October 2014

Changing Perspectives: The Promise and Challenge of Renewable Energy


By Jamey Stillings, from his TEDxABQ presentation on Sept. 6, 2014


Have you used electricity today? Do you know where it comes from? In New Mexico, most of our power comes from coal and natural gas. Despite our abundance of wind and sun, only 7 percent comes from these renewable sources. Nationally, the ratio is different, but two-thirds of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels. It’s not a sustainable formula!


Over the past 800,000 years, carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere stayed below 280 parts per million, until we, in this age of fossil-fuel consumption, pushed it higher. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, 250 years ago, CO2 in our atmosphere has increased by 40 percent to over 400 ppm. Along with other greenhouse gases, such as methane, high levels of CO2 are raising the temperature of the atmosphere and oceans, bringing on a host of challenges, including extreme weather, rising sea levels and widespread species extinction.


If data reveal the negative impacts of our actions, and there is virtual consensus in the scientific community that they do, how do we transform our lives to create a culture of sustainability, that is, one that respects future generations and the great diversity of life on this planet?


As a photographer, I create work that strives to inform our perception of how humans use and transform Earth, focusing my attention on the intersections of nature and human activity—places that, for me, hold great visual, environmental and political intrigue. My current project, Changing Perspectives, looks at renewable energy (RE) development, mostly from an aerial perspective.


In October 2010, before construction commenced, I began photographing over the future site of Ivanpah Solar, a concentrated solar-power plant in the Mojave Desert of California.


How do most power plants work? They’re just giant tea kettles! Whether nuclear, coal, natural gas or geothermal, water is superheated to drive steam turbines to generate electricity. Concentrated solar works the same way. Large mirrors focus the sun’s energy to accomplish the same task.


In February 2014, Ivanpah Solar became the world’s largest concentrated solar-power plant. With over 300,000 mirrors on 3,500 acres of federal land, Ivanpah can produce 392 megawatts of electricity. Compared to power from natural gas, Ivanpah reduces CO2 emissions by 400,000 tons per year, while producing enough electricity for 140,000 U.S. homes.


Four years ago, as the first marks were made for Ivanpah, I had no idea how this solar plant would exemplify some of the challenges we face on the road to sustainability. Along with energy conservation and efficiency, distributed generation and smart-grid technology, large RE projects like Ivanpah can displace coal and natural gas as part of the reliable electricity supply we expect and demand.


By several measures, this desert basin, already impacted by human development, is a prime place for RE. Ivanpah is sited near Interstate 15 on the California/Nevada border near a golf resort, a dirt racetrack, natural gas and photovoltaic power plants and the casino community of Primm. But the basin is also habitat for the desert tortoise, a species listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. So, to mitigate this issue, before construction began, Ivanpah biologists moved 173 adult and juvenile tortoises for study and eventual relocation. To date, Ivanpah’s owners have spent over $22 million to research and care for the tortoises and may spend an additional $34 million to meet federal and state obligations.


Ironically, the desert tortoise of the Mojave may now be better understood and, ultimately, protected than before Ivanpah.


Ivanpah is also addressing the issue of avian mortality. All wind and solar projects face this issue, and some argue, if RE projects kill birds, they should not be built. Let’s put the issue into perspective.


It’s estimated that 600 million birds die each year in the United States by hitting buildings and houses, and nearly eight million die from coal power production. If 1,500 birds die each year at Ivanpah—the high estimate based on seven months of data collection—how do we balance this number against our overall impact on birds?


A recent study estimated that bird deaths per gigawatt hour of electricity are 17 times higher for fossil-fuel energy than for wind power. And, while comprehensive data are not yet available for concentrated solar, initial numbers are much closer to wind than to fossil fuel.


So why am I telling you all this? I value RE, tortoises and birds! The reality is, most human activity has both positive and negative consequences. The impacts of our endeavors, in this case RE, always have both local and big-picture significance. The conundrum posed by the contradictions between the two has polarized the environmental community and led to some unlikely and unwitting alliances between environmental preservationists and anti-RE/pro-fossil-fuel advocates.


Our current social and political structures encourage conflict and polarization instead of cultivating solutions and consensus. And polarization leads to paralysis.


To develop a more mature and nuanced approach to RE, we need to move beyond this mode. We need to evaluate the pros and cons of our options and, then, make proactive decisions to create a path forward. If we are looking for options that are completely good with no downside, we will never find them.


Since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Oil, our human population has grown from less than one billion to over seven billion. We have become, by default, stewards of Earth’s ecosystem.


Renowned dancer and choreographer Martha Graham once said, “Every moment of choice is a sacrifice.” But what I prefer is this: “Each moment of choice is both a sacrifice and an opportunity.”


As humans, we have the capacity to learn from the consequences of our past actions and then apply this knowledge to predict the future consequences of our present actions.


What will we do in this moment of choice? Focus only on the sacrifices or energetically embrace our opportunities?


Jamey Stillings is a Santa Fe-based photographic artist creating work that reveals and informs our perceptions of how humans use and transform the Earth. Changing Perspectives: Energy in the American West, his current project, focuses on large-scale renewable energy projects and their fossil-fuel counterparts. www.jameystillingsprojects.com




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