Nic’s Thoughts on Environmentalists vs. Solar Farm Developers

On Monday, Emma blogged about the Sierra Club’s lawsuit to block the development of a solar farm on the basis that it presented a threat to the native plant and animal species in the area.  I don’t want to comment on the specific case as I have no special knowledge there, but it does raise an interesting question:

Do renewable energy projects deserve special consideration when considering their environmental impact?  Specifically, should the general, long-term benefit of something like reducing GHG emissions be considered when examining the local environmental impact of the project?

It’s not an easy question, and I’m not sure there’s a one size fits all answer.  It’s tempting to be reductionist and argue that not doing this will lead to more GHG-spewing fossil fuel plants.  I’m not sure I buy that, cancelling one solar project will probably just lead to a different solar project somewhere else.  Assuming that solar needs special exemptions from environmental impact assessments is assuming that there isn’t lots of non-virgin land (farm land where the soil salinity is too high from years of irrigation, farms that are in water starved areas, former industrial sites etc.).  The choice isn’t solar with environmental impact assessment exemptions or no solar at all.  There is a big difference between “Do we build a solar farm?” and “Do we build this solar farm here?”

Experience tells us that, when we have an exception for something, it often becomes a loophole for something else.  If we say that we can build solar projects on virgin desert land, would that include solar thermal plants that heat water to improve the efficiency of a coal fired station?  What would the penalty be if you built that system and ran it on days where there were too many clouds for the solar part of the plant?  What other types of power plants could qualify for the “solar exemption”, and would that list tend to grow or shrink once the lobbyists got to work?

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the EPA cancelled the permit for a major coal mine in Virginia.  I’ve said before that if it were up to me, there would be no exceptions for anyone for these sorts of things.  Either your project passes muster, or it doesn’t.  I want more solar, but I want good environmental management generally.  I want a level playing field with GHG emitting power sources, but I want to level it by taking away their exceptions and incentives, not winning new ones for solar.

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