Is This Any Way to Decarbonize Energy?

We know that coal is the worst GHG producer, so we move to natural gas (which has other environmental effects). But we are for biomass (or not?) and for solar and wind (except …). Here’s a story from Reuters about a new lawsuit against a solar plant. Now there may be areas that are better and worse- and our system of independent entrepreneurs may not select the best places. So do we need some system of centralized planning to make the transition?

We now have lawsuits against coal, natural gas and solar. So there’s a great deal of no’s- an entire legal industry- but how do we get to “yes”?

Given our previous discussion on the use of lawsuits as a tactical tool for environmental protection, I think these quotes are interesting.

The legal brawl comes as the U.S. is racing to adopt renewables. In the United States, renewable energy, including solar, makes up just 8 percent or so of electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That figure was expected to jump to 13 percent by 2035 — but that was before the Green vs. Green feud.

Even though Williams and her cohorts support the broad goal of reducing dependence on fossil fuels, they say it comes at too high a cost if it means building on undeveloped land. Helping their case: the proposed plants are often slated for areas with threatened or endangered animals, including kit foxes, kangaroo rats, rare lizards, and others.

Now, the groups have gone from complaining to litigating. That means solar companies must take funds and management time that would have been spent on developing their plants and spend them instead on fighting lawsuits. For some companies, the likely result is that plants won’t be built


Those who didn’t quickly dusted off a well-worn playbook: using environmental laws to fight a development project.

Lawyers say the moment state or local government approves an environmental plan offers the best opportunity to sue to block a plant, using the federal law known as the National Environmental Policy Act or state law such as the California Environmental Quality Act as grounds. Having threatened or endangered species of plants or animals on a site gives the suits far more heft, they say.

Save Panoche Valley, the organization Williams helped create, and its allies filed a lawsuit in November alleging that the county approved subpar environmental and water assessment reports and improperly canceled conservation agreements to keep the land in agricultural use. Threatened or endangered animals such as the San Joaquin kit fox, the giant kangaroo rat and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard receive special mention throughout the lawsuit. The county doesn’t comment on allegations in pending lawsuits, said assistant county counsel Barbara Thompson.

Getting the permits rescinded is the ultimate goal, the groups say. But almost as good is simply delaying the process. “A long drawn-out one would be a victory too,” says Garthwaite, who believes Solargen would simply run out of money and time to keep fighting.

Solar Millennium is getting a lesson in going to great lengths with its proposed 250-megawatt Ridgecrest plant, mostly on private land in California’s Kern County. Officials are worried about the effect on the Mohave ground squirrel, so Solar Millennium is considering whether to fund a two-year study to evaluate the squirrel population in the area. Phil Leitner, the independent biologist leading the study, says if the study goes ahead, he plans to trap squirrels, put radio collars on them, and take tissue samples from their ears to determine their genetic makeup.

Back in the Panoche Valley, the environmental reports and the permitting process have eaten up almost two-thirds of the money Solargen has raised. Among the bills: paying for scat-sniffing dogs to run up and down the hills, looking for traces of the endangered San Joaquin kit fox.

Are all these lawsuits evidence that something is awry with our system of larger scale policy development and planning? Our country clearly needs energy, and needs to transition to cleaner energy. Is there a clearer path from here to there?

6 thoughts on “Is This Any Way to Decarbonize Energy?”

  1. I’d like to address the questions posed in closing:

    “Are all these lawsuits evidence that something is awry with our system of larger scale policy development and planning? Our country clearly needs energy, and needs to transition to cleaner energy. Is there a clearer path from here to there?”

    I offer the short answers of “Yes” and “Yes”, with rationales to follow, but first:

    Of all the comments I’ve posted to websites, I’ve never been confronted with the host labeling me (http://Surprise?Biomassattack?)

    That’s not a particularly convincing demonstration of a good faith attempt at initiating respectful dialogue.

    It is however a good demonstration of how dialogue gets sabotaged, and may well be at (and in) the heart of the Planner’s dilemma.

    Also, apparently at the heart of the Planner’s dilemma is the perennial nuisances of members of the public speaking up for their concerns for public land and invoking the laws enacted to protect their best interests (NEPA, NFMA, ESA). Afterall, that’s all we the people have got to work with. That’s all that’s left.

    The exasperated concerns in this post are fundamentally a problem with democracy (or what vestigial edifices of it remain). The court system is set up as a vital element of the separation of powers, and alas, also set up as an adversarial venue.

