-industry writings, do not mention the Club's own--apparently segregated--concerns that the wind energy industry should do more to protect wildlife.  Sierra Club last year supported weak and voluntary guidelines on behalf of AWEA to make sure that concerns for wildlife did not slow down the permitting of wind projects on public lands, going so far as to sign a joint letter with AWEA.  In a positive development earlier this year, the Club expressed its support for mandatory guidelines, but it was too late in the process to shape Interior's decision to institute the voluntary guidelines.

Mr. Hamilton told Minnesota Public Radio the Sierra Club would rather see mandatory guidelines that would hold the industry responsible for protecting wildlife, but now that voluntary guidelines are in place, the organization will "watch it very closely to make sure that it accomplishes what it sets out to do." Apparently there are not many accomplishments to speak of, so far.  The Sierra Club along with Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity had to launch a legal challenge against the North Sky Wind energy project, which is anticipated to threaten the endangered California Condor.  NextEra Energy, the project's owner, is planning to build the project regardless of environmentalist's concerns, showing just how much the Sierra Club gets in return for its support of the wind industry.

The Sierra Club has been relatively quiet on other major wind projects in the desert.  As I write this, Pattern Energy is bulldozing intact desert habitat in Southern California to install over 100 giant wind turbines, and Duke Energy is planning to carve wide access roads into ecologically intact desert near Searchlight, Nevada.   All told, as of May, the wind industry had proposed over 249 square miles of projects across Arizona, California and Nevada.  In those same states, the industry was exploring additional projects on over 1,121 square miles, according to the BLM's land records database.  These numbers do not count the thousands of other square miles facing wind's blades in Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon, and all along the mountains of the East Coast. Mr. Hamilton's proud boast that the wind industry was on track to supply 20% of our energy demand by 2030 neglected to mention one important statistic -- doing so will industrialize 20,000 square miles of land, according to a DOE study (PDF).

Wind Industry Quietly Lobbying Against Science
The wind industry has quietly engineered Department of Interior policy to clear the way for an industrialization of our lands probably exceeding the Bureau of Reclamation's hydropower dam construction blitz of the last century.   Wind turbines are estimated to kill nearly half a million birds each year, according to the American Bird Conservancy; a number that is eventually expected to top one million birds a year.  Efforts by wildlife officials to ensure that this industrialization does not result in regretful impacts on our ecosystems have come under attack by the industry. Testifying on behalf of AWEA on 1 June 2011, RES Americas CEO Susan Reilly and Horizon Energy executive Rory Roberts complained to Congress that the industry faced "urgent challenges as a result of two documents released in February of 2011 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," according to the transcripts from the Congressional testimony.  They were referring to the Draft Land-Based Wind Energy Guidelines before they were weakened as a result of AWEA's lobbying, and the Draft Eagle Conservation Plan Guidance, which would make it difficult for wind companies to receive permission from USFWS to kill protected Bald and Golden Eagles.

Ms. Reilly told Congress  "there does not appear to be any scientific justification for these onerous
requirements, nor can it be demonstrated that the requirements will help eagles. How could they when we are only causing 1 percent of the problem?"  She claimed that "modern" turbines are so large that they cause fewer eagle casualties.  Yet the Pine Tree wind project on the edge of the Mojave Desert near Tehachapi has killed at least eight Golden Eagles, despite using the "modern" wind turbines.

In his testimony, Mr. Roberts suggested that instead of giving the USFWS any decision-making authority on proper siting of wind projects, the process should be "developer-led."  In other words, industry should make decisions on wildlife impacts, not the USFWS.  The wind executive even concluded that "questionable science" has raised concerns about "noise impacts on wildlife" and "airspace as habitat".  Mr. Roberts should see how effective a hunter a Golden Eagle is when it has to walk up to its prey, instead of flying in the airspace over foraging habitat.

Later in that same month, an executive from Element Power  testified on behalf of AWEA before the US House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee in support of a series of bills (HR2170, HR2171, HR2172 and HR2173) put forth that would weaken the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which were staunchly opposed by most environmental groups.  The bills specifically aimed to strip away requirements for environmental review of renewable energy projects, threatening to set a precedent that could open the door for similar exceptions for other industries. The Element Power executive was careful not to provide a blanket endorsement of the legislation, but nonetheless conveyed AWEA's appreciation of Republican "streamlining" of the NEPA process, specifically asking to limit cumulative impact analysis, and requirements for alternatives.

