The massive solar power projects that threaten to destroy public land throughout America's southwestern deserts are coated in economic promise. The Obama administration included loan guarantees and grants as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in order boost renewable energy generation, and Congress extended the Treasury Grant Program that funnels taxpayers' money to renewable energy companies. In order to justify this money, the projects are promoted by politicians as "green" job creation engines, but the impact of these jobs is inflated and misleading.
Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger touted the need for green jobs in his recent opinion piece in the Atlantic Monthly, and large-scale solar projects on public land feature prominently in the President's energy blueprint. The energy companies promise to turn around the recession if they are given unfettered access to public land and money. Tessera Solar LLC CEO Robert Lukefahr complained in December that a court injunction halting the Imperial Valley solar project would prevent his company from bringing much needed jobs to an impoverished area of California.
So what are taxpayers getting for their money? According to a recent Las Vegas Sun article, Sempra Energy's Copper Mountain Solar One facility received 42 million dollars in tax credits, but only maintains 5 permanent jobs on the site. Temporary construction jobs probably account for most of the "green" jobs that solar energy facilities generate, but are these really "green"? Bulldozing desert tortoise habitat for a solar energy facility is not greener than bulldozing sage-grouse habitat for natural gas wells, or logging forests to put up windmills. Other "green" jobs generated by large solar facilities include removing endangered species before their homes are crushed by construction crews. It's better than killing them, and kicking critters out of their homes is hard work. But it's not "green."
Tell that to BrightSource Energy CEO John Woolard who was elated by the Department of Energy's decision to finance 1.4 billion dollars of the company's destructive Ivanpah solar power project in the Mojave Desert. He said: "We’re truly humbled by the opportunity to help build our nation’s green energy economy by creating good jobs for local communities."
What is that money getting the taxpayer? Lots of temporary construction jobs, but probably not many permanent jobs. And we lose out on over 5 square miles of public land. The BLM recently announced that the project could displace or kill up to 140 endangered desert tortoises. BrightSource is building a fence around perfectly good desert habitat, hiring biologists to take tortoises living inside the fence and throwing them onto the other side. If this is our measure of "green" jobs, BP should be applauded for creating thousands of green jobs last summer when it hired locals around the Gulf of Mexico to scrub oil off of birds and sea turtles.
Washington is missing an opportunity. Instead of pouring billions of taxpayer dollars into a handful of companies' coffers, we should be providing incentives for homeowners and small businesses that install rooftop solar panels in our communities, not in the middle of the desert. Putting money back in the taxpayer's pocket, cutting electric bills, and increasing property value--that's a truly sustainable green economy.