Sunday, May 22, 2011

Measuring the Renewable Energy Land Grab

One thousand square miles.  That's how much public land energy companies want to bulldoze over the next few years in California for massive solar and wind facilities, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) list of pending and approved wind testing and solar applications.   That is more than two times the size of Los Angeles, over four times the size of San Francisco, and more than 14 times the size of Washington D.C.  But what would 1,000 square miles of solar and wind projects get us? Will it stop climate change?  Not nearly.  The proposed projects would generate 13.7 gigawatts of energy.   That is less than a quarter of California's total energy generation capacity.  Building fields of glass and metal the size of the cities they are meant to power does not make sense. 

There is a lot of political momentum pushing these massive projects at the expense of investing in distributed generation (such as rooftop solar) which would spare our wildlands for future generations.  There is certainly a need to quickly ramp up our renewable energy generation in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ward off human-induced climate change.  But a misguided few use this necessity to push one of the most greedy and destructive movements America's wildlands will ever see, arguably on par with the projected damage these lands are expected to experience as a result of climate change. 

Dead Birds, Smashed Tortoises
The Department of Interior and the Obama administration have not conducted an honest assessment of the cumulative impacts of their renewable energy campaign, and concerned citizens are ringing the alarm already.  It's not just the financial costs (a single 5.6 square mile solar facility in the Mojave Desert will receive nearly 1.6 billion dollars in taxpayer backed financing), but these large projects will be strewn about once-pristine land, and decimate already imperiled plant and wildlife populations.

The BLM reports that the proposed wind projects for California would generate 2,233 megawatts (MW).  According tot he American Bird Conservancy, wind turbines can kill up to 14 birds, per MW, per year.  So if all of the proposed wind projects are built in California, nearly 31,262 birds could die each year.  Golden eagles, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, Le Conte's Thrasher, California Condors...anything that flies.  The projects also require miles of new access roads, which fragment the surrounding habitat and etch barren paths that take generations for desert ecosystems to repair.

This photo from Basin and Range Watch shows wide access roads carved to reach a large wind energy project in the western Mojave Desert.
Large solar projects will bring bulldozers to habitat where well-adapted and beautiful organisms have learned to thrive.  Deesert tortoise, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, Mohave ground squirrel, and flat-tailed horned lizard have found themselves in the headlines as victims of solar facilities, but all life in the desert is a miracle.  The low-lying shrubs you see all throughout the desert--many are no taller than a human--can be centuries old.  Wildflower seeds lay dormant for years waiting for the perfect amount of rain before putting on dazzling displays.   Mowing down beautiful yucca plants or a smashed tortoise is not the image of "green energy" that solar companies want you to see.

The Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System in the northeastern Mojave Desert, for example, is projected to displace or kill over 160 adult tortoises, and kill hundreds of juvenile tortoises, which are harder to spot and avoid during construction.  This is a testament to the high quality habitat on the site, and the poor choice made by BrightSource Energy to build on pristine desert.  A separate project in the central Mojave Desert proposed by K Road Power would imperil dozens of tortoises and one of the last remaining pockets of the white-margined beardtongue, a rare desert flowering plant.

The rare white-margined beardtongue, which can be found on public land targeted by K Road Power as the site of the proposed Calico Solar power project.

The damage from solar energy projects would be more than just the hundreds of tortoises and other life that find themselves in the paths bulldozers.  The fields of glass and metal that pave swaths of desert will industrialize and fragment entire landscapes.  The projects will shrink available habitat, block wildlife corridors, use underground water aquifers, and spread invasive plant species.

And do not forget that all of these projects in the middle of our open spaces will require new transmission lines.  Each one requires miles of new access roads and construction activity.  The transmission towers create new hazards to birds, and scar scenic vistas.


Multiple transmission lines scar the Antelope Valley in the western Mojave Desert.  A new transmission line is being added to carry wind energy from fields of bird-killing wind turbines along the Tehachapi mountains and once undisturbed desert.

Getting Back on the Right Path
Smarter distributed generation, such as rooftop solar, is slowly taking root, but multi-billion dollar banks and energy companies are lobbying Congress and Sacramento to clear the wrong path for large scale projects.  They complain that environmental review mechanisms--the same ones we expect to prevent oil spills,  carbon emissions, or extinction of plant and wildlife--are too cumbersome.  Solar and wind energy companies have more in common with coal and oil than you would think--they expect tax breaks, lax regulation, and unfettered access to public land.

Feed-in-tariffs, PACE financing, and tax incentives for rooftop solar would allow a true change in how we power our homes and businesses.   We could also focus on energy conservation.  Turning off lights and computers, unplugging chargers, etc.  Chris Clarke over at Coyote Crossing did the math on newer LED bulbs.  If we replaced the 425 million incandescent bulbs with more efficient LED bulbs, we could cut energy consumption by nearly 21 gigawatts.  If we can get America to reinvent itself and give the tax breaks back to the taxpayer, we might end up with more solar panels on rooftops than on public land, lower utility bills and fewer transmission lines.

A tranquil portion of the Ivanpah Valley in the northeastern Mojave Desert--home to desert tortoises, coyotes, bighorn sheep, and rare plants--before BrightSource Energy unleashed bulldozers on the site last fall.

2 comments:

  1. Shaun, this is an EXCELLENT post. But it seems to me that the unreasonableness of these projects, the criticisms waged against them, and the viable alternatives that are being offered aren't having much of an impact on the parties involved (legislative or corporate).

    It's safe to say, I think, that the desert for us is not the desert for them, i.e. Madrigal's comments on the desert as a wasteland, Schwarzenegger's comments on the desert as a solar gold mine. What is to keep us from the cynicism that our alternatives, our arguments will not be taken seriously while THOUSANDS of acres of desert habitat are destroyed? But I want to go beyond cynicism and think about the alternatives to legislative action and I was hoping to get your thoughts.

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  2. Absolutely! I think most people are just not aware of the natural treasures in the desert, but I think the solar threat gives us an opportunity to educate people about what would be lost if the solar land rush is not stopped. Let them take a harder look at wildlands that they would otherwise not pay much attention to.

    Perhaps it's just like any watershed --most people are not that cognizant of where their water is coming from, but when you remind them that farms a hundred miles upstream can create run off that pollutes their drinking water, suddenly it matters. Or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- the southwestern deserts are far more accessible (and utilized) than the ANWR, but people value the refuge for its wildlife and scenery, and they like the thought that it's there. If it does not absolutely have to be destroyed, then it should not be touched.

    I think most (not all) people are probably just a step away from the same appreciation for the desert. It's part of our natural heritage, there is amazing plant and wildlife here, and people want to think that someday their children will get to spot a desert tortoise, or go check out beautiful wildflower blooms.

    As far as legislative action, I think policymakers are seized on the "bigger is better" argument, hoping to show major gains with big corporate projects, not recognizing that they are making the same mistake the Bureau of Reclamation did in the early half of the last century. Progress at any cost, with no desire to forecast pitfalls or pursue wiser alternatives. They too need to be educated, but the environmental organizations need to stop pretending as if any solar is good solar, and citizens need to demand what is theirs--give the taxpayer true value by encouraging rooftop solar. They get an asset out of it that will eventually cut electricity costs and save the planet. It's better than giving away their last bits of open space and billions of dollars to private companies. The grassroots education will not be easy, but it has to be done, and along the way, we need to educate the policymakers.

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