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Thinking Past the Moment

An interview with Sierra Club renewable energy expert Carl Zichella


If there's anyone at the center of the spat over society's need for -- and the potential environmental impacts of -- large-scale renewable energy projects, it's Carl Zichella. As director of Western Renewable Programs for the Sierra Club, Zichella has worked on California's Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) and the Western Governors' Association's Renewable Energy Zone process, meeting with energy companies, environmentalists, government officials, utilities and other stakeholders to identify both the most and the least appropriate places for large projects and electrical transmission lines. Zichella, who grew up in the Bronx and northern New Jersey, has logged 22 years with the Sierra Club, mostly as a field director, working on clean air, energy issues and land conservation. The biggest issue environmentalists face now is climate change, he says, and that means some compromises on development. "It's not enough to say no to things anymore," he recently told the New York Times. "We have to say yes to the right thing." Zichella recently explored what exactly that means by e-mail with High Country News assistant editor Sarah Gilman.

High Country News Tell us a bit about how and why you got involved in conservation. Was there a particular landscape that inspired you?

Carl Zichella My first inspiration was the forests of upstate New York. My grandfather, stepfather and his brothers built a cabin in the Catskills where they took us kids every year to get us out of the city. I can't overstate how absolutely amazing that experience was. But seeing the big wildernesses of the West changed everything for me. I eventually found my spiritual home in the redwoods of Northern California, where I began my work on conservation issues in the late 1970s. 

HCN How has your work at the Sierra Club changed lately, and why?

Zichella Global warming threatens to undo all the progress we have ever made in land and wildlife conservation. In 2005, the Sierra Club made (climate change) the organization's top priority. There are two steps we need to focus on to seriously reduce U.S. carbon emissions: reversing our reliance on coal, and transforming the way we power our economy to renewable energy. The renewable energy part is tricky and nuanced. We have to bring renewables up to scale, we need to do it quickly, and we have difficult choices to make if we are to do it in an environmentally responsible way. … We need to work with people we are not used to working with and do things we have not done before.

HCN Experts say we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by around 80 percent by 2050. Yet the Department of Energy says world energy consumption will increase by 44 percent over the next 20 years. That's some difficult math. What are the top things that society needs to do to help change this climate catastrophe equation?

Zichella We need to do many things, and we need to do them simultaneously. World energy consumption has to be slowed, and energy efficiency and conservation are the cornerstone of any successful strategy. We have to substitute renewable fuels for fossil fuels in the building and electricity sectors. We need to revamp the transportation sector top to bottom and emphasize more efficient individual transportation and mass transit. We also have to look at the way we design our communities. Solar panels installed on sprawl housing development, for example, only make a disastrous land-use decision somewhat less terrible. I don't subscribe to the idea that some things "need to go first." All these things work synergistically to help us make the progress we need in the decade-to-decades time frame that will make a difference. 

HCN What are the biggest challenges you and other stakeholders involved in RETI and the Western Governors' Association process have encountered with regards to finding the best places to put large renewable energy projects?

Zichella Some of the toughest work involves helping other stakeholders understand environmental goals and values and to have environmentalists be willing to understand those of the others. Another major hurdle is data. Sometimes gaps appear in unexpected ways. We think we know what we mean when we say "degraded land," for example. But it is infrequently mapped and poorly defined by governmental agencies. Information about wildlife corridors is sketchy at best, and the states do not handle wildlife data in congruent ways. I am glad that there has been strong consensus among stakeholders to place protected areas off limits, such as designated roadless areas. But what about important wildlife or plant habitat that is not in a protected area? Identifying the places we absolutely must avoid has been very difficult.

HCN What are the largest personal challenges you've had to face and compromises you've had to make as a conservationist involved in these planning processes?

Zichella I think one of the most challenging things is helping people understand how important it is for us to move quickly to address climate change and the magnitude of what we need to do to address it. Many folks want to believe that all we need to do is put solar panels on rooftops in Los Angeles and we have the problem licked. But there are no easy solutions, and even renewable energy sources have impacts. It is also challenging to get people to think beyond their moment. … We will all be dead and gone when Western ecosystems unravel and large-scale extinctions happen. But we only get to experience these (ecosystems) because people who came before us understood we would need these places. I feel that a failure to act decisively on climate change will … result in a greatly diminished world. For example, the idea of a Joshua Tree National Park without Joshua trees -- a distinct possibility -- is anathema to me.

I guess the central compromise I have had to face is that in order to do what is needed, some undeveloped places will have to be used for renewable energy development and transmission. Once you realize the consequences of inaction, this is not too hard a decision to make.

HCN As you note, efforts to ramp up large-scale renewable development to fight global warming have run into resistance from people worried about local impacts. How do you address such concerns?

Zichella There is no way to convince all of them that some large-scale renewable energy development is desperately needed. That said, I respect their love of place and their passion to protect it. All you can do is make sure they understand that everyone needs to do their part and that we are working to make sure other solutions are pursued too, such as distributed generation and energy efficiency. We need to choose the best sites to develop: the least environmentally sensitive places and those which make best use of existing infrastructure. Such projects will be approved faster, cost less to develop, have an easier environmental review and should come on line faster.

HCN Take the sage grouse as an example. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing it as an endangered species. How should planning efforts for wind power in particular deal with that, especially given how little is known about its effects?

Zichella Sage grouse will be a limiting factor, no question about it. Some very promising sites will not be developed because of habitat conflicts. We know it, and the generators know it, too. The good news is that there are excellent wind resources elsewhere that can be developed. The trade-off is that some of these projects may have to be larger to compensate for slightly lower-quality wind resources. 

HCN What are the benefits of developing large-scale renewable energy development on public lands vs. private lands?

Zichella There are several, but it's important to realize that not all public lands are created equal. Ownership is less important than the quality of the (renewable) resource and the level of disturbance of the land. Some places on public lands have been distressed and are good sites for energy development. Conversely, many private lands are pristine or have high conservation values. One of the biggest advantages on public lands, at least for solar, is the quality of the resource. You can produce a larger amount of energy from a smaller piece of land. This has habitat as well as conservation benefits, especially if the least ecologically sensitive places are made available. For example, a photovoltaic project in the Mojave Desert can use as little as half the land to create the same amount of energy as a project located on sites with lesser insolation, say in eastern San Luis Obispo County. Another benefit of public lands is that there will likely be a very high level of environmental scrutiny on development.

HCN Part of the argument for putting large projects on public land centers on the idea that they can be built more cheaply and more quickly there. Given uncertainties like sage grouse listing, does that economy of scale hold?

Zichella The economies of scale do not always hold, but it is generally true that land closer to (electrical) load centers is often far more expensive. A project with many environmental conflicts on public land could end up being as or more expensive than one on private lands. Mitigation ratios as high as five acres to one could be possible in these areas (if not likely). That's a real show-stopper financially. In fact, many developers favor private lands like abandoned or retired agricultural fields because the environmental review is easier and there may even be water rights attached to the land. Speculators who have applied for rights of way on sensitive public lands have made the development picture seem much grimmer than it actually is. (Such applications) have little chance of getting approved.

HCN What do you do to keep the enormity of the climate and renewable energy problem from driving you nuts? How do you blow off stress?

Zichella I learned a long time ago that doing something about challenges like this is in and of itself terrific therapy. As for blowing off steam, a walk with my wife and dogs really helps. It's hard to be uptight when you're watching dogs -- which are always so much in the moment -- play.