Is Utility-Scale Solar Power Actually "Green" Energy?

As the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the California Energy Commission (CEC) are set to approve several utility-scale solar power projects this year, there is one question energy companies do not want to answer.  Can we meet our energy needs with solar energy without destroying as much of the environment as mountain-top coal mining or deep sea oil drilling?  

California wants to meet 33% of the State's energy needs with renewable energy by the year 2020.  According to CEC estimates, energy companies will need to seize nearly 128,000 acres of land in order to produce enough solar energy to meet the 33% requirement.  That is equivalent to approximately 200 square miles.   The majority of the projects that the BLM and CEC are considering are proposed for pristine desert habitat in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts of Southern California.  Many of these proposed sites are on public land.

If we were to meet 100% of California's energy needs through utility-scale solar, it would require nearly 600 square miles of land, and if the BLM and CEC continue to justify the destruction of pristine open space for these projects, we will decimate the ecological health of California's deserts.  Already endangered desert tortoises will lose habitat and genetic connectivity.  Unique and specialized desert plants will dwindle.  The bighorn sheep that forage on these plants will disappear. 

The bottom-line is that utility-scale solar power will have an enormously destructive impact on California's environment, and rob Americans of open space that belongs to them, not profit-seeking energy companies.  Instead of going camping, wildflower viewing, admiring desert vistas from the historic Mojave Road or Route 66, our open space will be converted into a giant industrial zone.

Utility-scale solar projects that consume vast blocks of quality desert land is not the answer.   As politicians and Wall Street preach about the virtues of green energy, why do we blindly hand energy companies a pass to destroy our environment.  It's time to recognize that the path we're on is not sustainable.

As embarrassing as it may be for some of the national environmental groups that supported this destruction, we need to recognize our mistake and promote 1.) properly sited solar energy on land that is already disturbed (near urban centers or on former agricultural land) and 2.) push for distributed energy, which basically means installing solar panels on rooftops, using energy where it's created.  This will create more jobs and preserve our open space.

Before we go too far down the wrong path, we need to change course.  No regrets.


  1. What are your solutions? It is easy to point out environmental shortcomings of any specific method of producing the energy civilization consumes. It is much harder to come up with viable solutions.

    I'm not advocating for or against this project, I'm just advocating for everyone to work together to find real solutions and I want people to realize that we all need to share in the costs of generating the energy we consume.

    Is this project really worse than mountain top removal in West Virginia in order to get to thin veins of coal? Is this project worse than the tar sands projects in Canada? Is this project worse the environmental destruction wrought by offshore oil platforms exploding and spewing oil into our oceans for months before being capped?

    Without a doubt, the best solution is to reduce the amount of energy we consume in the first place, but the reality is no matter how much we reduce our usage, we'll still need energy. We need to find the most sustainable means of producing the energy we need and we all need to share in ALL the costs associated with producing it. Saying "not in my back yard" while consuming energy that destroys someone else's back yard is unconscionable.

  2. Ken,
    Thank you for the taking the time to comment. I do believe that the cumulative impact of renewable energy development in the Mojave can be more destructive than oil drilling or mountain-top removal. If dozens of large scale projects are approved, the total effect will essentially be the death of an entire ecosystem. It's a fragile ecosystem that is already under threat from poor land management policy.

    I agree that there is an acceptable solution that we spread the costs of producing renewable energy. I mentioned a couple possible solutions in my previous blog post -- roof top solar or utility-scale solar sited on disturbed land. Two projects recently approved deserve recognition for avoiding pristine habitat -- Beacon Solar and Abengoa Solar, since they are located on former agricultural land.

    I agree that saying "not in my backyard" as other forms of energy -- coal or oil-- destroy someone else's backyard is unconscionable. But shifting the destruction to another area is short-sighted, and wrapping that destruction in "green" rhetoric is deceitful. That very deceit has clouded America's ability to properly assess the pros and cons of solar energy sited in California's deserts. People see images of solar power projects and assume its free of cost, just as Americans were enamored with the construction of canals and dams for decades, not realizing the true cost of those projects until later.

    This really is not a question of NIMBY ("not in my backyard"). Utility scale solar will require around 600 square miles of land to fulfill all of the State's energy needs. This is not an isolated project in a single small town. This is the beginning of a policy position that will impact entire landscapes and cause irreparable environmental damage.

    I am for renewable energy, and I understand that some projects will impact desert habitat. But we need to be honest with ourselves -- utility scale solar is not all "green" and we need to start siting solar on our rooftops, and acting more seriously to reduce energy usage if we're serious about changing the paradigm. Otherwise it's the same story, just a different location.

  3. I am interested to know what you think of electric cars and what impact they will have on our eco-system? I am just now learning about this stuff and trying to understand it so I make the best possible voting decisions.
    thank you!

  4. hi Sailling,
    I am not an automotive expert, but from what I understand, electric cars could be good, it just depends on the source of the electricity. If the electricity juicing up your car is coming from coal power plants, or utility-scale solar that was built on ecologically sensitive land, then electric cars would still be subsidizing environmental destruction. But since the country is looking to increase the amount of renewable energy we produce, an electric car is not a bad idea. I've read that plugging in the car at night is also ideal, since that is not a peak time period for energy demand. That is just a summary of what I've read, but do not consider me an authority on the best way to power our cars!

  5. Interesting post, I think that this is really a useful information. Thanks for sharing.


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