Solar Showdown: Are New Solar Power Projects Anti-Environmental?
Big money, big energy and big environmentalism join forces to support big solar energy projects on federal land in the Southwest. But could these “green” projects actually be anti-environmental boondoggles in the making?
Last December, I flew to Phoenix, rented a car and drove two hours west on Interstate 10 to Blythe, Calif., a sun-baked town of 13,000 on the lower Colorado River surrounded by orange groves and irrigated farmland. In the winter, this area attracts tens of thousands of snowbirds, many of whom park their recreational trailers along dirt roads in the desert and tool around in all-terrain vehicles. I hadn’t come to see them, though. I wanted to learn about another new arrival, an international consortium called Solar Millennium LLC, which is building a 7,000-acre solar power generating station just outside town.
Pulling off the highway near the city’s airport, I find little more evidence of the project than a wooden sign half-hidden in the brush and some surveyors’ stakes. It doesn’t look like much now, but when the plant is fully built out in 2014, long curved mirrors called parabolic troughs will focus sunlight on oil-filled tubes that transfer heat to steam generators. The four linked plants — the largest solar complex in the world, by some estimates — are expected to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 300,000 single-family homes.
Tourists and truckers crisscrossing the California desert are usually in a hurry to get somewhere else — Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix or Las Vegas. For hours on end, they gaze out on endless waves of withered, yellow-green creosote brush lapping up against sere mountain slopes, broken up here and there by low-lying dry lakebeds called playas. It is one of the last large tracts of unspoiled wilderness in the Lower 48, but to many people its very vastness and emptiness makes it a natural place to build new solar power projects like the one at Blythe.
Sure enough, farther west along I-10, I pass the planned sites of two more fast-track solar projects, Palen (a Solar Millennium parabolic-trough project encompassing 3,800 acres) and Genesis (parabolic troughs on 4,640 acres), along with a natural gas-fired power plant and a couple of state prisons.
In fact, dozens of large-scale solar installations could be built on federally managed lands in six Southwest states over the next few years. They represent a key piece of the Obama administration’s plan to create thousands of green jobs and meet a congressional mandate of adding 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy to the nation’s portfolio by 2015.
Proponents, including national environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council, see this as a critical and long-overdue step toward ending our reliance on fossil fuels. Last October, when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced approval of the first two new solar plants on public lands in more than two decades, Johanna Wald, the NRDC’s senior attorney, hailed the move as “a major milestone in renewable energy on public lands and a down payment on America’s transition to a clean energy economy.”
Katherine Gensler, senior manager for government affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group that represents both big solar developers and manufacturers of smaller photovoltaic systems, says federal incentives aimed at jump-starting large-scale solar development made 2010 a banner year for new U.S. installations. And the tax package crafted last December by the lame-duck Congress included a provision to extend generous cash grants in lieu of tax credits for renewable energy through 2011.
But an assortment of scientists, local land conservationists, Native Americans and solitude-loving desert rats maintain that the huge solar installations approved for the Southwest — the Blythe project is nearly half the size of Manhattan — will be inefficient. They won’t produce electricity at night, and, as with conventional power sources, some of the energy they generate will dissipate as it flows over hundreds of miles of transmission lines.
Industrial-scale solar energy will come at a steep environmental price, critics contend: Groundwater will be depleted to cool machinery operating at high temperatures. Construction will sometimes require scraping native vegetation down to bare soil, despoiling fragile, carbon-sequestering ecosystems. And, the critics say, these huge solar projects will be obsolete almost as soon as they are built because photovoltaic panels, which can be deployed in small arrays on residential rooftops, are rapidly becoming more efficient and affordable.
“There are folks who truly believe this is going to be a revolutionary change in our society toward renewables,” says Jim André, a respected desert botanist who warns that public land managers are presiding over an unfolding environmental disaster. “The facts are that it’s the biggest wholesale impact that we’ve seen in North America to our natural heritage.”
So far, though, most objections to the giant solar projects planned for the Southwest have been washed away by a tsunami of money from Wall Street, lured to invest by billions of dollars in federal grants, tax credits and loan guarantees and a fast-track regulatory approval process.
But as marginalized as they have been, the critiques of this multibillion-dollar solar land rush raise some troubling questions: Could the big new solar installations be draining money from more worthy alternative energy investments? Could they actually worsen the environmental catastrophe they are trying to avert?
