New Energy Frontier: A Five Step Plan

What a week for solar companies!  They've developed a great process for profiting from one of the most destructive uses of public lands, and looking good in the process.  How did we end up with a renewable energy industry that jeopardizes more of our natural resources than it will save?  And how did the Obama Administration come up with the Cheney-esque phrase "New Energy Frontier"? Read on...

Here is the secret to Big Solar success:
  • Step 1.) Propose bulldozing pristine public lands to make way for solar panels. 
  • Step 2.)  Come to an agreement with national environmental groups to make it all look "green".
  • Step 3.) Win approval from Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar.  This is all "green" energy, so that should be easy.  Destroying hundreds of square-miles of public lands, putting up miles of new transmission lines, and funneling billions of dollars to energy companies is part of the Obama Administration's "New Energy Frontier".  (I'm so glad we're done with the Bush/Cheney model of destroying public lands, putting up miles of new transmission lines and making energy companies even richer.)
  • Step 4.) Fire up those diesel guzzling and tortoise crushing bulldozers and start making "green" energy!
  • Step 5.) Repeat steps 1 through 4 as many times as you want.  Our government doesn't give a damn what you do with public land.  You're a "green" energy company!
The plan worked for former CEO of First Solar Inc. Michael Ahearn.  This week he sold off 90% of his stock holdings in the company (FSLR), and made 68.5 million dollars, according to Reuters. The stock prices received a bump in value after Obama announced approval for one of the company's projects.  Now THAT is "green" energy!

Please ignore the efficient use of space and resources in the photo above.  This is not the "New Energy Frontier." It's just a parking lot that is also generating energy, without destroying more public land. Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
Step 1.) The Vultures Circle
A couple of years ago, First Solar Inc. and other energy companies saw an opportunity to profit from public land.  Western states wanted to combat climate change and demanded that utility companies buy more electricity from renewable sources, and the Obama Administration set aside billions of dollars of taxpayer money to support solar and wind projects.  Cheap money, cheap land, and ample demand for renewable energy projects.  Although studies show that rooftop solar can play a big role in meeting our renewable energy demand, governments are looking past this opportunity, distracted by the big shiny object that Wall Street (and political donors) put in front of them.   First Solar did what any oil or coal company would have done.  They submitted applications to build massive projects on public lands.  It just so happens that they chose lands that provide amazing habitat for desert plant and wildlife, and are prized for outdoor recreation. 

Here is where First Solar staked their claim:
  • The 5.5 square-mile Topaz solar project in the Carrizo Plain, "California's Serengeti."
  • Desert Sunlight, a 6 square-mile project next to Joshua Tree National Park.
  • Stateline Solar power project, a 3.4 square-mile project in the Ivanpah Valley, deemed to be a "biologically core" in a Nature Conservancy study.
  • Silver State North and South, a nearly 8 square-mile behemoth on the Nevada side of the Ivanpah Valley, which hosts amazing habitat for desert tortoises and rare plants.
Step 2.) Greenwash
Now that First Solar picked some of the most ecologically sensitive places to build its projects, it has to find a way to maintain its "green" image.  As Mary Poppins once said, a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.  First Solar has lots of sugar.  Announced earlier this week, First Solar negotiated a deal with the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife to win approval for the Topaz solar power project.  The company made peace with national environmental groups on Desert Sunlight, as well.

To be fair, the Topaz deal involves setting aside other land in the Carrizo Plain for conservation. But with hundreds of square-miles of projects in the pipeline--each one having significant impacts on ecosystems--how much longer can environmental groups sustain these compromises?  The cumulative impacts on our open spaces and ecosystems are simply too large for land managers and environmental groups to contemplate.

The backroom deals also test the credibility of environmental groups in ways they probably should think twice about.  First Solar is reportedly working with NatureServe, a "non-profit" led by a Goldman Sachs partner, to build a conservation strategy for the Ivanpah Valley, where the company plans to build about 10 square miles of projects.  First Solar knows that the ecological impacts will be immense,  so it needs to present a plan that can convince people that steel, glass and tortoises can coexist.  Time will tell what plan NatureServe will come up with, but how can we trust whatever plan it proposes? Goldman Sachs has been a strong proponent of First Solar, telling its investors to buy First Solar stock. 