Trips to the White House
As the Department of Interior's draft wind energy guidelines entered into a critical stage of bureaucratic and public review in early 2011, wind executives were busy meeting with White House advisors who arguably would be able to influence the outcome.  According to the Washington Post's White House visitors database,  NextEra CEO James Robo and two other executives from the company in January 2011 visited Cass Sunstein, Obama's head of Information and Regulatory Affairs.  Remember, NextEra is the company planning to build wind turbines in the path of the endangered California Condor.    On 15 February 2011, CEO of Invenergy Michael Polsky visited Senior Advisor to Obama Valerie Jarrett.  Invenergy is currently proposing a wind project in North Carolina that could kill up to 20 Bald Eagle deaths each year, according to USFWS.  Mr. Polsky also gave hundreds of dollars in 2005 to the Senate campaign of Ken Salazar, who is now conveniently serving as Secretary of Interior.

A day after Mr. Polsky's visit, the head of AWEA, Denise Bode and other wind industry officials met with Obama's Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, Heather Zichal.  Although the White House has not revealed the purposes of these meetings, they took place when the wind industry was focused on "urgent" obstacles posed by USFWS recommendations to protect wildlife.  Ms. Bode would later meet with Senior Advisor Peter Rouse at least two more times in 2011.  Mr. Rouse, according to the New York Times, was also instrumental in helping Shell get approval for exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic, suggesting he is at least familiar with how to pull strings in the Department of Interior.

The Department of Interior is now taking another step to support wind industry objectives and endanger wildlife as they consider extending "take" permits that would allow wind projects to kill Bald and Golden Eagles for 30 years, instead of five.  So not only are guidelines voluntary and "developer-led," they will allow the industry to kill off keystone species for 30 years, incurring unprecedented impacts on vast swaths of habitat in the US.

What is Our Purpose?
It's time that the Sierra Club stop acting as yet another industry lobbyist, and help define a clean energy future that respects wildlands and science.  Respect for the land and our natural treasures should be an integral part of our means and ends, and that cannot be outsourced to any particular industry.  If we silence these ideals to favor an industry now, there is no reason for leaders and communities to take us seriously as an advocate for nature in the future.

Sierra Club mission:  To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth;
To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources;
To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.

American Wind Energy Association mission:  The mission of the American Wind Energy Association is to promote wind power growth through advocacy, communication, and education.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Renewable Energy Industry Didn't Anticipate Dust in Desert

Apparently the renewable energy industry did not realize that when you bulldoze dozens of square miles of intact desert habitat, you remove the topsoil that keeps down wind-born dust.  First Solar's Antelope Valley Solar Ranch 1 (AVSR 1) project is currently delayed due to dust issues and an electrical permitting issue, according to Greentech Media.  First Solar also apparently violated air quality standards near Joshua Tree National Park when the construction for its Desert Sunlight project kicked up clouds of dust. Separately, Pattern Energy appears to be in violation of the rules as its construction crews generate a significant amount of dust for a wind energy project, according to Basin and Range Watch.   Dust clouds caused by construction may not seem like a significant problem to some, but the haze is a quality of life issue for the local communities in the desert, and with hundreds of square miles of planned solar and wind projects in the desert, the problem is likely to grow.  Research has even determined that dust clouds from the west are blanketing snow-capped mountains in the Rockies, forcing earlier snow melts and altering ecological cycles.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

It Passed!

To update you on yesterday's post, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) passed the proposal to nearly double the number of rooftop solar installations that can benefit from net metering, where utility companies fairly credit the customers for solar energy they generate for themselves.  Like I wrote yesterday, this is just the start. CPUC voted to pass a measure that keeps rooftop solar viable for another year or so. But we have not yet begun to understand the benefits and efficiencies of ditching our old energy model.  Rooftop solar means fewer transmission lines, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and giving pristine wildlands to future generations, not energy companies.  I am looking forward to the next CPUC vote to expand rooftop solar.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Important Rooftop Solar Decision Due Tomorrow

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is expected to vote tomorrow (24 May) on a proposal to essentially increase the number of utility customers who can benefit from net metering, where the utility credits the customer for the full retail value of energy their panels produce.  If the proposal is passed, the number of net metered solar installations would nearly double.  The Sierra Club has been a vocal proponent of the proposal, and over 60,000 residents spoke up in favor. 

