Environmental Organizations Demand Wiser Desert Solar Policy

The editorial below was jointly authored by the Sierra Club, NRDC, and Wilderness Society in response to wayward government policy that could needlessly sacrifice hundreds of square miles of pristine desert to solar energy development.  These groups are finally showing much needed leadership on a vexing issue -- that not all renewable energy is "green." I explore the issue in more depth in "Green vs. Greed." 

The bottom line is that the Department of Interior is willing to permit solar energy development on desert habitat, even though millions of acres of already-disturbed lands are being ignored by our government and energy companies.  Additionally, rooftop solar programs have not yet tapped the full potential of distributed generation in our cities.  Our energy policy needs to break free from the old paradigm of massive transmission lines and facilities and take advantage of the true benefit of solar -- that it can be generated wherever the sun shines.  There is no need to bulldoze fragile ecosystems.

Although I disagree with some of the conclusions in the editorial--such as the implication that the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone is a wise place to build solar facilities--we can at least agree on the fact that there are better places to start building our renewable energy future than on pristine public land.

The editorial was originally published by the San Diego Union-Tribune on 18 February.

Sunny Southern California is one of the hottest markets for solar energy development. Over the past year, a record amount of solar energy has been permitted in California – enough to power more than 1 million homes with clean, renewable electricity. This year, we can expect to see more proposals for solar power projects, which could lead to new jobs, a stronger economy and a cleaner environment.
Such quick growth, however, doesn’t come without growing pains. And the solar energy industry has been no exception. Much of the solar energy permitted last year will come from large-scale solar power projects that will be built on public lands in the California desert. The piecemeal process used to plan, locate and permit these projects over the past year has often led to significant resource conflicts, frustration and uncertainty. And despite hard work and improvements, some of the projects pose serious impacts on water, wildlife and the environment.

California’s public lands are valuable not only for their solar energy potential. They also provide irreplaceable habitat for imperiled wildlife such as desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and golden eagles. In addition, they’re prized by local communities for their recreation opportunities, open space, intrinsic beauty and the tourist dollars they bring.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have solar energy development in the desert. In fact, there are many good locations. Already degraded lands like former industrial sites, brownfields and abandoned agricultural lands are the kinds of places to look at first for solar development because they would have the least impacts on wildlife and natural resources.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management has issued a draft plan that would guide solar energy development on public lands it manages. The plan aims to reduce conflict and speed development by identifying solar energy zones that have high solar resources, are close to existing roads and transmission lines and have the fewest impacts on wildlife habitat, wild lands and other important resources.

A zones approach to solar energy development on public lands, if designed correctly, could lead to faster siting, less harm to wildlife and the environment, and greater certainty for project developers and investors. Unfortunately, the Interior Department’s proposal hasn’t got it quite right yet.

The problem is that the plan, in addition to laying out 24 solar zones in six states – some 677,000 acres of high solar potential lands – would also open nearly 22 million more acres of public lands to possible solar development. Opening so many acres would not resolve the conflicts over solar development – it would just lead to increased uncertainty and guaranteed strife. It’s also unnecessary – the Bureau of Land Management’s own study estimates that we need fewer than 300,000 acres to reach our clean energy goals.

To make matters worse, the plan includes little analysis of the wildlife and environmental impacts of development. For example, if the Bureau of Land Management had done more review, it would have likely determined that the Pisgah and Iron Mountain zones are not right for solar development. These places contain important habitat for threatened desert tortoises and pristine lands that have been recommended as wilderness. Both these zones should be taken off the table. Instead, conservation groups have suggested analysis of disturbed lands in the West Mojave area and a possible zone near the Chocolate Mountains.

Next week, the Interior Department is hosting public meetings in Sacramento and Barstow to discuss and take public comment on the solar development plan. Californians still have a chance to improve the proposal. To get this right, the Interior Department must revise the plan to focus development in only the appropriate zones – places with nearby roads and transmission, and the lowest possible conflicts with wildlife habitat and natural resources. The final plans should lay out clear guidelines for how projects should be built and operated to reduce environmental impacts. And the Bureau of Land Management should give the public confidence, through a strong environmental analysis, that its plan will lead to responsible renewable energy development on public lands. With these improvements, we can have a clean energy future that’s “smart from the start.” The Interior Department’s plan is not there yet.

Boyle is senior representative of the Sierra Club. O’Shea is deputy director of the Western Renewable Energy Project of Natural Resources Defense Council. Delfino is California program director of Defenders of Wildlife. Eaton is deputy vice president of public lands, The Wilderness Society.


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