01 Feb 2010: Report

It’s Green Against Green
In Mojave Desert Solar Battle

Few places are as well suited for large-scale solar projects as California’s Mojave Desert. But as mainstream environmental organizations push plans to turn the desert into a center for renewable energy, some green groups — concerned about spoiling this iconic Western landscape — are standing up to oppose them.

by todd woody

Twenty years ago when an epic clash over the logging of ancient redwood forests roiled California, the battle lines were clear-cut.

On one side stood a Texas corporate raider who acquired the Pacific Lumber Co. in a junk bond-fueled takeover and began felling vast swaths of primeval redwoods to pay off the debt. On the other side was Earth First! and other grass-roots greens who staged a campaign of civil disobedience to disrupt the logging. And while mainstream environmental groups may have looked askance at such tactics, they supported the cause in the courts, suing to stop the clear-cutting of ancient trees.

Today, another monumental environmental fight is unfolding in California over plans to build dozens of multi billion-dollar solar power plants in the Mojave Desert that could power millions of homes. But in this battle everyone is wearing green — from the solar developers seeking to generate carbon-free electricity, to feuding factions of environmentalists split over developing the desert.

The Mojave has become a metaphor for an existential crisis in the environmental movement as it tries to balance the development of renewable energy with its traditional mission to protect ecosystems. In
For some, the desert is untouchable; for others, it’s a resource to be tapped.
recent years, the movement’s focus on wildlife, habitat preservation, and pollution has been eclipsed by the climate change imperative. National groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club have joined with the more forward-looking members of the Fortune 500 to push cap-and-trade legislation and other climate-change initiatives and to promote alternative energy.

These disparate interests also have worked together to identify suitable areas to build large-scale solar farms. Over the past few years, Goldman Sachs, utility giants Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and FLP Group, and a slew of Silicon Valley-backed startups have filed applications to build solar power plants on hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in California’s Mojave Desert and across the desert Southwest.

Now comes the backlash.

In December, this coalition found itself outflanked by a small Southern California group called the Wildlands Conservancy that persuaded U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to introduce legislation banning renewable energy development on more than a million acres of the Mojave — including the land on which PG&E and others had set their sights. While hundreds of thousands of acres remain in the Mojave for potential solar farms, the area targeted by the Feinstein legislation had been particularly valued by developers for its proximity to transmission lines and the huge Southern California market.

Elsewhere in California’s deserts, solar power plant projects have become bogged down as grassroots advocates challenge their impact on water resources, desert tortoises, and other rare animals and plants that inhabit a fragile arid ecosystem. For some, the desert is iconic and untouchable; for others it’s a vast resource to be tapped.

Joshua Tree
Flickr/Bill Wight
After the Energy Policy Act of 2005 opened up the desert Southwest to renewable energy development, a solar land rush ensued.
When Feinstein, a California Democrat, first indicated she favored walling off a large swath of the desert from renewable energy development, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger growled, “If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.”

I trekked into the desert to see for myself. A few days before Feinstein introduced her bill last December to create two new national monuments in the Mojave, I met David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, in Barstow and we set out for what he hopes will become the Mojave Trails National Monument.

You may never have heard of Myers, but the ardent conservationist has emerged as renewable energy power broker thanks to his connections to Feinstein and David Gelbaum, a press-shy Southern California financer turned philanthropist who bankrolls the Wildlands Conservancy. (So secretive is Gelbaum that a confidentiality agreement bars Myers from acknowledging his existence as a donor. Federal records show, though, that Gelbaum sits on Wildlands’ board.)

A decade ago, Gelbaum — who has given $100 million to the Sierra Club, according to a 2004 Los Angeles Times story — contributed tens of millions of dollars for the Wildlands Conservancy’s acquisition of a
‘You couldn’t put a project in a worse area from a landscape connectivity point of view.’
half-million acres of former railroad holdings owned by the Catellus Development Corp. The Catellus lands form a checkerboard of 640-acre parcels across the Mojave. Feinstein, who sponsored the 1994 legislation that created Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve, pushed for federal matching funds to complete the purchase of the land, which was then donated to the government for preservation.

But after President George W. Bush opened up the desert Southwest to renewable energy development in 2005, a solar land rush ensued, as developers proposed building some two dozen solar power plants and wind farms on federal lands that include the donated Catellus property. Myers then contacted Feinstein about preserving the lands by putting them into a vast new national monument.