Rooftop solar panels happily basking in the sun, generating energy without requiring the destruction of wildlands.
As a recent Huffington Post piece mentioned, rooftop solar is not a tool for the rich and famous. The majority of rooftop solar installations have been in zip codes with median incomes.  Rooftop solar also generates local jobs, and reduces the need for toxic "peaker plants" which fire up to generate energy during peak demand hours and pollute our air.

If the proposal passes, we still have a long fight ahead of us. The proposal would allow 4,600 megawatts of net metered solar.  California can and must do much better than this. Governor Jerry Brown asked for at least 12,000 megawatts of distributed generation.  And our cities and populated areas have the potential to host even more rooftop solar.  The County of Los Angeles alone has over 19,000 megawatts of rooftop solar potential, according to a UCLA study, enough to feed local energy demand.  Let's pass this proposal tomorrow, and look ahead to meeting even more ambitious goals.

Ocotillo Wind Project Begins Habitat Destruction

A Federal judge yesterday denied a petition by the Quechan tribe to halt construction of a destructive wind energy project in the Colorado Desert just south of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California.  The nearly 16 square mile project is expected to destroy cultural sites of significance to the tribe, fragment and destroy habitat, and kill bats, raptors and other birds with 112 turbines, each towering over 400 feet tall.  The project will feed energy customers over 60 miles away in San Diego, where conservationists argue rooftop solar can be installed instead of relying on the remote wind project.  San Diego has already reached over 4,500 rooftop solar installations, and California has installed over 1,000 megawatts of rooftop solar  --  over 3 times the amount that will be generated by the massive Ocotillo Express wind project. And that's just the beginning of California's distributed generation potential.   Hopefully our clean energy future will focus more on covering rooftops than destroying wildlands.

A photo of the desert that will be industrialized by over 112 giant wind turbines and fragmented by access roads. Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
A photo of the beginning of destruction at the Ocotillo Win Express project, as Pattern Energy's construction crews have begun to destroy the vegetation.  Photo by Jim Pelley.

An outline of the size of the Ocotillo Wind project is super-imposed on the city of San Diego. The project will industrialize a swath of desert wildlands that is as big as the city where enough rooftops can host solar panels to make the wind project unnecessary.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Wind Industry Strategy Seeks to Undermine Wildlife Protections

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) is carrying out an aggressive effort to undermine wildlife protections that it views as an obstacle to its expansion onto wildlands, according to an AWEA strategy document from late 2011.   AWEA's strategy outlines plans to facilitate the industrialization of public lands by allowing "industry to proactively set and guide the siting agenda" by co-opting environmental groups, government agencies, and a wildlife research institute, according to the document.
  • As of May, the wind industry had proposed over 249 square miles of projects across Arizona, California and Nevada.  In those same states, the industry was exploring additional projects on over 1,121 square miles, according to the BLM's land records database. Meeting just 20% of the United States' energy needs with wind energy will require 20,000 square miles, according to a Department of Energy report.
A heap of dead Joshua Trees cut down to make way for the Alta Wind Energy Center in the western Mojave Desert. Photo by Friends of Mojave
The AWEA document highlighted feedback to the wind industry from Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar, who told industry officials that their efforts were already successful in overriding science-based US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) guidelines for protecting protected bird species. According to a bullet point in the AWEA strategy document:
"Negotiated joint public comments with eNGOs [environmental groups] that covered many of industry’s key concerns. The joint comments were submitted by AWEA, Defenders of Wildlife, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, among others. Heard directly from Secretary Salazar in the May CEO meeting that this letter was instrumental in changing course Service was taking..."
"Policy Threats"
Salazar almost certainly was referring to AWEA's success reversing bird protections proposed by USFWS and shortened deadlines for the environmental review process outlined in draft wind energy siting guidelines last year,  essentially transforming the guidelines into a "rubber stamp" approval process for wind facilities.  Interior decided to make the guidelines voluntary instead of mandatory, which is expected to embolden an industry that has mostly refused to listen to wildlife officials.
  • Already, the USFWS has been frustrated by wind developers who began construction of facilities despite serious concerns for the Bald Eagle--protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (BGEP)--and whooping cranes--which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA).  In California, NextEra Energy has rushed forward with its North Sky River wind project in the western Mojave Desert despite environmentalists' concerns for the endangered California Condor.
  • AWEA's strategy uses the term "policy threats" to describe USFWS siting guidelines, the US Forest Service's efforts to steer responsible wind energy, and a list of birds and bats that apparently get in the way of AWEA's profit.
Bulldozers cut into eastern Oregon land to make way for a giant wind turbine. Photo from DOE.
Leveraging Elected Leaders
AWEA also sought the White House's help to open the doors to public lands.  According to the AWEA document, one unidentified wind industry executive met with White House senior advisor Pete Rouse, an Obama confidant who previously served as his chief of staff during his time in the Senate. AWEA also briefed the White House's Renewable Energy Rapid Response team on how to speed up wind energy permitting on public lands, according to the document.

