What is Environmentalism, Anyway?

One Saturday in August, I took my kids to a wonderful outdoor science center in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. The center is a place where visitors can learn about animals native to the area.

I was impressed that the center uses solar hot water in its bathrooms and explains how it works through an informational sign right at the faucet. I also appreciated that the center has a display about climate change. I like it that visitors who come to learn about animals are also taught about renewable energy and climate change.

But it got me thinking further about a topic that we discuss in the newsroom a lot: environmental protection and renewables. For the most part, if you consider yourself an environmentalist, you probably support renewable energy. Renewables are the clearest path to mitigating climate change by using the wind, sun and other naturally replenished resources for energy.

So when renewable energy projects are fought tooth and nail in the name of environmentalism, it always leaves me scratching my head.

Take for example a settlement agreement that was reached between the Sierra Club and other environmental groups and solar companies regarding San Luis Obispo solar projects, where SunPower’s 250-MW California Valley Solar Ranch and Topaz’s 550-MW Topaz Solar Farm were planned:

The projects are located in the Carrizo Plain, a core recovery area for endangered San Joaquin kit fox and giant kangaroo rats. While both companies have previously agreed to significant commitments to protect and preserve species in this important habitat area and have received project approvals based on environmental reviews by various federal, state and local agencies, with this agreement SunPower and Topaz commit to provide a suite of additional environmental benefits to further increase protection of the area. This agreement provides for additional conservation for the remaining unprotected lands in the northern Carrizo Plain above and beyond those provided under existing local, state and federal permits. [emphasis mine]

Going above and beyond anything always means adding cost. The agreements that the companies have made, which include stipulations such as helping fund the “efforts to eliminate rodenticides on the Carrizo Plain and other San Joaquin kit fox conservation areas” and “acquiring lots in the largely undeveloped subdivision in the Carrizo Plain to restore for wildlife conservation,” will most definitely add to the developer’s costs. Aren’t we supposed to be working to reduce the cost of solar?

Yesterday, First Solar announced that it would not be able to meet DOE requirements to accept the $1.9 billion loan that it had been offered conditionally back in June to build the Topaz Solar Farm. I can’t help but wonder if these environmental regulations — the ones that are adding cost to develop the project — factored into First Solar’s decision to back away from the project overall.  The company said it is in advance talks to sell the project to potential buyers.   

Environmentalism or NIMBYism?

In the newsroom, we often wonder if objections to projects on the grounds of environmentalism are really just a front for NIMBYism. Cape Wind is an example. Last year a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit alleging that the Minerals Management Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing the project to “take” roseate terns and piping plovers without sufficient safeguards.

Could the very same people who object to Cape Wind on the grounds that it would distort their pristine view of Nantucket sound somehow be involved in bringing this lawsuit to fruition?

Of course the animals can’t advocate for themselves and environmental groups must fight for them if we want them to exist. That’s a given. But environmental groups advocate for renewable energy, too, and sometimes the simple fact is that the two cannot peacefully coexist, at least not without some sacrifice on one or the other’s part.

If environmentalists support the idea that we use less fossil fuels in order to stave off the catastrophic effects of climate change but don’t want to see any species harmed in the development of renewables, where does that leave us?

How do we further a new energy agenda if we keep fighting amongst ourselves? 

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Jennifer Runyon has been studying and reporting about the world's transition to clean energy since 2007. As editor of the world's largest renewable energy publication, Renewable Energy World, she observed, interviewed experts about, and reported on major clean energy milestones including Germany's explosive growth of solar PV, the formation and development of the U.S. onshore wind industry, the U.K. offshore wind boom, China's solar manufacturing dominance, the rise of energy storage, the changing landscape for utilities and grid operators and much, much, more. Today, in addition to managing content on POWERGRID International, she also serves as the conference advisory committee chair for DISTRIBUTECH, a globally recognized conference for the transmission and distribution industry. You can reach her at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com

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