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Green vs. Green on environmental priorities

Adriene Hill Jun 2, 2011

Green vs. Green on environmental priorities

Adriene Hill Jun 2, 2011

Tess Vigeland: By some estimates, we’ll need to devote land the size of Australia to renewable energy to keep air pollution levels in check. Finding that land is one obstacle and being able to use it — if you find it — is another. The debate over land use for green energy is creating some surprising disagreements.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Adriene Hill reports.

Adriene Hill: Pity the man who washes cars on the Hawaiian island of Lanai. Deep red mud is everywhere. We roll up the windows of our jeep before the biggest puddles — to keep the grit out of our mouths.

John Stubbart is the director of utilities for Castle and Cooke — a real estate company owned by David Murdoch — which owns most of this island. He manages not to get us stuck on our drive out to a remote part of Lanai.

John Stubbart: It’s not barren, but it’s not populated at all. There’s scrub brush growing and grasses.

And most importantly…

Stubbart: It’s windy.

The wind whips hair across my face.

Adriene Hill shows you how Lanai is dealing with making the tough decision of creating renewable energy or preserving their land.

Stubbart: It is one of the prime areas in the world for a wind farm.

Castle and Cooke wants to build a wind farm that could cover as much as a quarter of Lanai — more than 20,000 acres. The spinning turbines would be three or four times as tall as the nearby pines trees. The energy would travel via undersea cable to Oahu, where tourists in Waikiki need electricity for dancing at pool parties and blending pineapple mixed drinks.

The wind farm proposal would help Hawaii reach its goal of 40 percent locally generated renewable energy by 2030. But some on Lanai hate the idea: They don’t want the natural area disturbed.

It’s a land-use debate that’s becoming more and more common: Pitting one type of environmentalist — conservationists — against another type of environmentalist — those who think our first priority should be getting off fossil fuels ASAP.

Matt Kahn: It is certainly possible that as we scale up wind power and solar power that more and more of the U.S. will have this infrastructure, and it is certainly possible that this tension in tradeoffs will become an even bigger issue.

Matt Kahn is an environmental economist from UCLA. He thinks there are ways to go about making these decisions better. And has the types of ideas you might expect from an economist, like putting dollar values on nature. It’s easier to compare the value of a rare plant to the value of a megawatt of clean energy when you have dollar figures for both. But Kahn says, at some level, this is a philosophical debate…

Kahn: And environmentalists will face a challenge almost like a poker game where somebody calls to put down their cards of what really is their priority.

Endangered animals or clean energy? Go. Bet. Now.

What’d did you choose? You don’t have to tell. And Bill Corcoran from the Sierra Club says not to worry. It’s a choice that we probably won’t have to make that often.

Bill Corcoran: There’s plenty of available land that won’t disturb the important wildlife and plants that have had conflicts with some existing projects.

Corcoran works on renewable energy for the Sierra Club, an organization that fought against a solar farm in the California dessert that would disrupt land used by dessert tortoises. But he says with better foresight, it’s a conflict that might have been avoided.

Corcoran: Any human endeavor involves tradeoffs, but I don’t think the ones here are a steep cliff to climb.

Corcoran says this is much more about the need for better planning, better policy, and better information about where the sun shines and tortoises don’t live. He thinks when information catches up with demand, there will be far fewer disagreements over which land to use for wind turbines and solar arrays — and which land to leave be.

It’s information that could help people figure out when it makes sense to dedicate big chunks of land, like red, remote Lanai, to wind turbines.

I’m Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

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