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Federal lands are being ruined for inefficient solar energy

The U.S. government is committed to a mistaken and damaging renewable-energy policy that promotes and heavily subsidizes industrial-scale solar and wind development on public lands.

This industrial assault is already under way, and may ultimately cover hundreds of thousands of acres of our public land – much of which consists of intact ecosystems that provide habitat for rare and endangered plants and animals, sequester carbon, and offer the chance for ecosystem adaptation to climate change.

Utility-scale solar and wind generating plants, most with footprints of several thousand acres, are transforming ecologically rich, multiple-use lands to single-use industrial facilities, in effect privatizing vast areas of public land. Those lands cannot be returned to their previous state; conversion is total and permanent, even though most projects will generate power for only 15 to 30 years.

The thousands of miles of new transmission infrastructure necessary to carry power from remote generating plants to urban demand centers drastically inflates the cost of renewable energy, with ratepayers footing the bill for the utilities’ built-in transmission profits.

U.S. taxpayers have provided billions of dollars in subsidies for industrial-scale renewable developments to many of the same corporations that have dominated the Fossil Fuel Era and in fact created the problems renewable energy is designed to rectify.

We must create a better energy future that serves both humans and the environment. Let’s pursue efficiency upgrades and “distributed generation”—point-of-use generation on rooftops, in parking lots and highway medians, brownfields and throughout the built environment. These are cost-effective, efficient, clean and democratic approaches that are faster to implement; they have far less environmental impact than industrial-scale solar or wind power on intact ecosystems; and they make our power grid far less vulnerable to catastrophic failure and sabotage.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s “Re-Powering America’s Lands” program has identified 15 million acres of degraded or contaminated land potentially suitable for renewable energy development, and works to facilitate remediation and development of the sites. This is a superb example of where our national policy should be focused.

The current, very damaging approach to renewable energy is based upon false storylines: that in order to confront the climate crisis, we must deploy huge infrastructure on public lands; that those who oppose these developments are either climate-deniers or coal-industry sympathizers; and that the sacrifice of desert ecosystems is a necessary tradeoff in the pursuit of renewable energy. None of these stories are true.

Janine Blaeloch is founder and director of the Western Lands Project.