Nearing the boundary of Joshua Tree National Park, I turn into the Chuckwalla Valley, where I find Donna and Larry Charpied leaning against a pickup, relaxing with a couple of beers after a hard day’s work. They moved here from Santa Barbara nearly 30 years ago to breed and grow jojoba, a hardy native plant that produces valuable oil used in cosmetics. They know they’re a tad evangelical about its near-miraculous properties, cheerfully calling themselves “jojoba’s witnesses.”
They live in a 10-acre clearing on the valley floor surrounded by Bureau of Land Management property. Orange trees, date palms, figs and Paraguayan mesquite shade their trailer and workshop, and on a clear day they can see mountains on the U.S.-Mexico border, 100 miles to the southeast. “We moved out here and we thought, ‘We’re so protected — it’s BLM land,’” Donna says.
The Charpieds were dismayed last year when they found survey crews working in the desert just 600 feet from their property line. It turned out First Solar Development Inc. was planning to build the bucolically named Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, an array of thin-film photovoltaic panels spread across 7,040 acres that is expected to generate 550 megawatts. The developers will have to remove native vegetation to install the panels, Donna says, and that will stir up silt laced with naturally occurring arsenic that is bound to become airborne when the wind kicks up.
On a slope several miles away, I can discern massive tailings from the Eagle Mountain mine, where iron ore was produced to build Victory ships in California shipyards during World War II. In the late 1980s, the Charpieds learned of a plan to turn the old mine into a landfill that would have brought in 20,000 tons of solid waste per day on rail cars. With a how-to book and a typewriter, they filed a series of successful legal challenges. Later, national environmental organizations hired lawyers who helped turn the tide against the project.
Now those one-time allies have signed off on large-scale solar development like the Desert Sunlight project. “They are such traitors I can hardly believe it,” Donna says. “I think they have taken a page out of the developers’ book.”
Darkness falls as I continue west along the southern boundary of Joshua Tree and descend into the incandescent sprawl of Indio, Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. I suddenly feel pessimistic at the thought of how much energy is being used to beat back the night. Americans buy about 4,100 terawatt-hours of electricity a year (a terawatt equals 1 trillion watts). They draw on 1,100 gigawatts of power-generating capacity, about 50 percent of which comes from coal-fired plants. Nuclear and natural gas-fired plants each pick up about 20 percent of the load; hydroelectric sources come in around 6 percent, while renewables, like wind and solar, amount to about 4 percent.
How could solar technology ever hope to supplant the coal-powered electrical generation network that spews massive amounts of climate-altering carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?
The next morning finds me in Lucerne Valley, where the forested foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains fall into the western Mojave Desert. At a crossroads café, I meet up with Jim Harvey, a 45-year-old Chicago native and freelance Web designer who moved out here 10 years ago.
In 2007, Harvey founded the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy after learning that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power wanted to build a power transmission line nearby — a plan that was later abandoned. Now he’s fighting Chevron Energy Solutions‘ Lucerne Valley Solar Project, a field of thin-film photovoltaic panels on 516 acres that has gotten an enthusiastic thumbs-up from environmental groups.
Harvey, who has an impressive command of technical data, worries that toxic cadmium telluride used in the thin-film panels will escape into the environment, and he isn’t soothed by Chevron’s assurances that it will spray polymer-based binders on the disturbed soil to keep it from blowing around.
But his objections run deeper. He believes Chevron wanted to locate the project here because it didn’t think rural residents would have the will or the resources to fight it. He also thinks solar developers are pushing to build as many projects as they can before widespread rooftop solar gains momentum and wins out. “We really are in a battle here — a battle of ideas,” Harvey says.
He points to the popularity of California programs that offer homeowners loans to install photovoltaic panels and improve their homes’ energy efficiency. “People were standing in line for these loans,” he says. Governments and electrical utilities know these programs work, but they don’t really want to see them succeed, Harvey says. “There’s a huge lobby,” he says. “That’s what this all boils down to.”
Big environmental organizations have been co-opted by grants from solar developers intended to buy their acquiescence, Harvey charges. “They were giving these environmental groups money to hire them as consultants to promote their projects,” he says.
