Restoration vs. Renewable Energy: Amateurism Doesn’t Pay

Agriculture Biodiversity Investments Water Oct 10, 2013
Damon Hess

Good land stewardship and energy efficiency both support our economy, but governments don’t pay nearly as much attention to the economic benefits of investment in environmental restoration as they do to investments in energy efficiency. Damon Hess of Sitka Technology argues that they should.

10 October 2013 | We invest public funds into environmental restoration and renewable energy with similar goals in mind: developing a sustainable economy and conserving common property resources. So why is it that when rating their quality, renewable energy projects are run through a professional combine while restoration projects receive a trophy just for playing?

Critics of renewable energy investments usually focus on the relatively high cost of the power they generate. New project proposals require sophisticated financial models that compare permitting, manufacturing, and operating costs against projected power generation rates and pricing over time. Once a project is in production, those initial projections are held up against actual outputs so that the models on which they were based get adjusted based on real data.

Environmental restoration proposals are rarely assessed using return on investment calculations. In fact, project developers may need only a before-and-after illustration and a willing land owner to receive funding for a new project. Restoration investments may face criticisms, but not due to their estimated output being more expensive than alternatives. Output is rarely measured using metrics that the public can understand and thus frequently not valued at all.

So why is it that the requirements for funding renewable energy are so much more onerous than those for environmental restoration? Public investments in renewable energy projects are meant to spur larger private investments and thus are held to a higher standard. Public investments in environmental restoration are meant to make us feel good about our commitment to “mother nature” and thus are given treated with kid gloves.

Let’s use Oregon as an example: From 2009-11, Oregon invested $100M/year via the Business Energy Tax Credit in renewable energy projects. Those investments led to additional private investments that by early 2013 had reached $9B according to the Renewable Northwest Project.

From 2011-13, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board reported spending around $150M in environmental restoration. That’s in the same ballpark as renewable energy. Yet there is no data on any private investment leveraging that spending.

Because environmental restoration funding never gets evaluated via return on investment, the private sector doesn’t leverage its public funding. Why would they without some quantification of the value? The costs of restoration are well known — riparian planting runs $10-15k/acre – but the returns are not. Metrics are esoteric and measurements non-standard, and thus monitoring data is typically wasted.

As long as environmental restoration is given a free pass when it comes to measuring results, it will be forever relegated to tenuous public funding and charitable contributions – not unlike sports. Until we monitor the output produced by an amateur planting program the way we monitor the output of a professional wind energy project, new turbines will continue to outpace trees.

Damon Hess is Director of Business Development at Sitka Technology Group. He can be reached