Renewable Energy Must Get Priority Over Conservation

Solar showdown in Calif. tortoises’ desert home

In a redux of the Cape Wind debacle and other misguided public opposition, (previous article) dumb environmentalism is again standing in the way of humanity’s Bright Green future. A utility-scale solar plant is now being held up over a few dozen tortoises. And it’s not the only one. The government is now sitting on 150 applications for solar plants. And what happens now could have an impact on all of those projects.

The Bureau of Land Management has received more than 150 applications for large-scale solar projects on 1.8 million acres of federal land in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. In California alone, such projects could claim an area the size of Rhode Island, transforming the state into the world’s largest solar farm.

BrightSource Energy wants permission to construct three solar power plants on the site that together would generate enough power each year for 142,000 homes, potentially generating billions of dollars of revenue over time.

The sun’s power is used to heat water and make steam, which in turn drives turbines to create electricity. Built in phases, the project would include seven, 459-foot metal towers, a natural gas pipeline, water tanks, steam turbine generators, boilers and buildings for administration and maintenance. Each plant would be surrounded by 8-foot high steel fencing.

The site has virtually unbroken sunshine most of the year, and is near transmission lines that can carry the power to consumers.

We must do the right thing. Which is whatever it takes to get these projects fast-tracked.

BrightSource President John Woolard warned in government filings released last month that heavy-handed regulation could kill the proposal. He did not mention the tortoises directly but referred to “unbounded and extreme” requirements being placed on the company.

At a time when the White House is pushing for the rapid development of green power, Woolard predicted the outcome in the California desert would reverberate widely.

The large-scale solar industry “is in its infancy, with great promise to compete with conventional energy,” Woolard wrote. “Overburdening this fledgling industry will cause it to be stillborn, ending that promise before it has truly begun.”

The Sierra Club wants regulators to move the site closer to Interstate 15, the busy freeway connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas, to avoid what it says will be a virtual death sentence for the tortoises. Estimates of the population have varied, but government scientists say at least 25 would need to be captured and moved.

I find myself siding here with opponents of government regulation. We need to cut this red tape, now. The Sierra Club should know better, and prioritize their goals. We need to save humans first, then we can worry about the rest of the species.

I’m not unsympathetic to the need for preserving biodiversity. But climate change will kill more species than the Sierra Club can possibly imagine. Some people over there need to see the bigger picture, and fast.

Comments (8 comments)

TPO / January 11th, 2010, 12:14 am / #1

One other thing that bothers me about many environmental groups is their continued resistance to nuclear energy. I am a member of some of these groups and I have expressed my objections on many occasions. They need to change their stance on many issues as the science reveals new knowledge and better understanding of such issues instead acting like religious groups.

BlackSun / January 13th, 2010, 5:21 pm / #2

Agreed! Two things we especially need to solve: Waste disposal and reprocessing. Also the economics of large nuke plants may be a problem, which is why it may make sense to use smaller, localized passive designs. They make some units that can be buried for 25 years, producing power the whole time. I like that approach. Thorium is also worth pursuing as a more abundant fuel.

GordonK / August 29th, 2010, 2:13 pm / #3

All nuclear power programs are de-facto government subsidized, either directly (as in France), or through liability caps like the Price-Anderson Act (in the USA). And the waste disposal problem is monumental, saddling literally over a thousand future generations with the waste of our nukes. Rather selfish of us, don't you think: we get the energy; they get the cleanup. But thorium power is intriguing and might be a win-win, deriving energy from currently stored spent nuclear fuel.

dormantdragon / April 28th, 2010, 1:39 pm / #4

May I first say that I greatly respect and agree with your stance on atheism, climate change and rational thinking – I am very new to your blog, and have greatly enjoyed most of the posts I have so far read.

However, I'm taken aback by this post, and I'll attempt to explain why.

On the one hand, I totally appreciate the need to take action on climate change, and I think the sooner this is done, the better – indeed, we delay at our peril.

Also, since I don't live in the US, I'm not familiar with this particular situation. I would ask, though, in all seriousness, is there no other option than to destroy the habitat of these tortoises? I'm not asking if there's a cheaper or more convenient option – I'm asking if there's a less speciesist option.

Yes, I know that my stance invites ridicule – I'm quite prepared for it. But again I would ask, in all seriousness, is there a human settlement anywhere near the proposed site of this solar power plant that could be overturned to make way for it? Humans are adaptable – they aren't going to die as a result of removal from a natural habitat. Yes, it's a sacrifice, but not on the scale of that being imposed on the tortoises. Alternatively, how difficult would it be to use the allocated funds for this solar power station to supply individual homes with solar power?

Once again, I acknowledge my ignorance of the precise circumstances surrounding this issue, but my question still remains – is there an option that doesn't privilege human desires over the fundamental needs of other animals?

We humans are in the position, morally, of needing to clean up our own mess, because it impacts every living thing on this planet. If we can do this without inflicting further damage on other species, we should. Ultimately it's this consideration that makes me stop short of identifying myself as a humanist, despite my agreement with many humanist principles – I simply can't find a rationally or ethically defensible reason for supposing that the interests of any and all humans are more important than the interests of any and all other animals.

BlackSun / April 28th, 2010, 4:30 pm / #5

As I said in the article, we need to understand that climate change threatens all habitats. It's far beyond tortoises, no matter how fond I might be of them. Whatever we can do to mitigate those wide-scale multi-species impacts, we need to do, and right away.

Focusing on localized animal impacts is something we might have had the luxury of doing 20 or 50 years ago. But now that we are already above 390ppm of CO2, we are out of time. We need to get back down to 350. We're already seeing movement of climactic zones northward. Nothing we can decide in terms of a solar plant siting is going to affect habitat remotely as much as that.

I'm essentially speaking out for climate triage. Every solar plant that comes online is one coal plant that can be taken off line. I don't even know if the biosphere can be saved in anything remotely resembling how it has been. But we have to try. We need to understand it is *us* we need to be worrying about at this point. Sometime soon, the affects of climate change will destroy the habitat of billions of human beings.

That's what we should be focusing on. It is actually an existential threat.

J'Accuse! / July 4th, 2010, 7:19 pm / #6

"We need to save humans first, then we can worry about the rest of the species." This is exactly the kind of thinking that got us in this disaster in the first place, and we are now being paid back in spades for our humanocentric narcissism. The fact is, we and not tortoises or polar bears or spotted owls or blue fin tuna, threaten the destruction of the entire earth and its ecosystem; and we should pay the price for it, not them. How bitterly ironic that so many atheists and agnostics are as convinced of their innate superiority as a species as any theist, and you don't even have the Genesis delusion to justify it. The sad fact is that we need nature, but nature doesn't need us, and we aren't going to save it by building solar power ranches to replace carbon-burning plants as long as it is for the purpose of salvaging the American industrial-consumer society that is the very source of environmental devastation. (By the way, one solar ranch is not going to trade off for one coal-burning power plant, the ratio is more like 4:1. Like it or not, solar cannot produce as much power.) There is not going to be any Bright Green future, and unless the population of greedy, consuming predators called human beings is drastically curtailed, in the billions, this planet will have no future at all.

Valhar2000 / June 10th, 2011, 8:54 am / #7

and unless the population of greedy, consuming predators called human beings is drastically curtailed, in the billions

Okay, now, surely I don't have to point out the hypocrisy involved in even typing those words? / December 31st, 2012, 11:59 pm / #8

Fabulous. I agree.

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