AWEA busily networked on Capitol Hill last year, with over 122 meetings with the Senate and House, and several fundraisers for select members of Congress.  PACs working for NextEra Energy and Iberdola Renewables -- companies with massive wind projects proposed for desert wildlands -- co-hosted some of the fundraisers.  Much of AWEA's work on the Hill has been to extend the Production Tax Credit -- an economic incentive that gives the wind industry more profit whether or not they show any deference to wildlife concerns.  But AWEA apparently coordinated a bi-partisan Senate letter to the Department of Interior to weaken siting guidelines, according to the document.

Construction crews decimate Joshua Tree woodland habitat for the Alta Wind Energy Center in the Antelope Valley. Photo by Friends of Mojave
Distorting Science
Probably recognizing that its industry is responsible for fragmenting vast swaths of wildlife habitat, and that spinning blades sweeping an area the size of a football field for each turbine will inevitably kill wildlife, AWEA apparently began coordinating with the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI) to commission "studies" that probably will favor the industry's cause.  AWWI is viewed by some in the conservation community to be in the pocket of the wind industry, and AWEA's strategy document highlights close coordination that seems to substantiate those concerns.

According to the strategy document, the wind industry plans to "[u]tilize AWWI as a convener/facilitator in establishing communications the leadership, and rank and file within Conservation, Scientific and Regulatory communities." The wind industry also planned to work "with AWWI’s Executive Director to develop a coordinated public outreach/media plan."

Moving Forward
As I have noted in recent blog posts, some in the environmental community view the wind energy industry as a savior that will battle climate change on our behalf and allow us to live without regrets. Unfortunately the wind energy industry is not capable of doing that without fragmenting and industrializing vast amounts of habitat, and killing hundreds of thousands of birds and bats each year.  AWEA obviously recognizes that this weakness will require green allies to clear a path for it.  Apparently we have already helped it achieve victories against nature last year.  Listed as its first objective in its efforts to continue streamlining siting policies, AWEA plans to "[f]ocus on and strengthen relationships with eNGOs," referring to national environmental groups.  It is up to us whether we want to be an advocate for the wind industry, or an advocate for nature.  It is clear that the wind industry is not working for nature.  We can build a clean energy future focused on energy efficiency, distributed generation, and solar facilities on already-disturbed lands that can save our wildlands for future generations to enjoy.

A raptor perched on a creosote bush in the Mojave Desert.
A cluster of Mojave yuccas on the site of the proposed Searchlight Wind Energy project.  The facility is likely to be approved by the Department of Interior on nearly 30 square miles of public lands in southern Nevada.
Pattern Energy has already begun ripping up desert habitat south of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for the Ocotillo wind energy facility after the Department of Interior approved the project in May. Photo by Jim Pelley.

EPA Extends Comment Deadline for Reid Gardner Coal Emissions

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has extended its deadline to receive public comments on an emissions reduction proposal for the Reid Gardner coal power plant in Nevada.  Comments are now due by June 4.  You can read my previous blog post on how to submit comments, or read the Federal Register notice (which still contains the older public comments deadline). 

