Delicate Balance

In the struggle to make inroads against Big Oil and Coal the renewable energy industry on occasion meets with obstacles from the unlikeliest sources. For example, an attempt to build an off-shore wind farm in the North Atlantic has met with considerable opposition from a group of wealthy individuals who have formed the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. The grounds of their opposition are, surprisingly enough, a presumed concern for the environment and the wildlife that will be impacted by the wind generators. Now, we can debate the question of whether this group is really concerned about the environment and/or the wildlife — the wealthy seldom seem to be. It’s quite possible that they simply don’t want to look out of their picture windows from their ocean-side estates and see a plethora of whirling propellers. But that point is moot.

The fact remains there are serious and sober concerns on the part of a great many people about the consequences of placing wind generators or solar collectors in certain parts of the world. A thoughtful article by Tom Zeller in “The Blog” published by HuffPost recently attempted to spell out the problems. In the midst of a very thorough and balanced analysis, Zeller made the following remarks that seem to present the strongest case for continuing to develop alternative energy at the risk of endangering wildlife and even the environment:

“Compared to the thousands of birds and fish and other critters that have been offered up as collateral damage in the nation’s thirst for oil, or the saturation of local wildlife and habitats with mercury and other poisons that arise from coal-fired power — not to mention the widely documented impacts of fossil fuels on human health and the global climate — some might argue that a fair bit more local fauna could be sacrificed before the tradeoffs of renewable energy proved worrisome.”

And that’s the issue: it is a question of trade-offs. The possible harm to the environment and to wildlife in the area of Nantucket must be balanced against the benefits, especially in light of the alternatives to renewable energy which have a terrible history of destruction to both wildlife and the environment, not to mention human health. It would appear to be the lesser of evils. But the issue will be settled in the courts and it will be most interesting to see how the judgment comes down, given the considerable weight the opponents to the wind farm in that region of the world can bring to bear.

Not so in the Mojave desert, however, where Bright Source has already begun to develop the country’s largest solar facility. The issue here is the danger to the desert tortoise and it has already cost Bright Source $56 million to try (not altogether successfully)  to protect the animal through relocation. This has not satisfied many critics who want clean energy but are unwilling to put any creature at risk in the process. Again, it is a delicate balance and one that humans have not shown themselves adept at managing in the past. As a species we seem to prefer intellectual extremes to the middle and would rather lean left or right rather than to balance upright.

But it is encouraging that steps to produce clean energy are being taken slowly and with every possible attempt to do as little damage as possible to the environment and to wildlife. Clearly, some damage is inevitable — though they seem to rotate at a snail’s speed, the tips of the giant wind generators, for example, travel at 100 MPH and there aren’t many birds that can avoid being clipped by one of those blades from time to time. But, given our increasing demand for energy, how much damage is acceptable — especially in light of the certainty of damage to both wildlife and the environment from such things as oil spills and the discharge from burning coal? That is the question.

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