The Department of Interior plans to make millions of acres of mostly pristine desert land in America's southwest available to energy companies as part of its solar energy development proposal. Much of this energy development will take place in California's deserts, and threatens to drive rare plants and wildlife to extinction. The light is shining so brightly on Interior's misguided proposal that we have forgotten a promising effort by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to build renewable energy on already-disturbed land instead of our treasured open space.
There is a need for the Department of Interior to reform its renewable energy siting process, which prompted it to draft its solar energy development proposal, and there is certainly a need to increase America's generation of clean energy. But where we generate this energy is just as important as why we need to -- preservation of our natural resources. So why does Washington's premier policy proposal to increase clean energy production ignore a reasonable compromise in favor of an alternative that will decimate an ecosystem? In its draft environmental review for the program, Interior fails to consider other alternatives to generate renewable energy, such as rooftop solar, or developing on private lands.
Yet another government agency is getting it right. It's just that nobody is paying attention. The EPA's RE-Powering America program has identified 1.2 million acres of contaminated or already-disturbed lands potentially suitable for solar energy development. Only a fraction of this total would be necessary to meet project renewable energy demand. The sites include abandoned mines, decommissioned land-fills, and industrial sites. These sites are of very low economic value to the communities we live in, so building on these sites is unlikely to present economic conflicts. And because the land is already-disturbed, environmental impacts would likely be minimal.
Just imagine if BrightSource Energy had invested in developing on lands identified by the EPA instead of building on BLM-administered land in California -- we would not be losing 5.6 square miles of pristine desert habitat; we would not be displacing or killing over 50 desert tortoises; we would not be driving a rare and little-understood desert plant close to extinction; we would not be fragmenting a fragile yet inspiring ecosystem. So why is the Department of Interior--an agency charged with caring for public lands and ensuring their value to future generations--also tasked with accommodating big energy companies?
If Washington is serious about truly "green" energy, it would consider sparing the natural beauty of public land and work to create incentives for development on EPA's list of disturbed lands.