The bottom line is that older coal power plants like Reid Gardner are responsible for the vast majority of toxic emissions from the energy sector, including 64% of Nitrogen Oxides emissions (the primary emission that the EPA seeks to control with its proposed determination), according to a Government Accountability Office report. If the EPA is going to give older fossil fuel facilities a free pass, then we will not see a significant difference in the impacts we're seeking to address.  This means continued health problems for nearby communities, particularly the town of Moapa and the Moapa band of Paiutes, which have lived with Reid Gardner's sulfur dioxide, mercury, and blowing coal ash for years.  The EPA's decision would also prolong continued haze impacts on scenic landscapes in the desert, including Valley of Fire State Park, the Virgin River (listed as eligible for Wild and Scenic River status, according to the BLM), and the scenic Meadow Valley Wash (also identified for its scenic values by the BLM).  Tell the EPA you want Reid Gardner to install selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology to help control its dirty emissions.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Endangered Species Day

Today is Endangered Species Day. Let us strive to find a way to live on this Earth while preserving its beautiful biodiversity.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Route 66

The photo below shows desert wildflowers in bloom along Route 66 in California's Mojave Desert. This area would be preserved under the California Desert Protection Act of 2011, which Senator Feinstein introduced last year but is still in limbo in Washington DC. The Obama administration expressed its support for the conservation plan outlined in the Act. 

The historical Route 66 passes through much of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, one of two monument proposals contained in the California Desert Protection Act of 2011 (S.138).  There are many sites of cultural and historical significance along Route 66, surrounded by beautiful desert landscapes. Climate change, proposed utility scale wind and solar energy projects, and a myriad of other human impacts threaten to destroy the intact ecosystem here that greets visitors and conveys a sense of boundless liberty. If you visit, take your time to watch the graceful raptors soaring above or reptiles darting between creosote bushes, and spend a night camping to wake up in the morning and hear a coyote call or see the quail browsing for food in the cool hours of the day.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rooftop Solar Making Gains in Southwest

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu visited Phoenix on Tuesday to tout a rooftop solar leasing program that will ultimately enable up to 1,000 residents to install panels.  The $25 million program, financed by the National Bank of Phoenix, is the second phase since the first round attracted over 400 interested residents. Solar leasing is not as ideal as self-financed installations that could be possible through Property Assessed Clean Energy or feed-in-tariffs, but does achieve a reduction of fossil fuel emissions, and savings on energy bills. Best of all, no desert is destroyed to install solar on rooftops or in other places in our cities!

Next week, the California Public Utilities Commission is set to decide on whether or not to essentially raise the number of utility customers that can benefit from net metering, where rooftop solar owners are credited for energy they generate. The vote by the commissioners will be held on 24 May, and one commissioner has already recommended approval.  If approved, the increase would basically allow for an additional 2,000 megawatts of rooftop solar (that's nearly enough to replace four Reid Gardner coal power plants).  That is on top of the over 1,000 megawatts of rooftop solar already installed in California.  This should not be considered the final increase, and rooftop solar advocates will push for more net metering capacity in the future, but utility companies are lobbying to keep the cap low since rooftop solar essentially undermines their business model. Utility companies prefer to buy power from central power stations (like BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar project), and ship the energy over long, expensive transmission lines to your home.  If you are generating your own energy, they're losing business.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

More on the False Dilemma

You can kill the planet with lethal injection, or the electric chair. Those are the two options offered by some environmentalists.

Last night I wrote about a prevailing "war" that we environmentalists are waging against fossil fuels, and the weapon chosen by environmental "leaders" happens to be killing what we love.  It's about "trade offs" according to the environmental vanguard. Give up some wildlands for utility-scale wind and solar energy, and we can save the planet. But they never tell you how much we need to give up. Just ignore the numbers, because clean energy consultant Alan Nogee says we need to make the "trade off".  Just be happy that the destruction of habitat and a reduction of biodiversity was caused by clean energy, and not climate change.

If you're still curious, according to the Department of Energy, achieving only 20% of our energy from wind energy would require the industrialization of 20,000 square miles of land, and 4,000 square miles of off-shore habitat.  That's just what is necessary to meet 20% of our energy demand! If we want to meet 80% percent of our energy demand with wind turbines, we're probably talking about 96,000 square miles carpeted by 400 foot tall wind turbines. If we want all of our energy to come from wind, that's an area greater than the size of Nevada.  That does not count the thousands of miles of new transmission lines that will be required, according to the Department of Energy report.

