For renewable energy advocates and environmental groups, few questions are more divisive than the impact of wind turbines on desert wildlife.
Trade organizations see wind development as something of a climate change panacea: an abundant, relatively inexpensive clean energy source that doesn’t disturb most wildlife. Conservationists, though, argue that wind turbines pose a major threat to birds, and that they can disrupt the habitats of ground-dwelling species.
Those groups clashed during the drafting of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, and the conservationists seem to have come out ahead. Wind advocates have argued that as it’s currently written, the plan – which does not cover the Coachella Valley – would kill most new wind development in the state.
State and federal regulators spent nearly six years working on the 8,000-page document, which would divide 22.5 million acres of California desert into areas designated for renewable energy, conservation and recreation. During that time, the California Wind Energy Association submitted several proposals outlining the areas it sees as having the best wind resources.
But in the draft plan’s “preferred alternative,” just 15 percent of those areas are included in possible renewable energy zones, according to the wind association’s executive director, Nancy Rader.
“We sat with the environmentalists for a couple of months; we showed them those maps,” Rader said. “And they could not identify one square meter of this area that they could bless as a wind resource area.”
Most environmental organizations are unsympathetic to the argument that more of the desert should be opened to wind development. They say that while they’re not opposed to wind turbines, it’s imperative that projects be located in appropriate places, citing risks to golden eagles, California condors and other avian species.
“Wind developers, I imagine, might prefer to have no checkpoints,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a leading national conservation organization. “But I think the vast majority of the public and the governments, state and federal, are very much conscious about the need to maximize conservation.”
Environmentalists and renewable energy boosters agree there are far too few studies analyzing the impact of wind turbines on birds and bats. That’s where the agreement ends, though. Environmental groups see the lack of data as a reason for caution, while wind advocates believe environmentalists have used it as an excuse to imagine worst-case scenarios.
“Nowhere is there any serious analysis of whether we have unmitigable impacts,” Rader said, referring to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
Whether wind projects pose a serious risk to terrestrial species is another point of contention. There hasn’t been much research in this area either, although wind advocates point to a 2011 study showing that turbines seem to have little impact on desert tortoises.
Again, environmental advocates have an entirely different perspective.
Helen O’Shea – director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Western Renewable Energy Project – said that while energy companies typically measure the “ground disturbance” of wind turbines as the area covered by their concrete foundations, environmental groups look at the entire project area. That’s important, O’Shea said, because wind developments can interrupt migration corridors for desert tortoises and bighorn sheep, among other species.
“From a conservation perspective, we need minimal uncertainty and minimal risk for species,” Clark said.
For some renewable energy advocates, though, environmental groups’ reluctance to embrace wind is not only grounded in bad assumptions, but short-sighted. They argue that wind development is critical to California’s efforts to limit climate change, citing the state’s long-term goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
They also note that wind is significantly less expensive than geothermal power, which some environmental groups prefer because of its minimal environmental impacts. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan’s preferred alternative assumes that almost as much geothermal power as wind power will be developable in the desert between now and 2040.
“These environmentalists need to wake up and be concerned about cost,” Rader said. “Even if all that geothermal does materialize, we’re still going to need a lot more wind energy than they’re planning for.”
Asked about the geothermal’s relatively high price tag, O’Shea noted that geothermal has a key advantage over wind and solar photovoltaics: It is a “baseload” power source, meaning it can produce power at all hours of the day and night. Geothermal advocates have frequently argued that geothermal would be more cost-competitive in California if state regulators took that benefit into account.
Environmental groups also bristle at the suggestion that they’ve been too hard on wind. Just because the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan doesn’t include more of the best wind resource areas in its development zones, O’Shea said, doesn’t mean the document is a failure.
“The idea is to find the right places for development, whether it’s solar, wind or geothermal. And all three technologies have a really important role in California’s energy future,” she said. “It is about balancing – it’s not just about trying to find the best wind resources and the best solar resources without regard to impact.”
Wildlife concerns aren’t the only reason regulators are reluctant to open more areas to wind development. They’ve also cited potential conflicts with military testing and training, noting that the Air Force, Marines and Navy all operate facilities in the desert.
It’s possible the final version of the renewable energy plan – which could still be a year away – will look significantly different than the draft currently being debated. The draft outlines six “alternatives” for how to divide the desert, at least one of which is more favorable to renewable energy than regulators’ “preferred alternative.”
Rader hopes egulators will make significant changes to the document – especially because its wind analysis was based in part on an outdated proposal from the California Wind Energy Association, she said. The plan’s authors, Rader said, overlooked an updated proposal submitted in early 2013.
The battle over wind in the desert isn’t limited to the renewable energy plan, which doesn’t impact most projects already under consideration. Regulators have been examining several wind proposals in the desert, including a solar-wind project that would be built in the Silurian Valley, on the road to Death Valley National Park.
The federal Bureau of Land Management rejected the solar component of the project on Thursday, arguing it would harm threatened species and interrupt a scenic, largely undisturbed desert landscape. Rader called the decision “pretty bad news” for wind development, especially considering that the area is designated for development under one of the alternative scenarios outlined by the the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
“What’s more important to you?” Rader asked. “Your view as you drive to a national park, or how we’re stopping climate change?”
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