Why Environmentalists Oppose New Solar Power Plants


For the last few years Governor Schwarzenegger and the Big Solar Industry have been pushing to expedite the permit process for new solar power plants awaiting the greenlight in California’s Mojave desert. With federal lands all over the desert southwest open to large concentrated solar power (CSP) plants, private interests have been clamoring for a spot in line.

For all those involved, it is universally agreed that we need renewable energy outlets asap. So you’d figure that environmentalists would be right up front pushing for production along with their industry allies, but in actuality, it is the environmental sector that is holding things up. But why, why after all these years of promoting renewable power would the instigators themselves stand in the way of their vision becoming reality? Governor Schwarzenegger can’t seem to understand. Neither can Big Solar.

Fortunately, in a recent blog, the Desert Protective Council spelled out their sector’s staunch opposition. They assert that a solar power plant CAN have a negative impact on the local environment and, especially in the case of desert installations, may actually contribute to global warming. In short, here are the DPC’s points of opposition:

The desert is not deserted.

It supports a vast array of animal and plant life which is ignored in current building and excavation plans. As the DPC puts it, you don’t see forests being clear cut to make room for solar plants – that is considered ridiculous – so why “scrape” thousands of acres of desert land clean for the same goal?

Desert plant regeneration would be very slow.

A forest can regenerate over time but the delicate desert infrastructure is built up over many years (e.g., the Joshua tree). So the impact of scraping the desert could have a noticeable impact for several years.

Habitat destruction endangers threatened species.

Again, the desert succeeds through a subtle balance between plant and animal and environment. Direct, wide scale habitat destruction could prove fatal for some species and contradicts the very idea behind solar power in the first place.

The impact of this scraping of the desert landscape may reach far beyond plants and animals into the realm of global warming itself.

A study of the Mojave Desert concluded that it stored as much carbon dioxide as a temperate forest, both in sparse vegetation and the very top layer of biological crusts (algae, moss, lichen). To scrape this landscape could then actually negate much of the savings incurred by using solar power in the first place.

CSP plants also use vast amounts of water each year in a process called “wet-cooling.”

We’re talking in the 600-700 million gallon range for a 280 megawatt plant. The big question: Where will this water come from?

Transmission is another big issue.

Many of the proposed sites and available lands are far from any transmission lines, further adding to the cost and impact of the construction process. Big Solar companies have been unfriendly placing plants closer to transmission lines because that land is not public and therefore not free to lease.The problem, the DPC and other environmentalists say, is that all of these points should be reviewed prior to any construction. Instead the governments of the region, specifically California, are attempting to lessen environmental review because these projects are perceived as innately green.

The DPC is not without solutions. In fact, considering that I have long agreed with similar suggestions, you can take the scary environmental possibilities of CSP as another sign that Big Solar is the wrong way to go. We already have an overburdened, archaic transmission system with deregulated utilities shipping electricity to distant states for the highest bidder. So why not use the millions of empty rooftops across the desert region and the country? This eliminates the need for new transmission lines, would actually ease the load on existing lines, and protect consumers from black-outs and other grid failures.

Other reasons to go rooftop PV over desert CSP include public utilities being eligible for federal rebates in ‘09, which could actually make PV cheaper than CSP. Along those same lines, a feed-in tariff would certainly get things going as well. Solar is appealing when you can save money on bills, but if you could actually make money? There is no better incentive under a monetary system.

I highly recommend reading the full article from the Desert Protective Council. Also check out the LA Times article that was the inspiration for the DPC blog.

Posted on December 30 in Solar Politics by .

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