The Center for American Progress is protesting an article by the Los Angeles Times that sheds light on the destruction of the Ivanpah Valley by BrightSource Energy for its 5.6 square mile solar facility. The LA Times also draws attention to a land rush by solar developers proposing to destroy hundreds of square miles of desert wildlands throughout America's southwestern states. For some environmental organizations, any criticism of the renewable energy industry is tantamount to heresy.
Let's be clear: Climate change has already harmed our desert ecosystems, and our shift from fossil fuels is long overdue. We can do this by focusing on energy conservation and efficiency, distributed solar generation (i.e. solar on rooftops or over parking lots), and larger solar facilities on already-disturbed lands.
The Center for American Progress writers--and apparently the Wilderness Society-- are clearly ashamed of the truth exposed by the Los Angeles Times article, but instead of championing smarter alternatives to the destruction of desert wildlands, they state that bulldozing the desert is all bet inevitable:
"So California and the Mojave (and civilization as we know it today) can’t be saved without significant solar energy in the desert. So we need to move beyond the issue of whether we will be deploying solar in the desert to how we can do it in the most responsible fashion, which appears to be the process that has now begun." --Joe Romm, Center for American ProgressThe Center for American Progress is wrong, and is presenting a false dilemma. According to a UCLA study, there are enough empty rooftops in Los Angeles County to generate 5,500 megawatts -- enough clean energy to meet the city's typical energy demand. Deployment of rooftop solar has been rapid in Germany and Australia -- one cloudy country, and another with more desert wildlands than the USA. We can match or beat these countries with the right policies, such as Property Assessed Clean Energy and feed-in-tariffs. Even as we push for policies that make us competitive with these countries, California has already installed 1,000 megawatts of rooftop solar, and there are over 4,500 buildings in San Diego with solar panels. We can generate solar energy where we live and work without sacrificing the desert.
Even if the Center for American Progress were correct, destroying the desert would not save the world, or California. As of February, there are 22 solar and 12 wind energy applications pending on public lands in California, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Combined, they would industrialize over 328 square miles of public lands and generate 10,223 megawatts, which is less than 25% of California's peak energy demand. We would need facilities on well over 1,000 square miles of public land to meet a single state's energy demand. We are supposed to repeat that scale of destruction in the other 49 states, according to the Center for American Progress, instead of focusing on energy efficiency and solar panels on buildings and already-disturbed lands.
Keep in mind that in addition to these 328 square miles of proposed projects, there are also solar projects already approved, as well as wind testing applications -- the public lands where wind companies are exploring the possibility of building facilities. Those wind testing applications target over 1,400 square miles of public lands in California, according to the BLM.
The Center for American Progress also says deserts are fragile and inhospitable, disparaging their biological value and implying that they are not treasured by Americans:
"Deserts are certainly fragile, inhospitable ecosystems — a key reason that nobody should want them spreading over one third the planet or the entire U.S. Southwest..."--Joe Romm, The Center for American ProgressIt seems the Center for American Progress used the term "inhospitable" in a relative sense. There are millions of Americans living in the arid southwest, and they are neighbors with a very diverse array of plant and wildlife. If the Center for American Progress had bothered to read the Los Angeles Times article they were criticizing, they would have already been enlightened to this fact. But if the Center for American Progress wants to jettison our deserts on the grounds that they are harsh environments, why are we fighting to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Perhaps because it is a beautiful landscape, teeming with life, and no matter how harsh the climate, industrial destruction of such natural treasures is unnecessary when we have smarter alternatives.
The Center for American Progress also says that there is no land rush in the desert because the Department of Interior is proposing a new policy that will guide those projects to special solar energy zones. This provides a false sense of assurance to its readers, but conservationists familiar with utility-scale renewable energy projects know that the land rush is in full effect. The draft policy being crafted by Interior would still allow solar energy companies to build outside of the solar energy zones. And clearly demonstrating that the solar and wind energy industry puts profit above sustainability, many companies continue to target some of the most ecologically important habitat in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. Furthermore, the policy does not address the hundreds of square miles of proposed wind facilities, which threaten to fragment habitat and imperil raptors and migratory birds.
Finally, the Center for American Progress links to BrightSource Energy's own blog response to the Los Angeles Times article. In its response, BrightSource claims that its facility is environmentally responsible:
This is grossly misleading. Even in the areas not "graded", BrightSource Energy mows down old growth desert vegetation. The whole project is fenced off, and the desert ecosystem on these 5.6 square miles is essentially dead. The fact that the Center for American Progress linked to this sort of propaganda is appalling."It is false to state that all of the areas used for large-scale [solar] will be scraped. Contrary to the article, only a small fraction of the land at Ivanpah is graded, and the rest allows vegetation to remain in place." -- BrightSource Energy
The video below shows a "brush hog" clearing Mojave yucca, which can live for hundreds of years, for BrightSource's Ivanpah solar project. This is the model of "green" energy that the Center for American Progress, and the Wilderness Society are promoting.