As the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the California Energy Commission (CEC) are set to approve several utility-scale solar power projects this year, there is one question energy companies do not want to answer. Can we meet our energy needs with solar energy without destroying as much of the environment as mountain-top coal mining or deep sea oil drilling?
California wants to meet 33% of the State's energy needs with renewable energy by the year 2020. According to CEC estimates, energy companies will need to seize nearly 128,000 acres of land in order to produce enough solar energy to meet the 33% requirement. That is equivalent to approximately 200 square miles. The majority of the projects that the BLM and CEC are considering are proposed for pristine desert habitat in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts of Southern California. Many of these proposed sites are on public land.
If we were to meet 100% of California's energy needs through utility-scale solar, it would require nearly 600 square miles of land, and if the BLM and CEC continue to justify the destruction of pristine open space for these projects, we will decimate the ecological health of California's deserts. Already endangered desert tortoises will lose habitat and genetic connectivity. Unique and specialized desert plants will dwindle. The bighorn sheep that forage on these plants will disappear.
The bottom-line is that utility-scale solar power will have an enormously destructive impact on California's environment, and rob Americans of open space that belongs to them, not profit-seeking energy companies. Instead of going camping, wildflower viewing, admiring desert vistas from the historic Mojave Road or Route 66, our open space will be converted into a giant industrial zone.
Utility-scale solar projects that consume vast blocks of quality desert land is not the answer. As politicians and Wall Street preach about the virtues of green energy, why do we blindly hand energy companies a pass to destroy our environment. It's time to recognize that the path we're on is not sustainable.
As embarrassing as it may be for some of the national environmental groups that supported this destruction, we need to recognize our mistake and promote 1.) properly sited solar energy on land that is already disturbed (near urban centers or on former agricultural land) and 2.) push for distributed energy, which basically means installing solar panels on rooftops, using energy where it's created. This will create more jobs and preserve our open space.
Before we go too far down the wrong path, we need to change course. No regrets.