Debate on the Future of Renewable Energy

With an inconclusive end to the Copenhagen conference and grumblings that the U.S. Senate is dragging its heels on climate legislation, the country's energy future is in the news.

Yesterday's New York Times published a series of short responses on the future of renewable energy, which has been creating somewhat of a divide between environmentalists -- some of whom push for solar and wind power as an antidote to greenhouse-gas producing coal, and some of whom fear vast solar plants and wind farms will just create new problems by destroying natural habitat.

The Times' "Green Civil War: Projects vs. Preservation" covers a range of opinions on the direction the country's new energy future should take. One thing all contributors can agree on: we are on the brink of forging a new relationship to energy. What remains undecided it just what that new relationship will look like.

Energy analyst Randy Udall starts the dialogue with a pragmatic outlook. Americans, he writes, "insist on consuming our body weight in petroleum each week, but god forbid we see an oil well." Using already threatened natural habitats for new solar and wind farms is an unfortunate trade-off, according to Udall, but the alternative is continuing the one-way path of carbon emissions, peak oil and climate change. One way or the other we have to make some sort of sacrifice to maintain our current lifestyles.

David Roberts of Grist, an Overbrook Foundation grantee, has a somewhat more visionary and optimistic view. Why stick to the idea that energy has to come from one, monolithic, centralized company? Why not create a new model in which solar panels pave every parking lot and roof? Why not have small wind turbines on bridges or backyards? According to Roberts' vision, energy production will redistribute social and economic systems so communities can control their own production and use. "'Consumers' become producers, managers and innovators," Roberts writes.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist and public lands desert director of the Center for Biological Diversity has a similar view. Let's throw out the utility-centric model, she writes, and create a system in which energy production is distributed. Protected lands need not be used for solar panels or wind farms. Anderson believes the conflict arising among environmentalists (whether to use natural habitats for renewable energy) is only a result of poor planning, and easily resolved. Let's use parking lots, rooftops, brownfields and former agricultural lands, not wildlife corridors or endangered species habitat.

Winona LaDuke, program director of the Honor the Earth Fund, looks at renewable energy plans as having great potential for Native America. LaDuke claims tribal lands hold more than 535 billion kwh per year in wind power potential, and over 17,000 billion kwh per year in solar energy potential. Renewable projects on reservations would provide a significant piece of the national energy puzzle, create jobs and bring wealth to Native communities and reservations.

Read the dialogue, readers' responses or contribute yourself here.