Ironic Obstacle to Renewable Energy: Environmental Groups
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California writer Steve Stein illustrates how environmental groups, of all people, make it hard to build renewable energy projects. In short, they generally love the idea of them powering America, but especially at the local level, they fight specific projects.
First, renewable energy projects have been lauded as the future of energy by some environmental groups. Stein writes:
The Friends of the Earth holds itself out as a particularly strong advocate of solar energy. Recently, the foe even threatened to sue the British government over planned reductions in its subsidies for rooftop solar panels. Then there’s the Environmental Defense Fund, which reported with approval a 2008 Scientific American article that lays out a detailed plan for a “massive switch to solar power,” and notes that at least 250,000 square miles of land in the southwestern United States are suitable for solar power plants.
However, some groups don’t share this view. Stein writes, “[T]he Nature Conservancy coined a related term — “energy sprawl” — subtly conveying the notion that large solar-farms or wind-farms enable the same kind of careless land grabbing as does freeway construction.”
In some cases environmental groups sound schizophrenic. Stein notes how in one breath, the Natural Resources Defense Council makes the case for solar power in the Southwest U.S., but in the next breath it sets a number of conditions:
A section called “Renewable Energy Meets Wildland and Wildlife Conservation” says that “Certain sensitive lands — such as parks, monuments, and wildlife conservation areas — and ecologically sensitive marine areas are not appropriate for energy development . . . [NRDC] does not endorse locating energy facilities or transmission lines in such areas.”
In the case of the Sierra Club, it’s like a family tiff. Stein points out that in the last few years there’s been tension between the national leadership and local chapters over the latter’s opposition to particular projects such as the Cape Wind project near Martha’s Vineyard. [I link to a few more examples in this post.]
In other words: Environmental groups love renewable energy until the infrastructure for it has to actually be built. Then they try to block it. “Endless demands for supplemental environmental reports and the constant threat of lawsuits can’t stop solar development entirely, but they can surely slow it to a crawl,” writes Stein. In the case of a proposed BrightSource Energy solar farm near Las Vegas, it means counting desert turtles. The obstacles environmental groups place in front of projects generate uncertainty for businesses wanting to invest in renewable energy and hold back job creation.
Projects put on hold due to local protests and permitting delays have been well-documented by the U.S. Chamber’s Project No Project effort. It found that 45% of the challenged energy projects are renewable energy projects. Many of the objections come from environmental groups.
Last year, Bill Kovacs, Senior Vice President of Environment, Technology and Regulatory Affairs at the U.S. Chamber put it well: “Lawmakers and the American public should come to understand that our permitting process is broken.” It's ironic that some of this breakdown is from an environmental movement who should be natural supporters.