“Al Gore called these lands out here some of the most pristine and scenic desert lands in the world,” says Myers as we cruise down Route 66 in his Subaru. He pulls over and we walk across the road to take in the sweep of the Sleeping Beauty mountain range that rises from a broad valley where BrightSource Energy and other solar developments had proposed building massive solar power plants.

“You have this incredible landscape of these bighorn sheep corridors back and forth across the valley,” says Myers. “You couldn’t put a project in a worse area from a landscape connectivity point of view... It’s a philosophic non-sequitur that you can destroy hundreds of thousands of acres to save the Earth from global warming.”

The vistas and wildlife in this stretch of the Mojave are indeed spectacular, if not totally pristine — power lines march across the desert floor and some ranges are scarred by mining operations.

Bright Source
BrightSource Energy, which built this demonstration solar complex in Israel, has filed an application to build a 400-megawatt solar power plant in Southern California.
Establishment environmentalists tend to dismiss Myers as a “purist” who is unwilling to consider solar development in the desert.

“I don’t think many in the environmental community share the extreme views of people like David Myers — I think he’s an outlier,” says John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento, which is involved in a state-federal effort to identify desert areas suitable for solar development.

The soft-spoken Myers is no Earth Firster. He says he supports solar development in other parts of the Mojave but prefers power plants be built on degraded farmland, or better yet, through a massive expansion of rooftop solar arrays. The Feinstein legislation includes provisions designed to speed up the licensing of renewable energy projects on federal land elsewhere in the desert and provides incentives to developers who build on former farmland.

“We don’t have to choose between having renewable energy development or complying with the Endangered Species Act,” says Johanna Wald, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco who is also participating in the solar planning process. “We can have them both, and certainly the California experience is that we have the resources to do both.”

Still, Myers has thrown a monkey wrench in plans to tap about 10,000 megawatts of electricity in this area before its environmental value could be formally evaluated, as is being done elsewhere in the Southwest. While the monument legislation’s success is by no means assured, most of the solar developers — including BrightSource Energy, Goldman Sachs, and Tessera Solar—had abandoned their projects before the bill was formally introduced in late December. No one, it seemed, wanted to take on Feinstein, who first raised concerns about the projects last spring.

“Senator Feinstein’s proposal created a fair amount of uncertainty and we wanted to collaborate with the senator and make sure we were investing our time and effort in the area with potential to go forward,” Sean Gallagher, Tessera’s vice president for regulatory affairs, told me in December after the company canceled its plans for a massive 12,000-acre solar farm, whose peak output would have equaled that of a nuclear power plant.

PG&E, FPL, and Iberdrola Renewables, the Spanish renewable energy giant, say they are either cautiously proceeding or re-evaluating their Mojave projects in light of the legislation. Most developers have staked multiple land claims elsewhere in the Southwest. (That, of course, doesn’t mean they’re happy about the situation. “Iberdrola Renewables believes the environmental community is taking away one of the few places in the U.S. suitable for utility-scale solar development,” Jan Johnson, a company spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.)

So we return to the governator’s question: Where can you put a solar power plant?

That question was being debated last month in Sacramento at California Energy Commission hearings on the state’s first new solar power plant to undergo licensing in two decades.

In August 2007, BrightSource Energy, an Oakland, Calif.-based startup, filed an application to build a 400-megawatt solar power plant in the Ivanpah Valley — an area outside the Feinstein monument area — just over the Nevada border in Southern California.

BrightSource — which is backed by Google, Morgan Stanley, and a clutch of oil companies — has signed contracts to deliver 2,600 megawatts of
For one project, the state ruled desert tortoises must be removed and new habitat purchased.
electricity to California utilities, which is needed to secure 24,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2020 to meet state mandates. John Woolard, BrightSource Energy’s chief executive, alluded to the difficulty in finding suitable desert land for solar power plants. “Frankly, it says a lot that Ivanpah’s the only site that we think we’re able to build on right now inside of California,” he said.

The surrounding desert landscape would not inspire Edward Abbey. Interstate 15, which connects Los Angeles to Las Vegas, slices through the area. A few miles from the BrightSource site, Buffalo Bill’s and Whiskey Pete’s — two hulking casinos connected by a monorail — rise from the desert like an apparition from a Mad Max movie. Adjacent to the solar site sits a 22-acre golf course that consumes a half-billion gallons of water a year. To the west are two mines and a pipeline that carries mining waste to an evaporation pond.

