How To Avoid An Ecological Disaster While Solving Another

President Obama announced today his administration's Climate Action Plan, which includes a long overdue directive to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to complete carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, calls for improving vehicle fuel economy standards,  and raising the bar for energy efficiency in our homes and businesses.  All of these are urgent and smart ways to fix our destructive energy paradigm.  In a surprisingly positive shift,  the President also signaled that he may not approve the Keystone oil pipeline if it results in a net increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the President also outlined plans for continued utility-scale renewable energy expansion; these plans must be reconciled with his administration's unfortunately overlooked effort to protect wildlands and wildlife.  The Climate Action Plan only vaguely refers to the fairly comprehensive National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy released by the Department of Interior in March,  and does not explain how utility-scale energy development goals will be achieved without committing some of the same ecological mistakes of the previous five years. 

The Adaptation Strategy stresses the importance of maintaining habitat linkages, and includes as one of the recommended actions that renewable energy development should be focused on already-disturbed or degraded lands (Action 7.1.8).   The administration's Climate Action Plan briefly discusses the need to conserve "land and water resources," but emphasizes preserving forests for their value in absorbing our carbon mess, as Chris Clarke points out on ReWire.  Our efforts to protect the environment should not be limited only to those steps that achieve practical or functional benefits to human society, because no law or public comment opportunity can adequately capture the value of pristine wildlands.

Fast-track past wildlife concerns

The Climate Action Plan directs the Department of Interior to approve 10,000 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale renewable energy on public lands by 2020, but the plan provides no mention of how to accommodate such an expansive industrialization in a responsible fashion, nor does it mention the extensive potential to incentivize the siting of these facilities on already-disturbed or degraded private lands.

The Climate Action Plan proudly boasts that the administration approved dozens of solar, wind, and geothermal projects on public lands since 2009.   The solar and wind projects account for the bulk of energy generation capacity, and if all were built they would destroy at least 308 square miles of intact ecosystems - an area greater than New York City - and generate 12,231 MW.   The BLM counts projects that are being built on private or state land that require a transmission right-of-way or other connected action on public lands; these projects account for 2,161 MW of the total 12,204 MW, but these projects' acreage are not included in the total 308 square miles.  Anybody familiar with the fast-track approval of these projects is aware that many were approved despite being proposed for important habitat that wildlife will need to maintain resilience in the face of climate change's broader impacts, as highlighted in the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.

If the President has his way with the Climate Action Plan, he is likely to approve the destruction of roughly another 300 square miles on public lands, compounding other ecological stresses placed on the landscapes.  The move would also deprive us of even more ridge lines and valleys that we currently cherish because they offer places for solitude and peace where human use is not the dominant feature.  Assuming over 600 square miles of projects are approved and built by 2020 (including those already approved sine 2009), it is difficult to imagine how many habitat linkages and beautiful vistas will be destroyed.

Get Serious About Sustainable Energy

Adjusting Our Utility-Scale Approach
The President should reconsider his dependence on public lands to shoulder the burden of our energy demands, and instead direct tax incentives and Department of Energy programs to promote renewable energy on already-disturbed lands with minimal environmental conflicts.  These projects already account for the bulk of our online utility-scale solar generation, and as long as they can respect the communities in which they are built, they often face fewer hurdles.  Over 1,000 megawatts of solar projects on degraded lands are already completed or under construction in California and Arizona, with hundreds of megawatts in the pipeline.

The Obama administration could also give a boost to EPA's  RE-Powering America's Land, which has identified degraded lands ideal for renewable energy development.   If the President ignores these alternatives to siting on public lands, he should at least consider a more serious and science-based evaluation of our southwestern desert ecosystems (perhaps modeled on the DRECP), with a commitment to substantial conservation designations consistent with the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.

Tapping the Distributed Generation Potential
The President should also greatly expand his administration's support for rooftop solar.  The Climate Action Plan includes a relatively sad commitment to add 100 MW of rooftop solar to the federally subsidized housing stock by 2020.  He could expand on this rooftop solar goal without Congressional action by asking the Federal Housing Finance Agency to reconsider its opposition to Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), a tool that allows property owners to finance efficiency or rooftop solar projects and pay the capital costs back over time through their own property tax bill. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have implemented PACE programs, but the FHFA will not allow homeowners with FHFA-backed mortgages to take advantage of them.

We could also double down on loan guarantees and incentives for larger rooftop solar projects on commercial buildings, expanding on the Prologis Project Amp, for example.  Although not as democratic as solar on residential rooftops, large commercial warehouses and big box stores throughout the country offer convenient places for larger solar arrays.

The administration should host a round table of utility regulators and distributed generation experts to identify steps the Federal government can take to encourage broader implementations of feed-in-tariffs (FiTs) for rooftop solar, learning lessons from nascent programs in the United States and successful and longstanding FiTs abroad.  These investments in distributed generation are more efficient than the destructive public lands route Obama outlined in his Action Plan; distributed generation would cut down on the need for new transmission infrastructure, save wildlands, and make are grid less vulnerable to attack.

With more aggressive incentives for distributed generation, and utility-scale projects on already-disturbed lands, we could generate much more than 10,000 megawatts of clean energy at a much lower environmental cost.  In combination with the Climate Action Plan's goals for cutting emissions and improving energy efficiency, getting serious about sustainable clean energy could breathe more compassion and regard for wildlands into our solution to climate change.


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