    By this late hour of the planet, surely Planners of public land have noticed things have not been going so well for the public, their landscapes and the ecosystems we’re all counting on to be available for our children’s children?

    The clearer path begins by understanding the corporatization of Congress and the agencies it funds, corporatization of the media, and corporatization of civil society in general puts the best interests of the commons and the commoners at a distinct disadvantage.

    As long as Planners get paid to embrace corporate agendas such as privatization of public lands, deregulation of foundational law, devolution of public process, and the commodification of all things natural, including the very air we breathe,
    the clearer path will never be evident.

    And as Upton Sinclair noted, “It is difficult to get (someone) to understand something, when their salary depends upon (them) not understanding it.”

  2. David- I couldn’t get the link you posted to work. I try not to label people- at least with pejorative labels.. for example, I find Andy to be “intriguing”- so if I did I apologize.

    I don’t have a problem with democracy, nor the separation of powers. I am just raising the question – this is the biggest challenge, some say, that our world faces. Are our old ways of behaving and settling disputes up to the job, or is decarbonizing our economy, while protecting lives, homes, jobs, health, and the wildlands we love, something that requires a new and different approach?

    PS I don’t think planners “embrace corporate agendas”.. you should be on a planning conference call sometime. Planners are everyday people with the standard range of variation on all beliefs.

  3. Hi Sharon,
    I couldn’t get the link to work either, and have no idea where it came from.
    “http://Surprise?Biomassattack?” appeared in the “Website” box under my “Email” and “Name” boxes on this page and on every page I visited on this site with a “Leave a Reply” section. Perhaps the webmaster might know what’s going on here? I apologize for arriving at the conclusion your blog entry indicated your control over such matters.

    I agree with your reference to the biggest challenge that our world faces, our “addiction to oil” (as President Bush put it), which of course, threatens “irreversible, catastrophic” climate change, (as James Hansen put it.)

    I agree that from some planner’s perspectives, it must be very frustrating to see opportunities to create emission free energy alternatives such as solar projects, getting challenged by the public raising environmental concerns, and invoking laws such as NEPA and ESA.

    The problem, however, is not these laws nor the citizens willing to enforce them, often at great personal expense. The problem is the all-too-familiar impacts from a venture capitalist’s corporate megaproject to build a billion dollar solar farm near a place they care about.

    In the absence of understanding such concerns of the public, might there exist externalities for a Planner to consider here?

    Apparently not.

    The problem is simply selectively reframed, (the greens “dusted off a well-worn playbook: using environmental laws to fight a development project”). This neatly reduces the issue to the familiar refrain of environmental legislation being a tool to “stop development”.

    What happened to the whole purpose of environmental laws enacted to avoid externalities like extinction and the host of other “unintended consequences”, which plague our planet?

    The problem only gets perpetuated using another “well-worn playbook”: reframing the full issue of megaproject externalities with green bashing, and condescending reductionism.

    A similar reframing job has occurred on a selected quote from my last comment attempting to bring to light how we might consider the role of corporations in the catastrophic undoing of democracy and the commons.

    This somehow reminded you of an extreme rightwing California Congressman’s (LCV Score of “0”) attack on the Forest Service accusing the agency of acting as if it was managing the “King’s Forest” because the agency prudently restricted the burgeoning level of impacts from motorized traffic on public lands?

    I’m not following your line of thinking here.

    Again I’m concerned when the “clearer path” to an energy transition. That path seems to be blocked by Reuters and others ignoring the role of the perverse incentives of corporate profitaking at all costs in our present socio-economic, democratic and environmental catastrophes.

    I’m hoping some Planners understand this dynamic too.

  4. David, thanks for the clarification re: those web links that show up at the bottom when you leave a reply. I would like to get rid of them, but haven’t the technical capacity to figure out how to do it.

    The link between your post and McClintock’s was the idea of speaking for the “commoners”. I will leave that ground to our academic contributors, but I bet there are many historic and political nuances about the “common people”, their interests and who speaks for them. Some of the common people want to collect firewood and ride OHV’s. Many of the common people want cheap, renewable sources of energy.

