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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Tradeoffs, balance, and ethics in the drive to renewable energy

As we speed ever closer to the climate abyss, it’s clear that avoiding it requires the US to double down on deploying renewable energy.

But renewable energy is not without environmental cost.  Colliding with – or even flying too close to – wind turbines kills birds (though that requires context) and bats. Concentrated solar thermal plants incinerate them, and collisions with solar panels are also a source of mortality. Renewable energy facilities often disturb sensitive habitats. And massive landscape industrialization will accompany a shift to renewable energy.

But climate disruption is also the biggest threat facing wildlife globally.
The painful dilemma of reconciling the effects of the planetary disease and the application of its cure is brought into view by a new paper, Thinking Globally and Siting Locally: Renewable Energy and Biodiversity in a Rapidly Warming World, published in the journal Climatic Change. It lays out the situation: 
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that a “large fraction” of species around the globe “face increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st Century” particularly when the synergistic effects of climate change with other anthropogenic impacts such as habitat loss and fragmentation and invasive species are taken into account…
According to the IPCC, the risk of extinction owing to climate change is projected to increase regardless of the scenario used to project future climate change, but the fraction of species at risk will be greater as the magnitude of temperature change increases… 
Staying within the U.S. carbon budget [limiting the magnitude of warming to ~2 °C – which some view as “a prescription for disaster”]...will require expansion of land-based wind energy from 60 GW in 2012 to 330–440 GW in 2050, and offshore wind expansion from zero currently to 25–100 GW; estimates for solar energy in 2050 range from 160–260 GW for photovoltaic and 20–80 GW for concentrated solar.
 One of the paper’s principal authors writes here that: 
…concerns over the impacts of wind turbines on the sensitive wildlife populations and habitats could greatly limit the pace and scale of [wind energy] expansion.
Indeed. Consider that a seven-fold (at least) expansion of wind power, combined with the devastation from White Nose Syndrome in 26 US states, could constitute an existential threat to many bat species.

Still, the paper says: 
it will be necessary to accept some, and perhaps substantial uncertainty about the [local, direct] risk to wildlife populations if we are to limit the greater risks of global extinctions from unlimited climate change. 
The paper calls for further research and collaboration between the wind industry and conservation organizations to improve siting and operations to protect wildlife, and applying 
the best available science and innovative technologies to limit wildlife risks together with a willingness to make tough choices in the face of uncertainty about those risks to protect species and ecosystems for the long haul.
Must sacrifices be made? Science and technology are sorely needed to limit renewable energy's risks to wildlife. So, too, is a serious commitment by policymakers to alternatives to the centralized energy generation model.  

The choices we face are tough. They are not only scientific and technical, but also, in my view, ethical. The paper is intended to start a necessary - indeed, vital - conversation about them.  Let’s hope it does.

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