PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 158, Fall 2009: Notes From The Field


Renewable Energy vs. Wildlife?

The New California Gold Rush

Ellie M. Cohen

Conservation Success on Private Lands
CEO's Column
International Conservation Mission
Kenya Connection
Mixed Marine Signals
Teacher At Sea
PRBO Highlights
Securing Our Future
Focus on Outer Point Reyes
Staff Migrations

Back in March I received an email from a friend:

"Ellie—Thought of you as I get ready to meet with [a conservation nonprofit]. I'm building the largest [photovoltaic] electrical power plant in the world and am looking for support from the environmental community. 1900 acres of solar panels in a very remote beautiful place...."

Imagine. Thousands of enormous solar panel arrays that swivel toward the sun on pod-like foundations as far as the eye can see. Now imagine what surrounds the panels: hardly a living thing, plant or animal, in sight.

Houston, we have a problem.

The solar installations planned for California will dwarf this present-day array. Photo by Master Sgt. Scott Moorman / U.S. Air Force
As the impacts of climate change on wildlife, habitats, and our communities accelerate, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through large-scale renewable energy generation are also accelerating. Without careful planning, this development will pose serious threats to birds, other wildlife, and ecosystem health.

Here in California, as many as one million acres of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts are in the process of being claimed by developers of renewable energy projects. New transmission line corridors are also being proposed to transport that energy across hundreds of miles to our urban centers.

The mad scramble for a piece of this potentially lucrative pie is not limited to vital desert habitats that support scores of migratory and resident birds—the signature of these arid lands. Parts of California's ecologically rich coastline, including the rugged Sonoma coast, are in various stages of approval for the development of wave-energy generation. And large-scale wind energy projects are popping up like wildflowers across the state.

This "gold rush" mentality appears to be fueled in part by the federal economic stimulus package and Governor Schwarzenegger's laudable goal of achieving 33% of all electricity production in California from renewables by 2020.

Unfortunately, the comprehensive regulations and sound science needed to address ecological concerns seem to have gone missing.

A Science-based Blueprint
Ellie Cohen.

As the Central Valley and San Francisco Bay Joint Venture Management Boards (on which PRBO is actively engaged) recently wrote to key decision makers, to make eco-friendly renewable energy a reality, "federal and state agencies must work together in a transparent public process to develop a common 'blueprint'... without foregoing the environmental protection laws that have sustained the natural heritage of our state.... [The blueprint] should reflect the best science available and include well-defined, measurable standards, developed with public involvement. It should also employ a process to evaluate compliance with the standards...."

That renewable energy projects are urgently needed is beyond debate. The question now is where and how they are developed.

The "forty-niners" of yesteryear left a devastating environmental legacy that continues to taint our waterways, fish, and wildlife today. To avoid the same fate, conservationists, ecologists, and decision-makers must partner with the new "niners"—the renewable energy prospectors of 2009.

PRBO's long-term data, monitoring expertise, landscape-scale modeling, and diverse partnerships can help. For example, working with the California Department of Fish and Game as well as other agencies, PRBO is in the earliest stages of providing information on sensitive birds and habitats to help inform the current solar site selection process.

Together we can ensure eco-friendly and bird-friendly siting of renewable energy projects in already developed and degraded areas rather than within protected and yet-to-be-protected, ecologically valuable habitats. These habitats are not only vital to birds, fish, and other wildlife on land and at sea; they also provide multiple benefits to our communities, including recreation, clean water, pollination, and carbon sequestration.

As governments across the world work together to reduce humanity's dependence on fossil fuels for our economic well-being, we must insist that our ecological well-being is given equal priority.

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