Protecting intact ecosystems from unnecessary destruction should be considered a core objective for people concerned with the fate of the planet and our ability to live sustainably, yet the climate crisis has prompted various facets of the energy industry – from fossil fuel interests, to utility companies, wind turbine manufacturers, wind project developers, solar panel makers, and solar panel installers – to manipulate how we discuss the solution to the climate crisis. Just as any industry tends to lobby and influence the parameters of debates that might affect their profits (e.g., the tobacco industry and public health, and the gun industry and gun ownership regulation) the energy industry will similarly seek to influence how we define and pursue sustainability. So it is imperative that environmentalists participate in this discussion with a critical eye, questioning not just the information they are given, but also questioning the boundaries placed on the discussion and how those boundaries are established.
Within the national debate about how to increase renewable energy generation, industry attempts to define the range of alternatives and the cost/benefit analysis has proven to be a problematic example of industry influence because it the parts of the renewable energy industry have exploited the public lack of knowledge to force compromise on our conservation ethic. It is particularly insidious because of the partnerships developed between the renewable energy industry and the environmental community to present a solution to climate change and combat the propaganda of the fossil fuel companies. Working with the renewable energy industry to achieve shared objectives is one thing, but allowing the industry to dictate how those objectives are achieved is quite another. We have to recognize the profit motive of the industry partners we work with so that the solution to the climate crisis we implement is guided by a conservation ethic, and not any single industry’s bottom line.
Limiting the Boundaries of Compromise
As an example of how the industry has influenced the national discussion, someone I know and respect as a person suggested that arguing against utility-scale solar projects that destroy intact desert habitat ignores the “big picture” in favor of avoiding local impacts. In other words, my passion for protecting the desert is going to prevent efforts to rescue the planet – including the desert wildlands that I want to protect – because I oppose companies like BrightSource Energy mowing down 5.6 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat to build the ecological disaster that is the Ivanpah Solar project, or Bechtel bulldozing a swath of desert that is home to burrowing owls, kit fox, and bighorn sheep for the Soda Mountain Solar project.
What troubles me is that this person’s argument in favor of utility-scale solar projects replacing intact desert wildlands focuses on the need for a “compromise,” and suggested that perhaps more projects like BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar project must be allowed to move forward. Compromise itself is wise and a necessary part of our everyday lives, but in the case of building utility-scale solar in the desert, the parameters of the negotiation that lead to compromise are almost always defined and skewed by those with power and omit the alternatives that are more sustainable. Environmentalists have sought to convince BrightSource and First Solar to move projects to less destructive locations, and for regulators to emphasize distributed generation, such as solar on rooftops and over parking lots. Some environmentalists even supported the establishment of “solar energy zones” in the desert in an effort to compromise with the industry and limit impacts to areas away from some of the most important wildlife habitat.
The industry has generally ignored these attempts for true compromise. Companies continue to propose and build projects on intact desert outside the “solar energy zones.” The industry has also filed comments with the California Energy Commission and Department of Interior arguing that we cannot meet renewable energy portfolio standards without giving the industry wide access to desert wildlands, building destructive projects far from our cities, and tolerating the loss of important wildlife habitat. In other words, compromise can only take place where it makes sense for the company’s bottom line.
When these companies’ talking points reach the press, the story is portrayed as “green vs. green,” or environmentalists fighting solar companies. What these talking points and press stories tend to ignore is that there are practical alternatives to destroying remote desert wildlands. Just look at the thousands of megawatts of large-scale solar projects built on already-disturbed lands and closer to human population centers, or the thousands of megawatts of solar panels installed on rooftops and over parking lots across the country. If your definition of “compromise” puts the destruction of desert before these other alternatives, BrightSource Energy’s CEO thanks you.
Wildlife Body Count
The energy industry also preys upon ecological illiteracy. During my recent conversation, the person I respect asked me how many birds die each week flying into buildings, probably trying to share the lens through which they view the evidence that the Ivanpah Solar project has burned and battered hundreds of birds in its short operational lifespan. This is the same tactic that the American Wind Energy Association uses to deflect criticism of wildlife impacts – “don’t worry, other things kill far more birds.” Even if replacing fossil fuels with solar power towers reduced the net total of bird deaths, the unique impacts of each solar power tower project have to be evaluated on their own merits. Setting up a solar power tower that attracts and then burns birds along a migratory flyway is not a good idea. Neither is extirpating a local raptor population. Any project can have cascading effects on an ecosystem; it’s not simply a numbers game. And from the standpoint of forging a renewable energy path, shrugging off wildlife impacts by finding a higher statistic is simply compromising on our conservation ethic. Plenty of other forces in society are already quite good at that; it is depressing to think that the environmental community would do so, as well. Especially when smarter alternatives and locations are practical and available.
The person I had a conversation with has remarked that far more tortoises have died by natural predators – such as raptors and coyotes – than from the construction of solar facilities in the desert, trying to put Ivanpah Solar’s negative impacts on the tortoise in a more favorable perspective. They have suggested that tortoises may even be better off given BrightSource’s investment in caring for the tortoises it took from burrows before it sent in the bulldozers. BrightSource could pay for tortoises to stay in Las Vegas penthouses, but at the end of the day habitat loss is one of the most significant threats to the species.
This takes us back to the industry’s definition of “compromise.” In the case of BrightSource’s Ivanpah Solar project and First Solar’s Silver State South, compromise has translated into these companies shaving a few acres off of a project that replaces a wildlife corridor, or shelling out a couple million dollars to house or care for tortoises it displaced in the first place. Such compromises are a long-term disadvantage to wildlife and a short-term symbolic victory for the company’s public relations staff. If oil companies paid for private polar bear nurseries to offset the species’ shrinking arctic habitat, would we be okay with more oil drilling? Probably not.
We cannot allow the industry to limit our renewable energy future to the current paradigm, where we sacrifice more and more wildlands to carry the burden of hosting and electrifying all of our material needs. Instead, the discussion should center on how our transition to renewable energy can enable a paradigm shift in how we conserve and consume electricity, and where it is generated. Climate change is not the first – nor will it be the last – sustainability crisis that we face. The human footprint will now include the ever-expanding renewable energy industry. It is up to us to make sure we minimize the regrets future generations will have about this path. We can start by prioritizing energy efficiency, renewable energy in our cities, and on already-disturbed lands. The first “compromise” we made should not have been to allow BrightSource to bulldoze important wildlife habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.