As proof, Harvey cites a document posted on his organization’s website. It is a February 2008 proposal from the Sacramento-based Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, which Harvey describes as “a very questionable alliance” of environmental organizations, energy corporations and utility companies.
“CEERT’s established partnerships with leading environmental groups like NRDC and Sierra Club allow environmental concerns to be closely considered in all solar development and transmission infrastructure plans,” the proposal reads. “However, energy siting issues are largely a new area for many of the organizational staff working on this project. For these organizations to advocate their positions effectively they will need to build new capacity. CEERT plans to provide subgrants to Sierra Club and NRDC which will allow them to hire new staff specifically assigned to work on Big Solar.”
CEERT’s current board of directors includes members hailing from the NRDC, the Environmental Defense Fund and Defenders of Wildlife, along with representatives of solar, wind and fuel cell companies, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Lung Association. Founded in 1990, the group describes itself on its website as “a partnership of major environmental groups and private-sector clean energy companies” that “fight for policies that promote global warming solutions and increased reliance on clean, renewable energy sources for California and the West.”
Harvey and I drive out to the future Chevron site — quiet for now. Dotted with 15-foot Joshua trees, the area provides habitat for bobcats, mountain lions, desert bighorn sheep, coyote, mule deer, San Joaquin kit fox and Gambel’s quail. “This is very typical Mojave Desert,” he says, “and it doesn’t have to be any more beautiful than this.”
The seeds for large-scale solar development on public land were sown when Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, mandating 10,000 megawatts of new, non-hydroelectric renewable power capacity by 2015. Not much solar capacity was added during the Bush presidency, however, as would-be solar developers had difficulty attracting investors for their projects. Still, by one estimate, there were a million acres of solar lease applications pending at the BLM as the Bush era wound down. The industry revived when President Barack Obama took office and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he wanted to reach the 10,000-megawatt goal by the end of the administration’s first term in 2012.
The new utility-scale solar energy effort is flush with cash thanks to provisions of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. These include cash grants of up to 30 percent of construction costs in lieu of investment tax credits and hefty loan guarantees of $1 billion or more in some cases. Obama has touted these measures as necessary if we are to create a new green economy.
Ray Brady leads the energy policy team at the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department branch that administers more than 250 million acres of federal land in 11 Western states and Alaska. Under the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the BLM manages public lands for multiple uses, including mining, grazing, oil and gas extraction, hunting, off-road recreation, wildlife and landscape conservation — and, now, renewable energy development. Brady says most of the new solar projects are likely to be located on BLM land in the Southwest for an obvious reason: It’s where the sun shines.
The BLM approved nine solar projects in California and Nevada in 2010 and continues to review other applications — more than 120 in all — but only a handful may actually be built, Brady tells me. Much of the criticism leveled at the bureau’s permitting process has revolved around its approval of environmentally sensitive tracts for solar development, but Brady says the solar sites were identified from existing local resource management plans.
The initial grant program required construction to start by Dec. 31, 2010, which explains the push to get major projects off the drawing board quickly. “A lot of companies were competing to try to get their projects jump-started so they could qualify for tax credits this year,” Brady says.
Practically speaking, some observers say, it became an improvised process with too few staffers to handle the flood of applications and a regulatory framework ill-suited to the new technology.
Hoping to be more methodical moving forward, the BLM recently drafted a massive programmatic environmental impact statement meant to identify the best sites for solar development in a huge region that includes the Four Corners states, Nevada and California. Public hearings on the document got under way in February. Twenty-four high-potential solar-study areas representing about 670,000 acres have been identified for site-specific environmental reviews, Brady says. A realistic guess is that 24,000 megawatts of solar generation capacity could be built out over a 20-year period on BLM lands, he says, translating into a total of 240,000 acres that might be repurposed for utility scale solar. That would still amount to 30 or more projects the size of the Blythe plant, covering a total of about 375 square miles.
The BLM approves a large solar project as a “right of way authorization” — a concept originally applied to oil and gas leases. Under that provision, the bureau can collect an annual rent payment called an acreage fee, as well as a “megawatt capacity fee” geared toward the amount of electricity that could potentially be generated. For the nine solar projects approved in 2010, total acreage fees would amount to $5.5 million a year, with an additional $23.9 million in annual megawatt capacity fees, Brady says.
