President Obama’s obsession with transitioning from fossil-fueled energy use to so-called “clean renewables” is being thwarted by unlikely adversaries. A 2011 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report titled “Project/No Project” found 140 renewable projects that had stalled, stopped, or been outright killed due to “Not in My Back Yard” (NIMBY) environmental activism and a system that allows limitless challenges by opponents.
The study concluded that it is just as difficult to build a wind farm in the U.S. as it is to build a coal-fired plant, with about 45% of all challenged projects being “renewable energy.” This is accomplished by a variety of strategies, including organizing local opposition, changing zoning laws, preventing permits, filing lawsuits, and using other long delay mechanisms, effectively bleeding projects dry of their financing.
The study also confirmed that there were very few “shovel ready” renewable energy projects that were truly qualified for support under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (stimulus funding). And according to the U.S. Department of Energy, even if all renewable sources (including hydro) which now provide about 10% of American energy were to grow at three times the pace of all others, they would still make up just 16% of all domestic supplies by 2035.
Absolutely no energy options are immune from environmental challenges. No, it’s certainly not just “dirty” coal, oil and natural gas that are being challenged … or those “hazardous” nuclear plants. Hydroelectric dams are under assault for killing fish, biomass burning produces greenhouse gases just as fossils do, and geothermal power releases toxic ground and water contaminates. Wind turbines slaughter birds and bats, solar power disrupts fragile desert ecosystems.
Wind and solar power also require huge amounts of land and expansive transmission lines to deliver electricity from remote sites. For example, an 85-mile Green Path North Transmission Line planned to carry green power to Los Angeles was cancelled in 2010 due to environmental opposition. As wind farm developer Mike Garland, CEO of Pattern Energy Group, observed, “We are starting to see all renewable energy projects, no matter how well planned, are being questioned.”
Environmentalists successfully blocked a proposed 500 megawatt wind project on private land in a remote part of Montana near the Canadian border planned by GreenHunter Energy. Plans were shelved after the Montana Wilderness Association and the Montana Audubon and Wilderness Society protested that 400-foot tall turbines would loom over an adjacent wilderness area about 10 miles away. In 2006, GreenHumter announced it would scale down the development to 150 megawatts, then agreed in 2007 to scale back again to only 50 megawatts.
While company officials cited lack of “financial viability” for the project termination, in early 2008 the company representatives had more directly attributed risks of further environmental resistance as the main reason. GreenHunter Chairman Gary Hunter told the Associated Press, “…if you have opposition [to a wind farm] in Valley County, I don’t know how you could build one [anywhere].”
In April 2012, two environmental groups, the Portland Audubon Society and Oregon Natural Desert Association, filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Portland to block plans to build an industrial-scale wind energy installation on Oregon’s Steens Mountain, along with essential access roads and transmission lines. They charged that the project represented the “antithesis of responsible renewable development” which would threaten golden eagles, sage grouse and big-horn sheep. Approved by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the $300 million Echanis Wind Project and its 40-60 turbines would cover 10,000 acres of private ranch land with transmission lines extending 44 miles across rolling sagebrush land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
In October 2012, The Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club filed suit in the Kern County Superior Court in Bakersfield, California, to reopen an environmental review of a 100-turbine North Sky River wind project and a smaller adjacent Jawbone project in the mountains north of the Mojave Desert over threats to California condors. They charged that the installations will also pose hazards to golden eagles, southwestern willow flycatchers and bats. Center for Biological Diversity biologist Ileene Anderson said: “There’s plenty of room in the state for both wind projects and the California condor to thrive. But if condors and wind turbines are going to coexist, those turbines need to be sited carefully and measures have to be taken to minimize the risk that condors will be killed. Unfortunately, this project fails to do that.”
Plaintiffs filing an injunction claimed they had tried to work with wind developer NextEra to implement project features to minimize the threat to wildlife, but were rebuffed. The groups, backed up by letters of concern from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the California Department of Fish and Game, asked Kern County to insist on greater environmental protection measures, but Kern’s Board of Supervisors approved the project without amendments in September 2011. FWS said that they would not issue take permits for the species, meaning that any wind turbine injuring a condor might face criminal charges.
During 2011, five of nine large solar projects approved the prior year by state and federal regulators in time to qualify for federal loan guarantees became entangled in environmental impact litigation. A lawsuit filed by the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Santa Clara Valley Audobon Society, and Save Panoche Valley sought to stop a 399 megawatt, 3,200 acre solar plant in the Panoche Valley, 130 miles southwest of San Francisco. As the plaintiff’s attorney told the court, “No one disputes the necessity for solar energy … but it’s improper on this site.”
The organizations claimed that the project introduced potential risks of hazardous materials and emissions, wildfires and noise which would degrade air quality, prime farmland, cultural resources and endangered species (the blunt-nosed lizard, San Joakin kit fox and giant kangaroo rat). They charged that many of the inadequacies were caused in a rush to approve the project in order to qualify it for federal stimulus dollars.
In 2012, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Defenders of Wildlife also filed suit to stop another 663 megawatt 4,600-acre Calico solar plant to be built on 7.2 square miles in the Mohave Desert northeast of Los Angeles. Originally planned to provide 850 megawatts of electricity generated by 30,000 solar dishes standing 40 feet high, the project was scaled back over concern about impacts on desert tortoises. Regardless, the deal ran into more problems with the Sierra Club, which joined with California Unions for Reliable Energy over the developer’s hiring of non-union labor. Together, they petitioned the state Supreme Court to block the project on environmental grounds.
After those efforts failed, Tessera sold the project to a K Road Power, a New York firm, which decided to switch to solar panels. That still wasn’t enough, and the Sierra Club sued the BLM, FWS and the Department of Interior over threats to tortoises and other wildlife. The union group, which had signed a labor agreement with K Road, didn’t participate in the latest litigation.
And what about those solar environmental advantages … like protecting the planet from climate-ravaging carbon dioxide emissions? Well, maybe not after all … at least not according to a letter of protest from three environmental organizations to BLM over new Department of Interior rules to streamline approval for solar energy projects on hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land. The letter complains that “no scientific evidence has been presented to support the claim that these projects reduce greenhouse emissions.”
In fact, the letter issued by the Western Lands Project, Basin and Ranch Range, and Solar Done Right indicates that “…the opposite may be true. Recent work at the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of California, Riverside, suggests that soil disturbance from large-scale solar development may disrupt Pleistocene-era caliche deposits that release carbon to the atmosphere when exposed to the elements, thus negat[ing] the solar development C[arbon] gains.”
And if this isn’t bad news enough, the letter says that the environmental impacts from the solar panels “… are long-term (decades to centuries)” and threaten the habitat of “… endangered species, including the desert tortoise, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, flat-tailed horned lizard, golden eagle and desert bighorn.”
Yes, and most of those “green-renewable” projects have lots of other problems as well … namely that they haven’t delivered the economic or employment benefits that were advertised. In January 2009, President Obama pledged: “We will put Americans to work in new jobs that pay well and can’t be outsourced—jobs building solar panels and wind turbines.”
But just how well is that green approach working so far? About 20 of those government-backed green energy companies that rushed to get stimulus help ran headlong into financial problems, ranging from layoffs … to losses … to bankruptcies. Yes, in addition to those birds, bats, lizards, kangaroo rats and tortoises, we taxpayers were endangered too.