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Interior Secretary Zinke Has Lots to Learn About Renewable Energy

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke | Photo: Interior Department
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took a poorly aimed shot at renewable energy.  | Photo: Interior Department

Commentary: In a June 20 speech, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke apparently referred obliquely to reporting done by KCET, misrepresenting it in an attempt to support the Trump administration's policy favoring coal extraction.

In that speech, given at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce energy forum in Washington D.C., Secretary Zinke talked about — among other things — the 370-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station in San Bernardino County. In his discussion of Ivanpah, Zinke cited the plant's effect on nearby birds — which I was the first journalist to report on in depth, well before the plant started operation in late 2013 — and on Ivanpah's potential damage to the larger ecosystem, an issue I reported on in 2014 which, to my knowledge, no other journalist reported in any depth.

As Zinke's comments may be based at least in part on my work, I feel the obligation to correct a few errors the Interior Secretary made in his remarks and to set the record straight about the actual importance of Ivanpah's effect on wildlife.

Here's the portion of Zinke's remarks in which he mentions the Ivanpah solar facility without naming it. A transcript follows the video.

The transcript:

Coal. I don't favor coal over any other energy, and nor does the president. We are all the above.But make no mistake: the war on coal is over. For a reason.Coal provides [audience member claps once] — well, there, there, one coal guy — but coal remains you know, a, from a geologist's point of view, it's a known quantity, the BTUs are there, can we make it cleaner, better over time? Absolutely.But to think you're going to replace 30 to 35 percent of our nation's energy, uh, by wind? Or solar? And wind has an effect too. You know, wind chops up around 650 or 750 thousand birds a year? Wind comes at a cost. If you're a fisherman, offshore wind isn't particularly enamored with because it prevents you from fishing, which is an important part of our economy.Solar? If you've been outside of Las Vegas and looked at that solar field, that kind of looks like a scene from Mad Max, uh, is that the future? Having these three or four 80-foot towers with reflector cells the size of garage doors? Where it makes this cone, this sphere of death? So if birds go through it they get zapped? And they invent new language for it. It's called a streamer. A streamer! And then what happens is a bird gets zapped, of course bugs become a part of it, and then it, it draws, uh, more birds. So, there's a, there's a, there's a few problems with that too.But the, we're not against any energy, we're all the above, but certainly fossil fuels and coal is gonna be a part of our mix, and I'll go back to what I talked about in the very beginning, is better produce energy here, under reasonable regulation, than let it be produced overseas with no regulation.

Let's quickly address some of Zinke's statements about issues other than the Ivanpah plant first, to get them out of the way. 

"Can we make [coal] cleaner, better over time? Absolutely."

Making coal "cleaner, better over time" is certainly possible in theory, but it's hard to beat Wikipedia's summation of the status of seven leading possibilities for mitigating pollution from coal use: "Of the 22 demonstration projects funded by the U.S. Department of Energy since 2003, none are in operation as of February 2017, having been abandoned or delayed due to capital budget overruns or discontinued because of excessive operating expenses." Clean coal is like fusion power: it was ten years away in the 1980s, it's still ten years away in 2017, and it will be ten years away in 2050.

"But to think you're going to replace 30 to 35 percent of our nation's energy, uh, by wind? Or solar?"

At the moment I write this, renewables are powering 41 percent of California's energy needs. Coal power, entirely through imports, accounts for a very small fraction of the remainder.

A bill pending in the state legislature would require the state to be 100 percent renewable by 2040. Existing law requires 50 percent renewables in the state by 2030. Utility executives are saying the goals are feasible.  

California is better suited to solar energy development than many states, but all have significant solar potential: Germany has a robust solar sector, and it's got about as much sunshine as southern Alaska. Many states have far more wind potential than California, and conservation and energy efficiency work anywhere.

In short, coal is replaceable with current technology. Much of that technology is cheaper. The market realizes this. Which is much of why the industry is dying.

"You know, wind chops up around 650, or 750 thousand birds a year?" 

This is possible. But no one actually knows just how many birds are killed by wind turbines, because wind turbine operators aren't obligated to report all bird mortalities, when they do report them their mortality survey methods vary enough that facilities often can't be compared to each other, and even if the companies' data is sound, it's often considered proprietary and is rarely peer-reviewed.

The most recent authoritative estimate of nationwide wind turbine bird mortalities, published in 2013, estimated that between 140,438 and 327,586 birds were killed a year at American wind facilities. in that year, the U.S. had just over 60 gigawatts' worth of wind turbines installed. As of 2016, that capacity had risen to more than 82 gigawatts, with an almost certain proportional increase in bird mortality.

In fact, there are a number of scientists — including those with the American Bird Conservancy — who suggest actual mortality of birds at U.S. wind turbines may be well into the millions, making Zinke's ballpark estimate quite conservative.

Still, while Zinke's mention of 650,000-750,000 wind-related bird mortalities a year isn't at all outlandish, it doesn't seem to be based on any real data. 

"If you're a fisherman, offshore wind isn't particularly enamored with because it prevents you from fishing, which is an important part of our economy."

