The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph has created a minor stir in the U.K. because of a recent article citing research which reveals that wind farms constructed on peatlands, a common biome around the world that features soils consisting of densely packed layers of decayed vegetation, may in fact do more harm than good with respect to carbon emissions.

The study, headed by Dr. Jo Smith at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, contends that wind farms on undegraded peatlands will probably not reduce carbon emissions, due to the release of peat’s natural carbon sink upon construction of wind turbines. In a letter to the journal Nature, reporting on the still-unpublished study, the researchers instead say that the government should focus wind development on disturbed or degraded peatlands, whose carbon sink potential has already been reduced or destroyed.

As with any news story worth its mettle in the U.K., the tabloids have sensationalized it a bit, with the Daily Mail reporting on the “wind farms that ADD to carbon emissions.” Meanwhile, trade groups have fought back, contending that the wind industry does “a lot…in terms of mitigation,” without being specific about what those measures are or how they might impact the carbon released by construction on peatlands.

This may seem like a tempest in a teapot to Americans, whose wind farms tend to be sited at high mountain passes such as Altamont or in the fields of the Midwest. However, as the country grapples with the development of utility-scale renewable energy, there are substantial questions about the carbon benefits or costs of construction on undegraded lands.  An article in the journal Global Change Biology in 2005 suggests that Mojave desert shrublands, which have been the focus of most utility-scale renewable energy development in California, function as a net carbon sink at a level comparable to that of grasslands or forests.

This raises questions about the cost-benefit rationale of building large-scale solar plants in the desert, for instance, since these projects require plants to be ripped up within their bounds. The ostensible goal is to reduce the carbon-intensity of our energy production, but if we are losing the carbon sink capabilities of those lands and actually releasing their stored carbon into the air through the construction of these facilities, there may or may not be a net carbon savings. However, this issue has never been evaluated in any of the formal environmental reviews done for utility-scale solar in the desert such as the BLM’s Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.

Essentially, this is a discussion about unintended consequences. It’s no secret that with “fast-tracking” and hard deadlines to receive subsidies such as ARRA money, the U.S. has been running headlong into utility-scale renewable development. Are we properly evaluating projects sited in sensitive ecosystems? As we try to answer those questions, controversy over the development of utility-scale renewables will remain on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Patrick Donnelly-Shores writes about energy policy issues for the UC Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative (BERC). A version of this piece was originally posted at the BERC blog.

Tags: carbon emissions, carbon sinks, desert, global warming, solar projects, wind projects