Linking Solar Power, the Lesser Prairie Chicken and Population

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By Maria Fotopoulos

Maria is a CAPS Senior Writing Fellow who focuses on the impacts of growth on biodiversity. Find her on Twitter | in | FB.

The writer’s views are her own.


 

March 2, 2013

Kermit was right: It’s not that easy being green.

Solar energy, a recent article notes, is less polluting than energy created from burning coal and natural gas – until the production elements are factored in.

The gist of the story is that the industry responsible for producing millions of solar panels (theoretically, a good thing), thanks in part to big government incentives (possibly a bad thing), also is generating millions of pounds of hazardous waste and contaminating water (definitely a bad thing). Further, a large amount of the waste is generated right here in California.

The solar panel industry tale makes me think of Newton’s third physical law of motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Solar power is just one example. Its relative, wind power, has a downside as well. While buildings, cars, cats, pesticides and power lines are greater threats to birds, windmills too contribute to the mortality of our winged friends – birds fly into them.
 

birds flying near windmills

In Oklahoma, the lesser prairie chicken was spotlighted when energy providers started looking at building wind farms. The chickens don’t fly into the windmills, but they don’t like tall structures – to the extent that their breeding habits are compromised.

While the lesser prairie chicken population has been declining for some time and is estimated to be 10 percent of what it was a century ago, with the wind energy dust-up, the chicken may soon be listed as an endangered species.

Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. worked to mitigate the impact of two of its wind farms by purchasing land to create a sanctuary for the birds, but not all potential developers there are interested in putting up the funds – estimated at $600 per acre – to develop land into lesser prairie chicken habitat.

Of course we want to continue to seek alternative energy solutions, enhance technologies to drive sustainability and practice greater conservation at all levels, but the above are just a few examples that there are two sides to every coin, a yin and yang to everything – an equal and opposite reaction to every action. There often are unintended negative consequences to our advances.

Look at a different sort of example – the Green Revolution in agriculture. The result was higher yields and more efficiencies in the field; we produced more food. Fewer people starved, and the Green Revolution bought us time to address population problems. But we got complacent and didn’t adequately address overpopulation globally. So we now are trying to wring ever-more growing efficiencies out of marginal lands and seeking even higher yields, thus losing what time we had bought.

These examples all were borne from a necessity to innovate that’s driven by growth. We should be mindful that at the root of many of the problems that we’re busily trying to innovate our way out of is high human population increase. But for all our innovation, we seem to always end up a day late and dollar short. The press of population seems to continue to outpace our technological advances.

Were we to always look at the benefits of working towards a sustainable population – pay more attention to how we can address the population component of our problems – likely some unintended positive consequences, or dividends, would result.

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