Solar panels, © Brookhaven National Laboratory

More than Megawatts

Eliza Cava, Conservation Associate, Renewable Energy & Wildlife 
Julie Falkner, Senior Policy Analyst, Renewable Energy & Wildlife

As America moves to cut emissions of carbon pollution and reduce climate change, we will need to move away from fossil fuels and rely on renewable sources of energy. But it’s important to remember that it takes more than megawatts to be good stewards of our planet. How does the President’s new plan stack up?

“[T]he question is not whether we need to act.…the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.
As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.”

President Obama announced a bold new plan on Tuesday to change the way America responds to climate change, and points the way towards a future of conservation and stewardship of our planet for future generations. One essential component of the President’s plan, as with all plans to reduce climate change, is to increase reliance on renewable energy while decreasing our use of coal and other dirty fossil fuels. In addition to spurring clean energy investment, modernizing the electric grid, and regulating carbon pollution from power plants, Obama directed the Interior Department to “green light” 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity on public lands by 2020. This new mandate builds upon the first term goal of 10,000 megawatts of wind and solar on public lands, a target that former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar claimed success on in November 2012.

desert tortoise

Planning ahead for solar energy development in the desert Southwest can allow us to develop solar projects in the right places while protecting essential habitat for the Desert tortoise. (©Beth Jackson/FWS)

As much as we need clean energy, though, we need more than megawatts. We have an obligation to leave our children and grandchildren not just a healthy atmosphere, but thriving populations of wildlife on intact habitats as well. Public lands contain the last best undisturbed places for wildlife and their habitats, as well as the best opportunities to support species as they move and adapt in response to climate change. Over 600 endangered species rely on public lands and forests for their habitats, and countless other threatened, imperiled, and common species do as well. The trees and soil on public lands sequester carbon pollution out of the atmosphere, and public watersheds clean our drinking water and support many wetland and aquatic species both upstream and in our deltas and oceans. We have a duty not only to help protect species and ecosystems by reducing the threat of climate change, but also by serving as good stewards of healthy landscapes that are resilient enough to withstand a changing climate.

Following Obama’s speech, current Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said “[if] the president gives me a goal, I’m going to meet it.” When you set a goal in megawatts, however, you get the results in megawatts. Some of the first 10,000 megawatts were approved without paying enough attention to conserving these species and their habitats, and others may actively harm vulnerable populations of desert tortoise, golden eagles, kit fox, pronghorn, and other sensitive species. We can and must do better than this on our public inheritance, via landscape-scale planning and mitigation and setting clear and strong conservation targets. We believe the President’s goal can be met, but it needs to be done right.

This solar array in Fort Carson, Colorado was built atop a closed landfill (Photo credit: U.S. Army Environmental Command)

This solar array in Fort Carson, Colorado was built atop a closed landfill (Photo credit: U.S. Army Environmental Command)

We recently blogged about how we can be smart with how we plan and permit utility-scale energy generation on public lands, but there are other ways to build out renewables to meet climate change goals. The vast majority of the wind energy development to date has actually been on private lands, not public, a trend that seems likely to continue. Rooftops, parking lots, and disturbed and degraded lands, often in the private domain, represent win-win opportunities to site renewable energy on lands that are low-quality habitats. The solar industry has been upended by declining costs for photovoltaic (PV) panels, which can be built in smaller and more modular footprints across a broader geographic area than the solar thermal plants which can only be constructed in the desert southwest.

We need clean energy to combat climate change, but we need to do so in a responsible manner. We need more than megawatts. Let’s think outside the box to find creative and low-impact ways to build renewable energy, whether on or off public lands. On public lands, we encourage the Department of the Interior to build upon their work with the BLM’s western Solar Program and other initiatives to guide renewable energy development to the best places on the landscape so that our Nation’s rich wildlife heritage is protected for future generations.