After an extensive two-and-a-half-year environmental review, the energy commission concluded in late 2009 that the BrightSource project “would have major impacts to the biological resources of the Ivanpah Valley, substantially affecting many sensitive plant and wildlife species and eliminating a broad expanse of relatively undisturbed Mojave Desert habitat.”

The project would sit on 4,000 acres of habitat, home to 25 desert tortoises, as well as rare plants like the Mojave milkweed. The tortoises must be removed and suitable replacement habitat purchased for them, the energy commission said.

More from Yale e360

The Pursuit of New Ways
to Boost Solar Development

The solar power boom in Germany, Spain, and parts of the United States has been fueled by government subsidies. But now some U.S. states — led by New Jersey, of all places — are pioneering a different approach: issuing tradable credits that can be sold on the open market.

Solar Power from Space:
Beyond Science Fiction

For more than 40 years, scientists have dreamed of collecting the sun’s energy in space and beaming it back to Earth. Now, a host of technological advances, coupled with interest from the U.S. military, may be bringing that vision close to reality.
While the Sierra Club’s national organization has supported desert solar power plants, a local chapter has challenged the Ivanpah project, joining Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental groups in urging that the project be reconfigured and moved closer to the highway to lessen the impact on the tortoise.

Even if Ivanpah were never built, the industrialization of the desert will proceed apace. According to the California Energy Commission, some of the projects on the drawing board for the surrounding area include a 500-megawatt natural gas power plant and an airport on the Nevada side of the border, as well as seven other massive solar power plants to be built within miles of the BrightSource site.

The party line among greens of all hues is that we can have it all — renewable energy production and protection of wildlands. That may well be true, but there will have to be some hard choices made about just what kind — and how much — development we want in the desert.

POSTED ON 01 Feb 2010 IN Climate Energy Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Sustainability Urbanization Europe North America North America 


I'm disappointed that Yale 360 published this article with such a "Fox News" title: It’s Green Against Green In Mojave Desert Solar Battle. The desert solar issue isn't green versus green. We're not always at war with one-another, as the media likes to profess.

What is happening in the desert is an education and planning process. It's a process of getting people together with knowledge and vision and hashing out the benefits, constraints, and impacts of such large scale solar projects. Solar has great benefits, but as with any project, there must be an understanding of balance, an unbiased explanation of actions and reactions. The author could have considered explaining this situation and helping guide better decision making. Instead, his flamboyant language puts the reader in a familiar place - (i.e. "Now comes the backlash.") more conflict-driven news written for the purpose of selling advertising.

This isn't green vs. green. Really, it's green vs. the mainstream media. I hope you at Yale FES will consider articles that strive to build community, empower people, and create a better world. This is an example of what not to do.

Posted by Lech Naumovich on 01 Feb 2010

What solar power plants? Solar power only has capacity factor of 25-30 percent. The only way around this principle of Physics is to add costly thermal storage or burn a fossil fuel inefficiently. California has requested the EPA to delay implementation of greenhouse gas regulations so these regulations will not delay solar which is marketed as carbon free.

Where is the Resource Plan and who is going to pay for all of this electricity? Electrical demand last year declined 3.7 percent. Which existing plants are proposed to be closed?

The real issue does not appear to be environmental but one of justifying these projects and labeling anyone who objects as an environmentalist.

Posted by Robert Emery on 01 Feb 2010

I don't think BIG energy that requires BIG transmission is the appropriate long-term solution for society's energy needs. Domestic energy production seems like a better way to go.

In the short to medium term, however, there is a need for relatively large-scale energy supply that gets the US to energy independence. I concede that solar production in (parts of) the Mojave might be one of many ways to do this.

I drove through the Mojave twice in the last week (and I confess to knowing very little about precise geographic limits to "the Mojave"). There were areas of industrial activity in parts of it. IF a compromise could be reached between the pro- and anti- solar communities, I'd suggest that it be to locate new solar industry in areas that are already compromised by industrial activity like sand mining (or whatever those "spoiled" parts of the desert are currently used for.

Tuck the new solar business into widely distributed, already-compromised parts of the area and leave the pristine parts alone.

