In Response to the Atlantic Monthly

The Atlantic Monthly published an article today lamenting that "fledgling" solar energy companies face opposition from environmentalists in the quest to pave over the Mojave Desert with massive solar facilities and transmission lines.  The article ridicules our concern over endangered species, and demands an evolution in environmentalism so that we focus on human needs, and abandon what it describes as an outdated focus on conservation of nature far from humans.

The article sadly supports an old paradigm in energy generation, where companies are given unfettered access to public lands and we continue to pay inflated rates for electricity.  It ignores the real potential to cut greenhouse gasses by building distributed generation ("rooftop solar") or building larger facilities on already-disturbed land.  The EPA already identified ample disturbed land for renewable energy projects as part of its RE-powering America's Land program, and Germany is generating gigawatts of rooftop solar. 

Apparently the Atlantic Monthly could only spare enough time to hear the concerns of energy companies, and not listen to the reasonable concerns of the common folk.  In fact, all of the images they used were provided by BrightSource Energy LLC.  Painting an ideal picture of Big Solar is not easy, but the article included computer renderings of what BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Energy project would look like, complete with an unrealistic mix of desert plants and solar mirrors coexisting on the same site.   What does the real project look like?  The photo below shows initial bulldozing done on the Ivanpah site.  Not as harmonious as the Atlantic Monthly would like you to believe.

The Atlantic's article underscores the danger of mixing the motives of green and greed, where companies exploit the real urgency of climate change to sell  a product that is as destructive and unecessary as the product it seeks to replace.  Like coating asbestos with lead paint,  Big Solar companies want to replace mountain-top removal coal mining with tortoise killing fields of glass and metal in the desert.  Just like West Virginia's mountains, desert ecosystems will take centuries to recover.

Atlantic's editor, Alexis Madrigal, failed to explore the potential for distributed generation, probably because his contacts in Big Solar cannot profit as much from rooftop solar panels.  They can't monopolize profits and acquire capital if individual homes, businesses, and towns have their own solar panels or windmills. That's too democratic.
The lives of a few dozen desert tortoises may very well improve as a result of the process [constructing the Ivanpah Solar project], but the opposition to Ivanpah raises questions about how unsympathetic some environmental groups are willing to be about the realities of running a solar firm that can compete with fossil fuels. 
Atlantic Monthly says we should be more "sympathetic" to Big Solar companies.  Yes, the renewable energy industry is in its infant stages and could benefit from encouragement.  But the industry also could benefit from leadership.  Big Solar wants to cut corners and destroy pristine desert for its facilities instead of building them where they belong -- on already-disturbed land or rooftops.   Such solar energy companies do not deserve our sympathy.

First Solar Inc, a company looking to build two projects next to BrightSource Energy's facility in the Ivanpah Valley,  is an example of the "fledgling," well-intentioned, private behemoths that the Atlantic wants to shield from public criticism.  I am not sure why.  First Solar executive Robert Gillette collected a salary of over 2.7 million dollars, and collected additional compensation that brought him up to 16 million dollars in a single fiscal year, according to Reuters.   First Solar's "non-executive" Chairman of the Board brought home over 4 million in a fiscal year.    All of that cash floating around, but they still need American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) loans and grants to finance their projects on public land.  I'll save my sympathy for the tortoise.

Finally, the Atlantic Monthly article argues that we need to abandon environmentalism that preserves places where there are "no humans," and focus on places "co-created" by humans.  The article suggests that we should admire Big Solar's attempts to bulldoze pristine desert for profit as a new frontier in environmental thought.
Note that this environmentalism is not nature, endangered species, or wilderness focused: It is concerned, first and foremost, with humans. Clean and safe were more important than "natural." The suburban housewives and baseball dads who supported the passage of the nation's landmark environmental legislation were not interested in biomes, per se: They cared about the places that humans co-created, or, as ecologist Erle Ellis calls them, anthromes.
Humans have learned to "co-create" the desert already.  Native American tribes harvested seeds, hunted jackrabbits and bighorn sheep, and burned vegetation to support next year's crop of food-producing plants.  But they did not need to destroy vast swaths of habitat to run refrigerators or air conditioners.  We don't need to either -- we have empty rooftops, parking lots, and already-disturbed land.  Solar is an amazing technology.  When I was nine years old I was already using solar energy -- solar powered calculators and watches.  Why do we ignore solar's potential and flexibility? 

Perhaps the Atlantic author toured the desert from the comfort of his rental car before dining with solar executives.  Or maybe he toured it from Google Earth.  Either way, he seems to think of the desert as his dump.  But the desert is my wilderness, and it provides me with inspiration, solitude, spirituality, and comfort.  There are humans here, and there have been humans in the desert for a long time.  Just because Wall Street only discovered the Mojave last year does not give it any right to pave over it with greed, and rob future generations of the natural beauty that graced us long before we became dependent on corporations for our survival.


  1. Shaun,

    I believe that this is the best post you have written here and an eloquent a defense of the long suffering desert as any that I have read.

    Thank you for bringing this article to our attention, I will put the link up asap on my site.


  2. Today's Wall Street Journal wonders why First Solar Chairman Michael Ahearn sold half his shares for $118 million dollars! this month.

  3. Shaun, I am very moved by your eloquent essay in defense of our wild deserts.

    How arrogant of the author of the Atlantic Monthly's article to put words in the mouths of Americans regarding their reasons for supporting legislation such as the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act. Thanks for this beautiful cogent piece.

  4. Thanks, everyone.

    And thanks Bob for highlighting that First Solar news...interesting that he's cashing out so much.

  5. Wow, that picture says it all.

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