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InsiderOnline Blog: April 2009

Renewable Energy’s Environmental Problem

The environmentalist movement to stamp out the use of fossil fuels may find itself lined up against other environmentalists, reports the Washington Post. That’s because the infrastructure needed for renewable energy eats up a lot more land than does the infrastructure needed for traditional fuels such as natural gas, coal, and nuclear. So requiring utilities to make use of wind and solar power will create new stresses on lands that naturalists would like to preserve as wilderness.  

As the Post reports (see chart accompanying story), producing a terawatt-hour per year of electricity requires 210 square miles of biomass, or 18 square miles of wind turbines, or 14 square miles worth of photovoltaic cells. The equivalent amount of energy produced by natural gas eats up only 7 square miles; by coal, only 4 square miles; and by a nuclear plant, less than 1 square mile.

The Post reports that building a transmission line connecting wind power from the desert in New Mexico to cities in Arizona is already proving to be an environmental challenge, because

… the line would … cross grasslands, skirt two national wildlife refuges and traverse the Rio Grande, all habitat areas rich in wildlife. The graceful sandhill crane, for example, makes its winter home in the wetlands of New Mexicos Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, right next to the path of the proposed power line. And much of the area falls under the protection of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM). … “Everybody in New Mexico loves the sandhill cranes,” said Ned Farquhar, a former aide to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). “We also love our renewable energy. So we have to figure this out.”

Another problem, says the Post:

Grassland birds such as the lesser prairie chicken and the greater sage grouse, both of which are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act, appear to avoid vertical structures such as wind turbines and transmission-line towers. This is proving to be a problem in states such as Kansas, an ideal site for wind power, because as more turbines are built, lesser prairie chickens will confine themselves to narrow ranges, fragmenting a population that must be connected to survive.

The title of the Post article uses the word “paradox” to describe these situations, but, as Reason’s Ron Bailey points out, what we have here is really just the pedestrian reality that all valueseven environmental ones—must ultimately conflict with one another. That requires environmentalists to be like everybody else and make tradeoffs. On the other hand, a danger not mentioned by the article is that environmentalists might try to mitigate the conflict between renewable energy and public lands by using eminent domain to build transmission lines across private land. Watch out, property owners.

Posted on 04/16/09 06:03 PM by Alex Adrianson

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