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Urban areas offer a prime opportunity to be a major focus for renewable-energy development. (Photo:Flickr/cc/Matt Brown)

Let's Replace Dystopian Dirty Energy With Renewables and Climate Justice

Let's write a new chapter in our nation's energy future that guides renewable energy into an environmentally compatible form, in contrast to the climate and biodiversity wreckage left behind by the dying behemoths of the fossil fuel industry.

Erik Molvar

 by The Hill

The Biden administration inherits the interconnected climate and biodiversity crises from predecessors of both political parties, and now is embarking on an ambitious, multi-faceted campaign to find solutions. The stalled Build Back Better Act, representing the administration's priorities, places heavy emphasis on promoting and subsidizing utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands, while largely missing out on the opportunity to focus on distributed renewable solutions sited in urban and/or already developed areas to avoid environmental impacts and preserve public land.

Where is the equity in subsidizing industrial-scale wind or solar projects in sage grouse habitat, the preservation of which has been the goal of the largest conservation campaign in U.S. history?

However, if progress toward a renewable energy future is a stampede rather than a well-planned journey, then we may be simply trading one set of problems for another, squandering a generational opportunity to make the world a better, more sustainable place. 

Perhaps the setbacks this major policy initiative faces in Congress will provide lawmakers and the Biden administration the opportunity to build the bill back better, moving the nation a smarter, more environmentally sustainable and more socially equitable renewable energy future.

Urban areas offer a prime opportunity to be a major focus for renewable-energy development. Siting rooftop solar and photovoltaic parking lot canopies in densely developed residential neighborhoods and suburban subdivisions—and commercial and industrial zones—would focus energy production in the "load centers" where it is being used. This makes tremendous sense from an environmental standpoint. Instead of paving over public lands and endangered species habitats with thousands of acres of solar panels, and building multi-billion-dollar transmission lines to get the electrons to market, why not build solar arrays in cities and towns which have already lost their habitat value for native plants and wildlife? Yet, the Biden administration has announced that public lands, rather than urban centers, will be its focus for renewable energy development.

recently-announced solar project is poised to destroy one of the last remaining sage grouse strongholds in Washington state. This is a prime example of renewable energy gone wrong, contributing to climate solutions but creating more biodiversity problems.

Where is the focus on environmental justice and the investment in marginalized communities in having utility corporations build massive solar arrays on public lands that were cleared of livestock to recover desert tortoise populations, a wildlife species that is so imperiled that it is listed under the Endangered Species Act? Where is the equity in subsidizing industrial-scale wind or solar projects in sage grouse habitat, the preservation of which has been the goal of the largest conservation campaign in U.S. history?

It would be a simple thing to redirect federal subsidies such that marginalized communities could receive free solar installations at the home, business and community scales, allowing these communities to own their sources of renewable power. This would reduce (or even potentially eliminate) energy bills, providing a leg up toward prosperity for these communities and a victory for the climate, all while avoiding the habitat impacts of industrial-scale production, a major win for biodiversity as well. Up to 100 percent of United States electricity supply could be produced through rooftop-mounted solar panels, according to a new study, which doesn't even factor in the potential generation from solar canopies to shade parking lots. This would not only eliminate the need to pave the West with solar panels and pincushion its landscapes with wind farms, but also render massive, expensive and environmentally-destructive transmission lines unnecessary.

Unfortunately, despite all the administration's environmental justice talking points, thus far federal subsidies and regulatory incentives have been heavily focused on utility-scale projects and their high probability of both corporate profits and ecological impacts. This should surprise no one because the utility industry can muster phalanxes of professional lobbyists to shoulder their way into the public trough, while a comparable lobbying voice on renewable energy for the general public remains lacking.

Conservation and social justice nonprofits share in the responsibility for this poorly thought-out and chaotic stumble toward climate solutions. Our communities are failing to clearly articulate in a strong and unified voice the imperative need to learn from the mistakes of the fossil fuel industry so we're not driving additional species toward extinction with industrial scale renewable energy projects on public lands. Some conservation groups may even actively work against efforts to protect biodiversity and sensitive habitats threatened by renewable energy development. While some conservation groups have made isolated efforts to map out sustainable versus harmful locations for renewable energy development in states like WyomingMontana and Oregon, these analyses haven't been performed for most states. And a carefully crafted, nationwide blueprint for renewable energy has not been attempted, either by conservationists or the Biden administration.

Communities of color across the country are now organizing around climate action, environmental and economic sustainability, as well as renewable energy, positioning them to lead on where, how and on what terms renewable energy can and should be subsidized in their communities The Biden administration should convene leaders from these campaigns to inform the way that federal agencies pursue development (and subsidies) of renewable energy production.

I'm from Wyoming, where you can still spot bumper stickers that say, "Please God, send me another boom, and I promise we won't screw it up this time." Needless to say, Wyoming has screwed up every single one of them, time after time. We (or at least our political leaders) never seem to learn. Wyoming's mistakes and shortsightedness offer a teachable lesson for the rest of the country when it comes to energy development, but only if we are paying attention.

Let's write a new chapter in our nation's energy future that guides renewable energy into an environmentally compatible form, in contrast to the climate and biodiversity wreckage left behind by the dying behemoths of the fossil fuel industry.


© 2021 The Hill

Erik Molvar

Erik Molvar is the Executive Director of the Western Watersheds Project. Erik cut his teeth in conservation fighting oil and gas projects in Wyoming during the Bush administration, and his signature accomplishment is defeating the 1,240-well Seminoe Road Coalbed Methane Project during that time. He is a wildlife biologist with published research in the behavior, ecology, and population dynamics of Alaskan moose as well as large-scale conservation planning. He spent 13 years as a conservation advocate and later Executive Director of Wyoming-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and led WildEarth Guardians’ Sagebrush Sea Campaign for three years. Over this period, he became one of the conservation community’s leaders in sage grouse conservation and recovery. He is the author of 16 hiking guidebooks and backpacking techniques manuals for national parks and wilderness areas spanning the West from Alaska to Arizona. Erik is a contributor to The Hill and his blog posts can be found here.

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