    In reality, I am a pragmatic green so I don’t think questioning the tactics of other greens is green-bashing- it’s tactic questioning. My point is that to have green energy, we have to have sources that are green. I would like to get all those interested together and say “what WOULD be OK” and then allow further plans to follow from that (I think that the BLM renewable EIS is perhaps this approach). The problem of “green as no” is that while all these “nos” are occurring, we are also implicitly saying “yes” to the less environmentally desirable coal energy. We pragmatic greens measure our success by the actual environmental impacts of what happens- not against the environmental impact of our intention.

    I hope you are not thinking I am condescending nor reductionist. I don’t think you can be pragmatist, and also a reductionist at the same time.

  5. Sharon,
    The real issue of those web links that “show up at the bottom when you leave a reply” — is not how one “gets rid of them”. The issue is where they came from in the first place.

    Little technical capacity is needed to understand a site administrator typed, “http://Surprise?Biomassattack?” and linked it me to make it “show up”, likely because I’d previously commented on biomass.

    This should be a concern to you, and Martin for it undermines the claim on this site being a “respectful atmosphere of mutual learning”.

    Back to the original point, there are literally hundreds of examples around the world of siting solar arrays that don’t result in environmental lawsuits or protecting the interests of venture capitalists at the expense of endangered species.

    Raising environmental objections to a billion dollar solar farm is not “implicitly saying yes” to coal”. This is simplistic reductionism which precludes applied pragmatism.

    An excellent example of applied pragmatism in the siting of solar panels appeared two days after your selected article in Reuters.

    “China Sunergy Lands Deal for World’s Largest Solar Roof”

    Nonetheless, I salute your concerns for addressing climate change. I do question your rationale of pragmatism as it applies to being “green”.

    History is replete with “pragmatic” greens doing a great deal of damage.
    NRDC enthusiastically endorsed Enron in state legislatures for being a “green” energy company.

    Presently, perhaps the greatest damage being done in the name of green pragmatism is market based solutions such as cap and trade endorsed fervently as a “green” approach to addressing climate change. NRDC leads the charge there too.

    Dr. James Hansen has taken the extraordinary measure of personally, publicly outing NRDC’s pragmatism as interference in the progress of climate negotiation talks and personally protested in front of the NRDC offices in DC.

    Hansen coined cap and trade proponents as “worshiping the temple of doom”. EDF, The Nature Conservancy, and too many other well-known corporate front groups are also on record ignoring IPCC recommendations and Hansen’s urgent warnings, all in the name of “pragmatism”.

    Were you (as you say), to “get all (those “green” groups) interested together and ask, ‘what would be OK’?”, they would all surely say “Cap and Trade!” with a well-funded, well coordinated, glossy campaign and well-distributed media coverage. And with such unanimity, condemn future generations to a hellish existence.

    What you are referencing as the problem of “green as no” suggests you may not understand the “why it is important to say no” to the suicidal half-measures of market based “solutions” to climate change. The persistence of CO2 in the atmosphere matters, and the profound moral and ethical implications of saying “yes” in the name of “pragmatism” matters.

    That pragmatism is not being “green”– it’s failing to grasp the urgency of tipping points and what needs to be done within a narrow window of time to prevent the triggering of positive feedback climate forcings.

    Again, I repeat, at the center of this is “ignoring the role of the perverse incentives of corporate profitaking at all costs in our present socio-economic, democratic and environmental catastrophes.”

    We ignore this corporate predicament at our collective peril, and I was really hoping by now there’d be a hint of acknowledgment here.

  6. David- I don’t know where the links come from.. I assume they are part of WordPress. I think most of our readers can distinguish what Martin and I and others say from the links that are posted. Martin and I are the site administrators, and we barely have time to post and respond, let along type in links! I think it is something that WordPress does based on its own logic and needs.

    I will just say that the panels in the article you refer to provides 7 MW. The one in the article I cited is 370 MW. I am thinking of a simple algebra problem, such that v(rooftop solar) + w(bigger solar arrays) +x(biomass) + y(coal) + z (natural gas)= demand (current – a (conservation))

    You would have to look at the whole equation, and the environmental impact of all the possible technologies, to estimate the total environmental effects.

    With regard to your second point, I do not believe that cap’n’trade is pragmatic. It is quite the opposite of pragmatic, as it gives the same folks who have (in our observation) not done well with the economy (banks and other financial institutions), control over the environment. The essence of pragmatism is functionality. This would be the quest for energy that is both cleaner in every respect, not just with regard to GHG’s, and cheaper so that everyone (in all countries, including developing) will naturally want to use it.


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