Posted by TRB on 01 Feb 2010

This "Green vs, Green" approach serves to minimize environmentalists' concerns for habitat loss and pollution, conflating true environmentalism with attempts to extend the technocratic status quo to include so-called "green" technology, which it is not. Technology is technology, development is development.

Species don't care that the development that drove them extinct was "green" and/or "sustainable."

Posted by Hayduke on 01 Feb 2010

Absent from this discussion are two keys factors that influence the efficiency and thus economic viability of the alternatives discussed. While I am not going to try to factor in the necessary numbers here, I suspect that the inclusion of these considerations would tend to shift the balance in the debate in favor of distributed generation.

First, the massive energy consumption of long distance transmission lines is not taken into consideration in the comparison of distributed power to the current concentrated massive generating station model. (The lower European energy consumption levels to date are due in part to the fact that their grids and transmission lines historically were constrained bytheir national borders, for all that the EU is now contemplating generating energy in the Sahara and transmitting it across the Mediterranean.)

Second, there is the issue of the direction of technological development. Professor Kamen's claim that "rooftops are not enough" is based on the technology available today, in a context in which there remains an institutional bias towards centralized power generation. The largest demands for new generating capacity - those of China and then India - are for centralized power. A huge proportion of their housing and other building stock is simply not structurally strong enough to support energy generation on rooftops. The large privately owned energy firms of the advanced industrial world are similarly focused on concentrated generation. Thus the technology develops in that direction.

But what would happen to the technology development path if the public policy -taxation, regulatory requirements and the like - of the US (and Canada) promoted distributed generation? The distributed system envisioned by Mr. Roberts implicitly assumes advances in the small scale technologies applied for renewable power generation that would depend at first on such a policy shift.

Distributed power could waste less energy than centralized systems, would not tend to invade preservation zones and alter natural ecosystems as the major installations proposed tend to do, and might conceivably obviate the conflict posed in this debate.

Distributed power need not even undermine the prospects for the reservations, and could avoid the dangers of an economic monoculture, which Ms. LaDuke's vision poses: ample exceptionally low cost on-site power, combined with good job training and related development might provide for forms of industrialization on reservations that could transform economic prospects. Some of the highest value goods in the global economy involve high-energy production but are small enough that the transportation issues posed by iusolated reservations need not be major factors.

This debate needs more attention to climate change and energy economics and less to presumed technologies and environmentalism.

Posted by mike on 01 Feb 2010

Mike's comment, reinforced with technical knowledge I lack, seems reasonable to me. I guess the term "distributed generation," small-scale energy generation at the local level, is what I was looking for.

Regarding Third World buildings being too flimsy to support on-site power generation, I think too much is made of that presumed reason for large-scale generation. An isolated rural hut could be served by a couple solar panels attached to a post. That could run radio, TV, small fridge, but would not be required to provide massive quantities of (probably unnecessary) heating and cooling or laundry. Things tend to be much simpler in the Third World.

Centralized energy supplies on the massive scale applied in the US is not adapted to much of the Third World unless they adopt a lifestyle (and built-environment style) of the West. This is neither inevitable nor desirable.

The scale and type of energy generation is not culture neutral. One size does not and should not fit all. The presumption that the West holds out the most desirable model of development for all should certainly have been discredited by now. Certain, selective, place-sensitive aspects of Western technology (including power generation) might be applicable universally, but way too much emphasis is placed on power generation to fit the over-consumption model of the U.S. status quo.

Posted by TRB on 01 Feb 2010

"Green vs. Green" makes a catchy headline, and the dilemma of finding the right, not the wrong, locations for renewable energy facilities is a serious and complicated one. But the headline is very misleading. Todd Woody got to the wrong conclusion because he started from the frame that this must be a clear-cut controversy like clear-cutting the redwoods -- good vs. evil -- instead of understanding that even good industrial technologies don't belong everywhere, and no energy source is impact free. However clean an energy technology is, producing facilities and siting them carefully will take time and generate controversy, especially in the early stages of an industry and particularly when we are locating them on our public lands. Sierra Club remains steadfastly committed to preserving the legacy of California’s wildlands for future generations. At the same time, we recognize that climate change has the potential to make radical changes in our habitats and landscapes, and we must aggressively reduce carbon emissions not only through large scale renewables but also by ramping up energy efficiency and rooftop solar.

Here are some facts that suggest a very different picture than the painful, unavoidable choice between clean energy and a protected desert landscape Woody posits.