The BLM will also require developers to post a bond to ensure that solar panels, mirrors and support structures are removed once a project is decommissioned. “One of the companies estimated that the amount of construction and metal work was as much metal for steel as was used to build the Golden Gate Bridge,” Brady notes.
Despite these planning efforts, the BLM and the individual solar developers have been hit with at least a half dozen lawsuits alleging that the approval process failed to comply with federal environmental and cultural-protection regulations.
The first legal challenge was brought by the Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation to block a 6,100-acre, 709-megawatt solar project in the Imperial Valley, east of San Diego. A federal judge issued a temporary injunction based on claims that the Interior Department had not addressed the tribe’s concerns about hundreds of culturally sensitive sites.
Next, La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, a Blythe-based organization led by Alfredo Figueroa, a garrulous 76-year-old retired miner, community activist and gadfly, sued the federal agencies over six desert solar plants that it claimed were approved without due consultation with Native Americans. Figueroa, whose mother belonged to the local Chemehuevi tribe, believes he can prove that the area around Blythe is Aztlán, the legendary homeland of the Aztecs before they made their way south to the Valley of Mexico.
The Blythe plant and others planned for this sacred landscape will be devastating for Native Americans, Figueroa says. “They’re trying to destroy all remnants of our culture and tradition,” he says. The BLM says that the Solar Millennium project, which is being built in partnership with Chevron Energy Solutions, will not disturb any of the undisputedly ancient Native-American geoglyphs in the Blythe area.
In other litigation, a group called California Unions for Reliable Energy sued over the proposed Genesis plant on the grounds that it would illegally deplete groundwater. And local environmental groups in East San Diego County filed a lawsuit against the BLM and Interior Department over the Imperial Valley project. The Sierra Club also took action, petitioning the California Supreme Court to block the Calico project, proposed for a site just east of Barstow.
Driving over the Clark Mountains from Barstow on I-15, I drop into the Ivanpah Valley, a long, dry basin of salt, sand and cactus ringed by rugged peaks along the California-Nevada border. The interstate runs straight as a ruler across the salt flats to Primm (formerly Stateline), Nev., a garish collection of hotel-casinos replete with a replica mining town, castle turrets and an outlet mall — Yosemite Sam-meets-Robin-Hood-at-Williams-Sonoma.
Species in Danger
A partial list of rare or endangered flora and fauna at the Ivanpah Valley solar plant site:
Clark Mountain agave (Agave utahensis var. nevadensis) A small agave found in only a few mountain ranges in the eastern Mojave, southern Nevada and the Utah-Arizona border region.
Small-flowered androstephium (Androstephium breviflorum) Listed on the rare-plant index maintained by the California Native Plant Society and the California Department of Fish and Game.
Mojave milkweed (Asclepias nyctaginifolia) Nearly 80 percent of this plant’s known California range is on the Ivanpah project site.
Desert pincushion (Coryphantha chlorantha) Endangered in California, although more common elsewhere.
Parish club-cholla (Grusonia parishii) These low-growing cactii are not widespread in California.
Viviparous foxtail cactus (Coryphantha vivipara var. rosea) Listed as endangered or protected by several states.
Utah vine milkweed (Cynanchum utahense) An uncommon perennial vine native to the Mojave Desert.
Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) These creatures, which can live to be 100 years old but are susceptible to contagious disease, are declining in numbers throughout the Mojave Desert, where they are regarded as threatened.
Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum cinctum) The Ivanpah Valley region is in the only place in California in which these venomous lizards are found. They are protected in Nevada and Arizona.
Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) This legally protected species is vulnerable to habitat depletion throughout its range.
Burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) Listed as a species of special concern throughout most of the western U.S. due to habitat loss.
Say’s phoebe (Sayornis saya) Numbers for this migratory bird are declining due to habitat loss.
San Bernardino kangaroo rat (Dipodomys merriami parvus) This Southern California subspecies was once common in dry washes of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, but since 1998 has been listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In October, BrightSource Energy broke ground on a 3,400-acre project here. When it is finished next year, 170,000 movable mirrors will focus sunlight on solar boilers atop three 300-foot towers, creating steam to generate 370 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes.
