Shaping Renewable Energy: How we can minimize the environmental impacts

Solar energy. Photo by Alex Daue.

For over 75 years The Wilderness Society has sought out protections for public lands across the country. Our efforts have kept threats, including irresponsible energy development, from harming the places we all hold dear. Now our team faces a new challenge—finding places that are suitable for renewable energy development. This has proven to be a tough path, but we understand a key element in the fight against global climate change is how we produce and conserve energy.

I’ve been part of a team at The Wilderness Society that is committed to finding solutions for renewable energy and we recognize that we can’t be limited in our efforts. This means we are looking at every avenue to take dirty fossil fuels off-line and address climate change in a meaningful way, including using solar, wind and other renewable sources developed on private and public lands, as well as energy efficiency and conservation.

Read more in our renewable energy blog series:

- Renewable energy on our public lands: Let's get it right
- Guiding solar to the best places: Will the BLM’s big idea cross the finish line?
- Using biology and science to guide development
- Technology will drive America’s race to a clean energy future

We need renewable energy, and we need to protect our unique wildlands, diverse wildlife, and clean water supplies by siting projects responsibly and continuing to protect additional lands. We believe we can do both and have been working with renewable energy companies, federal and state agencies, and our conservation partners to find solutions.

For the past several years, we have been working hard to shape and improve renewable energy pilot projects in California and other western states as they undergo environmental review. While few of these ‘fast track’ projects are in places The Wilderness Society would have picked, we came to the table to make recommendations and negotiate extensively with the companies to minimize the environmental impacts of these projects.

We have successfully urged companies to reconfigure their projects to avoid areas with sensitive resources, to adopt technologies that reduce their water use, to ensure phasing and adaptive management so that project development progresses carefully, and to mitigate the impacts of their projects above and beyond what was required by state and federal regulators.

An important lesson from this work is that companies that focus on the right places and the right technology to reduce conflicts from the get-go will find success. Projects that are sited on previously disturbed lands, like the Mojave Solar Project, demonstrate that large-scale solar can be done in a way that protects sensitive places – this project is located mostly on abandoned agricultural land that is no longer suitable for farming, near an urbanized area, and close to existing transmission facilities. And the Lucerne Valley Solar project, located on BLM land, demonstrates that large-scale solar energy projects can be planned on public land in a way that avoids high value, intact desert habitat and prioritizes development in an already fragmented area.

Another central lesson is that early engagement with scientists, local stakeholders, and conservationists is critical – when companies have invested time and money in a site, it’s harder for them to make changes that would improve the project. Even though we have had success negotiating solutions with companies, trying to improve projects after major investments have been made in them is no substitute for careful comprehensive planning, designing and siting projects.

We will continue to engage on renewable energy projects as they move through the permitting process, working to limit impacts while we get wind and solar online. However, our main priority will remain the development of long-term renewable energy programs that guide projects to the most appropriate locations, ensure they are built responsibly, and guarantee additional protection of wild places to balance renewable energy development with healthy landscapes. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and our Congress have a historic opportunity to do just that, and we’ll keep at it until we have the forward-thinking renewable energy program that our public lands, our clean energy future, and the American people deserve.

photo: Solar energy. Photo by Alex Daue.