I'm a conservationist. I was a conservationist before I was an EcoGeek. There is very little land on earth left in a sem-natural state, and I believe that we should keep as much of that land as natural as possible forever. Unfortunately, that belief does sometimes collide with my belief that we need to increase renewable energy production as fast as possible. The Nature Conservancy estimates that renewable energy will occupy some 73,000 square miles of land by 2030, meaning that renewable energy could be the biggest threat to land conservation in America. The only thing that comes even close is real estate development.
Renewable energy has a leg up on real estate though, because renewable energy projects can be sourced on public lands fairly easily. And these public lands are the very lands that are the only untouched areas of America we have left.
And, of course, this discussion ranges beyond individual projects. A wind power project might be built in the middle of a corn field, but in order to get the power form the corn field to a big city, transmission lines have to be built, and often built through prime wildlife habitat. It's starting to seem like land conservation is the biggest threat to renewable energy as well as vice versa.
So where do we come down?
Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that the 40 year old NEPA process provides a structure for determining the environmental impact of a project on public lands, taking public comments on those projects, and determining whether the project should go forward. Despite some outcry, this process has served America surprisingly well over the last 40 years.
The bad news is that the NEPA process is not what you would call perfect. It can be an extremely long, drawn out process, and if there are significant concerns, it can be held up in court for years. Additionally, as the number of renewable energy projects increase, the staff working these environmental assessments (already strained) will start backlogging projects as we've already seen in many areas of the country.
Renewable energy and conservation both require vast areas of land to be effective, so they are always going to be somewhat at odds. There is no way to avoid this conflict or claim that one always needs to take precedence over the other. It's going to be frustrating to have to watch pristine land get developed, and renewable energy projects get cancelled, but through my experiences in the environmental field, I actually believe we're going to handle this fairly well. Let's hope I'm right.