Climate Hawk Misses the Mark

A fellow climate change activist -- who goes by "RLMiller" on the Twitter -- recently nominated a Los Angeles Times reporter as the "most anti-solar reporter in the mainstream media" in a blog post on the Daily Kos (RLMiller previously levied this criticism against a more deserving recipient -- Fox News).  The offending reporter, Julie Cart, published an article on how industrial-scale solar facilities built dozens of miles from the nearest county services, impose a financial burden on local governments.  Not only do the counties need to deploy new resources to emergencies (fire, police, medical) where they do not normally occur, they also have to accommodate heavy construction traffic on crumbling roads, increased water consumption where water is scarce, and then tell longtime taxpayers, voters, and residents that they have to put up with a giant, Wall Street-backed industrial behemoth next door that does not conform to the county's original zoning rules.
(Click on image to expand) BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar

The LA Times  has also written on the  ecological impacts of some of these solar facilities -- displacing or killing endangered species, destruction of several square miles of habitat for each solar facility, burning birds and their eyes (yeah, solar plants can do that), infecting kit foxes with distemper, and potentially upsetting the biodiversity of the desert ecosystem.  It is bad enough that our wildlands have to deal with human-induced climate change, but then our solution apparently requires the "sacrifice" of hundreds of square miles of the natural treasures we want to save.

Apparently RLMiller, a self-styled "climate hawk" who even includes a photo of a raptor as a Twitter profile picture, has had an unfortunate collision with a wind turbine, or a solar power tower, or a skyscraper (yeah, industrial-scale development does that to birds, too).  RLMiller is arguably frustrated by the reality that the corporation it exalted to savior status is actually a composite of the same greedy interests that got us into the climate mess in the first place -- Enbridge, Chevron, BP, and Goldman Sachs

One of the most destructive industrial-scale solar firms, BrightSource Energy, is aiding Chevron by supplying "green" solar power to support the oil giant's ingenious new way of extracting fossil fuels from the ground.  Oh yes, we're talking about what sounds suspiciously like fracking.  BrightSource is providing "green" energy to pump steam into the ground to extract oil in California.  Do they combine that steam with any toxic chemicals? I don't know because California's fracking laws are a bit lenient and don't require full disclosure. And what does it matter if BrightSource is aiding oil exploration with fracking or just sticking a shovel into the ground? Every ounce of oil that we extract from the ground from this day forward is digging a grave for our planet, according to  climate activist Bill McKibben.

What I recommend to RLMiller is that before we greenwash a company like BrightSource Energy (a company that gave RLMiller a nice pat on the back in its own corporate propaganda), let's take a close look at the company's math.  To generate approximately 390 megawatts of renewable energy, the company bulldozed, and mowed vegetation on about 5.6 square miles of desert habitat, and displaced or killed hundreds of endangered animals. These wildlands are necessary to support the ecological functions that are increasingly burdened by our fossil fuel consumption.  Chipping away at their integrity does not make them more resilient. If you ask me, BrightSource Energy is the most anti-solar, mainstream solution to climate change we could possible endorse.  A corporate behemoth that requires billionaire underwriters and political backers willing to turn a blind eye as our appetite for ecological destruction is satiated. What is so revolutionary about this approach?

Apparently RLMiller dismisses this sort of destruction as trivial.  In one sentence, RLMiller shrugs off six square miles of habitat destruction and ignores the fact that hundreds of square miles of wildlands are on the chopping block for industrial-scale wind and solar:
In "Sacrificing the desert to save the earth," she [Julie Cart] decides that a big plant taking up six square miles of California desert constitutes a sacrifice of the entire region, never mind the 50 million acres of public lands available to fossil fuel developers, never mind the relatively small footprints of all of the solar projects put together, and never mind the vast desert habitat being protected from solar development. -- RLMiller
RLMiller is correct. This one solar project will 'only' destroy 6 square miles of habitat (roughly the size of midtown and lower Manhattan combined).  It will also only generate less than 1% of California's peak energy needs.  We will have to repeat this destruction many times over to meet the State's renewable energy needs from large-scale solar and wind -- up to 410 square miles in Nevada, alone, according to Bureau of Land Management statistics, and even more in California.

Do we need to shift from fossil fuels rapidly? Absolutely.  Deserts are becoming more arid, oceans more acidic, the Arctic less icy, New York more flooded, food and water sources are jeopardized and all of this is adding to the burdens we already impose on our natural treasures.  But RLMiller dismisses most of the concerns laid out by Julie Cart's articles as if it is inherently wrong to question the costs of massive remote solar facilities.  Wouldn't it have been nice if  "mainstream" society stopped to listen to journalists writing about the ills oil exploration last century, or natural gas fracking in more recent history?

(Click on image to expand) Rooftop solar in Arizona.
I think it is better if we learn about the true costs of our energy choices instead of waiting for decades to wallow in regret and simultaneously lobby and hero-worship a government that is already bought out by corporate interests that could not care less about sustainability.  Instead of attempting to silence critics, let's listen to what they say and consider our alternatives.  Germany has installed thousands of megawatts of rooftop solar panels -- the equivalent of dozens of BrightSource Energy facilities.  A company called 8minuteenergy has started building a large solar facility on already-disturbed lands in California that will eventually reach 800 megawatts -- without incurring destruction on intact wildlands. Even with weak incentives, Californians have already installed over 1,300 megawatts of rooftop solar -- that's more energy than three BrightSource projects can generate.

We are deeply in trouble as a result of our past and current energy choices, and we need to fix the situation quickly.  But let's not commit to a foolish path that only gets us into another ecological disaster.  Renewable energy is a flexible and scalable technology, so we can adapt it to our current land uses without converting some of the most remote stretches of desert into an industrial landscape.  Before we criticize others as mainstream "anti-solar" heretics, let's stop and question whether we have some learning to do, as well.


  1. Julie Cart is doing a great job of informing her readers about the stupidity of destroying pristine Mojave desert to benefit industrial scale energy companies. I say to her: Keep it up!


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