* California's landscapes with high solar energy potential include hundreds of thousands of acres of already degraded land with poor habitat values -- far more than the solar industry can develop in the next thirty years, however ambitious your renewable energy aspirations might be. Locations like the Owens Valley dry lake bed, the margins of the shrinking Salton Sea, and agricultural land no longer used for farming are only a few examples of the numerous opportunities to locate solar where natural values have already been degraded by past activities.

* Sierra Club has intervened in the Bright Source project in Ivanpah, but does not oppose it -- we simply believe that on the site there is a better, less environmentally intrusive configuration that will avoid or minimize most of the important habitat conflicts. We are one organization and we have one position on this and all other proposals.

* Sierra Club has been an active member and supporter of CEERT since it was first established. Executive Director Carl Pope sits on the Board of the Wildlands Conservancy. The Sierra Club supports Senator Feinstein's proposal to create two new national monuments in the California Desert. We support ambitious goals and planned-in-advance programs to identify the right locations for generating solar and wind electricity -- and we believe that it was the Bush Administration’s failure to plan for and identify appropriate renewable energy zones and transmission facilities that has created the current controversy over some poorly located proposed projects.

This is a transition period. Many people are responding with anxiety because there are many uncertainties about how this move to site large scale renewables will develop, and the rules of the game are being written while it’s already in play. It's understandable that project developers who were encouraged by government agencies to apply for particular sites resent discovering that those sites were not, as promised, environmentally appropriate. It's equally understandable that citizens who have dedicated their lives to protecting a pristine landscape are upset when inappropriately located solar projects are proposed in their midst, without a proper public involvement or planning process. But our response, along with numerous other environmental groups in California, is to work with solar generators, and with federal and state agencies, to analyze all current solar projects in the Mojave desert and encourage changes wherever possible to minimize environmental impacts. We are also engaged with all these players in developing a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which will identify zones appropriate for energy development as well as those that must be preserved for their habitat value to guide siting decisions moving forward.

America and California didn't get this instantly right. We need to get it right. But getting it right is not a matter of one side winning or losing, or even having to accept dubious compromises. It's about doing thoughtful planning, careful review, and state of the art design. It's about mitigating the impacts that can't be avoided -- because all energy sources have environmental impacts. And above all it’s about realizing that moving rapidly to reduce our dependence on coal and oil is helped, not hindered, by doing renewable development carefully -- sloppiness only helps the dirty energy sources of the past maintain their monopoly. And limiting or hampering the ambition of our renewable energy vision harms, rather than protects, our fragile landscapes -- because coal and oil development do far more damage than solar or wind, and their damage is much harder, or impossible, to avoid.

Carl Pope
Executive Director, Sierra Club

Posted by Carl Pope on 03 Feb 2010

Only a political scientist would come to the conclusion that decentralization of power infrastructure will be less wasteful. Decentralized power is philosophically attractive to liberal arts students, especially political scientists. But I'm an engineer, and I work on this stuff.

Decentralized power generation seems better just on the basis of avoiding the transmission loss from centralized locations. But you are better off locating some large consumers of electricity right next to the giant centralized power plant anyway; think data-centers and manufacturing plants next to giant solar fields.

The number and efficiency of the lower-power power-converters required to use the electricity generated in a decentralized manner effectively counteracts any benefit from not having to transmit the electricity. Add to that the fact that decentralization means more installation cost and more maintenance cost per square meter of sunlight. The real killer is that the efficiency of the decentralized power generation technique will necessarily be less than high temperature concentrators.

One thing to keep in mind is that it is worth investing $10M to get a 1% efficiency increase when you're spending $1B on a facility.

Thus to do decentralized generation you will have to build many more square meters at a higher cost per square meter to get equivalent power output. It is true that there is potential for a technology breakthrough in photovoltaics that will make decentralization obvious, but I wouldn't hold my breath: high efficiency multijunction PVs consume a lot of energy to manufacture but are worth the expense because of the application: ie space, where the real efficiency metric is power-generated/mass since lifting it up is the real cost. Also, high efficiency PVs require concentrated sunlight increasing system cost.

Highly efficient solar power means citing very large arrays in places where the sun shines 99% of the time. if you're going to invest $1B in solar power plants each year, then every day you don't have sun is like wasting $3M (to offset cloudiness you can build hybrid plants that burn things to run the same turbine).