The fishing industry has certainly expressed concern over the effects of offshore wind installations on their livelihoods, and at least one fishery — Atlantic scallops — does seem to have suffered slight measurable declines directly attributable to wind facilities offshore. (As opposed to overfishing, ocean acidification, pollution, and the host of other confounding factors depleting ocean fish stocks.)

But a recent two-part report by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, released in April, suggests that neither commercial nor recreational fisheries should be largely affected by offshore wind in the most vulnerable stretch of coast between New England and Maryland. 

Zinke should be able to get a copy of the report: The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is part of the Department of the Interior.

That's not to say that there aren't significant potential effects on ocean ecosystems from offshore wind. It just won't "prevent" you from fishing.

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation System from above the Castle Peaks in the Mojave National Preserve | Photo: Chris Clarke
At upper right, the three or four towers of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System from above the Castle Peaks in the Mojave National Preserve | Photo: Chris Clarke

"Sphere of death"

Where do I begin with Zinke's description of Ivanpah? With the fact that the Secretary of the Interior apparently doesn't know how many towers the facility has? Ivanpah, the largest solar power tower project in the world, is sited on land managed by the Interior Department. You'd think he might have found someone to count the towers for him before he gave a talk on energy to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

There are three towers at Ivanpah. They're 459 feet tall, not 80, as Zinke said. They are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of garage-door sized mirrored heliostats, which as far as I can tell have never before been called "reflector cells."

Ivanpah does incinerate birds, in numbers we will likely never learn precisely due to a number of factors including the relatively large number of desert kit foxes on site, who have been subsidized by a rain of barbecue. At KCET, we have been reporting on Ivanpah's burn injuries since 2012, before they actually started; after we'd been building the story for a year and a half, and after activists had been pushing the issue with agencies for even longer, the rest of the media finally noticed the story the week the plant formally opened.  

And then there's this bit of mangled sentence structure from the Interior Secretary: "And then what happens is a bird gets zapped, of course bugs become a part of it, and then it, it draws, uh, more birds. So, there's a, there's a, there's a few problems with that too."

Zinke is almost certainly referring to the notion that Ivanpah functions as what ecologists call an "ecological trap," attracting insects and similar animals to its bright light and updraft, which then attract birds, who are injured by concentrated solar energy and then attract scavengers, who in turn become vulnerable to injury at the solar power plant, either through burning or collission with plant infrastructure, especially mirrors.

The ecological trap issue showed up repeatedly in my reporting here, but the issue didn't originate with me. I first saw it mentioned in comments made in November 2013 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on another solar power plant proposal, the Palen Solar Electric Generating System, in which USFWS cited insect deaths at Ivanpah as a potential cause of cascading harm to other wildlife:

The ecological effects of mass insect mortalities have not been investigated and may lead to greater levels of mortality than have been anticipated. In particular, concentrations of insects are likely to draw insectivorous and omnivorous migratory birds, including many raptors, which may increase the risk of bird mortalities.

A year later, USFWS' wildlife forensics laboratory expanded on that analysis in a study of wildlife mortality at several solar power plants:  

It appears that Ivanpah may act as a “mega-trap,” attracting insects which in turn attract insect-eating birds, which are incapacitated by solar flux injury, thus attracting predators and creating an entire food chain vulnerable to injury and death.

To my knowledge, the ecological trap idea wasn't mentioned in detail in any mainstream media other than here at KCET. I'm not assuming that Zinke got his talking points from my work, either directly or indirectly. He may well have read Fish and Wildlife's reports on the topic of solar's wildlife impacts. To be honest, though, his apparent ignorance of his own offshore wind and fisheries' study doesn't raise my confidence that Zinke generally studies reports by his subsidiary agencies. 

But it mostly doesn't matter where Zinke borrowed his arguments from. He's still reading the data exactly backwards. 

Between 2011 and 2014, our renewable energy reporting here at KCET received a fair amount of criticism, and occasional derision, from renewable energy advocates and climate activists. We were accused of shilling for fossil fuels, of climate denialism, of being NIMBYists and purists.

But we were proved right by that most unemotional of all social forces: the market. Development of large solar facilities has slowed dramatically in the years since 2012, while other kinds of solar, on rooftops, in parking lots, and on economically marginal farm land, has grown dramatically. In the meantime, more and more environmentally concerned people have come around to see that energy production needs stringent environmental controls, whether or not it involves fossil fuels.

The point of our studying the wildlife impacts of renewables was never to excuse fossil fuels, which have always been far more dangerous to wildlife. The point of our reporting was — and is — to point out that there's no need to destroy even more habitat in the name of renewables, because our cities and towns can generate almost all the solar power they need on their own roofs and parking lots. 

That's a solution that makes more and more sense every day, so it's next to certain than it'll never be so much as mentioned by the Trump administration. But given even a slight chance that Zinke's argument might have been inspired by my work over the last few years, it's worth my speaking up.

Zinke defending coal by citing wind and solar's troubling wildlife impacts is a little like telling the cop offering you a breathalyzer, after a drunken SUV chase, that people also die on bicycles. It's an argument that's true. It's also beside the point. And it's only used to try to distract people from the serious damage you might be doing.

For the record: This article has been edited to clarify the fact that some experts suspect wind-turbine-related bird mortality may significantly exceed Zinke's figures. 

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