Is it Worth Endangering Species to Scale Up Clean Power?

That question is more and more becoming a central one in the quest to bring renewable energy to scale. Renewable energy projects like solar power plants require lots of land — land that’s often inhabited by wildlife. But if we hope to deploy solar on a large-scale, might it be worth steam-rolling some desert tortoises?

That’s the question Forbes examines in a recent article, which tells the tale of a struggle between biologists who want to preserve an endangered desert tortoise and renewable energy advocates who hope to build the biggest solar project in the nation in the Mohave Desert. From the report:

Last October BrightSource Energy began construction on the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the U.S. in two decades. After an arduous three-year environmental review, a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee and more than a half-billion dollars in investment from the likes of Google, Morgan Stanley and NRG Energy, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared at a sunny groundbreaking ceremony in Nipton, Calif., in the Mojave Desert. The 370-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, they proclaimed, heralded a clean, green energy future.

But as the dignitaries speechified, biologists were discovering the creosote-bush-studded landscape was crawling with some uninvited guests: desert tortoises. Years of surveys had estimated that, at most, 32 of the iconic, imperiled animals called the 5.6-square-mile site home. But as giant road graders moved in, biologists had already found nearly that many tortoises just in the project’s first, 914-acre phase.

Federal biologists now say that there are hundreds of tortoises crawling around the site, and scientists “with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which leases the land to BrightSource, concluded that the project would “harass” 2,325 mostly juvenile tortoises living within a 2-kilometer radius outside the site in the Ivanpah Valley, where another company, First Solar, intends to construct two huge generating stations.”

Traditional conservationists are peeved, and are calling to halt the project, imperiling an already volatile investment in one of the nation’s pioneering clean energy projects. So, we return to the central dilemma — is it worth potentially sacrificing a population of endangered species to install clean power? And if we do this on a large scale, is it worth endangered potentially dozens more? The debate has pitted an older generation of environmentalists, those who identify mostly with conservationism, against a newer one — the one that’s enthused about clean energy and phasing out coal.

I find myself in squarely with the young ‘uns. Sorry, but we’ll lose far more than desert tortoises if we continue to draw our power from carbon polluting sources like coal plants — it’s time to start showing the nation, and the world, that clean energy is viable for deployment asap. We should aim the best conservation measures we’ve got at preserving endangered species of course, but if climate change kicks into high gear, it will devastate biodiversity around the globe, not just in California deserts.

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Photo credit: USFWS Pacific Southwest Region via Flickr/CC BY

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to GOOD.is, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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