Renewable energy is how we’re going to continue devouring energy with fewer limitations. Solar energy, wind power, geothermal, gigantic transmission lines are all magic solutions that will make life better, we’re told.
But a conference held in Denver earlier this month gave a sobering preview of major land decisions ahead for this nation. Experts at CLE International’s convention on Historic Preservation and Tribal Consultation: Energy & Transmission Projects predicted that energy projects will be bigger and come faster than any of us foresee, with great impacts on ethnographic and rural historic districts. Public and tribal lands will be targeted because of their size. Huge acreages, some projects as big as 7,000 acres, may be set aside for a single use – energy – in wind farms or solar spreads. Never before has America pre-empted such huge pieces of land for a single use.
Today, the single largest use of public land is recreation. The rush to embrace new energy sources may steamroll over that, as there’s always someone who wants to make money off “vacant” land, especially if it belongs to someone else. Of course, those wide open vistas are a magnet luring tourist dollars to the legendary West.
The lead agency for most of the projects was the Bureau of Land Management, the nation’s largest land manager (not renowned for care of its lands), which oversees 258 million acres. The BLM has identified nearly 23 million acres of public land for solar energy development and 24 specific Solar Energy Study Areas comprising approximately 670,000 acres of BLM-administered land in six Western states. In 2010, large-scale renewable projects included 14 solar, seven wind, three geothermal and seven transmission projects, ranging from 24 megawatts to 986 megawatts (large enough to supply power to 900,000 homes). They had to be approved by December to be eligible for substantial stimulus funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
This conference was a provocative eye-opener. In attendance were Native American tribal leaders; attorneys and representatives from energy companies; the BLM; state historic preservation offices from several states; the National Register of Historic Places; the Department of the Interior; the National Trust for Historic Preservation; and more.
There are environmental standards to be met, as well as protections for historical sites and the Indians’ sacred places and cultural resources.
It appears it’s taken the feds some years to understand that they should talk to the tribes, which are sovereign nations, early and regularly. Transparency in decision-making is a must, and recognition that for the tribes, confidentiality is imperative. With 561 certified federal tribes to work with, each with its own rules, the government had better pay attention. One person noted that renewable energy projects are driven by the applicants, who are often the least informed player in the game.
Two days of listening to renewable energy projects experiences gave a troubling forecast of what citizens and governments must prepare for as we race toward this new frontier. It’s a learning experience we must not ignore.
Freelance columnist Joanne Ditmer has been writing on environmental and urban issues for The Post since 1962.