Looking Ahead: Examining the Ethics of Energy
The recent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northern Japan has made many people reevaluate their position on nuclear energy. One point, however, has been missing from most reports about the damage: the disaster’s effects on non-humans remain incalculable. Many procedures that save human lives during a nuclear disaster do not help animals. Humans can be told to evacuate; animals cannot. In the area surrounding Fukushima, animals might be dying off at an alarming rate; we will not know how severe the devastation on marine, air and land based life will be until proper surveys have been completed.
Even so, nuclear power is currently the primary contender to coal when it comes to electricity generation capacity, and all good environmentalists know coal is a source to avoid. “Clean” coal, the newest myth perpetrated by the coal industry, is scary when scrutinized: in a method known as carbon capture and sequestration , coal power would be considered “clean” when the greenhouse gases are sent into the ground. The expensive technology to accomplish this on a large scale is still being tested; but even if fully realized, who knows what might ultimately occur when the pollution is pumped into the ground rather than the sky?
It seems clear that while nuclear power might have certain advantages over coal, it is unsafe for the environment and the life within it. But if nuclear power is not the answer, then what is?
Almost every alternative source of electrical grid power harms animals in some way, albeit less than coal does. As John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society, has remarked, “When you look at a wind turbine, you can find the bird carcasses and count them. With a coal-fired power plant, you can't count the carcasses, but it's going to kill a lot more birds.”
Wind energy has received especially negative attention when it comes to animal safety, mostly because of the poor design of the Altamont Pass Wind Farm right in the middle of a major raptor hunting ground outside of San Francisco. The fast-moving blades of these 30-year-old turbines posed a hazard for thousands of birds in the area. Many of the old turbines have since been replaced by slower blades; mistakes made at the Altamont Pass Wind Farm have helped to inform new wind farm installations on how to avoid unnecessary deaths. Nevertheless, bird conservationists must keep a constant watch on companies that propose wind farms in sensitive bird habitats.
Solar power is often cited as the most environmentally friendly energy source available, and one that also limits negative effects upon animals. Yet even solar power has its drawbacks. BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Station, currently being built in the Mojave Desert around Las Vegas, Nevada, as the largest solar thermal plant in the world, has received enormous criticism for its intrusion on desert tortoises—endangered animals who, like many animals, resist relocation. Although the resulting alterations to the solar plant plan have not addressed all of the issues regarding the desert tortoise’s habitat, they did shrink the project’s acreage by 12 percent. Some of the tortoise advocates pointed out that the solar plant, not the tortoises, needed to be moved.
Other solar plants have been scaled back dramatically due to ecosystem concerns. AES Solar's Imperial Valley Solar Project in southeast California is under a temporary injunction due to the Quechan Tribe’s claim that flat-tailed horned lizards would be significantly harmed on ancestral land. They hope to win a permanent injunction this summer. Plans for Solar Millenium’s proposed Ridgecrest plant in south-central California were cancelled altogether due to the negative effects the solar plant may have had on Mojave ground squirrels.
While it would obviously be better to disturb only already disturbed land – by putting solar panels on rooftops instead of desert ecosystems, for example – many compromises have so far been reached. We do have viable options for ethically powering our world in the near future; but the only way to feasibly implement animal-friendly and environmentally responsible sources of power on a large scale is to reduce our power consumption dramatically.
- Quoted by Carl Levesque, communications editor for the American Wind Energy Association, in the AWEA article “For the Birds: Audubon Society Stands Up in Support of Wind Energy” (14 Dec. 2006).
- Green Blog, New York Times: “BrightSource Alters Solar Plant Plan to Address Concerns Over Desert Tortoise” (11 Feb. 2010).
- See EcoSeed : “K Road Now Owns Calico Solar Project but Will Use PV” (3 Jan. 2011).
- See Yuma Sun : “Quechan Tribe to Take Fight Against Solar Project to D.C. ” (31 Jan. 2011)
- See New York Times : “Concerns as Solar Installations Join a Desert Ecosyste m” (17 Nov. 2010), quoting Karen Douglas, the chair of the California Energy Commission, which licenses large solar thermal power plants: “If wildlife issues are not at the top of a developer’s list, they should be. The footprint of these solar projects is unprecedented, and obviously they can impact a range of species.”