Jim André, sporting a goatee and mop of unruly brown hair, pulls up to meet me in a weathered white Toyota pickup with a camper shell in back. For 17 years he has directed the Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, a 9,000-acre enclave operated by the University of California, Riverside, in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve, 75 miles from the nearest town.
André describes the area in Southern California, Arizona and Nevada where he has done field research as one of the most species-diverse deserts in the world. The Ivanpah site alone is home to a dozen rare plant species, he says. Twenty desert species can live for more than 1,000 years, and some of the creosote brush colonies, which reproduce through cloning, may be 10,000 years old, dating back to the time when these plants first arrived during the Pleistocene.
André pulls the truck through a gate in a casino parking lot onto a dirt road that follows a utility right-of-way. Four sets of 150-foot steel electrical transmission towers march side by side toward Los Angeles, paralleled by a buried natural gas pipeline. André scans the low-lying plants and shrubs with a practiced eye as we roll along, occasionally stopping for a second look, before pulling over next to an electrical tower.
We get out and scramble a couple hundred feet up a limestone outcropping sprinkled with colorful little barrel cacti to survey the entire Ivanpah Valley. It might not look like much, but to André, this is a valuable and uncommonly diverse ecosystem, home to desert bighorn sheep, the Mojave fringe-toed lizard and the endangered desert tortoise. “This is just a tragedy,” he says quietly, pointing to a large scar in the landscape a few miles away, where bulldozers are clearing thickets of creosote brush and bursage for one of the BrightSource thermal towers.
Construction will inevitably disturb the top layer of soil, called a cryptobiotic crust, which contains dozens of species of moss, lichen, algae and fungi in each square centimeter and is critical to the desert’s health, André says. “Once you remove that crust,” he says, “it can take many hundreds of years to grow back.”
As arid as it is, this landscape absorbs as much carbon from the atmosphere as an African savannah, he tells me. “As an ecologist, I know how important these systems are to us as a society,” he says. “You’re destroying a system that you depend on to stem global climate change.”
Laura Cunningham, a wildlife biologist who, like André, belongs to a coalition called Solar Done Right, says opponents of huge public lands projects like the one at Ivanpah aren’t against solar energy — even at the utility scale — per se. “We’re saying put it on disturbed land,” she says. For example, there are 30,000 acres of selenium-contaminated farmland in the San Joaquin basin. “Maybe we should slow down a little bit and put the Ivanpah solar tower there,” Cunningham says.
The BLM’s Brady acknowledges the impact from the sheer scale of large solar projects like the one at Ivanpah, but he maintains these issues have been addressed in the environmental review process. For example, developers might have to mitigate the impact on a site by shrinking the construction footprint or buying additional land to protect from development and offset habitat loss, he says. To avoid harming the endangered desert tortoise, BLM requires developers to set aside for protection as much as five acres of desert for every acre of native habitat lost.
Still, Brady concedes, “It is a long-term alteration of landscape. It basically is converting it from a more natural desert environment to a more of an industrialized site. Some of the solar companies are trying to develop some best-management practices to try to reduce that amount of disturbance, but it’s still a very intensive use.”
The BLM’s approval of the Ivanpah Project triggered yet another lawsuit, this one from the Western Watersheds Project over the federal government’s alleged failure to comply with environmental laws in the California Desert Conservation Area. Nevertheless, BrightSource Energy, formed in 2006 and based in the Bay Area, is proud of the environmental mitigation it has done for the project, which broke ground last October. It hired 100 biologists to study tortoise habitat and relocate the creatures to new burrows a mile from the construction zone, according to Kristin Hunter, a company spokeswoman.
The plant’s air-cooled solar thermal design will not require much water or extensive grading, and the mirrors will be mounted on poles planted directly in the ground, rather than on concrete pads (so less native vegetation is disturbed). The choice of site was hardly accidental; the existing electric transmission corridor and gas pipeline had already disrupted the area — better to build here than disturb virgin land. “Environmental stewardship is core to BrightSource’s approach, and we’ve kept the environmental protection in mind throughout our technology development and our project siting,” Hunter says. “Not all utility-scale solar companies are created equal.”
If BrightSource and other solar developers usually portray themselves as siding with the angels, the same is true of the environmental organizations that have given these development plans their imprimatur, while at the same time arguing for design changes and improvements in the BLM approval process.