From a purely economic standpoint, it is worth paying $50M to move and care for the endangered species in order to get that extra 1% more sun because a gigawatt solar plant brings in $1000 dollars every sunny hour. Highly centralized plants allow you to care about the 20 different efficiency factors for which .5% - 2% improvements can be engineered.

To really solve the sustainable energy problem without turning half of Arizona into mirrors, we will need space-based solar power plants that beam down the energy. We invest a lot of money on developing asteroid mining and robotic manufacturing in space to avoid the cost of constructing massive solar receivers and then flying them to orbit.

Posted by Amir on 04 Feb 2010

"Only a political scientist would come to the conclusion that decentralization of power infrastructure will be less wasteful. Decentralized power is philosophically attractive to liberal arts students, especially political scientists. But I'm an engineer, and I work on this stuff."

This is the kind of arrogant posturing that got us into the trouble we're in to begin with. Amir clearly doesn't think there can be win/win solutions that take into consideration competing values. And he's apparently never heard of conservation.

Posted by TRB on 04 Feb 2010

I am disappointed Yale 360 published such a short-sited biased article. Is there a publication out there that is willing to tell the real story? The solar land rush in the desert is nothing more than profit-seeking industry jumping on the newest bandwagon to turn the global warming discussions into a profit generating industry.

Do we need renewable energy- damn right but we don't have to destroy a 100 year tradition of America's wildland philanthropy to develop truely green renewable energy projects. The California Energy Commission has publicly estimated no more than 125,000 acres of utility scale solar would bring CA to the 33 percent 2020 goal. That is if we relied ONLY on utility scale solar! Therefore with wind, geothermal, biomass, hydro, distributed generation etc we have plenty of brownfields, old air fields and fallowed ag lands to double the 2020 goal. Thanks to the many educated comments in these posts (minus Amir).

We can have it all and learn form our mistakes of the past...

Posted by AS on 04 Feb 2010

"This is the kind of arrogant posturing that got us into the trouble we're in to begin with. Amir clearly doesn't think there can be win/win solutions that take into consideration competing values. And he's apparently never heard of conservation."

I'm not sure how you deduced that I'm opposed to conservation from my post, just arrogant. Carl Pope is spot on that this is not green versus green and that we can get this right. The trouble we're in is the result of technologies that matured in a political climate that didn't have to take into consideration competing values. Hence the availability of already spoiled lands listed in Carl's post though I also pointed out the economic benefits of 1 percent more sun.

My post was meant to quash the notion that decentralized power generation is preferable from an efficiency perspective. You said that "Mike's comment, reinforced with technical knowledge I lack, seems reasonable to me." The danger in energy debates is that things often "seem" reasonable without deeper examination: apropos, development of desert solar power without consideration for conservation.

Posted by Amir on 04 Feb 2010

A few points that might benefit from clarification in this discussion (I have done consulting work for a CSP company but I believe these observations stand on their own):

1) Until such time as photovoltaics AND distributed energy storage (batteries, etc.) are relatively less expensive and able to be produced on a scale that no one seems to have yet seriously proposed, electricity transmission is part and parcel of enjoying the use of electric power, clean or not clean, that is relatively affordable. There is a misconception that is often put forward by opponents of large scale renewable projects that transmission is terribly inefficient....it isn't. Transmission and distribution losses in the United States are estimated to be around 7% of total system power:

2) CSP with storage, which it makes sense to site in desert or other very sunny dry areas, is one of the key technologies, probably the only one, that could potentially have a short term potential to replace for a good portion of the year, the production of coal and gas power plants, thereby cutting emissions dramatically. CSP plants with as much as 16 hours of thermal storage could be built within 3 years. Nuclear plants and coal plants with CCS, that have so many more risks associated with them, are both far more difficult to build and are not nearly the clear cut and much needed near term cut in emissions that CSP with storage would be. As noted above rooftop photovoltaics will not have the same decisive near-term impact, unfortunately. Wishing it otherwise won't make this go away, at least in current projections of, in particular, the scalability and cost of distributed energy storage.

3) There is a limit to the amount of land needed to generate power from the desert. Creating a means by which we can plan how that power is generated and to figure in the imposed costs for compliance with that plan (it costs more money to generate power where the sun is not as bright, for instance, or using dry cooling technology, which makes a lot of sense but adds about 8% to the cost of power) makes all the sense in the world. There are two resources at stake here, desert lands and a livable planet inclusive of those desert lands. Playing the former off against the latter is the ultimate in irony and, in my opinion, a form of political "malpractice".

