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Clean energy’s dirty impact on feathered friends

Nevada’s budding reputation as an arid wonderland of renewable energy had taken some hits lately.

Just this past week the Review-Journal’s Henry Brean reported the behemoth, 9,300-acre, 87-turbine wind energy project outside Searchlight is in flux following U.S. District Judge Amanda Du’s reasoned opinion that the federal agencies charged with assessing environmental impacts submitted reports with “analytical gaps” that “frustrated the court’s assessment” of the potential impact on wildlife, including endangered species such as the desert tortoise and the bald eagle. Environmental watchdog websites continue to buzz about the delay in the Apex Clean Energy project, promoted as a 200-megawatt facility capable of producing enough electricity to power 50,000 houses.

Meanwhile, Western environmental magazine High Country News scorched the enormous solar project at Ivanpah with an in-depth analysis that raises the question of whether enough is being done to protect wildlife from the super-heated energy system.

Readers of High Country News might generally expect it to champion the expensive clean energy initiative, but to its credit it has pursued the story and delivered a bruising analysis in its Oct. 26 edition titled, “Green Energy’s Dirty Secret.” Reporter Judith Lewis Mernit writes, “The California Wind Energy Association even hired a biologist, who argued that the turbine blades were too big to cut birds in half, as (ecologist Shawn) Smallwood claimed they did. “But we were still finding them all over the ground, cut in half,” says Smallwood. “What, did God send them to earth cut in pieces?”

Meanwhile, the country’s political environmentalists find themselves in a quandary: Some members of Congress with pro-environment reputations appear to be downplaying the undeniable impact the “clean” renewable energy is having on their feathered friends.

Let’s recap: Giant windmills are chopping up eagles, and solar fields are frying songbirds.

I like the quiet of the desert, but that’s a little too quiet.

Not only are the legal developments damaging to the wind and solar industries at a time more Americans than ever are beginning to see the sense in investing in clean energy, but it’s more than a little bad for their image.

Will we next discovery that vaunted geothermal reserves are actually boiling the greater sage grouse, guts, feathers and all?

Frankly, I prefer my prairie chicken deep-fried with a side of delicious dace fries, but I digress. And, dark humor aside, there’s nothing funny about corporate developers getting away with such carnage under a green banner that has emerged as a large part of the Obama administration’s legacy. It makes the renewable crowd appear to have substantially less than clean hands as it takes those filth-belching traditional energy producers to task.

Expect the showdown in the desert to become even more dramatic as the actual loss of wildlife becomes more accurately assessed. For some reason, federal agencies appear to have been substantially under reporting kills associated with wind energy. A study by Wildlife Society Bulletin, as reported by the Institute for Energy Research, alleged, “every year 573,000 birds (including 83,000 raptors) and 888,000 bats are killed by wind turbines — 30 percent higher than the federal government estimated in 2009, due mainly to increasing wind power capacity across the nation.”

And Bechtel’s California solar plant at Soda Mountain near the Mojave National Preserve and the Nevada state line has run into a roadblock with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The proposed facility would encumber desert bighorn sheep migration.

Short of a technological breakthrough, it’s going to take a dedicated team of legal eagles to make sure we don’t wind up chopping and fricasseeing the feathered kind on our way to a cleaner, greener Nevada.

John L. Smith is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and a fourth-generation Nevadan. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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