|An excellent cartoon from Basin and Range Watch satirizes the companies rushing to take advantage of taxpayer-backed grants and loan guarantees offered by the Department of Energy. The funds have aided the development of renewable energy, but many companies have sought to build on pristine public land, ignoring alternative sites in cities or on already-disturbed land.|
Green vs. Green?Solar energy companies looking to build on public land in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts are exploiting political and economic trends that favor renewable energy development, but what many of them are offering is not "green" energy. But this is a difficult message for national environmental organizations to convey. A picture of a massive solar energy facility is bound to provoke a positive response from most Americans. Many of us equate energy with utility-scale facilities and transmission lines, and solar energy and the desert seem to be a logical fit. Environmentalists saying no to big solar in the desert may seem like a trick-or-treater saying no to candy on Halloween. It's baffling to most people. But it is not "green vs. green."
Solar Power In the Desert: As "Green" as Hydropower Dams
There is another form of renewable energy that much of the country has forgotten about that offers a helpful prism to use while examining the current solar rush. Hydropower dams used to be all the craze -- not because America cared about global warming (many were built in the middle of the last century when DDT seemed as wholesome as apple pie), but because we thought it was wasteful to let all of those rivers run out to sea without putting them to use. Many of our rivers ended up with at least one, if not several large hydropower dams to feed our country's appetite for energy. Hydropower, just like solar and wind, takes a renewable natural resource and turns it into energy without emitting much carbon pollution.
So why aren't we building more hydropower dams to stop global warming? The answer: because hydropower dams are not "green" energy. When you block a river's flow to tap the energy potential, you infringe upon fish migration and spawning, change downstream erosion patterns, and water temperature. And some dams create unnatural reservoirs that wipe out public land. Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam, drowned nearly 247 square miles of desert. All of this alters and fragments ecosystems, just like many of the proposed utility-scale solar facilities.
Climate Change ExtortionUnlike our majestic rivers, pristine desert is being treated differently in the energy debate. In the desert, wildlife and ecosystems are getting in the way of an agenda train that carries the urgent call to reduce greenhouse gasses, but zooms past much more sensible options for doing so, such as distributed generation, or building facilities on already-disturbed land. Energy companies and government officials portray America's southwestern deserts as the only place to build our country's renewable energy future. As the former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it."
The urgency of climate change helps energy companies steamroll environmental standards that should apply to solar facilities as equally as they do to coal mining and natural gas drilling. Government approvals for solar facilities on pristine desert frequently tout the benefits of renewable energy to justify the environmental destruction. In order to approve the Calico Solar power project despite the project's serious threats to endangered species, California issued a document basically saying that the State had no other option but to approve the project in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the "override findings":
We further find that the project is required for public convenience and necessity and that there are no more prudent and feasible means of achieving such public convenience andCalifornia, in all of its wisdom, assessed that a project on pristine desert habitat was absolutely necessary--no matter the costs--to stem climate change. The State did the same for several other projects that threaten to fragment rare plant and wildlife populations. Never mind that there are better locations to put solar panels, and that putting a solar facility in the middle of the Mojave Desert would incur massive economic costs for the citizens of California.
|The White-margined beardtongue, a rare desert plant that could be driven closer to extinction if the Calico Solar power project is built. The site is home to one of the few remaining pockets of this plant in the Mojave Desert.|
Solar energy developers proposing projects on pristine desert benefit from solar energy's positive public image, one that has not been tarnished like other energy sources--such as hydropower and nuclear--and the industry and its investors have shrewdly sought to project an image of moral supremacy, believing that their product that should be excluded from most environmental standards. As one frustrated commenter on this blog remarked, the world's wildlife would perish under global warming because of parochial concerns for one habitat (the desert). Describing a site he had chosen for a solar facility, one solar executive said that "God made this to be a solar farm." Individuals and organizations that sponsor legal challenges to poorly sited solar power plants are criticized as unwilling to give up a slice of land to stop global warming, echoing the false logic of California's override findings.
What is left unsaid by utility-scale solar advocates is that meeting all of our energy needs through utility-scale development is unrealistic. Just to meet all of California's energy needs alone would require over 600 square miles of land. That's just one state. Is America willing to give up thousands of square miles to solar energy facilities? Are we ready to sacrifice the ecological health of America's southwestern deserts? It is implied in the arguments of utility-scale solar advocates that their companies are entitled to so much of our public land. If we grant solar companies access to the best of our desert ecosystems, we are saying that there is no environmental hurdle too high to stop their profiteering.
|Another cartoon from Basin and Range Watch depicts the future of America's deserts if energy companies have their way -- the fragmentation of desert wilderness by a wave of utility-scale energy projects.|
Perhaps recognizing that the green veneer they have attempted to paint over their destructive facilities is too thin, solar companies have argued that utility-scale facilities in the middle of the desert can also change America's economic fortunes. When a judge ordered a halt to Tessera Solar's Imperial Valley solar project, the company balked that the site could have provided much needed jobs to the area. But the company is not offering "green" jobs, and the cost of the added payrolls probably will fall back on the taxpayer.
Most of the projects proposed for pristine desert--including the Imperial Valley project--require taxpayer-backed financing and grants in order to get off the ground. The technology they would use would produce electricity at a cost per unit that is higher than most other forms of generation. And then they will need to build new transmission lines that add to the environmental destruction, and add to your electricity bill. The Sunrise Powerlink transmission line that would connect Tessera's Imperial Valley project to San Diego will cost at least $2 billion dollars. Power companies would pass this cost along to customers. Charging the taxpayer to create jobs seems more like a temporary welfare solution than an economic rebound.
But don't we need to build up our solar and wind energy industries? Yes. But we can do that without destroying fragile ecosystems. An article published in Reuters ironically applauds China for an aggressive solar construction plan that sees "good done by solar plants" as outweighing "any damage they may do to the environment, and concerns about plants and animals are minimal." The comparison to China suggests this is not about climate change but economic competition. China continues to construct coal power plants, flooded an ecosystem with the Three Gorges River Dam, and sends us toys coated in lead. We do not need to congratulate China for prioritizing destructive industrialization over natural resources. That comparison alone should give us pause before handing over America's deserts to solar companies.
No RegretsThe Independent Science Advisors for California's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) suggested a policy of "no regrets" when it comes to building solar power plants. In other words, do not rush into a policy that ends up fragmenting ecosystems and driving species closer to extinction. We can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without destroying our natural resources, and we can work with the urgency necessary without falling into the trap set by solar energy developers eager to bulldoze pristine desert. But we have been sidetracked by the corporate interests proposing utility-scale solar facilities in our deserts. The truly green solution to climate change--generating clean energy from our cities--is being neglected.
- Governor Jerry Brown has proposed implementing feed-in-tariffs, which rewards consumers with rooftop solar when they feed energy back into the grid. Encouraging feed-in-tariffs in all of our states could yield a boom in rooftop solar, creating jobs while preserving open space for future generations.
- The California Solar Initiative has installed over 700MW of solar in our cities--healthy progress for a new program--but it could benefit from more funding and public awareness.
- Los Angeles recently sought to cut its rooftop solar incentives because the program was running short of money. This received little attention while the national press was fixated on the Department of the Interior's approvals for several facilities in the desert last year, many of which requested billions of dollars in Federal funds and financing.
- Congress has not yet passed legislation to clear the way for a PACE program. PACE, property assessed clean energy, would allow homeowners to receive low-interest financing to build rooftop solar. The financing would be paid back over time through an assessment on their property tax, and the solar installation adds value to the home and cuts the owner's electricity bill.