The Energy Transition and Public Lands, Part III
Also: Another settlement in the Gold King Mine blowout case
A recap of Part I and Part II: Climate change is wreaking havoc on the electricity grid as extreme heat spurs an increase in demand for power, while warmer temperatures and a drier climate depletes hydropower capacity. Population growth, an increasing number of cooling days, and electrification of transportation and buildings will all spur growing demand. Continued aridification, the closure of Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, and coal plant retirement will deplete supply. The growing gap between supply and demand either will be filled with clean energy, requiring a massive buildout of wind and solar installations on a short time scale, or by natural gas-fired and maybe even coal-fired generation, exacerbating the climate crisis.
This is not a question of technological feasibility. Study after study has shown that the grid can run on 80% and even 100% renewable power with the help of batteries and other forms of storage as well as “geographical smoothing” (sending Wyoming wind to California when the sun goes down, for example, to back up solar power). The question then: Where and how does this buildout occur? And what role will public lands play?
Part III: In Part II we established that covering the West’s seas of parking lots with shade-giving, solar-generating canopies and the vast expanse of residential and commercial rooftops with solar panels would eliminate the need to pave the fragile deserts with the same. Why stop there? Photovoltaics should be on every gas station canopy (thanks to a reader for that one), on all of the nation’s 10,000 inactive landfills, on canals and irrigation ditches (to power the pumps1 moving the water around and to reduce evaporation), and on the acres and acres of farmland that will be fallowed due to water shortages. Of course, in order to smooth out the dreaded duck curve, all of that solar must be paired with energy storage: a battery pack in every garage and closet!
It’s a lovely vision that could come to fruition, but only with an unprecedented level of cooperation between hundreds of utilities, state and local governments, and individual property owners, along with a hefty dose of incentives and subsidies. Yet how can we hope to rely on such solar-striving coordination in Wyoming or Idaho when California—the most advanced state when it comes to solar installations—is poised to slash incentives for rooftop solar?
We still should strive for a massive deployment of distributed generation and storage, and progress is being made—slowly. But we can’t count on it, alone without first transforming the way we use energy and the structure of our energy systems (more on this next time). The seeds of the existing Western power grid, planted in the late 1800s, were distributed generators powering what we now would call microgrids. Over time those smaller grids grew into big ones, which then were stitched together haphazardly into a sort of electrical quilt in which giant generators shipped power across vast distances via high-voltage transmission lines.
In order to decarbonize the existing system, as opposed to dismantling it and starting virtually from scratch, we will need to work within it. And in order to fill the gaping abyss between power supply and demand that will open up when utility scale generators go offline, we’ll need to build utility scale wind and solar developments along with de-balkanizing the existing grid. And that most likely will mean utilizing public lands.
That does not mean expediting indiscriminate development in the desert. It does not mean following the model of oil and gas or coal development on public lands, in which industry drives the process. What’s needed is a landscape scale, multi-agency, proactive approach that involves tribal governments, conservation groups, scientists, state and local governments, and the public at large from early on. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, implemented by the Obama administration in 2016, is a good example. The decades-in-the-making, collaborative effort put some lands off-limits to development due to potential impacts to cultural or natural resources, while expediting solar and wind development in more appropriate, less sensitive zones.
The same concept could be applied in other parts of the West. Wind, solar, and geothermal development could be pushed towards land already blighted by coal mining, oil and gas development, or overgrazing, with new transmission confined to existing corridors when possible, such as highways, railways, or pipelines. Including relevant stakeholders from the get-go will help avoid hitches like the one facing the TransWest transmission line. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory and similar institutions could be called upon for technical support, optimal solar and wind and transmission siting, and determining whether a particular development is really necessary. Ecosystems should take precedence over aesthetics—it’s more important to save a desert tortoise or sage grouse than someone’s million-dollar view.
There will be tradeoffs. There has to be. But we must not destroy the planet while we try to save it.
Next time we’ll conclude the series with a look at off-grid living, at efficiency, and at power transformation. In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comment section!
THE NEWS: Sunnyside Gold Corp., the owner of the Sunnyside Mine, agrees to pay $1.6 million to the State of Colorado to settle claims relating to the 2015 Gold King Mine blowout. The money will be used to “assess damages and restore, replace, or acquire natural resources equivalent to injured resources,” according to the consent decree.
THE CONTEXT: This isn’t nearly the big hoo ha the headlines make it out to be. In fact, it is merely the prelude to a much bigger settlement—and dollar sum.
Sunnyside Gold Corp., a subsidiary of Canadian gold mining giant Kinross, does not and never did own the Gold King Mine. However, the Sunnyside did use the American Tunnel, which was originally built to access the Gold King, as the main entrance to its extensive mine workings from 1959 until it shut down in 1991. During that time the Gold King was “dry,” meaning no water drained from the main portal. But after Sunnyside installed three bulkheads—or giant concrete plugs—in the American Tunnel to stem the flow of 1,600 gallons per minute of metal-tainted water, the Gold King began draining. It became clear that the bulkheads had backed up water inside the mountain and the water had made its way into the Gold King. It was this water that burst out in 2015 and turned the Animas River Tang-orange and mustard-yellow.
Sunnyside—which continues to deny any responsibility for the event—thus became a target of numerous related lawsuits as well as a “potentially responsible party” connected to the Superfund designation of the Bonita Peak Mining District. Early this year Sunnyside Gold/Kinross settled with the State of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation for $11 million and $10 million, respectively.
Sunnyside is not finished forking out the dough. Shortly after the settlement hit the news, BPMD Communications Liaison Anthony Edwards sent out a press release clarifying that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is not a party to the settlement. It goes on to note:
The United States, the State of Colorado, Sunnyside Gold Corporation, and Kinross Gold Corporation have separately reached a settlement in principle to resolve other non-NRD environmental claims associated with the Gold King Mine release and the BPMD Site.
The Local BMPD Planning Group anticipates if this separate settlement is finalized for the non-NRD environmental claims, it will be for a significantly greater amount than the Proposed Consent Decree for Natural Resources Damages.
Kinross, which owns huge mines in North and South America, Russia, and West Africa, reported $439.5 million in adjusted net earnings for the first nine months of 2021.
Beginning today the Land Desk is on its holiday posting schedule, which is to say: sporadic and as needed. The regular, thrice-weekly dispatches will resume Jan. 2.
The Land Desk relies entirely on reader support. We have no ads, no funds from fancy foundations, no grants, and no big benefactors. To receive every dispatch, unlock all the archives, enable commenting, and support independent journalism, consider becoming a paid subscriber or, better yet, a Sustaining Member (and get a tote bag and a free, signed copy of Sagebrush Empire).
The Central Arizona Project uses 2.5 million megawatt hours electricity each year to move water from the Colorado River at Lake Havasu to Tucson, 336 miles away and about 3,000 feet higher in elevation.