We look to these groups to act as an independent voice of the people and lead government and industry to a wiser solution (distributed generation).  Hopefully they find the strength to stand up to an administration they helped elect, and an industry they have encouraged.

Step 3.)  Check the box, move along
First Solar and other companies will not have a hard time charming the Obama Administration.  The Department of Interior is slobbering all over Big Solar, and the environmental review process that is supposed to inject reason in decision-making has become a mere formality.  President Obama is approving large renewable energy projects on public lands with blind faith and certitude, while only one Federal loan guarantee has been given to a rooftop solar project as of August.  Secretary Salazar calls solar on public lands the "New Energy Frontier".  He is planning to designate nearly 1,000 square-miles as "solar energy zones" on mostly pristine desert habitat. But that's not all.  Salazar has already approved several other large projects that are not even located in those zones.  The fun doesn't stop there.  Wind projects will blanket even more land, with hundreds of square-miles of wind energy applications in just California.

First Solar Inc. received approval this week from Secretary Salazar to bulldoze nearly 6 square-miles of pristine public lands less than 2 miles from Joshua Tree National Park.  Hikers will be enjoying a beautiful day in the wilderness and stumble upon a field of glass and steel, never mind that those same hikers probably drove past 25 miles of empty rooftops perfectly suited for their own solar panels.  Now you can escape the city for a weekend of camping and hiking among bird-killing wind turbines and lifeless solar panels.  Thanks Obama! I love what you've done with the place.

This aerial photo shows just a third of the damage that will eventually be required to build the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.  The project, in the northeastern Mojave Desert, is expected to kill or displace hundreds of desert tortoises and jeopardize pockets of rare plants. The scars etched into the desert will soon be filled with circles of glass mirrors pointing at a tower in the center. Two more of these formations will be bulldozed into the desert, for a total of 5.6 square-miles.
Step 4.) Cover your eyes
If solar companies could put up a curtain around their construction sites, they would.  But the projects are so large it would cost way too much money.  Instead, we get to absorb the very depressing reality of utility-scale energy.  Biologists fan out across the area and pick up endangered wildlife and put them in pens while bulldozers tear up desert shrubs and trees--some hundreds of years old--that survived drought, heat, flash flooding, grazing, and off-road vehicles.  But they can't survive "green" energy.  When you hear Obama and Salazar talking about creating "green" jobs, that's what they're talking about.  A flurry of wilderness-removing construction will support hundreds of jobs. But once the facility is completed, they will only have a handful of permanent staff.

A pile of destroyed desert ironwood trees on the construction site of the Blythe Solar power project. Some of the trees likely lived for hundreds of years before they met their fate.  Governor of California Jerry Brown inaugurated the construction site not far from here, standing next to executives from a German solar firm that are under investigation for embezzlement.  Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
Step 5.) I wish it were hyperbole
First Solar and other energy companies have found a treasure trove, and they will not give up until our political and environmental leaders demand sanity in public land policy.  Most press articles on solar and wind projects focus on specific local opposition to a single wind or solar project, framing the opposition as NIMBYs.  But what the press and most environmental groups have failed to convey to the public is that in 20 years renewable energy companies will have vastly transformed many of our open spaces into industrial zones.   This is a local issue that will play out so many times that it will become national, much like natural gas frackingAs of this summer, there are proposals to develop over a thousand square-miles of hills and valleys in the State of California for wind and solar projects.  For a sampling of the projects and their locations, you can visit my blog post on "Death by a Thousand Cuts."

Smoke and Mirrors
While Obama is touting all of these shiny new "green" energy projects, he also approved plans to mine 2.3 billion tons of coal in Wyoming, most of which will be shipped to China.  Burning coal across the Pacific Ocean still sends tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, further aggravating global warming.  Apparently the Obama Administration just doesn't get it. 

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