AMERICANS worry about carbon dioxide emissions. But they should also lose sleep over the renewable energy sources that help limit them.
Every renewable energy project comes with its own complex set of competing environmental concerns. The grand opening of California’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (SEGS), the world’s largest solar thermal power plant, on February 13th has thrown a harsh light on just how many issues come into play.
Located on federal land in the Ivanpah Dry Lake in California, the $2.2 billion facility uses an intricate system of mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto a solar receiver. This creates steam necessary for propelling a turbine. The plant is expected to produce enough electricity to power approximately 140,000 homes, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by more than 400,000 tons per year—a needed drop. American emissions from fossil fuels hit 5372m metric tons in 2013, a 1.9% increase on the previous year.
Ivanpah, which is owned by NRG Energy, Google, and BrightSource Energy, has also been an economic blessing. It created more than 2000 jobs over the course of its three-year construction—a time during which the country’s unemployment rate hovered between 7-9%.
The facility is not an environmental miracle, however, and its impact needs greater scrutiny. Ivanpah takes up about 3,500 acres of public desert—land which was by no means barren prior to its building. The terrain’s complex ecosystem has been battered and bruised by construction work. For example, the project required the translocation of more than 130 tortoises, half of which are now expected to die (despite the $22m spent by companies involved with the project to try and save them).
In addition, the heat produced by the plant has killed dozens of migrating birds; outcry has only recently prompted a two-year study into the project’s effects on them. But then again, perhaps the death of a few birds and tortoises is a small price to pay for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions?
Answering this question is difficult. The dearth of investigation into the long-term effects upon the ecosystem around the plant, and others affected by similar renewable energy initiatives, is concerning. The project shows that adaptive management (a common practice which sees schemes approved before impacts are determined) and a belated mitigation plan were wildly ineffective.
Helpful mitigation plans for dealing with the deaths of birds at Ivanpah are few and far between according to Kevin Emmerich, a naturalist for the grassroots volunteer organization Basin and Range Watch.
Mr Emmerich believes instead that there is enough space in cities, and on land that has been previously disturbed, to place facilities that will help meet solar energy needs. Last year Australia installed three gigawatts of solar photovoltaic energy projects mainly on rooftops. South Australia leads the way: 25% of its dwellings have solar power. Queensland (22%) and Western Australia (18%) are right behind. By contrast, Ivanpah is only a 377 megawatt net solar complex.
More renewable energy projects have been recently approved, including a 500-megawatt wind project in Arizona and a 40-megawatt geothermal energy initiative in California. The rise may be a response to encouragement from Barack Obama.By 2020 the president wants 20,000 megawatts of power to be produced by renewable projects on public lands. And many like his plan. Two years ago 75% of California’s residents declared their support for constructing renewable energy plants on desert land.
In addition, BrightSource has plans to create another solar project, similar to Ivanpah, in California’s Riverside County. The project will, once again, produce a helpful boost in renewable energy, but it may also kill golden eagles and other protected bird species.
Constructing huge sources of renewable energy to combat fossil fuel emissions creates an environmental dilemma. As and when studies on Ivanpah’s impact emerge, the plant may prove to have harmed as much as it has helped. Tortoise-paced research will delay efforts to protect affected creatures.
Ivanpah already shows, however, that planning and paradoxical green policies need reconsideration before America builds more renewable energy plants.
Article source: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2014/02/renewable-energy