A strange but vehement battle rages on in the deserts of the American Southwest. It’s pitting apparent allies - the environmentalists and solar companies - against each other. The Obama administration is attempting to play mediator, but the government itself is torn between an obligation to protect flora and fauna on public lands and a desire to fast-track renewable energy projects.
The battle is not new, and the reasons for environmental opposition have not changed. I’ve discussed before the pros and cons of these large, desert-based solar thermal projects, as well as the federal Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) intermediary step of establishing solar study zones that assess the environmental impact of solar projects on over 350,000 acres of public lands.
The BLM is also conducting environmental impact surveys (EIS) for each proposed solar project. There are currently 126 renewable energy project applications on file with the BLM. The first of these EISs has been released for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a 400-megawatt CSP project of California-based BrightSource Energy. This report has rekindled the fire of controversy surrounding Ivanpah and other solar projects poised for fast-tracking.
In brief, here is the problem. On the one hand, all parties recognize the need to quickly expand U.S. renewable energy production capacity. Environmental groups, however, are concerned with the destruction of pristine habitat and the subsequent endangerment of rare plant and animal species, most notably the federally protected desert tortoise. There is also the issue of water consumption where water is scarce - the Ivanpah project is expected to consume roughly 32 million gallons of groundwater annually. For solar companies and government, the more pressing need is to get renewable energy projects up and running to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and help regional states meet renewable portfolio standards. Unfortunately, the latest EIS on the Ivanpah project has not assuaged the dissenters.
A Rock and a Hard Place
I, for one, am in favor of solar projects in general, but believe more in distributed generation on urban and suburban rooftops, brownfields, and other previously disturbed lands. Thus, I tend to side with the environmentalists in cases such as Ivanpah. I want to see projects go ahead, but fast-tracking even renewable projects is not always a good choice. Such are the lessons of history: Once upon a time, we rushed to extend smokestacks into the sky to mass-produce cheap goods and create cheap energy, and now we are scrambling to avoid paying full price for our folly. Should every desert solar permit application be approved, more than one million acres of public land would be sacrificed, or at least disturbed.
On the other hand, BrightSource Energy and the federal government propose a very rational argument. Their basis lies in determining if the sacrifices to the local environment outweigh the environmental benefits of producing clean solar electricity. Apparently, in the eyes of the Department of Interior, they do not. The higher priority is to get stagnant solar projects flowing again. Some sacrifices demanded of the Ivanpah project, which will disturb roughly 4,000 acres of land, are to purchase for perpetual protection over 8,000 acres of nearby land and to “transport” desert tortoises living on project land to that protected land.
Sounds fair, but environmentalists are finding holes in that strategy as well. For one, there seems to be no mitigation for water usage or loss of rare plant life. Secondly, there is precedent for transporting desert tortoises. The Army attempted it as part of an expansion project at a nearby base, but when suddenly moved to a new habitat, the tortoises instinctively tried to return, became confused and a significant number of them died, primarily by coyotes who caught them in the open. The EIS on Ivanpah itself predicts that roughly 15 percent of the transported tortoises would die. Environmental groups don’t like those odds.
As mentioned before, I’ve weighed in on this topic before, and I stick to my belief that there are better ways to scale up solar power generation, or at least better ways to go about it in the desert. At the same time, this controversy is a bit of a catch-22. Everybody wants the same end result - more solar power - but nobody can agree on how best to get there.
What I found most intriguing about this latest round of debate, as drawn from the New York Times article that inspired this post, is a question put forth by Greg Suba of the California Native Plant Society:
“The question that’s not being addressed here is basically why are they going on wild public lands first?” He added, “Our organization and many others understand why we need renewable energy, and why large-scale utility projects need to be part of the initial equation. Buy why put these big-scale projects in the intact wildlands first?”
That is a very good question, and one I myself have yet to hear fully addressed. But I do have my speculations. For one, private land would cost more. In order to fast-track solar generation, the feds are handing out this land at cut-rate prices. Counting incentives, they’re practically giving the land away. That and the fact that there are vast expanses of public land in the Mojave Desert that are perfect for solar electric generation. According to Keely Wachs of BrightSource Energy, the Ivanpah project alone will “exceed all of the rooftop solar energy installed in 2008 in the United States and more than double the nation’s total solar thermal energy capacity.”
Who’s to Decide?
In the end, the issue is subjective. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? As these are public lands, it’s up to the federal government to decide, and that government has just weighed in on the side of Big Solar. Of course, the feds must at least ostensibly answer to the people, which includes environmental groups. So don’t expect this fight to end any time soon. If there is but one thing our system allows, it is to take a fast-track and slow it way down…for better or worse.
Source: New York Times
Photo Credit: CNET