Once upon a time, in a far-away rectangular state, there was a power source so pure it left no waste and would never run out. And from it sprang the modern environmental movement, not to welcome it, but to kill it dead.
Not quite the fairy-tale ending, eh? But the proposed Echo Park Dam, using the pure waters of the Green and Yampa Rivers to serve hydro-electric generation in Utah, had costs. The reservoir behind the cement plug would have swamped Dinosaur National Monument’s redrock canyons in northwest Colorado. The Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, Wallace Stegner and others built public support in the 1950s to deep-six that dam (at the expense of Glen Canyon… but that’s another story) and in so doing built a new political force.
Fast forward a half-century. With global warming stoking the debate, and thousands of new drill rigs scarring the West’s public and private lands, the hunt is on for "clean" energy. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter extols the virtues of the "New Energy Economy" based largely on the promise of wind and solar, both abundant in the West. It’s a noble venture worth pursuing.
But these new energy sources at an industrial scale have costs too. Wind turbines require land and roads. Improper siting can puree raptors and shred bats. Large-scale solar will require thousands of acres—if not thousands of square miles of land. Both sources will require transmission lines. And while some view the West as "empty" land begging for development, that land may include critical habitat, wildlife corridors, or Native American ruins. Not to mention that "the Big Empty" is what shapes the West’s character.
Make no mistake: moving away from CO2-spewing, roadless-area-destroying oil and gas and mountain top-removing coal promises huge benefits. But rose-colored glasses won’t speed us to a better future. Calling an energy source "clean" when, for example, it puts migrating endangered birds in harm’s way seems odd. We must acknowledge, analyze, and weigh the costs of the New Energy Economy with an eagle eye and a clear head; site projects carefully; and learn from our mistakes. Only by doing so may we someday get that happy energy ending.