The U.S. West’s Energy Future and Development by Design

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Published on August 25th, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

Holly Copeland is a spatial ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming.

Can we develop America’s energy resources in a smarter way that has less impact to biodiversity?

That’s a question that I think about daily as a scientist and geographer for the Conservancy — and as a citizen living in the heart of one of America’s energy production zones.

The “view” of the nation’s energy issues from Lander, Wyoming — where I live — is fascinating and at times frightening. Trucks hauling massive wind turbine blades are a common sight along Interstate 80, travelling to their new homes on ranches in Wyoming’s southern grasslands. When I moved here in 1999, wind development wasn’t even a topic of conversation.

Meanwhile, throughout Wyoming’s vast sagebrush basins, new industrial zones are being created by natural gas development, reducing habitat for mule deer, sage-grouse, pronghorn and elk. Wyoming also produces more coal than any other state in the United States. It is utterly painful to watch the Wyoming I love increasingly fragmented by natural gas roads and pipelines, skylines of wind turbines, and air not as clear or healthy as when we moved here.

Though we live in a small western town, our family is no different from many in America. We have two young children that we cart around in our SUV to school and activities like ballet and piano. We are a “green” family in many of the ways espoused by green magazine articles — we recycle, buy organic, grow a garden and eat locally grown food, all while using energy as sparingly as we can. There is no question, though, that we are still part of the energy problem. Per capita energy consumption in the United States ranks 10th among all countries.

My work for the Conservancy over these past 11 years has also grown steadily more energy focused. I now work on the Conservancy’s “Development by Design” approach — my colleagues and I work with energy companies to shape energy development by directing mitigation funds where they are most needed offsite and encouraging avoidance of the most sensitive areas onsite.

The goal of Development by Design is to reduce and minimize the impacts on biodiversity from development. Those goals are good — but in the long run, we need much, much more. America must muster the courage and fortitude to build a smart grid that reduces electric energy consumption and to create a portfolio of clean energy on lands already converted from native vegetation.

Our science team in Wyoming has been working over the past few years to better understand the future of energy development to habitats and species in the western United States. Our hope is that these analyses can fill an information gap on the landscape-scale impacts of energy development — not just piecemeal, field-by-field information. We also hope that this landscape-scale knowledge can inform decision-makers on how to safeguard wildlife and allow for development so that the “right actions occur in the right places.”

You will be able to read more about this vision in an upcoming Island Press book, Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America, in which my colleagues and I have published these ideas. I’ll also be blogging about Development by Design and the intersection of energy and conservation here on Cool Green Science over the next couple of weeks.

(Image: Aerial view of the Elk River Wind Project near the small town of Beaumont, in the southern Flint Hills region of Kansas. Image credit: Jim Richardson.)

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Comments: The U.S. West’s Energy Future and Development by Design

  •  Comment from JoAnn Stricklin

    Hi Holly,

    I read your article and loved it. Not only are you one fine writer, but your focus and “smarts” in this area must be so appreciated by the staff at The Nature Conservancy.

    I, too, get depressed about the presence of wind turbines covering miles and miles wide open spaces where they were never seen before. It’s happening all over California as well as Wyoming. I know we need to create energy but there has to be a way to do it so we don’t scar the open lands that we all love.

    I’ll be anxious to read your next article. Thanks for including me in your mailing….

    Jo

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