Are Industrial-Scale Solar Farms Bad For The Environment?
Fossil fuels are so last century. They’re dangerous to produce and filthy to burn. More importantly, they’re disappearing, and in order to get at the very last drops lingering deep in the earth, we’ve had to invent even more dangerous and filthy methods of extraction.
With that list of cons stacked up against Big Oil, Coal, and Gas, renewable energy looks like the tooth fairy. What could be more opposite than benign equipment that harvests energy that naturally occurs all around us? Although there’s no denying that solar, wind, geothermal, and other forms of alternative energy are better for our planet and the future of global power production, it’s important not to give them the rubber stamp treatment.
In June, the Obama administration finalized a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar energy development on federally-controlled land. Approximately 285,000 acres of public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah were made available to solar companies looking to build commercial-grade arrays. Even as it opened up 17 “solar energy zones” for fast-track development, the administration also put 78 million acres off-limits. Still, the PEIS for this development proposal acknowledged that solar projects not sited in the approved zones would still be considered — these are called “variance lands”. (Note: the PEIS, which also lays out alternative management plans, has not yet been adopted by Bureau of Land Management)
At first glance, this decision seemed to be cause for celebration. Finally, public land would be put to use for the public good — creating clean energy that could benefit the entire nation. After all, oil, gas, coal, and logging companies have had permission to pillage these public lands for decades, why shouldn’t solar companies be allowed to use them too?
That type of reasoning could be dangerous for the very wildlife, resources and ecosystems we’re trying protect, however. Recently the National Parks Conservation Association criticized the Interior Departments decision, saying that lands adjacent to our national parks are not appropriate for any kind of development, solar or otherwise. Here’s more from an article by the NPCA’s Dr. Guy DiDonato, David Lamfrom and Elizabeth Myers:
The National Park Service has identified areas of land around 53 national parks and six national historic trails where, if industrial solar development were permitted to occur, significant conflicts with park resources and values would result. Some of the lands potentially available for solar development flank Death Valley National Park to the east and nearly abut Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. In Nevada, BLM variance lands encircle Great Basin National Park and border Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Solar developments, under the second alternative above, could creep up to the border of Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and crowd up against Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Although it supports the general idea of solar development, the NPCA thinks protected lands should be just that: protected from any and all human intrusion. “Other excellent alternatives exist: using brownfields and other disturbed public lands, continuing to develop rooftop solar resources on the existing built environment, and supporting projects of all sizes on suitable private lands,” writes DiDonato et. al.
Of course, one could also argue that without rapid renewable energy development, it’s impossible to reduce our fossil fuel consumption fast enough to mitigate the damage it’s doing. Climate change is also a threat to these national treasures and the wildlife that calls them home. What’s worse, polluting pristine lands with smog, fracking wastewater, and oil drilling rigs, or ruining an iconic view with a couple hundred solar panels? Is the fast-tracking of significant amounts of cheap, clean solar energy so noble a cause that it’s worth interrupting migratory patterns or fragmenting habitats?
There is no easy answer to this question. All I know is that without action on renewable energy, the effects of human-accelerated climate change will become more drastic and we won’t be able to adapt as well as some of our wild friends.
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