4) A commenter here grumbled about cost. Cost is a relative thing. We have an atmosphere that is priceless to us and a solutionthat costs something both in terms of the cost of power (approx. $.20/kWh for the current generation with storage) and in terms of using limited portions of the desert to generate power. Having a open discussion about value is key because talking about some costs and leaving out of that discussion other costs is a partisan affair that hides more than it informs.

5) It is not arrogance to add to these discussions relevant technical and scientific information that is misrepresented, glossed over, or absent from comments or the piece itself. While there is an element of judgment involved in deciding how and how much of the desert should be developed for renewable energy projects, these judgments should be informed by relevant scientific information as well as, as much as possible, rational argumentation that exposes its assumptions.

Posted by Michael Hoexter on 08 Feb 2010

We can build enough Solar Plants without going into the desert. We can use the unused private land close to populated areas which are not that much expensive of the cost of a project. There’s no reason why we can’t do it near population centers without affecting wildlife habitat. We have to judge it relatively. For some, the desert is untouchable; for others, it’s a resource to be utilized

The Solar Projects in Mojave Desert will doubtlessly have adverse impact on water resources, desert tortoises, and other rare animals and plants that inhabit a fragile arid ecosystem. But isn’t it miner concern compared to ever increasing carbon growth in the atmosphere that will directly challenge human existence?

Commenter can be reached at : http://bokme.com/

Posted by Padam Pande on 20 Mar 2010

California needs more alternative energy sources, so use of the desert makes sense. Most of the Golden State is uninhabited, so why not put the 'boonies' to work for the good of all Californians?

Posted by California Blogger on 12 Jun 2010

Well the dust is now starting to pickup with the passage of many months of debate and approval of the Ivanpah project in a process that finally can be seen by all as the travesty and kangaroo court process that the whole event was from the very beginning.

I don't have a problem with this article and I believe the events that have occurred since it was written serve to vindicate the author.

How was Mr. Woody to have known that the fix was in long ago when top people in the "mainstream environmental groups" such as Zichella and Wald, were in on all the meetings and plans for the projects, especially in their powerful positions on RETI Steering committees for example.

From my emails and correspondence with intervenors in this process, it was like talking to a wall with those people, some might go so far as to think that they were in bed with the industrialists- that's my opinion which I stand by.

So now we have a spate of projects approved in a "fast track process" which to me is more about getting these approved at any cost and to hell with everybody else's opinions, than any "crocodile tear" concern for NEPA.

But in the old days, they would be concerned by God. Because as sure as the sun rises, the Sierra Club or one of the other groups would have filed a federal NEPA lawsuit, stopping these projects right in their tracks.

Sadly though, this won't be happening this time as they have morphed into "carbonmentalist" organizations, now willing to sacrifice any and all deserts and other wild places so that they can worship at their altar of carbon reduction.

After all, everyone has to sacrifice here, so that China can build their 2 new coal fired plants a week.


Posted by William Mcdonald on 17 Oct 2010

This report by Todd Woody and the subsequent commentators have provided the most cogent statement I have seen of the green vs. green battle, which is still raging today.

However, it seems there is still a substantial challenge to reframe the issues in a manner acceptable to all factions (including all "hues of greens" in particular) in order to better facilitate solutions to the conflict.

Generally speaking I see the conflict to be based on two general issues/components:

(1) How much damage will be done by each alternative scenario contemplated, and how likely is each such damage prospect? This aspect of the problem appears to me to be very susceptible to scientific analysis and discovery. But it also appears to me that there are really great unknowns here as well, and these great unknowns are greatly driving the wide variations posited in needed solutions and driving also the resulting conflicts. There is also the challenge in this component to explicate the various damage prospects and their levels of likelihood in sufficient detail for policy-making purposes. This too is a problem for scientific analysis and discovery.

