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Keeping the Renewable Energy Industry Honest

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Happy birthday to us | Photo: Jerad Hill Photographer/Flickr/Creative Commons License

ReWire started reporting on renewable energy in California a year ago this month, and the reaction since has been largely favorable. Still, at the end of a week in which we've asked some very pointed questions about solar facilities in the desert, it's worth talking about why we spend our time watchdogging an industry whose manifest goal is to save the planet from the ravages of climate change.

I've adopted the editorial conceit writing here at ReWire of speaking in the third person ("ReWire has learned," etc). It helps remind people what they're reading, and besides, it's fun in a mildly pretentious sort of way. But I'm dropping that for this piece and speaking to you without the pretend mask.

That's in part because it allows me to offer my personal thanks for those of you who've read ReWire since we launched with this story on birds and wind turbines back on July 9, 2012. This has been one of the best, most rewarding writing gigs I've ever had.

But I'm also dropping the mask for this piece because this piece is a bit more personal than many I've written for ReWire in the last year.

I got my start writing about climate change about 40 years ago, with a letter to the editor of the Buffalo Evening News I wrote in my early teens. I started reporting for a living on climate change, among other environmental issues, in 1989. If you had told me back then that in 2012 and 2013 I would be reporting critically on wind and solar projects, you would have been met with a raised eyebrow.

But here I am, investigating bird deaths at solar facilities and from wind turbines, casting a critical eye at geothermal energy, taking hard looks at the transmission lines we're told we need to move renewable energy to where it's needed, and occasionally annoying the government agencies and environmental groups involved in the renewable energy field.

Have I switched sides since 1989? Not even a little. But in the last couple years of my writing about the downsides of large renewable energy facilities, I and people who express similar concerns have been met with accusations of climate change denialism, not taking climate change seriously enough, or even being shills for the oil and coal industries.

Climate change is a huge peril. I suspect the risk it poses us is far worse than many stalwart climate activists imagine. I suspect that some children now alive in comfortable circumstances in the U.S. will suffer horribly by the time they reach their 60s, as a result of climate change. Some of them -- some you know already -- will die of famine as crops fail in California and the midwest. Some will die when the power goes out for five days in the middle of a heat wave. And others may survive in relative comfort but at the cost of their common humanity with others, sitting in increasingly sheltered guarded communities of the relatively privileged as untold suffering goes on outside the gates.

I hope I'm wrong.

But if I'm not, that means that we need to find efficient, effective ways to reduce our output of greenhouse gases as quickly as possible.

The question is, what constitutes "efficient" and "effective"?

There's a photo making the rounds on Facebook the last few days, taken by Anush Shetty in Bangalore. The photo, for those of you not on Facebook, shows a lightswitch in the offices of the Alternative Law Forum, an activist group in Bangalore in the Indian state of Karnataka. Attached to the switch is a handwritten note that reads as follows:

Entire villages were displaced to generate this electricity. Please turn off the lights.

The note refers obliquely to hydroelectric power development in India over the last few decades, especially the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River, said by its opponents to have displaced more than a million villagers from what is now the bed of the dam's reservoir.

In California, the communities we displace to develop carbon-neutral energy sources tend not to be human communities, though some Antelope Valley residents might disagree. They tend to be ecological communities, like Mojave desert upland shrublands or bird migration connectivity corridors. Nonetheless, the warning on that light switch in Bangalore still holds.

In the last few years I've often heard sentiments along the lines of "well, bird deaths are regrettable, and we should minimize them, but we need the energy." The assumption obviously being that there's nothing we can do to change the fact that we consume energy. Our lifestyles are immutable and sacrosanct. The rest of the living world has to take the bullet for the team.

When I hear that kind of statement, I want to ask "which of your electrical appliances in particular are worth killing a condor to power? Just the air conditioning on hot days? Or is the pump on your pool also more important than that condor? Your television left on standby power? Your Xbox?"

As it turns out, an increasing number of scientists think that the ongoing losses in wildlife and its habitat are every bit as big a threat to the planet, if not more so, than climate change. I've written about this at KCET before as well. As dire a threat as climate change is, developing renewable energy facilities that deplete our biological diversity may make the possibly larger problem worse.

And yet with a very few exceptions (Ucilia Wang, K Kaufmann at the Desert Sun, and Earthtechling's Pete Danko coming to mind as examples), writers working in the burgeoning renewable energy field often report on large developments uncritically. That's probably fine for the trade press read mainly by people working for energy companies, but it does no one any good if we're trying to move off coal and oil in as smart and expedient a way as possible.

No one disputes that conventional energy sources are far worse for the environment in most respects than renewables: coal and oil development threaten wildlife, and burning fossil fuels threatens climate-related damage to wildlife habitat. That damage is likely already irrevocable. But as I pointed out here in January, that doesn't excuse the fewer deaths solar and wind and other renewables cause. Far from it! The ongoing carnage caused by dirty energy makes it all the more important that we make any alternatives as benign to wildlife as possible.

And one point on the allegation of "shilling for coal and oil" by calling attention to the drawbacks of big renewable projects: many of those projects' financial backers are deeply involved in the fossil fuel industry. Chevron's into solar and geothermal. BP was big in solar, and wind, though it's shutting that end of its investments in renewables down to focus on biofuels. As we've reported here, many large renewables facilities rely on natural gas backup for power and for supplementary heat, potentially as bad for the climate as using coal if recent estimates of fugitive methane from gas fields are accurate.

We're definitely going to need lots more solar power very soon to mitigate the looming climate disaster. We're going to need sensibly sited geothermal plants that are designed to minimize risk of toxic pollution. We're going to need small hydroelectric plants that take the welfare of fish into account. Though wind power is by its very nature one of the hardest forms of renewable energy to make wildlife-safe, we're going to need wind too, and technological advancements that let us abandon huge horizontal rotors with 50-meter blades can only help.

But we need to implement those technologies intelligently, in ways that actually help produce power without causing more damage than they solve. We need to spend our money wisely getting the maximum megawattage feasible for our dollars. We need to transition our energy production safely, not destroying our environment in order to save it.

And we need to question how much of our current profligate power use is actually necessary, so that we're not depleting biodiversity so that we can all leave those 100-watt light bulbs burning in our closets.

Cheerleading projects and new technology uncritically won't help us get there. Taking a sober look at costs and benefits just might. That's what I've tried to do here this last year, and with your support I hope to be thanking you again in July 2014 for another year's worth of open, clear-headed, and occasionally contentious conversation.


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