Condors and Wind Turbines: Green-vs-Green Conflict Revisited

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(This post was originally published at Renewable Energy Magazine)

The likely conflict between the extension of the California condor’s habitat and wind development in California pulls the green movement in opposite directions, an unfortunate story that has repeated itself a number of times in the combined environmental-climate action community in the United States.

Both sides of the conflict have personal relevance to me: I remember as a child reading about and cheering on the condor, in part because of its role as the largest flying bird in North America, as well as its endangered status.  

More recently, I have also advocated for the last 5 years that worldwide we build a Renewable Electron Economy, a massive build-out of wind and solar energy in the context of a multi-technology, largely renewable energy powered electric grid.

In his excellent article in Forbes, Todd Woody summarizes the conflict between wind turbines and the reintroduced condor and explores some of the technological fixes that are being explored by scientists and the wind industry. The condor had been decimated via poaching, DDT poisoning and lead poisoning from swallowing bullets in the carrion that this quite intelligent vulture prefers to eat. Via what some say is the largest species conservation effort in North America, wildlife biologists and conservationists have worked hard to revive the condor by running nurseries with the few remaining birds and then, since 1992, releasing some back into the wild.

Such is the success of the efforts to revive this critically endangered species that approximately 400 condors are now active in a larger portion of their native range throughout the mountains of California and the Western US. Apparently condors fly in thermal updrafts near mountain ranges and at an altitude which puts them potentially on a collision course with the blades of wind turbines in areas such as the Tehachapi Mountains of Central-Southern California. If a condor were killed, the owners of the project might face criminal prosecution. While there have yet been no documented deaths of condors from collision with a wind turbine, a number of large scale projects have been canceled because of fears of such an event occurring. Wind project developers are aware of and attempting to avoid projects that have the highest likelihood to kill a condor but to many wildlife conservationists and fish and wildlife authorities, almost any project in this wind-rich area of California is too much risk. A 2005 US Forest Service study determined that overall wind turbines contribute to a small fraction of human-caused bird deaths of all species with buildings killing 4 orders of magnitude more birds than wind turbines.

One possible technical solution, discussed in the Forbes piece, is to develop a system of condor detection plus wind turbine controls that enable stoppage of turbines when condors approach them. These technologies have not matured to the point where they could be used in projects that are already in California’s approval process.

The wind turbine-condor conflict is the latest in a series of setbacks for large-scale renewable development on California’s renewable-energy rich landscape. Concerns about impacts on the desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel have scuttled a number of large-scale solar projects in California’s deserts. California is attempting to meet a fairly ambitious renewable portfolio standard of 33% of electricity generated by renewable energy by 2020, which is now in doubt given the roadblocks put up by issues related to wildlife and viewscape conservation.

We are starting to see an emerging pattern of “green-on-green” political and ethical conflict surrounding what are the acceptable costs and speed with which renewable energy generation should be built. While the condor vs. turbine conflict has some unique features, it corresponds to a now common “map” of the positions available to those who believe themselves to be preserving natural habitats, wild species and/or the habitability of the globe more generally. Some of these positions are compatible with one another and are found within the same group or pro-or-con argument; others are diametrically opposed to each other:

