Destroying The Mojave Desert: The Dark Side Of Solar Power
The face of the Mojave Desert, an arid region comprising more than 25,000 square miles of southeastern California and portions of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, is changing. As a frequent visitor to this desert, I am concerned.
From The Los Angeles Times:
Construction cranes rise like storks 40 stories above the Mojave Desert. In their midst, the “power tower” emerges, wrapped in scaffolding and looking like a multistage rocket.
Clustered nearby are hangar-sized assembly buildings, looming berms of sand and a chain mail of fencing that will enclose more than 3,500 acres of public land. Moorings for 173,500 mirrors — each the size of a garage door — are spiked into the desert floor. Before the end of the year, they will become six square miles of gleaming reflectors, sweeping from Interstate 15 to the Clark Mountains along California’s eastern border.
Six square miles of gleaming reflectors?
$2-Billion Solar Energy Plant
BrightSource Energy, based on Oakland, CA, is creating a solar power project at Ivanpah Valley, CA, and it will change the environment for miles around. The facility will soon be a humming city with 24-hour lighting, a wastewater processing facility and a gas-fired power plant.
The $2-billion plant will contain computers that continually focus the field of mirrors to a center tower filled with water, which will heat to more than 1,000 degrees. The resulting steam will drive an array of turbines capable of generating 370 megawatts, enough to power roughly 140,000 homes during peak hours.
That sounds great, but what about the surrounding land?
To make room, BrightSource has mowed down a swath of desert plants, displaced dozens of animal species and relocated scores of imperiled desert tortoises, a move that some experts say could kill up to a third of them.
This is a dilemma with no clear answers, just compromises.
The public got its chance to comment at scores of open houses, but the real political horse trading took place in meetings involving solar developers, federal regulators and leaders of some of the nation’s top environmental organizations.
From The Los Angeles Times:
“I have spent my entire career thinking of myself as an advocate on behalf of public lands and acting for their protection,” said Johanna Wald, a veteran environmental attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I am now helping facilitate an activity on public lands that will have very significant environmental impacts. We are doing it because of the threat of climate change. It’s not an accommodation; it’s a change I had to make to respond to climate.”
Industrial-scale solar development is well underway in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The federal government has furnished 21 million acres for solar power, more public property to this cause than it has for oil and gas exploration over the last decade.
Shift In Federal Policy
What has opened the way for such a costly source of energy is the dramatic turn in federal policy. In 2005, the Bush administration established generous programs to reward renewable energy developers. The Obama administration continued the policy, offering $45 billion in federal tax credits, guaranteed loans and grants.
In California, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger freed large solar plants from property tax and handed out $90 million in exemptions from sales and use taxes. Under Governor Jerry Brown, the state invested more than $70 million in clean energy research last year.
Ironically, most of the opposition as come from the government, in the form of the National Park Service, which has voiced the strongest complaints about the scale and siting of solar projects. California’s desert parks: Joshua Tree, Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve have the most acreage affected by the development.
The Department of Defense also has raised questions, the the Federal Aviation Administration has voiced concerns about the heat plume rising from the Ivanpah towers and about the installation’s possible radar interference.
Dennis Schramm, who retired last December as superintendent at Mojave National Preserve, found himself at odds with the Interior Department, his own parent agency, in defending the 900 species of plants and 300-plus species of animals in the preserve, especially the desert tortoise.
There are no easy answers here, but could it be that once again the Big Energy Companies are calling the shots? Meanwhile, I think I’ll take my desert hiking elsewhere.
Photo Credit: iStock