Johanna Wald, a San Francisco-based lawyer who’s worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council for nearly 40 years, has spent most of her career holding BLM’s feet to the fire over its public lands management. She well understands the misgivings many have about utility-scale solar plants. “I have to say that as a longtime public lands advocate, I wish we didn’t need any of these plants either, but the fact of the matter is NRDC believes that we do,” she says. “We need programs at multiple scales, and we need them all, if we are to going to develop and implement an effective response to climate change.” As it is, the environmental group gave its blessing to just three of the projects BLM approved in 2010.
Wald believes the Bureau of Land Management was ill prepared for the avalanche of solar plant applications it received. The NRDC and such sister environmental organizations as the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity met repeatedly with the bureau and fast-track solar developers throughout the approval process, Wald says. “We were trying to improve the process as well as the projects,” she says. “So relatively early on, we did bring to the bureau some issues that we think they needed to pay attention to, and in some cases they actually did.”
Wald spent much of her career saying no to conventional energy projects on public lands. “I was always saying, ‘Don’t do this, don’t drill for oil over here. Do renewable energy instead — it’s cheaper and it means more jobs,’” she says. Now that renewable energy is becoming a reality, she says, she realized it was time to put her money where her mouth was.
Wald sounds disheartened but not surprised when I tell her that local conservationists feel betrayed by her organization and its sister groups. “The fact is, we use energy, and there’s no free lunch when it comes to energy,” she says. But Wald bristles at Jim Harvey’s accusations that the NRDC has been bought off by big solar advocates, saying her organization maintains a “rigorous” conflict-of-interest policy that precludes accepting money from solar developers.
“As I have previously told Mr. Harvey and his associates at [Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy] orally and in writing on many occasions, neither I nor anyone at NRDC were ever consulted about this proposal,” she says. “NRDC received no money at all from CEERT, including no sub-grants, for the renewables work we have been engaged in.”
V. John White, the executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, agreed. “It was really an initial set of ideas that we were working on,” White says. “It was inadvertently put up on our website and seized upon.” Ultimately, the environmental groups involved found their own funding to build in-house solar energy expertise, he says.
CEERT, which receives its funding from foundations as well as the energy industry, provides a forum where the different parties with an interest in renewable energy can collaborate on making renewable energy projects less destructive, White says. “We still think the companies and the [nongovernmental organizations] should keep talking to each other and realize that on individual projects there are going to be differences,” he says.
Given the urgency of the climate change problem and this country’s ravenous energy hunger, it seems obvious that the U.S. will need industrial-scale solar power if it is to make significant progress in cutting its reliance on fossil fuels. But so far, the process of deciding where and how to build these projects has been flawed, and the perception, at least, is that objections have too often gone unheard in the rush to do a deal and lock in federal funding.
Judgments on the best way to proceed seem in part to reflect professional orientation — whether one is an economist or a biologist, for example — and in part whether environmental threats are being assessed from a local or a global perspective.
The government, solar developers and the major environmental organizations think it makes sense to rely on a tried-and-true centralized generation method to rapidly scale up the new solar technology to the point where it will make a real impact. This path has, to a certain extent, led them to avert their eyes from the habitat destruction that will almost certainly ensue. Saving the planet, they believe, is such an important goal that some collateral environmental damage simply must be tolerated.
Local conservationists opposed to industrial-scale solar might be chasing a utopian fantasy — ubiquitous rooftop solar — and seriously underestimating the risk of failing to increase solar capacity quickly enough. At the same time, they haven’t lost sight of what stands to be lost in environmental and financial terms as the desert is transformed from wilderness to industrial wasteland. Perhaps environmental damage is more than “collateral” if it results from hasty multibillion-dollar investments in outmoded technology that can’t compete in the green energy marketplace.
Everyone involved in the controversy claims a commitment to the environment, even if much of the time the participants seem to be talking past one another, blinkered by confrontational us-versus-them thinking and even outright conspiracy theories. The rash of recently filed lawsuits arising from the flawed BLM process are bound to drag on for months or years, but they are more likely to slow the pace of solar development than to derail it completely.
Within a decade we’ll know whether the direst predictions about large-scale solar energy have come true — and whether it is actually making a dent in our nation’s carbon emissions. Meanwhile, for better or for worse, the ship of solar development has already set sail, charting an uncertain course into the future.