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Written by William Quinn   
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Monday, 20 June 2011

Energy Issues

Can you imagine selecting one of your children to be successful at the expense of your other child or children? Unfortunately, in the world of energy resources and management, policy makers are faced with this very dilemma. A major dilemma presented today lies between clean energy and ecosystem preservation. If creating a carbon-neutral society is out greatest goal, what types of sacrifices are we willing to make to achieve that end? We finally have the technological and industrial capabilities to produce wind and solar farms that have the potential to make an impact on our energy consumption on a national level. The question is whether we allow these clean technology enterprises to thrive, or instead question and derail their development at every turn?

Clean Energy

If the United States genuinely wants to achieve a carbon-neutral society, it has to get serious about alternative sources of energy. Presently, natural gas and biofuels seem to be leading the pack. Some examples of biofuels are microbial fuel , biobutanol , biodiesel , cellulose fuel , and more. However, there are serious setbacks with both natural gas and biofuels produced on an industrial scale. The chemicals now being used in the process of extracting natural gas are extremely troubling, along with the fact that corn—the leading source for biofuel in the U.S.—is “dangerously oversold as green energy” puts these alternative energy sources into question as a “green” solution.1 So, what are we left with?

We can burn biomass for fuel or chemically alter it for energy, but both processes are difficult and not yet cost-effective at an industrial scale, especially with cheap oil from petroleum and natural gas undercutting the market. We can use hydroelectric energy by damming rivers. In California, hydroelectric power plants produced 43,625 gigawatt-hours of electricity in 2007 (14.5 percent of CA’s total).2 However, only a handful of rivers naturally flow undammed in California as a result. For the most part, the hydroelectric capabilities are maxed out—a fact that holds true for much of the U.S. Further hydroelectric production could mean serious river and natural resource degradation.3

I have nothing against tidal or geothermal energy but they are extremely region specific in their ability to generate power. And nuclear power is a total tossup/political mess at the moment. In my eyes, the two most promising sources of alternative energy that can be setup the world over are solar and wind power . Let’s look at what is slowing down solar and wind energy in the United States.

Bureaucracy Hindering Solar and Wind Energy Development

While government planning and task delegation is necessary for a functioning society, bureaucratic red tape can hinder progress, which is the case with solar power installation in the U.S. Even in areas where strong solar markets exist, the market is stifled by local government regulation. Local permits needed for panel installation appear to be doing the most harm. Given that State and local municipalities all can have different codes, “it’s like doing business in 50 different countries – just in Southern California,” according to Ken Button. He is the president of Verengo Solar Plus, a residential solar panel installer in Orange, California and says they have “50 different permitting authorities within 50 miles of [their] office,” each with different filing procedures and fee types.

A recent study calculates that these excessive permits add an average of $2,500 in costs to each solar installation.5 The study also claims that if the federal government standardized this process across all municipalities, the result would be equivalent to a $1 billion subsidy to the U.S. solar industry over five years. The San Francisco based solar company SunRun released a report claiming that 33% of their costs came from local permitting and inspections, and said they think that number could rise to 50% in the next few years.6

The Obama administration has urged the federal government to streamline this process as well. Other solar giants such as Germany and Japan have adopted a streamlined system, and the results may be evident as they are two of world's top photovoltaics installers and leading manufacturers of solar panels. The Obama administration has further illustrated the need for standardization by suggesting that permit standardization could make solar power “competitive for roughly half of the nation’s 128 million homes within just two years.”7 Unless real action is taken against overzealous bureaucratic measures, the solar industry could be stifled in this nation.

Solar Farm Land Use Issues 8

Litigation Hindering Solar and Wind Energy Development

Along with increasing alternative energy development such as solar and wind farms also comes more complaints from nearby residents who do not want such “eyesores” in their “backyards.”9 Fortunately for solar and wind farms, the “I don’t want that built there” position is usually not a strong enough argument to prevent construction. Unfortunately for alternative energy developers, this is not the only problem they face. Both wind and solar farms face national litigation for claims of environmental degradation and species endangerment. Maryland’s first industrial wind farm was taken to court because conservationists feared that the turbines would harm the endangered species of Indiana Bats.10 Similar litigation occurred in West Virginia where the plant operators were ordered by a court to turn off the turbines at night and during peak migration times.11 This litigation may have slowed the development of the wind farm, and added costs, but it does appear to have protected an endangered species. Unfortunately, not all cases are this clear.

Wind Farm 12

With California mandated to receive 33 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2020, the state is getting serious about its alternative energy production. With the aid of the California Energy Commission, the State of California has recently planned solar infrastructure like the world has never seen—potentially getting 3,000MW of energy from the California desert (enough power for nearly 2 million homes).13 A lawsuit was filed against much of the construction in the desert by Native American tribes claiming the construction would alter historical gyoglyphs (drawings on the ground) and “sacred environments to the native people.”14 The California Supreme Court ruled that “tribes do not have a legal right to permanently block projects on federal lands based on assertion of Indian religious or cultural practices.”15 The Court did, however, include a stipulation that the government could do a better job of planning the size and location of these projects. This case is less clear-cut than the bat cases. Are we comfortable potentially altering/harming historical landmarks for the creation of alternative energy infrastructure? Furthermore, how can we ascertain the damage done? The tribes claimed that panels within 200 feet of certain areas would disrespect their historical and cultural significance, but where do we draw the line?

The Federal government endorsed the creation of what will become the world’s largest solar farm in late 2010.16 The Mojave Desert construction received criticism from conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, which claimed that habitats of endangered species would be further threatened with the creation of these massive solar farms. The largest solar farm in question was the Calico solar project run by Tessera Solar Company. Their plant in San Bernardino was originally slated to produce 850 MW, but the California Energy Commission cut that to 663.5 MW to “minimize its impact on wildlife.”17 The Sierra Club challenged the California Energy Commission’s environmental review process, claiming it did not adequately protect threatened desert species such as big horned sheep, golden eagles, and desert tortoise.18

In a somewhat dramatic turn of events, the California Supreme Court threw out two lawsuits filed against the Calico project without comment in April 2011, including the Sierra Club case. One can only infer that the court agreed with the CA Energy Commission’s initial review and findings, and found the Sierra Club’s claims superfluous. This case seems to fall somewhere in between the previous two. Damages cannot be shown, as was the case with the Bats in Maryland, and the Energy Commission did extensive initial reviews, but there is some apparent threat to wildlife. Are we comfortable with some endangered species having their habitats altered for alternative energy? Cases like these will surely emerge around the country as new proposals for green energy increase. However, at some point, government and land managers may need to ask themselves, what is more valuable, wildlife or energy—the decision will not be an easy one.

Is There a Solution? A Right and a Wrong?

We clearly live in an interesting period, where groups that have long fought for alternative energy development (such as the Sierra Club), are now suing that same development for not being sufficiently environmentally, and species-conscientious.19 In many ways it makes sense, but these organizations have to be careful to pick their battles, or risk losing credibility in environmental circles while fueling the criticism of opposition movements. The environmental movement is an easy target for mockery when groups appear to be suing themselves. There are tough decisions in our future, but let us remember to be rational and look at the big picture. It will never be as easy as building solar panels in the desert and getting clean energy from them; the world is far too complicated for that to be the case. Neither side of the debate is wrong, but ultimately we may need to loosen up the restrictions on clean energy if we really want it to work. At some point, we may need to pursue what we value most, even if that means a slight sacrifice of other values.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 21 June 2011 )


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