I opened my apartment door Thursday morning to find a front-page article in the Washington Post that referenced Nature Conservancy work I’ve done. The piece, entitled “Renewable Energy’s Environmental Paradox,” looked at some of the potential damage to natural habitat from the expansion of renewable energy. It references a Nature Conservancy report, currently in review at the journal PLoS One, that quantifies what I and the other report authors are calling “energy sprawl.”
Here’s the question we tried to answer: How much new land will be needed for energy production in 2030 under different kinds of U.S. climate and energy policy scenarios?
Without giving away too much detail (since the manuscript’s still in review), the answer is that, under current law, the United States is due for at least 200,000 square kilometers of new development for energy…the mind-blowing figure cited in the Post piece.
For reference, if you were to push all that development together, it’s about the size of Minnesota. The vast majority of that development is not for making electricity at all, but is biofuel production mandated under the Renewable Fuel Standard provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
But one aspect missed by the Post piece was how much work the Conservancy is doing to not just quantify the potential habitat impact of renewables (the doom-and-gloom stuff), but to find pragmatic solutions that will minimize the biodiversity impact of it’s citing (the yes-we-can stuff).
For instance, in California, we’re working with the state to allow solar power production to go forward in the Mojave desert in a way that avoids sensitive ecosystems.
And in Wyoming and Montana, we are working in a similar way with oil and gas development. Joe Kiesecker and Bruce McKinney of the Conservancy call this “Development by Design,” and are creating a conceptual way to think about the problem:
- First you plan energy development, so you avoid hurting particularly sensitive species or habitats.
- Then, where development will occur, you minimize the spatial footprint of development, limiting environmental damage there as much as possible.
- Finally, whatever environmental damage does occur can be offset to some extent by encouraging those doing the development to pair it with conservation action to protect other parcels of land.
The article in the Post also talks of an “environmental paradox,” and emphasizes the tension between meeting the urgent challenge of climate change and dealing with the environmental challenge of siting all this new renewable energy development.
All I can say is that, from my perspective, there is actually startling agreement among the conservation community on how to proceed with this.
Every single major environmental NGO recognizes that climate change is a preeminent concern. We all recognize that some new renewable energy development is needed to help the country transition to a less carbon-intensive energy system, although there’s also a big push to maximize energy conservation as much as possible to make the task easier. It is a tribute to the seriousness of climate change that the major conservation groups are taking a pragmatic view, and are trying to make sure renewable energy development happens the right way, rather than just blindly fighting it because of its habitat effects.
It is not a paradox, just a trade-off: Renewable energy takes more space to produce than fossil-fuel energy, and society needs to think carefully about how best to meet that challenge.