The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ move to ban utility-scale wind turbines and to impose severe restrictions on utility-scale solar in unincorporated areas of the county is not compatible with averting the worst impacts of climate change.
The most detailed state-commissioned assessment of what California must do to meet Governor Brown’s 2030 goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels shows that the state will need to add 1,600 megawatts of renewable resources – roughly 12 new utility-scale projects – annually. Most of this, the assessment shows, will need to come from utility-scale wind and solar resources, in addition to rooftop solar, aggressive energy efficiency, a rapid ramp-up in zero-emission vehicles and many other measures.
This is a colossal challenge, but is consistent with the international goal of keeping global average temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial conditions. Even a two-degree increase would have very negative consequences to humans as well as other species, with California’s current drought just a sampling of what is to come. The consequences of a greater temperature increase are unthinkable. As Governor Brown said earlier this week, “We have to respond, and if we don’t the world will suffer, we will all suffer. In fact, many people, millions, are suffering already.”
Voters in Los Angeles County recognized the critical need to address climate change when they overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 23 — the 2010 ballot measure that would have suspended California’s landmark global warming law. A very recent PPIC poll shows that strong majorities of Californians believe that a warming climate poses a serious or very serious threat to California’s economy and quality of life and favor policies to tackle the problem. LA County can play an important role in addressing this paramount challenge of our time given that the Antelope Valley region happens to host one of the largest untapped concentrations of high-quality wind resources in all of California. The draft state-federal Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan envisions that LA County, along with six other counties in the region, will each contribute substantially to the achievement of the state’s renewable energy development goals. And yet, even this plan would place off limits some 80 percent of the best wind resources on relatively remote federal lands for reasons that have not been clearly articulated.
With these kinds of categorical wind energy prohibitions – rather than a careful case-by-case assessment of the potential impacts of proposed projects — it is hard to imagine how we will achieve the magnitude of project construction that is needed to meet our climate goals. Even the current system of California and U.S. environmental law, with its multiple delays and veto points, may be incompatible with the scale and pace of the transformation of the energy system that is needed. No one is saying that utility-scale renewable energy should go everywhere, but done responsibly and with local input and safeguards, it does have to go somewhere.
Clearly, some people do not wish to see wind energy development in their communities, even as others welcome wind for keeping their ranches and farms economically viable. But there is no escaping the physical reality that, in order to achieve the dramatic expansion we need in renewable energy to preserve a habitable planet for all, we are going to need a lot of renewable energy projects. This has been compelled by society’s failure to come to grips with the climate problem two decades ago, when scientists were already sounding the alarm and there was still time to act and avoid such choices. At this point, LA County must act consistently with the state’s leadership to tackle global warming, and resist what amounts to “not-in-my-backyard” opposition.
And let’s not forget the many local benefits associated with wind energy development. Wind energy emits no pollutants like nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide, thereby improving LA’s air quality and reducing associated health impacts by displacing fossil-fuel generation and, increasingly, by fueling electric vehicles. Wind energy uses no water to produce electricity; so, by displacing thermal generation, the nearly 6,000 MW of wind energy capacity operating in California today saves 3.4 billion gallons a year of fresh water. Wind energy is compatible with other land uses, from cattle grazing to wildlife corridors. And wind energy development will create jobs and contribute millions in property taxes to county coffers. The wind industry is already supporting some 2,500 direct jobs in the state, providing $70 million to California counties annually in property taxes, and has brought $11.7 billion in private investment to California, while reducing carbon emissions from the state’s power sector by nearly 17 percent.
We all need energy, and so far there is no way to produce it with zero impacts. But wind is one of the cheapest ways to do it cleanly. Blanket prohibitions on wind cannot be part of a responsible solution to the climate problem.