No free lunch
The Washington Post has a good article about the tough decisions that face lawmakers and renewable energy system planners regarding wildlife protection, other environmental concerns, and economic feasibility. It highlights a new transmission line, the SunZia line, that would connect New Mexico's renewable energy potential in wind and solar with Arizona's large cities' demand for electricity. The line would provide additional electricity to consumers that would prevent the need for new coal-fired plants, but its location threatens wildlife - its path is set to cross the Rio Grande, acres of grassland, and go along two national wildlife refuges.
One of the biggest challenges renewable-energy projects pose is that they often take up much more land than conventional sources, such as coal-fired power plants. A team of scientists, several of whom work for the Nature Conservancy, has written a paper that will appear in the journal PLoS One showing that it can take 300 times as much land to produce a given amount of energy from soy biodiesel as from a nuclear power plant. Regardless of the climate policy the nation adopts, the paper predicts that by 2030, energy production will occupy an additional 79,537 square miles of land.
The impact will be "substantial," said Jimmie Powell, the Nature Conservancy's national energy leader and one of the paper's co-authors. "It's important to know where the footprint is going to be."
In some cases, scientists are just beginning to discover the unintended effect of projects such as wind turbines. Grassland birds such as the lesser prairie chicken and the greater sage grouse, both of which are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act, appear to avoid vertical structures such as wind turbines and transmission-line towers. This is proving to be a problem in states such as Kansas, an ideal site for wind power, because as more turbines are built, lesser prairie chickens will confine themselves to narrow ranges, fragmenting a population that must be connected to survive.
The more impacts and effects that are taken into account, the harder solving these problems seems to be.