Saturday, November 28, 2009

Solar Energy Development in the Mojave

Why Renewable Energy Requires A Thoughtful and Balanced Approach in the Desert
Even though desert plants and animals are a tough bunch, climate change is still a threat to the desert as much as it is to the polar ice caps. Wildlife in the deserts are so uniquely adapted and have balanced their ecosystem in such hostile conditions that even slight changes can be disruptive. The struggle between desert wildlife and the harsh conditions it contends with year-round is a reason to respect Mojave, where everyday of survival is a triumph. Consider how hot it can get in the Victor Valley on an average summer day? Anywhere from 95-112 degrees F, right? The temperatures are even higher closer to the ground in the desert, so if you are a desert tortoise, leopard lizard or a fledgling desert shrub you face temperatures that can reach 140 degrees F (or 60 degrees Celsius).

So what difference does a little bit of global warming make? One recent study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) discovered that nitrogen levels in desert soil, which plants depend on for nutrients to grow (and everything else depends on the plants), are affected by the heat. As the soil gets hotter, more nitrogen is released from the soil, which leaves plants with less nutrients, which could lead to fewer plants, and then fewer animals and insects that depend on the plants...you get the point. So if you appreciate the delicate balance life has struck in the desert, you are probably in favor of "green energy" so we can reduce our fossil fuel use and emission of greenhouse gasses. Or so it would seem at first glance.

The problem is that utility-scale solar energy requires vast tracts of land in a sunny place, and the Mojave Desert meets the criteria for the best solar real estate in the country. The government is fast-tracking utility-scale solar energy fields and providing financial incentives for their construction in order to quickly shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. This shift in energy economics is leading to a large demand for construction of renewable energy projects on open desert land, most of it owned by the taxpayers.

The Federal Government controls much of the Mojave Desert through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and most companies interested in building utility-scale (large power plants) solar energy have to apply to the BLM to use the land. The application process also involves applying to the California Energy Commission (CEC). The BLM is currently reviewing approximately 63 solar power applications that, if approved and built, would cover over half a million acres of the Mojave Desert. Check the BLM's Solar Energy development site for updated statistics on applications and a map of proposed projects in the Mojave.

Renewable energy development is essential to curbing our impact on the climate, but we should strike the right balance between energy development, and conservation of the desert wilderness. State and Federal authorities (the CEC and BLM) should carefully consider the locations they approve for the construction of solar and wind energy projects in order to preserve critical habitat and the peaceful and unspoiled vistas that have greeted Americans for ages.

How can we increase renewable energy use and preserve open wilderness?
  • Solar power projects should be built on land that is already considered disturbed, such as farm land or areas close to population centers. This preserves untouched wilderness further from population centers, and the need to carry the power produced at the power plant long distances, which makes it less efficient.
  • If projects are constructed further from cities, they should be located close to existing power lines, so new power lines do not have to be constructed. This limits the impact on the desert (if developers must build away from cities).
  • Federal and State government officials must consider the impact each proposed site would have on the species inhabiting the site and adjacent areas. Construction can bring invasive plant species, lead to erosion, and displace or destroy endangered species, such as the desert tortoise and rare desert plants. For example, one proposed solar project in the Eastern Mojave (Ivanpah) would probably destroy 11% of the remaining population of the rare Rusby's Desert Mallow, and displace many tortoises.
  • State and local governments should create incentives for property and homeowners to install solar panels on rooftops or on urban land.
  • Finally, the Federal Government should designate more of BLM's desert land as Wilderness Area or as National Park space in order to ensure that a minimum-level of critical desert habitat and open space can survive the current push to develop so much of the Mojave. These new designations would preserve our natural heritage and beautiful desert landscape for generations of Americans.

Your role: You can monitor the progress of various energy projects and communicate with public officials regarding the proposals.

  • Study and track the proposed projects through the CEC website. Here is a list on their website of proposed projects under review. Click on any of the links (the major projects currently under review in San Bernardino County are the Ivanpah Solar, SES Solar One, and Abengoa). Once you are on the page for a specific project (like this one for Ivanpah) you can sign up for the List Server so you can receive updates.
  • Each project review will ultimately require public comments, at which point you can convey your concerns about the specific location of the project, the impact of the project, and alternatives that should be considered.
  • You can check out an example of public comments at the website of the Department of Energy's Solar Energy Study Area, such as the comments and recommendations submitted by a number conservation organizations in this example. You do not have to submit comments as technical and in-depth as those in the example, but being specific about your concerns and recommendations is always helpful.
  • You can also link-up with concerned organizations, such as the Sierra Club (here is the site for the San Gorgonio Chapter which covers the Mojave Desert) or the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy .

If State and Federal Government offices are not aware of how much you value desert wilderness, you cannot blame them when you see buldozers claiming thousands of acres of the Mojave.
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1 comment:

  1. Shaun, what a great post! This is a primer for
    the average person to get involved in the struggle to save the Mojave.
    I just wish I had discovered it when I started my own blog as it would have saved me many hours of research "re-inventing the wheel so to speak".

    ReplyDelete