Thursday, January 06, 2011

"Environmentalists" Opposing Renewable Energy Projects

If you want yet another example of why the United States lacks a coherent energy policy, all you have to do is go out West to see how people who claim to be environmentalists sue to block building solar power projects near them.

They like the projects on paper, but once it has the potential of going into their own backyard, NIMBY rears its ugly head and the lawsuits commence. Those lawsuits are time consuming and add significant costs to all energy projects, no matter how environmentally sensitive or green they are touted to be.
The push to create an alternative to carbon-based fuel has hit an unlikely snag: environmentalists.

The split between Peterson and Williams illustrates this awkward state of affairs. To a growing number of environmental advocates, the dozens of large solar plants that are springing up in vast areas of the western wilderness are more scourge than savior.

The upshot is that those who on paper seem to be perfect allies for solar are turning into its biggest enemies.

That includes the Sierra Club, which last week filed what senior attorney Gloria Smith says is its first suit against a solar plant, a giant 664-megawatt project called Calico that is slated to go up in the desert near Barstow, California. It would lie smack in the middle of habitat for rare plants and animals, in an area Smith calls "a very unfortunate site."

The legal brawl comes as the U.S. is racing to adopt renewables. In the United States, renewable energy, including solar, makes up just 8 percent or so of electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That figure was expected to jump to 13 percent by 2035 -- but that was before the Green vs. Green feud.

Even though Williams and her cohorts support the broad goal of reducing dependence on fossil fuels, they say it comes at too high a cost if it means building on undeveloped land. Helping their case: the proposed plants are often slated for areas with threatened or endangered animals, including kit foxes, kangaroo rats, rare lizards and others.

Now, the groups have gone from complaining to litigating. That means solar companies must take funds and management time that would have been spent on developing their plants and spend them instead on fighting lawsuits. For some companies, the likely result is that plants won't be built.

For the solar industry overall, the situation marks a fundamental shift in attitude. Where previously almost any bare patch of desert seemed like a prospective solar plant, now the reality is that much of the nation's most fertile ground for alternative power and energy independence may well remain undeveloped.
Undeveloped and cheap land near existing transmission lines are ideal for solar power development and yet these groups are suing because they claim that the projects will have a negative ecological impact.

Any construction will have an impact - the idea is how to minimize the effects while providing a cost-efficient and sustainable energy source. By suing, Sierra Club and other environmental groups are showing that they are against energy development of any sort - no matter how green they claim to be. California has a legal requirement to get 33% of its energy needs from renewable sources, which means that the state's ability to reach its goal is threatened as environmentalists fight to stop solar projects around the state.

It also means that solar power companies are not going to get involved in US projects because it isn't cost effective and are looking elsewhere - China for one, where the benefits of solar far outweigh the alternatives of more coal powered plants that emit noxious chemicals.

Yet, it should be pointed out that the footprint of a solar powered project is several times greater than a nuclear power plant of the same energy output.

NIMBYism is killing technological development and a shift from existing energy sources to cleaner, renewable sources. This will have dire consequences in coming years no matter how much money in incentives are thrown at the industry because the underlying fundamentals have not changed. Fix the issues arising from NIMBY types who thwart all manner of necessary and critical projects and it will reduce costs for a wide range of infrastructure projects that will help catapult US infrastructure into the 21st century.

Another issue is that China isn't exactly an environmentally constrained culture as factories continue to belch noxious chemicals and heavy metals into the air injuring those around those factories. Hundreds of children were poisoned by lead from factories making batteries in just the latest of such incidents. China is ramping up production of a wide range of green products, including batteries, wind turbines, and solar power systems, but few are looking at the consequences of China looking the other way as these very factories pollute their localities with all manner of toxic chemicals befouling waterways, the air, and people living downwind.

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