Friday, August 12, 2011

Mojave Desert Blog and some thoughts on energy planning

If you are interested in renewable energy development in the United States, and or you have an interest in threats to America's public lands, particularly the Mojave Desert in California, I want to bring a blog to your attention. Its called the Mojave Desert Blog. The blog has been around since 2009, but I've just discovered it in the past few months. This blog is reporting on what I am calling the mad California Green Rush. Like the earlier gold rush. The parallels are ironic. 

This mad rush and push to develop large-scale renewable energy. Noble ideas behind it. Green energy is good, right? I work with renewable energy and I am a supporter. But what I am learning has forced me to pay attention to things I didn't know were happening, and to ask questions about my own personal beliefs about renewable energy development - what I believe in, what I can support, and what I cannot.

I now read this blog every day and it is opening my eyes to things that have been happening in our country that I was completely oblivious to. And reading it makes me angry and depressed and sick in my stomach. But I can't ignore it. Once you know, you know. And I want to know. We should know. 

I got interested in this blog because of what is happening - the potential for development of a large wind farm on public land - in an area that is important to me - the Pipes Canyon, Pioneertown, California area, near Joshua Tree National Park. And now I am aware that what might happen there is already happening ten fold all over California's public lands. I am shocked.

And before you pooh-pooh me about NIMBY-ism, let me leave you with this.

In a study commissioned by the US Chamber of Commerce in May 2011 to examine the potential economic impact of permitting challenges facing proposed energy projects, Bill Kovacs, Senior VP for Environment, Technology and Regulatory Affairs, notes in his introduction to the study “The results of this analysis are startling! One of the most surprising findings is that it is just as difficult to build a wind farm in the U.S. as it is to build a coal-fired power plant.”

I would ask why is this finding startling? Renewable energy development does not deserve less scrutiny and regulation than traditional energy development just because it professes to use a clean and green energy resource. Whether one is building a large coal-fired power plant or a large wind farm, there will be impact on the environment and it will affect neighboring communities.

Bill Kovacs goes on to add “Often, many of the same groups urging us to think globally about renewable energy are acting locally to stop the very same renewable energy projects that could create jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. NIMBY activism has blocked more renewable projects than coal-fired power plants by organizing local opposition, changing zoning laws, opposing permits, filing lawsuits, and using other long delay mechanisms, effectively bleeding projects dry of their financing.”

If recent activism has blocked more renewable energy projects than coal-fired power plants, it is because there have been more renewable energy projects being proposed for development than traditional power plants at this time, and because it is a new an untested area of energy development. The US is experiencing an unprecedented push and rush to replace more traditional energy resources with clean and green ones. No state better demonstrates this mad rush than the state of California.

California is a leader in the move to green energy. The state is being driven by state requirements to meet a goal of having 33% of energy use in CA fueled by renewable energy by 2020. The federal government is pushing forward tax credits, subsidies and incentives to support renewable energy. So we are seeing a mad rush of development to try to capture these financial benefits before they disappear. Because this kind of large wind and solar development is really not economical right now. They can't do it without these subsidies. I know that fossil fuel was subsidized and I don't disagree with subsidizing renewable energy. It needs its fair chance too. But I have a problem with rushing development - of any kind.

As of the summer of 2011, in California the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has proposals for development of 17 wind projects and 15 solar projects on public desert land, ranging from testing to feasibility to full on development stages, affecting an area of 631 square miles. Statewide there are many, many more projects being considered for 1000 square miles of public land. You can find a BLM map on line to see these sites. If you live in southern California, it is very likely that one is near you and will have some impact on you, if not immediately, then down the road.

This sentiment of discrediting community action and painting community actions as nothing more than self-interested “NIMBY activism” – people who support green energy but don’t want to take the steps necessary to really see it through, is repeated time and time again in the press and the statements of government officials and energy developers. Communities who speak out on these projects and try to stop them are portrayed as anti-development and trying to get in the way of America's financial recovery. Information tends to focus on specific local opposition to a particular wind or solar project, thus framing these actions, inadvertently or not, as NIMBY activism.

However, when you take each of these individual projects now underway as part of this California green energy rush, and examine them together, as a whole, as a new approach for state and national energy planning, you see that these actions of the government and renewable energy companies are transforming public spaces of the Mojave Desert and other wild lands in California into industrial zones. Many participants in the backlash against renewable energy development that I have studied are not opposing renewable energy per se, but rather are questioning the way projects are being designed, evaluated, planned, sited and constructed.

To those who would dismiss a community's concerns about large energy development as only poor sport NIMBYs (not in my back yard), I would counter that they are the change makers. It is these communities that recognize problems, bring them to society/decision makers' attention, and if successful, effect changes and produce better energy planning and design that then benefit the broader society. It is too simple to dismiss such activism as selfish, misguided and not forward thinking. With most issues, be they matters of health care, the environment, urban planning, industrial development, energy planning, and so forth, people are driven to get engaged and become activists when an issue affects and impacts them directly. So this “NIMBY activism” becomes an important and necessary impetus to effect change and is no different than what we see across other areas of planning for public lands and our structured environment. 

There is a major shift going on in this country regarding energy development. Some of it is great, fabulous, wonderful. Some of it is poor planning. Wall street companies are making A LOT of money off of these developments. Many communities are being impacted. All energy development deserves scrutiny, no matter the resource.

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