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  • Writer's pictureDoug Hull

Cleanies v Greenies

In the past those who supported any kind of environmental initiative were sprinkled with the same green fairy dust. Whether you were protesting against whaling, palm oil or fossil fuels, you were labelled a 'Greenie'. Lately however a rift in this camp seems to be forming between the 'Cleanies' pushing for more renewables, and the 'Greenies' who object to the environmental impact of these solutions. And as always, things are far from black and white!

In order to facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels that faces society as a whole, the world needs to rapidly build large scale renewable energy facilities - be they solar farms, wind farms, pumped hydro or big batteries. These all require huge amounts of land - in fact more than ten times the land used by traditional coal or gas power plants. Many of the best sites for these renewable facilities happen to be prime locations for farming, close to residential areas or in natural parks home to endangered animal species. Others are close to commercial flight paths and military facilities, or form part of sacred tribal lands. While to me wind farms have a certain aesthetic appeal, many people can't bear the sight of them and want them far away. The same can be said for large scale solar farms. As you can imagine, Big Renewable is seen as the enemy in the minds of many an environmentalist, and they will do anything to stop the perceived onslaught.

Yet there are many parts of the world well-suited to this purpose that are not going to upset the environmental factions. Take my adopted country - Australia. 70% of the country is classified as arid or semi-arid, and this area houses only 3% of the population. Plenty of uncontentious land for renewables! Especially considering all the sun and wind that is abundant here. And there are plenty of other places around the world that also fit the bill, like the Gobi desert in China, the Kalahari in South Africa, or the Atacama in South America. Yes there are some logistical challenges with using remote areas for renewables, but we are getting better at solving these.

In the wake of Uncle Joe's massive IRA bill in the USA, which has made around $400 billion available for clean energy projects, there is understandably a frenzy of Big Renewable activity in the USA at the moment. The upside is that this is delivering a massive kick start to the energy transition there, however where there is money there is greed, and not everybody has environmental interests at heart. While there is loads of money available, the biggest obstacle to progress currently is obtaining permits to build out these renewable sites. Environmental impact assessments can take years to pass, and local groups can be understandably emotional about the subject, and stand in the way at every turn. The International Energy Agency, estimates that "renewables generation would rise by an extra 25% by 2027 if bureaucratic and financing barriers were removed". In a rapidly warming world that delay is significant to all of us.

A typical example is applications for new wind turbine sites, which are unpopular with environmental groups due to their impact on the habitats of birds and bats. These applications typically face very lengthy environmental impact assessments due to the risks to local birds and bats, yet they are seldom compared to other existing threats to these species. Interestingly, a 2009 study looking at Europe and the US estimated that, in terms of avian mortality, "wind farms and nuclear power stations are responsible each for between 0.3 and 0.4 fatalities per gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity while fossil-fueled power stations are responsible for about 5.2 fatalities per GWh". The London School of Economics also estimated that wind energy in the UK accounts for between 9,600 and 106,000 bird deaths per year, compared to 55 million bird deaths due to domestic cats. I'm looking at you Ollie (believe it or not my peaceful looking cuddly toy of a cat can be a vicious killer when he wants to be!)

I guess the point of all of this is this: nothing is black and white. (Even Ollie has some grey in him!) There are cases for and against the renewable energy transition. Yet it is now inevitable. We need to keep an eye on the big picture and find ways to move forward. Now is not the time to squabble. If we realise a common purpose and learn to make compromises along the way, we can all benefit in this energy journey. Even the birds!

Until next time!


The Regeneralist

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