"Green" Extractivism and the Ivanpah Valley

The Ivanpah Valley is now emblematic of the market's power not only to displace nature for the sake of materialism at an impressive scale, but also to limit the environmental movement's willingness to pursue sustainability.  First Solar continues to bulldoze intact habitat in the Ivanpah Valley to make way for over 6 square miles of solar panels at its Stateline and Silver State South projects.  The impact of the construction has been sobering, with desert tortoises, kit fox, LeConte's thrasher, ancient yucca, and countless other wildlife displaced or destroyed for a clean technology that can easily be installed on rooftops, over parking lots, and on already-disturbed lands. 

These First Solar projects join two other solar projects - including the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar project - and have turned a mostly wild landscape into one that is starkly dominated by human development.  Ivanpah proves that elements of our clean energy transition are dangerously compatible with a status quo extractive paradigm whereby our material consumption - however frivolous -  reigns supreme over nature.

Unit 1 (out of a total of 3) BrightSource power towers glares over the Ivanpah Valley as bulldozers clear intact habitat in the distance for First Solar's Stateline Solar project.

Ivanpah: A Model of "Green" Extractivism
There is nothing sustainable about what energy companies are doing in the Ivanpah Valley because these projects fail to adhere to a conservation ethic, and represent the same anthropocentric arrogance that has already brought us to the brink of the sixth mass extinction.  It is easy for some to dismiss the Ivanpah Valley as just some little corner of the desert, but the scale of destruction there is traumatic when you stop and behold what has been lost in such a short amount of time.  And if we are going to allow industrial-scale renewable energy to compose a significant portion of our future energy generation - as opposed to a more sustainable focus that I will describe later - we are set to witness an ecological trauma that will ironically rival the climate disaster we are trying to avoid in the first place. 
  • The projects in the Ivanpah Valley will have a combined nameplate capacity of nearly 1,000 MW when they are all completed, or less than two percent of California's peak energy demand.
  • The total amount of habitat destroyed for solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley is approximately 12 square miles.  This is an area greater than the size of Yosemite Valley.  Or imagine the Disneyland/California Adventure theme park, and multiply that area by 30.
Habitat bulldozed for the Stateline Solar project (foreground),
and thousands of BrightSource heliostats (background).
The projects online or under construction in the Ivanpah Valley are particularly emblematic of our nonchalance toward nature because we have barely begun to tap easier and more sustainable solutions to our fossil fuel addiction.  Every energy vampire we unplug, and every solar panel we put on a rooftop is another wild life or landscape that we spare. The scale of sustainable opportunities is immense.
  • The majority of the energy that our society generates is wastedEnergy efficiency improvement is the cheapest and easiest way to cut down on electricity use.  The 30 cities with the most potential energy efficiency savings could cut a combined 261,107 gigawatt hours (GWh).  To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent of shutting down dozens of dirty fossil fuel plants.
  • California's rooftops and parking lots offer space for enough solar panels to generate enough energy to meet the state's demand three to five times over, according to a Stanford study.  We have the technology (solar panels, energy storage, grid management tools), we have the space (our cities and already-disturbed lands), we just need the policies and incentives.
...And Another Capitalist Victory over Environmentalism
Naomi Klein argues in her book This Changes Everything that "we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism."  The Ivanpah Valley is a glaring example of how we may still find a way to satisfy climate hawks while changing nothing about the way we view and treat our planet.  People have celebrated the destruction of these wildlands, willing to accept a shallow victory of clean energy over fossil fuels.  On a higher order, however, they are applauding the continued waste of the planet for the sake of profit and materialism.

Barely visible in the center of the photo and above the GPS device placed on the ground is a juvenile desert tortoise found wandering an area recently bulldozed for First Solar's Stateline Solar project.  Photo from Stateline Solar compliance reports.

Climate change is a symptom of a deeper problem in our society; our recognition of the threat that climate change poses is an opportunity not just to swap out fossil fuels, but also to adopt a more thoughtful way of life.  But sustainability seems to be a difficult theme for the environmental community to talk about, probably because it requires addressing how each of us lives our own lives, and requires that we challenge what Naomi Klein calls "market fundamentalism."

Construction equipment scrapes away thousands of acres of intact creosote and yucca scrub habitat to make way for the Silver State South solar project at the northern edge of the Ivanpah Valley.
We tend to censor discussion of sustainability even when it stares us in the face, in favor of a narrow focus on climate. Although much discussion about Pope Francis' recent encyclical centered on his remarks about climate change, the document is actually about our treatment of the environment and the poor as a whole, of which climate change is a part.  And the Pope's message on sustainability is not a new one, either.  Pope Francis quotes from a 1991 encyclical that implores us to change "lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies" in order to improve our world. 

Ivanpah makes clear that we have a long path ahead of us to achieve a more sustainable way generating and consuming energy.

A view of the northwestern portion of the Ivanpah Valley from Metamorphic Hill, with the dry lake bed in the distance.  This photo was taken in 2012, before construction began on the Stateline Solar project
A similar view from Metamorphic Hill, with the Stateline Solar project clearing only partially completed.  Photo from the Stateline Solar project compliance reports.


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  2. Excellent overview & review, Mojave Desert Blog. Thanks for your work advocating for the Mojave Desert.

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