At first blush, this story from the Washington Post is pretty funny: a “green energy” firm’s wind farm project in West Virginia is being challenged under the Endangered Species Act by some local
tree bat huggers.
Tiny bat pits green against green
It is the first court challenge to wind power under the Endangered Species Act, lawyers on both sides say. … At the heart of the Beech Ridge case is the Indiana bat, a brownish-gray creature that weighs about as much as three pennies and, wings outstretched, measures about eight inches. A 2005 estimate concluded that there were 457,000 of them, half the number in 1967, when they were first listed as endangered.
Go ahead. Enjoy a moment of schadenfreude.
OK. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s ponder the policy implications.
First: This conflict was utterly foreseeable. Everybody likes the idea of wind energy, it’s the wind farm in their back yard they have a problem with. But every wind farm is in somebody’s back yard (or yacht harbor).
Second: The Endangered Species Act is absolute. If it can be shown that there is a deleterious impact on a species categorized as endangered or threatened, the species wins and human interests lose. There is no cost-benefit analysis or other means of assigning a relative worth to the species, no matter how obscure or ill-adapted for survival it may be.
Third: There are Endangered and Threatened Species everywhere. Check your state out. And for every lovable and huggable Florida manatee, ivory-billed woodpecker or Ridley’s sea turtle, there’s an inflated heelsplitter, earth-fruit or Louisiana quillwort, just to name three from my home state.
Fourth: The United States currently uses 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy every year. That’s a staggering amount of energy. It’s one thing to prove that an alternative energy source works; it’s quite another to demonstrate that it is feasible, scalable and efficient. Even with government help in the form of tax credits, wind energy is a very expensive way to generate an unreliable BTU, when compared with conventional sources of energy. This latest episode is an example of the difficulty developers will have with scalability. They are not going to be able to roll out new wind projects without public and interest group opposition.
Fifth: Back to point one. This permitting obstacle was totally foreseeable. Has the Administration naively made unkeepable promises, or has this been a cynical political manipulation? The grownups involved, if there are any, must realize that their promised future of Rainbows and Unicorns and Magic Windmills has a long, long way to go.
Currently, wind energy supplies about 1% of electrical generating capacity, with a stated Administration goal of doubling renewables by 2012. With that goal in mind, one wonders what the Administration’s stance will be when decisions need to be made between the conflicting environmental priorities of Saving the Indiana Bat vs. Saving the Planet.