In this piece, Gilman argues that all land has value, and those values would be at risk to development of alternative energy resources, whether solar, wind, or other. She ends by advocating that we look for renewable opportunities in areas such as abandoned mines and alfalfa fields and ends with this paragraph:
Those are the kinds of alternatives we should exhaust before we move on to industrializing our "empty" spaces. But there's another approach we seldom even discuss: Why not simply use less energy?
Make no mistake about it: conservation alone is no silver bullet. Yes, conservation is often overlooked in favor of supply-side solutions. Yes, huge gains can be made through energy efficiency programs. I fully agree and support energy conservation efforts—in fact, some conservation should be made mandatory. However, we can’t fantasize away energy impacts by thinking all we need to do is conserve more. If we as a nation are really concerned about curbing our use of fossil fuels—a monumentally important direction for us to take—we need to have a serious discussion of where renewable energy projects and their associated infrastructure could be placed.
Let me be clear: conservation should be goal #1. We can instate some mileage/emission standards like Obama is asking. We beef up efficiency standards for new appliances and new houses. This won't be easy politically, but it is possible. Somewhat more problematic is a gas tax and carbon tax. Until we take money out of politics, lobbyists are going to make this politically difficult (not to mention the problem that politicians pushing these important laws will likely face tough times getting reelected). But for the sake of argument, let's assume we can do that too.
Even with the strongest efficiency standards in place, we won't be able to force everyone to conserve. There are still existing houses and buildings that won't meet standards and it's hard/impossible to force existing building owners to meet new standards. There are existing vehicles, and there will always be the freedom to drive to work if you want. I hope we drive prices of fossil fuel based energy through the roof, but there will always be gluttons who can pay those prices. Too much conservation is optional and always will be.
Fossil fuels currently supply 85 percent of the primary energy consumed in the United States. So how in the world can we conserve enough to not need more alternative energy than we have currently?
I agree we should look for places such as abandoned mine sites and alfalfa fields first, and although it’s a great goal, it’s naive to think we can “find ways to develop large-scale renewable energy plants and transmission without sacrificing landscapes.” A HCN issue or two ago there was an informative piece about resisting solar projects in the Mojave Desert. Of course, there are important ecological values there. Now we have a writer telling us there is even ecological value in “wastelands,” and of course Sarah’s right too. This is my point: nearly every single place has value and every single proposal will be in someone’s backyard and will be opposed and probably litigated by someone.
As environmentalists, we need to sit down at the table and play a CONSTRUCTIVE role in deciding where the best places are to build our new renewable energy system. Opposing every alternative energy project is obstruction, not constructive discussion. When environmental interests merely veto every renewable project, it has disastrous consequences for our world: We simply fall back on the same destructive fossil fuels we currently have in place. Resist solar development? More coal gets burnt. Resist a transmission line for wind energy from Wyoming to Vegas? More oil gets burnt.
I don’t like energy impacts any more than anyone else, but if we want to get serious about a clean energy future, we need to accept some impacts. It’s going to be fascinating, a little frustrating and a little encouraging watching America transform to green energy in the next decades.