Renewable energy is not always eco-friendly

Last Saturday was a beautiful day in New Orleans, but I spent part of it inside, at the annual Tulane Environmental Law Summit.  This year, the theme was energy.

We are all accustomed to hearing environmentalists criticize our country's reliance on fossil fuels, but it was interesting on Saturday to hear environmentalists criticizing certain efforts to produce renewable energy.  One of the panel discussions concerned the threat that wind turbines pose to birds and bats.  Bill Eubanks of the environmentalist-oriented law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal cited statistics estimating that 440,000 birds are killed annually in this country by collisions with wind turbines, and that in ten eastern states alone about 73,700 bats are killed annually. 

Eubanks discussed litigation in which his firm challenged the operations of a major utility on the basis that its wind turbines would endanger a species of bat.  Eubanks did not argue for abandoning wind power, but he did argue that decisions regarding where turbines are located and how they operate should be made with environmental concerns in mind.

Hydroelectric power is another renewable form of energy, but it often is attacked by environmentalists because it can have adverse effects on fish if a dam blocks the upstream migration of the fish.  Also, the area that is flooded by a dam can suffer adverse environmental effects.  Further, if water flows are diverted for irrigation and other uses, the decrease in downstream flows can harm species that depend on the river habitat.

And, when solar power is attempted on a commerical scale, it can present problems.  Environmentalists have expressed concerns that large solar arrays proposed for the Mojave Desert could harm certain species, including an endangered desert tortoise, by destroying habitat.

I do not expect environmentalists to become big fans of the oil and gas industry, but perhaps more and more of them will realize that there are no simple solutions to satisfying our society's need for energy.  And with that realization, perhaps more of them will see that even oil and gas are important parts of the energy equation.  Indeed, to the extent that the combustion of natural gas produces much less carbon dioxide that burning coal, a switch of power plants from using coal to using natural gas should be encouraged by those who fear climate change.  

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