Reducing barriers to, and financial costs of, renewable energy by protecting local ecosystems

There is no question that the environment or, in more precise terms, ecosystem services, hold great financial value. Clean air, clean water, the bats and bees that pollinate agricultural crops, the trees that absorb carbon dioxide—they all deliver benefits to the global economy. One estimate put the value of these services in the range of $125 trillion in 2011, approximately 188% of global GDP that year.

With many if not all of these services under threat from the impacts of climate change, it is a wise investment to try and slow the rate of change to the climate by any effective means. At the top of that list is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from the most emissions-intensive sector of them all, fossil-fuel energy.

The good news is that we are well on our way. Wind and solar are leading a global boom in renewable energy development. Buttressed by technological advances, improvements in efficiency and cost, together with supportive policies at all levels of government, it’s clear that renewables are the energy sources of the future.

As new renewable energy infrastructure contributes to curbing climate change, however, it is also creating some negative impacts on local ecosystems. Many of these impacts are unavoidable effects shared by all infrastructure development projects, but most can be mitigated through careful planning and adoption of best practices.

The alternative—hasty planning and adoption of more expedient social and environmental practices—brings not only environmental disruption, but also project delays and higher costs that hinder the rapid and efficient scaling-up of renewable energy that the world so urgently needs. Renewables developers must learn from growing examples of renewables projects falling short in planning for, and mitigating, local impacts in order to forge a responsible and efficient path into a low-carbon energy future.

The Cape Wind project is a large offshore wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, near the south coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The proposed 24-square-mile project, initially proposed in 2001, holds great promise for positive climate impacts, as it could displace energy supplies from a power plant in the region that runs on natural gas and bunker oil. But the project’s anticipated impacts on marine habitats and species are at the top of a long list of concerns cited by activists whose protests and lawsuits have succeeded in delaying Cape Wind’s construction for more than a decade.

Despite lengthy environmental impact review processes at the state and federal levels and approvals from the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, National Parks Service, and Department of Energy (including an explicit approval from the lips of then-Energy Secretary Ken Salazar in 2010), the project’s entanglement with environmental issues is a main reason why not one of the planned 130 turbines has gone up.

This fact embodies a truism that has yet to sink in with renewable energy developers: meeting all legal requirements for mitigating environmental impacts is often not enough to prevent environmentally-based delays.

Could going above and beyond expectations in the consideration of environmental impacts have prevented all resistance and conflict for Cape Wind? Probably not. But more serious consideration of local environmental impacts and, arguably more importantly, communication of those considerations to concerned citizens (and other influencers) could have diffused tension and gotten the project off the ground in the first 15 years.

Local environmental impacts also bedevil large solar projects.

Dubbed the world’s largest concentrating solar power (CSP) installation when it opened in the Mojave Desert in 2012, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System has encountered delays and incurred unexpected costs due to wildlife impacts. Unlike Cape wind, Ivanpah has been operating for years, but has been tripped up by impacts on the endangered desert tortoise.

Effects on tortoises were anticipated, and a relocation program was included in development plans. But when the number of tortoises discovered at the site exceeded estimates, construction of the $2.2 billion project was halted for three months. Despite spending $56 million on tortoise protection and rehabilitation (amounting to $55,000 per tortoise) as of early 2012, tortoise conservation continues to impede operations and draw criticism from scientists and conservationists.

Speaking to PBS NewsHour in 2014, Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity said of Ivanpah, “I think, early on, it was a big rush to get projects on the ground. There hadn’t been any planning. There hadn’t been any large-scale evaluation of the landscape.”

While it is impossible to know if broader and more cautious evaluation of the landscape would have prevented Ivanpah’s wildlife issues, it seems clear that an investment in such an evaluation could have saved time and money in the long run. Awareness of environmental impacts at the outset of the project and securing all required permits were not enough to make a renewable energy project that is as in harmony with its surrounding landscape as it can be.

Anderson’s observation touches on the key issue that is hampering renewables projects worldwide: in the rush to deploy renewable energy sources, builders and investors may take shortcuts in evaluating and mitigating environmental impacts that ultimately lead to delays and higher costs.

My years of experience in the world of sustainability standards and product certification have taught me that transparently investing in best practices and applying them as early as possible in project development is, far more often than not, worth the required investment by financial stakeholders.

The growing momentum of renewable energy development is something to celebrate. But rather than continue business as usual, developers and investors must reconsider their approaches to the local environmental impacts of renewables and aspire to a higher level of environmental performance and community engagement. That is the most important step toward ensuring that the renewable energy of the future is as kind to local ecosystems as it is beneficial to our planet.

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Dr. Michael E. Conroy is a founding member and chairman of the New York-based nonprofit Equitable Origin, which promotes and verifies social and environmental best practices in energy development. Michael is a former professor of Economics and Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Previously, he served as a senior program officer and program director at the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, contributing to the development of global voluntary certification systems. He is the author of Branded! How the 'Certification Revolution' Is Transforming Global Corporations. For more information, visit EquitableOrigin.org or follow Twitter @EquitableOrigin.

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The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "The Economic Argument for Environmental Protection," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation.

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