Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Green vs. Green

As a gross generalization, I have previously assumed that all environmentalists are in favor of advances in solar and wind energy. Less coal + more renewable = Better Energy Portfolio.....right? Well, not exactly.

In California, a debate of environmental concerns is occuring over the proposed installation of solar and wind generation on approximately 600,000 acres of land in the Mojave desert, located in a state designated renewable zone [1]. Numerous companies have applied to create projects in the area. The current debate is centered around the need for new renewable energy versus the need to preserve pristine lands.

The argument against development is specifically concerned with the great amount of space that wind and especially solar installations would consume. While concerns for negative impacts on wildlife are being voiced, this side of the debate appears to also be a NIMBY situation. The opposition effort is now being spearheaded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has proposed turning the land into a national monument [2]. This would effectively prevent any new project from being developed.

I find it very interesting how difficult it is to balance all interests in this situation. Focusing solely on environmental concern, there is solid cause for California to be both in favor of and against developing solar and wind generation in the Mojave. Sen. Feinstein has said, "I’m a strong supporter of renewable energy and clean technology, but it is critical that these projects are built on suitable lands [2]." But what are "suitable lands" for solar/wind generation? Do deserts not qualify?

I am not sure how this situation will play out, but my personal hope is that development will occur in such a way that attempts to mitigate negative environmental impacts. I found this situation to be a stark reminder of how energy issues can be politically complex, to the point of pitting green interests against green interests.

[1] http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20090320-706706.html
[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/24/science/earth/24ecowars.html?ref=us

1 comment:

Andrew said...

This is an interesting case, and there are others like it, such as the Cape Wind project off of Cape Cod. As a native blue-stater myself, I find it pretty shameful when my fellow Democrats chastize everyone else about the environment, but when it comes time to do their part and sacrifice something of their own to achieve that goal, they object. It also highlights one of the big problems for those of us who care about the environment, because it is nearly impossible to take any action to "protect the environment" without some other environmental effect that gets directly or indirectly caused by it.

There is an excellent example of this problem, which would probably be what Professor Webber means by the paper topic title "environmentalists are bad for the environment," in the book The Final Forest, which chronicles the battles over the Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest. Every time the Fish and Wildlife Service would start to consider changes to the regulations that would put certain forestland off-limits to logging in order to protect the Spotted Owl, the logging companies would scramble to cut down as many trees as possible before the new regulations came into effect.

Different environmental objectives are so tricky because ecosystems are so complex and there is so much uncertainty involved in making these kind of choices. One of the challenges of crafting any kind of coherent energy policies is that even the greenest of energy policies could still come into sharp conflict with other environmental objectives such as leaving ecoysystems undisturbed.