Our Take: Press stories got Nature Conservancy report wrong

Wind turbines, New York. Courtesy Department of Environmental Conservation.

Some clean energy opponents have put a false choice forward in recent press stories pitting land conservation priorities against needed renewable development. This shortsighted view misses the real opportunity to accomplish both of these national priorities which we've been advocating for regionally and nationally. The Wilderness Society has confronted this issue head-on, recognizing that some of the most abundant renewable resources are found on the public lands.

Add another log to this fire: a recently released report by The Nature Conservancy illustrates the land-use impact to habitat nationwide resulting from different types of new energy sources that could be spurred by different energy policies. This research focuses on one underappreciated environmental impact associated with energy development (the footprint of the facilities themselves) and doesn't approach the full lifecycle impacts of these energy sources. But it underscores the need for a national energy policy developed in support of, not despite, the need to safeguard our wild lands during the clean energy transition.

Not surprisingly, proponents of non-renewable solutions and the status quo have distorted the report’s findings, missing what we see as the report’s most important takeaways:

Saving energy saves lands. Time and again, our nation's most advanced analytic institutions reaffirm what the environmental community has known since the 1970s — energy efficiency is the first, best option every time. The National Academy of Sciences noted that “the deployment of existing energy-efficiency technologies is the nearest-term and lowest-cost option for moderating our nation’s demand for energy, especially over the next decade.” Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. concluded that “energy efficiency offers a vast, low-cost energy resource for the U.S. — but only if the nation can craft a comprehensive and innovative approach to unlock it.” Not only is it the most cost-effective opportunity, but TNC’s analysis clearly shows that it has the smallest footprint on the landscape.

Site it right. America’s wildest landscapes will stay wild if we build no more infrastructure than we need and do it in the appropriate spots. Wherever new clean, renewable generation facilities are needed, we must guide that development to suitable places. No energy development is free of impacts, and TNC’s work illustrating one of these impacts shows why it is essential that we thoughtfully site these facilities to avoid the most sensitive lands and resources. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar strongly made this case in testimony before the House Natural Resource Committee on Sept. 16 when he said that we can and must preserve our treasured landscapes while developing renewable energy resources.

We must look to progressive new research like this with eyes open for creative solutions, not use it to bunker down behind stale ideas. For example, when considering the footprint of new energy development we should place a higher priority on the real opportunities to revitalize disturbed lands like brownfields — while not a silver bullet, this must be a larger part of the mix.

New energy development must align with the four “Ps”: reduce global warming pollution by guiding energy development to the right places using the right practices — and at the right pace. Only with thoughtful development can we be sure our clean energy transition treads lightly on our nation’s wild lands and wildlife.

photo: Wind turbines, New York. Courtesy Department of Environmental Conservation.