Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

No Room for Energy Production on Public Lands

If elected president, Hillary Clinton would “expand renewable energy on public lands.” With all due respect Madam President, whoa!

While producing energy on public lands reduces our addiction to foreign oil—and if renewable energy, reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions—energy exploitation also ruins the values for which most Americans hold public lands dear.

The so-called green electrons from wind and solar energy facilities built atop natural landscapes are as damaging to species, ecosystems and watersheds as the brown electrons that come from oil and gas fields or coal mines.

Renewable energy development in the wrong place destroys wild places, wildlife and watersheds. Such ill-placed development is not truly green energy but merely a lighter brown energy. We neither need nor can afford anymore dark-brown energy from fossil fuels and should simply keep it in the ground.

The greenest electrons are those produced on the roof of the building that consumes them. The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that ~40% of U.S. electricity could be generated from photovoltaic panels mounted on existing rooftops. NREL’s estimate doesn’t include other already developed spaces such as parking lots, integrating solar panels into building faces or further innovations in panel performance.

Add to all of that continued improvements in new building design, retrofitting existing buildings, and increased efficiency requirements for our transportation fleet, industrial motors and appliances—all of which are technologically feasible and economically rational—the nation doesn’t need to further squander its public lands heritage to meet our post-fossil fuel energy needs.

Most public lands are open to energy exploitation. Perhaps why too many Americans don’t adequately appreciate their public lands is because most are generally tree-free landscapes.

A few charismatic species characterize the tree-free landscapes of the American West—the desert tortoise of the Mojave Desert, the prairie chickens of the great mid-American grasslands, and the sage grouse of the Sagebrush Sea. Each is a “canary in a coal mine”—if they aren’t viable, neither are most other species and the ecosystems and watersheds upon which they depend.

The most acute threat to Atwater’s greater prairie-chicken and the lesser prairie chicken is oil and gas exploitation in Texas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Current sage grouse populations are 8% of historic numbers. Sagebrush habitat has been reduced by half; most that remains is on public land and much is still open to energy exploitation despite a new federal conservation plan intended to conserve the species.

Adding up the sagebrush that sage grouse need, they cannot afford to lose any more of it. If human take care of sage grouse we will also take care of other wildlife and watersheds in the Sagebrush Sea.

In the California Desert lives the endangered desert tortoise. The tortoise has a lot of problems, but a major one is utility-scale solar development, either in the form of massive arrays of photovoltaic panels or mirrors that concentrate the sun’s reflected heat on centralized towers that convert it into electricity—and kill by heat passing birds as well.

Solar panels can live as happily on roofs in the city as on racks in the desert. Desert tortoises can only live in a natural desert.

Centralized utility-scale power can be varying shades of brown electrons shipped long distances to customers. Such plants and powerlines are vulnerable to terrorists. Decentralized (distributed) power is not and doesn’t terrorize wildlife either.

Solar electricity isn’t the only bird-killing renewable energy. A Smithonian article reports that between 140,000 and 328,000 birds die each year after colliding with wind turbines, including the iconic and supposedly federally protected golden eagle. Popular Science reports more than 600,000 bats are killed each year. The American Bird Conservancy suggest many “bird-smart” strategies for wind energy, including not siting wind towers in areas with lots of birds. Public lands, because they are diverse habitats, are likely to have lots of different kinds of birds compared to the monoculture of an Iowa cornfield.

If our children are to see prairie chickens, sage grouse and desert tortoises, we must leave room for them, thereby leaving no room for energy development of any kind on public lands. Despair not. Energy philosopher Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has long made the compelling case that we can have as many miles driven, hot showers and cold beers as now, using far less energy than we currently use inefficiently. And the electrons can be green—mostly dark green.

Public lands should provide goods and services that the private lands cannot. Biological diversity, watershed integrity, landscape resilience and scenic wonder are found in the greatest amounts on public lands.