“Here Comes the Sun”
by Judith Lewis Mernit
Audubon, September-October 2011
Solar in the Mojave
Tiny-leaved Palo Verde trees that conserve water by performing photosynthesis in their bark; a mutant species of creosote that evolved with triple the normal chromosomes in response to scarce summer rainfall; the iconic Joshua Tree, famous not only for its twisted limbs, but for providing crucial nesting spots for Scott’s orioles and shade for desert reptiles: These and other wonders of the Mojave Desert — which extends from southeastern California through southern Nevada and a western sliver of Utah — have long been under siege by exurban development, invasive weeds and even too-aggressive recreation. Now the warming of the planet also threatens to disrupt the delicate ecosystem’s balance, altering rainfall patterns and intensifying the region’s already blistering heat. Ironically, one of the solutions to the climate problem threatens the desert even more immediately: Hundreds of thousands of acres could be cleared within the next few years to accommodate industrial-scale solar energy.
Most of the Mojave consists of federal land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management for its “highest and best use” on the public’s behalf. Especially on its mid-elevation slopes, the Mojave gets the strongest and most consistent sunshine in the country; the region’s “isolation”
– the potential watts per meter that solar technology can harness – rivals that of just about anywhere else on earth (only equatorial Africa a thin band in northern Australia get more). Interest in developing its solar resources using both concentrating solar thermal plants which produce electricity with thousands of sun-focusing mirrors, as well as traditional solar photovoltaics, dates back to the Carter administration, but back then energy wasn’t dear enough to make renewables pay off.
In the past few years, however, both economics and politics have turned in renewable energy’s favor. Not only have states like California spurred the industry with ambitious renewable energy goals, but the Obama administration’s emphasis on clean-energy as a climate solution has moved the Interior Department to fast-track the permitting and leasing of public land.
Construction, in some instances, is underway. At least some sensitive lands will inevitably be
sacrificed as development goes forward. Some projects will plow under rare microphyll woodlands, home to those Palo Verde and Ironwood trees that serve as important habitat for desert birds. Others will disrupt migration corridors and habitat for threatened desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. Whether the damage can be contained, how and by whom should be the principal subject of this story.
In December, right on schedule, the BLM released a draft environmental study by the BLM in collaboration with the Energy Department. The study proposed 10 solar energy zones, or “SEZes.” Two of the 10 have been strongly and uniformly opposed by environmental groups, including Audubon, Sierra Club and the Wildlands Conservancy. Interior is accepting comments on the document for two more weeks, so I’ll have time while researching this story to evaluate whether the environmentalists concerns were taken into account, and if not, why not.
In the meantime, construction moves forward on many solar plants whose developers were already deep into the lease-and-permit process before Interior put this more orderly system in motion. BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah facility on California’s border with Nevada; Solar Millennium’s Blythe plant, close to the Arizona border, and Amargosa Valley Power Project, on the outskirts of Death Valley just inside the western Nevada border. All of these developments have recognized impacts to land and wildlife; all three developers have agreed to mitigation plans — from relocating resident tortoise to allowing vegetation to co-exist with mirrors.
Through site visits and interviews with the biologists involved, I’m hoping to get a sense of how those mitigation efforts are proceeding. (Spring, incidentally, is a great time to do this, because the tortoise are crawling around with their jaws full of flowers.)
If there’s space and time, I’d also like to investigate whether there’s a way to do desert solar right – not just adequately, but in a way that satisfies environmentalist, developer and public land manager alike. It might be worthwhile to look into what’s happening in Arizona, where the BLM-led Restoration Design Project has wildlife and land experts looking into the possibilities of solar on fallow alfalfa fields and abandoned energy developments. One project, Spanish developer Abengoa’s Solana concentrating solar plant on old alfalfa plots in Gila Bend, Arizona, appears to be a model for such facilities (but I’d have to do a little more digging to back up that claim). The Energy Department recently awarded Abengoa a $1.45 billion loan guarantee for the plant, which also has the added advantage of state-of-the-art storage (in molten salt, aka “saltpeter,” which, again, I’d have to know more about).
Finally, it’s worth discussing whether utility-scale solar is even necessary. Many people, such as Bill Powers, an engineer and professional witness for the Sierra Club and NRDC, argue that California can meet its 33 percent by 2020 renewable energy goal with solar panels on urban rooftops, especially as the price of photovoltaic panels drops. Others, such as Nate Lewis of the California Institute of Technology – whose calculations the industrial solar industry cites regularly – say that’s just not possible. I don’t think it’s within the scope of this story to answer this question conclusively, but I always have to ask it.
Preliminary source list:
Garry George, the chapter network director at Los Angeles Audubon, who was the first person to alert me to the Mojave renewable energy conundrum in 2004. Garry goes to most of the public meetings to speak up for Audubon, and he can also connect with me other Audubon folks involved in locating solar projects.
David Lamfrom of the National Parks Conservation Association; he’s really worked hard to communicate with the Interior Department about the need for protecting the desert environment, and I know he’s frustrated with their response.
Todd Keeler Wolf, a biologist with the California Native Plant Society and Jim Andre, a biologist who lives out in the Mojave town of Kelso, California with his wife, Tasha La Doux, a botanist at Joshua Tree National Park: These three are part of a group of people racing to document and catalog all the vegetation in the Mojave before it’s gone (astonishingly, they keep discovering new plants, and new stands of endangered plants in at-risk areas).
Ray Brady, renewable energy team director at the BLM.
Rainer Aringhoff, founder of Solar Millennium, now head of a German company called Desertec and looking for more land to develop in the Mojave (I spoke to him a few years ago and he was a worthy source – even-handed and specific, an excellent explainer, which is sometimes hard to find on the industry side).
Someone from BrightSource, a company that in the past has not been forthcoming with me, but may let me have access to prove that their mitigation efforts are working, and to demonstrate the credibility of the press photos they’ve been circulating, showing vegetation co-existing with solar arrays.
Biologists working on the Ivanpah mitigation: Peter Woodman, a biologist who worked on the military project at Fort Irwin; Mercy Vaughn, the lead biologist on the Ivanpah project; Dr. Larry LaPre, BLM biologist.
Nancy Pfund of DBL Investors, a venture capitalist who has a strong commitment to environmental ethics, and consults with developers about renewable energy investment. She’s pushed hard for clean energy, especially solar, in the Mojave. I met her at Stanford’s State of the West conference last month and she agreed to talk to me about balancing the land and wildlife impacts she may not have considered before.
David Myers and April Sall, both of the Wildlands Conservancy in the Mojave: David is an expert at finding land to exploit as well as land to protect in the Mojave; he was instrumental in helping to select land for preservation under the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, and is consulting with Senator Dianne Feinstein on her new desert protection bill. That process is imperfect and politicized now as it was in 1994, but it still helped protect a lot of land, and will again if it gets updated. April Sall is a third-generation resident of the desert — her grandmother was an early homesteader – and studied to become a biologist just to better equip herself to protect this land.
There is another, more purist group of environmentalists I’ve reported on before, who may figure in some way into this story. They include Laura Cunningham of Basin and Range Watch,
Donna and Larry Charpied of the Chuckawalla Valley Citizens Coalition and Larry Hogue of the Desert Protective Council. They have staked out a position in opposition to all large-scale renewable energy development in the desert. I will talk to them, but don’t know whether I’ll quote them.