  1. Return to Nature –  Ever since the Romantic reaction to industrialization in the early 19th Century, there have been individuals and groups that believe that  human civilization should retreat before and should come more under the influence of eco-systems that are not controlled by people (i.e. Nature). While this is not an official or stated position of any mainstream environmental organization, some individual environmentalists and or defenders of wildlife might feel that human civilization must retreat to create a more bucolic world. From a slightly different angle, some “neo-Malthusians” might join in the belief that population growth and the ecological footprint of humanity has become too great, thereby necessitating a contraction of human societies. At its most radical this stance can become a celebration of the collapse of manmade structures and society in the face of non-human dominated eco-systems. Hollywood has provided us with some visions of this future in movies like “Planet of the Apes” and “I am Legend”. The condor’s advance into some of its previous range opens up the possibility that human intentions to build or maintain the civilization’s footprint could be abandoned in the face of strong wildlife preservation concerns.
  2. Wildlife/Habitat Preservationism –  Most who are strongly committed to protecting wildlife over and above other concerns believe that, while they may be motivated by dreams of a significantly “wilder” landscape, the highest good is to protect existing remnants of endangered species and their habitats. This stance is commonly held in mainstream environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club or the Nature Conservancy, as well as their base among generally politically left-of-center member/contributors. Additionally various governmental bureaucracies such as parts of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Parks Service represent preservationist interests, especially those which are tasked to preserve land areas or wild species.
  3. Anti Wind-Turbine Activism – Wind turbines are the targets of activists who focus on a number of real or perceived attributes of the technology without offering a clean energy alternative. Besides concerns about threats to birdlife, these activists focus on the visual appearance of the turbines, the perceptible or imperceptible sound they make, and, less commonly, the intermitency of power produced by the turbines. These activists usually do not count themselves as environmentalists or “green”.
  4. Brownfield/Rooftop PV Only – A compatible position with wildlife preservationism is the idea that renewable energy development should be confined to only so-called “brownfields” where there is already human development or rooftop installations. This is sometimes called “distributed energy”, though the definition of “distributed” varies depending on who is using the term. This position focuses on reducing the external and often visible impacts of energy development but tends to ignore the parameters of replacing fossil energy supply as it is currently used to power civilization. Often this group combines this energy prescription with a political preference for small-scale, local political and economic organization, a.k.a. “small is beautiful”.
  5. “Green is Good” – A position that is common among politicians and that is fairly widely held in the population is that “green is good” in some undifferentiated way. Many people don’t bother to read up on or feel themselves to be competent to judge the merits of various green issues. On the other hand, they want to think of themselves as generally virtuous people who do not support the clubbing of baby seals or who try to recycle when it is made easy. The opinions of this group will be influenced by those with stronger views for, and against, any particular green issue.
  6. Anti-AGW, Pro-RE (AGW= anthropogenic global warming: RE = renewable energy)  –  Supporting a wide-range of RE powered generators to replace fossil fuels for electricity production and transport, this position shared by some climate activists, business groups, and renewable energy advocates focuses on climate impacts of current fossil fueled transport and electricity generation.  Parts of mainstream non-profit environmental organizations have supported this position, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. Unlike the “small is beautiful” distributed RE position, these groups see a role for large scale renewable development and a renewable energy “supergrid” to balance energy flows on the electric grid.  Some who support this position specifically argue against nuclear power while others accept that nuclear power will play some role in climate strategy. I count this position as my own but do not justify my views via total opposition to nuclear power. The conflict between condors and wind development is a challenge for this group, as many in it consider themselves to be as “green” as anybody else.
  7. Anti-AGW, Pro-Nuke –  A number of advocacy groups, business interests, and governmental officials argue for nuclear power, justifying their views via the predictability of the power generated by nuclear plants and using, in my opinion, optimistic projections about its near term development and safety. Most in this camp argue for nuclear power against renewable energy, often making pessimistic or negative statements about the technical or environmental attributes of RE electrical generation technologies such as wind turbines. There are some in this camp that see renewable energy and nuclear power as complementary as witnessed by the French national energy strategy which combines both nuclear and renewable energy. Some with these views emphasize the high level of energy demand and often de-emphasize or criticize energy efficiency efforts. There are a number of active Internet “trolls” that write from this position with varying degrees of interest in combating climate change but always taking jabs at various perceived and real drawbacks of renewable energy, including potential conflicts between wind turbines and birds. The Fukushima disaster has put a damper on enthusiasm for this position for the time being.
  8. Innovation First – Optimism and cheerleading for technology in a more general sense can be found among a substantial group that see in technological innovation a solution to almost all energy problems. The sole role for political decision makers in this view of the world is to foster innovation and the technical skills associated with continual innovation. As an example, the Breakthrough Institute hopes to accelerate “breakthroughs” or quantum leaps in innovation as a means to solve energy problems. The political love of innovation is however more generalized and is, in the United States, at least, almost a secular religion. Innovations in wind turbine technology and bird detection would be seen as the solution rather than political conflict over the role and valuation of different aspects of the dependence of people on the environment (energy use vs. individual species preservation).
  9. More Energy is Better – Finally there is another position that is compatible with the corporate goals of diversified energy companies (including some large fossil fuel conglomerates) and technology-neutral investors, which sees in the building of more energy supply of almost any kind an unalloyed good. This position would support the building of wind turbines (or any other energy production facilities) and might then lobby to get certain projects built, given an opportunity for an acceptable return on investment. Those with this position do not tend to support restrictive policies on energy development but also will work with and lobby regulators or government officials if regulation allows their business to continue or grow.
  10. Anti-Enviromentalist, Climate Denial – In the background and currently a very politically powerful position in the US is right-wing anti-environmentalism that also denies the reality of climate change. While it is not clear which “side” of the condors vs. wind turbines debate people with this position would support, it is more than likely that supporters of this position would want to encourage the division between supporters of wildlife protection and supporters of renewable energy development. It is my belief that many with this position would show a preference for wildlife protection over the systemic changes implied in active efforts at climate change mitigation.

The diversity of these positions, most of which might call themselves “green” or green affiliated in some form or other, shows how easily divided environmentally interested political forces are in the United States and perhaps beyond. At the end of this list are the powerful opponents to both renewable energy and to wildlife conservation: the radicalized right-wing in America, for the most part in the Republican Party, corporate groups opposed to changing the energy system, and, in particular, the fossil fuel lobbies. The inter-green conflicts give these anti-environmental groups enormous leverage to stall and divide action on topics of mutual interest to make America“greener” in some form or other.

To some, who hold one or more of these views, this issue is already a settled matter in terms of technical and political choices. For instance, those who believe that energy should only be generated locally at a small scale, believe that the solutions are already there for a habitable civilization to be powered by PV, lead acid batteries, energy efficiency, and perhaps local biomass burning. Thus a conflict with wildlife preservation would, they imagine, be avoided. I am not convinced that the distributed-PV-only vision would work on a technical level, nor do I believe that local is necessarily better: I have not yet seen a realistic scenario for the production, maintenance and disposal of the millions of tons of batteries required to store energy for a populations of 100’s of millions and billions of people. Nuclear advocates, likewise, think that nuclear power’s drawbacks will be quickly overcome by technological advances, thereby making the conflict between wind power and birds moot.

Many in the environmental community are not even producing what they believe to be a realistic systemic solution but are simply committed to an issue, which they consider to be irreproachable in terms of its morality. Sometimes implied in these issue by issue commitments is a deeply held vision of a more (non-human) nature-dominated world and the interests of the human community as a whole and calculations of its energy requirements more or less “be damned”. Each of these positions makes assumptions about the world, about human beings and about technologies that need to be clarified in order for a rational discussion to take place about how to proceed here in California and elsewhere. These assumptions are part of what might be called a “decision space”. In coming posts, I will develop a map of the underlying decision space within which these conflicts take place.

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