(2) What are the "human values" to be served or impacted by the various alternatives and damage prospects and how are the various values to be compared, say in some sort of "trade-off" analysis where compromise seems inevitable? Although this question is not entirely a matter of scientific analysis and discovery, scientific analysis and discovery can help out here a great deal. For example, there has been much political science research of a mathematical nature on various "voting" schemes designed to rank values under some sort of general idea of democratic decision-making. That kind of analytical thinking could be applicable here. There have also been similar attempts at fundamental studies of "value" in economics research. And in particular, for example, how is the (negative) value of a given level of tortoise extinction probability to be compared with the (negative) value of all the posited or projected increased damage resulting from climate change? How do we establish some sort of "trade-off" if a compromise is indeed necessary? Who decides what the relative values will be? And how do we measure those values?

And also: how do we avoid being overly simplistic about such studies?

Posted by Richard Haney on 25 Oct 2010

"America and California didn't get this instantly right. We need to get it right. But getting it right is not a matter of one side winning or losing, or even having to accept dubious compromises. It's about doing thoughtful planning, careful review, and state of the art design. It's about mitigating the impacts that can't be avoided -- because all energy sources have environmental impacts. And above all it’s about realizing that moving rapidly to reduce our dependence on coal and oil is helped, not hindered, by doing renewable development carefully -- sloppiness only helps the dirty energy sources of the past maintain their monopoly. And limiting or hampering the ambition of our renewable energy vision harms, rather than protects, our fragile landscapes -- because coal and oil development do far more damage than solar or wind, and their damage is much harder, or impossible, to avoid. "

Carl Pope talks like a politician. He seems to take no stand. As far as the Sierra Club actually attempting to act concerned about impacts to ecosystems, they just never came through. They came out in support of big, species killing, desert raping projects like Lucerne Valley solar, Imperial Valley, Ivanpah and there are plenty more to come. Where are they? (They did make a settlement on the Imperial Project) Are they so afraid of media backlash that they don't have the guts to oppose any of these projects. We do have alternatives. Solar on roof tops can provide more megawatts than these utility scale boondoggles that are contributing to the extinction of the desert tortoise. In Ivanpah Valley, BrightSource Energy has excavated 17 desert tortoise on the fence line, even killing one. They told us that there would only be 36 on the whole site! This is just the fence line for the first phase! Their lead biologist believes that there are 130 on the entire site. The Fish and Wildlife Service states that all tortoise relocation and translocation will result in 50 percent mortality of the host and recipient populations. That is 65 that BrightSource will kill (not including the recent road kill).

So Sierra Club...WHERE ARE YOU? What about defending the wilderness? Did you get a good donation from BrightSource? Hey, their CEO, John Woolard is a lifetime member!

Posted by Kevin on 25 Oct 2010

Most people are misdirected or too little informed to make a global judgment.

This is about either closing a "planet killing" coal plant or killing a few tortoises.

Posted by Marc on 13 Nov 2010

Google for "Solar Thermal Mojave Desert" - you will find a pdf of an actual study. Deserts sequester CO2. Solar thermal arrays use up scarce water. Deserts teem with life - they are just not suitable for farming.

Deserts are not suitable for optical systems either - ever seen what blowing dust does to a solar panel or a mirror? When you kill the plant life, what keeps the soil from blowing onto your solar collectors, and into your machinery?

Where to build solar arrays? Land biomass averages 4000 gC/m2. Ocean biomass averages 30 gC/m2 , and is quite concentrated around upwellings and river outflows. Much of the sea is almost lifeless. If we can learn how to build floating solar arrays, all the "land" and all the cooling water we need for them is a few kilometers offshore.

Also look at www.stratosolar.com - capturing the sunlight above the clouds, with a large steerable dish, may prove far more cost effective, and have much lower environmental impact.

Yes, coal plants are scary. But it is quite possible to do much, much worse, especially if we are ruled by blind fear rather than sober and quantitative evaluation of alternatives.

Go walk in a desert sometime. They aren't all sand dunes and Lawrence of Arabia.

Posted by Keith Lofstrom on 07 Mar 2011

This sounds like ideology versus reality. It seems that this project would affect the environment in many ways. It would disrupt the ecosystem of the area, we would strip the earth of more materials leaving a huge foot print in two ways. 1 by mining and 2 by having the panels covering a large area. I am all for a clean environment but in a way that respects all living creatures.

Posted by natalie w on 18 May 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Todd Woody is a veteran environmental and technology journalist based in California who writes for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Grist and other publications. He previously was a senior editor at Fortune magazine, the assistant managing editor of Business 2.0 magazine and the business editor of the San Jose Mercury News.



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