What that means for you is that you will not be able to find many places to camp or hike in the desert or mountains without running into fields of solar panels or giant wind turbines.  Either you watch wildlands burned by climate change, or you transform your wildlands into industrial zones.

So we bulldoze Nevada, and save the planet, right? Wrong.  You still need to apply the same destructive industrial model by industrializing open spaces in China, Russia, India, etc, until precious open space and biodiversity is decimated by industry.  Except for Germany.  They seem to appreciate the spaces they have left and committed to a model focused on distributed generation -- rooftop solar or clean energy on already-disturbed lands.  As of last year, Germans installed over 27,000 megawatts of clean energy owned by individuals, and their not done yet.  That's clean energy in their back yard, not on wildlands.

Is it easy or cheap to get that much rooftop solar? Absolutely not.  It's not easy, but it is possible.  This is not the either/or scenario presented by the false dilemma that some have presented.  We need to make sure our future energy model is guided by our conservation ethic. That means prioritizing distributed generation.  Nobody said staying true to your principles was going to be easy.

Monday, May 14, 2012

More Nuance, Less Entrenchment

A recent article by the Guardian newspaper exposed efforts by the fossil fuel industry to co-opt and support grassroots groups opposed to wind energy facilities.  The article points to a strategy memo put together by the conservative American Tradition Institute (ATI) to organize local anti-wind groups and generate more opposition to big wind facilities, and ignoring the core problem of climate change caused by unsustainable use of the planet's resources.

The campaign, and other recent efforts by the fossil fuel industry to maintain its destructive foothold on our planet is a sign that, despite growing concern for our climate and our economic dependence on unsustainable fossil fuels, the industry is still on the prowl, like Cruella Deville in search of puppies. Following efforts by the Heartland Institute, this was dismaying, but not a surprise.  But the response from the green community has been the most alarming for me.

Since the ATI story broke, there has been a flurry of partisan rhetoric from wind industry supporters who plan to save the planet by defeating one Goliath with another Goliath -- 400 foot high wind turbines.  The environmental response conveyed the emotion I felt about the ATI scandal, but the substance of the response suggests we are locked in a battle not to save the planet, but to destroy fossil fuels.  David Roberts of Grist characterizes the ATI effort to counter wind energy as another example of the "culture wars" that have engulfed the country, and the members of those anti-wind groups as part of a "conservative base" that will eventually "die off".  After reading his piece, I was left nodding in agreement.  Not because I hope conservatives will "die off" and wind turbines will carpet our open spaces, but because he was right that we are in the middle of a war, and I feel that it is weakening the environmental community.  Our conservation ethic becomes another casualty as we become entrenched in a fight, and we lose sight of our reasons for stepping into the battlefield.  In a response to a reader on Twitter, Mr. Roberts lays out what we should do to counter ATI and the fossil fuel industry:

"Key is to scale up econ interests allied w/ RE [renewable energy] & use that power ruthlessly. As econ & political power realign, culture will follow."
We should be countering subversive efforts by the fossil fuel industry, but we should also be asking ourselves: why was the fossil fuel industry able to co-opt these anti-wind groups?  What is the culture we are seeking to encourage when we tell people that they have to live next door to giant industrial machines? Yes, some members of the anti-wind groups that ATI preyed upon may be a lost cause when it comes to explaining climate change and sustainability.  But at the heart of the matter are individuals and grassroots groups of various (but probably mostly conservative) political stripes that were interested in saving landscapes or wildlife in their communities.  If beautiful sunsets and birds were only valued by hippie environmentalists, we'd be much further behind in saving what we love.  The green community frequently taps into reservoirs of pro-conservation tendencies among conservatives-- hunters and fisherman, farmers who adopt more sustainable practices, landowners that support conservation easements, or citizens besieged by coal mining.  Why did we lose this opportunity to ATI?  I'm not saying every anti-wind group can be an ally against fossil fuels, but I bet some, if not many people concerned about massive wind turbines marring their land would also be concerned by the effects of climate change, or at least air pollution and toxins in their water supply.  It's not like registered Republicans like mercury in their water, more than Democrats do.

