Solar Power Siting in the Desert Not Yet Matured

California's next gold rush is in full swing as energy speculators scout out new sites for utility-scale solar energy construction. Neither the energy companies, environmentalists, or policy makers seem to have set an efficient process for finding suitable locations for the competing demands, reflecting the immaturity of the solar rush.  It's clear that the different stakeholders in the solar rush have not fully considered their own position, let alone the potential compromises that are needed for a positive outcome.

In a recent editorial, the Los Angeles Times criticized Senator Dianne Feinstein's proposed California Desert Protection Act 2010 (CDPA 2010) for not including enough incentives for solar energy development, declaring that CDPA 2010 would set aside too much desert land when solar energy development should be given a higher priority.  Although the editorial acknowledges that the goals of renewable energy and conservation are not mutually exclusive, the LA Times fails to recognize the demands being placed on the Mojave Desert by off-road recreation use, military training, and population growth.  If the solar rush is not tempered by legislative efforts to set aside additional desert habitat for conservation, the dozens of solar energy applications would fragment the Mojave desert with vast areas of industrialization, impacting wildlife migration, and habitat quality.  The LA Times also appears to downplay the value of scenic vistas, forgetting that these vistas present a historical value unique to American heritage and the sense of wilderness that are no longer commonplace.

However, conservationists must also avoid the NIMBY (not in my backyard) perspective and focus on preserving the most ecologically and historically valuable land and promote construction on less valuable habitat or--better yet--disturbed land close to population centers.  This has not prevented myopic calls for environmental protection in order to stop renewable energy development.   On 22 December MercuryNews.com posted an article regarding opposition to a proposed solar energy plant in the Panoche Valley of San Benito County.  The development would not be in the Mojave Desert but on ranch land near the Interstate 5 corridor, and local environmental groups, including the Audubon society note that the area may be home to the endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox.


View Panoche Valley in a larger map

What the Audubon Society chapters opposing the development must consider is where in their area they would support utility scale solar development if not in the Panoche Valley.  If prairie habitat is at a premium and precludes solar energy on the valley floor, can developers construct wind turbines on the surrounding hills?  Experience in the Mojave Desert has shown environmental harm is unavoidable, to include negative impact on desert tortoises and the destruction of habitat.  All stakeholders -- the policymakers, environmentalists, and energy developers--must consider the broader implications during the EIS and siting process -- the value of renewable energy, and the holistic impact on the affected endangered species, remaining habitat, the quality of the habitat being directly affected, etc.  Environmental destruction alone is not sufficient reasoning to oppose renewable energy development.

As noted in a previous post regarding the Beacon Solar Energy development near California City, the developers do not have their formula figured out yet, either.  Solar energy developers need to implement dry cooling technology that uses less of the Mojave Desert's scarce underground water supply, and choose locations of low habitat quality to minimize environmental impact.  In the case of Beacon Solar Energy, the habitat is of low quality, but the developer is applying to use water cooling technology that would put a strain on water resources.  Compare this to the Ivanpah Solar Energy project, which will use efficient dry cooling technology, but would be built on higher quality habitat.

Senator Feinstein's CDPA 2010 bill encourages solar energy developers to consolidate their speculation to lands already being studied for solar energy use under the Federal Solar EIS process for renewable energy.  If the Federal Solar EIS process can balance the long-term need for conservation with the near term need for renewable energy--with decisions supported by science rather than politics-- that forum would focus what is currently a frenzied rush for open land into a focused and reasonable effort to preserve wilderness and counteract global warming.

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