Do we really want to wage "war" the same way that ATI does? Is that what we are about? Fight industry with another industry.  NIMBY conservatives against wind or solar energy fighting with NIMBY liberals against coal mining and Arctic drilling?  Once we dive into that mentality, we are going to end up making sacrifices we will regret, if we have not already.  Can't we all just get along and put solar panels on rooftops? Apparently not.  It looks like the war mentality has taken root.

The Sierra Club in a recent blog post celebrated the wind industry's first quarter financial results and the fact that there are large-scale wind facilities in over 75% of our States.  The article quoted the American Wind Energy Association's (AWEA) reports, and made no mention of the need for keeping wind energy off of ecologically intact wildlands or avoiding impacts on raptors and migrating birds, which AWEA has been fighting against.  One commenter raised these concerns, but they were dismissed by another environmentalist who stated "this is about trade-offs".  My response to that is that Washington is a place of very few principles. If you make the trade-offs before you come to the table, Washington will take a little more. And the events of the past couple of years have shown that very well.  We've got the most pro-clean energy President ever -- opening up our lands to large wind and solar -- but he is also clearing the way for Arctic drilling, more coal mining in Wyoming, and at least half of the Keystone pipeline.  When being a green President is as easy as approving a solar facility that bulldozes 5.6 square miles of beautiful desert, you'll get your "trade-off".  But we should instead be advocating from a base of environmental principles. We should be advocating for the most sustainable path forward that adheres best to our conservation ethic,  and not just lobbying on behalf of whatever industry seems most prepared to beat coal.  One of the industries we chose (utility-scale wind) is eventually expected to kill 1,000,000 birds per year, and industrialize 20,000 square miles of our country, still require natural gas back-up plants, and consume millions of tons of cement, steel and copper to install and connect to the grid.

Around the same time that the Sierra Club posted its wind energy financial progress report, an article originally published by pro-industry Cleantechnica in 2009 was re-published on Scientific American's website, and titled "Wind Turbines Don't Kill Birds; Coal Plants Do." The article argues that more birds will likely die due to climate change than wind turbines.  While the "coal plants" part is true, it's hard to take the author seriously when the title contains a blatant lie absolving the wind industry of all of its sins.  This unfortunate spin, however, was broadcast across thousands of eager green readers when first Mr. Roberts of Grist tweeted the "Wind Turbines Don't Kill Birds" title and a link to nearly 20,000 followers, followed by another tweet from the Sierra Club's official Twitter presence to its nearly 38,000 followers.  Since most followers probably did not bother to read the study, the bottom line absorbed by the community was "wind good, coal bad". Or perhaps this was not intended to be a factual statement?

Screenshots of the Tweets that went out to thousands of readers. Notice that the Sierra Club's Twitter page background is emblazoned not with the high Sierras or Bryce Canyon, but towering wind turbines.

As Mr. Roberts wrote in 2010, the environmental community cannot fight climate change alone.   After reading some of the responses among groups and writers I count as allies, though,  I feel this is going to be another long war we cannot win if we forget why we started it.  If we fight climate change on the terms of industry and Wall Street, we will still end up losing.  As environmentalists, we are advocating for a clean environment, and wildlands that future generations can enjoy.  Climate change is the number one threat to that. But if our solution is the second biggest threat, maybe we should advocate for an energy model that is more consistent with our conservation ethic. 

Bighorn Whisperer

People familiar with the desert know that a hike out there is great for the peace and solitude, and hundreds of subtle signs of life -- tracks in the sand, animal burrows, and many plants and wildflowers that offer a quiet companionship.  Maybe a black-tailed jackrabbit or western whiptail lizard will dart out in front of you, but the bigger fauna are more elusive.  The desert tortoise spends most of its life underground in burrows.  Kit foxes and bobcats are usually most active at night.  Bighorn sheep usually stay up in the rugged mountains. 

Fellow desert blogger Morongo Bill recently had the lucky experience to come across a herd of bighorn sheep (I assume Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, and posted some amazing photos over at Morongobill's Backporch blog! Call him the Bighorn Whisperer!

Great photo by Bill of a desert bighorn sheep in the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve, California

Friday, May 4, 2012

Name a Price

How can you give this up to industry and profit? What is this moment's price tag? Nature and solitude. The call of the coyote as the sun makes its final mark on the land for the day. The cool kiss of the night luring critters from their burrows to begin their foraging, and revealing a blanket of stars. I hope future generations can enjoy this.