Fighting Big Solar

Environmentalists clash over paving the desert in order to save the planet


Last month, former Vice President Al Gore proposed a crash program that would require all electricity in the United States to be produced using renewable fuels such as solar, wind, and geothermal by 2018. The presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is aiming for a more modest goal—a national mandate that 25 percent of the country's electricity come from renewable fuels by 2025. And already 30 states are mandating that some portion of the electricity their residents buy be produced from renewable energy sources.

For example, renewable energy mandates in the sunny Southwest include Nevada at 20 percent renewables by 2015; New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah at 20 percent by 2020; and Arizona at 15 percent by 2025. California ambitiously decreed that 20 percent of its electricity will come from renewable sources by 2010.

Given their abundance of sun-drenched deserts, thermal solar power is the most promising form of renewable energy for these states. Most solar thermal plants generate electricity using mirrors to focus the sun's rays on liquid filled tubes, producing steam that drives turbines. The once killer objection that solar power cannot supply round-the-clock base load power because it only works when the sun shines is now being finessed. Engineers have devised ways to store heat—molten salt or ionic liquids—that can be used to produce steam to drive turbines through the night and on cloudy days.

So, base load solar power now seems technically feasible, but what about cost? Current solar thermal plants produce electricity at 15 to 17 cents per kilowatt hour, but many believe it will eventually fall to below 10 cents per kilowatt hour. By contrast, electricity from coal-fired plants costs around 3 to 4 cents per kilowatt hour. The push for switching from cheap coal to expensive solar is being justified on the grounds that humanity needs to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels that contribute to man-made global warming.

However, Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund, favors simply setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Why? Because as he correctly observes: "In essence, renewable standards, subsidies and other mandates assume that the government has all the answers, rather than letting the market figure out the best way to produce energy at the lowest possible cost." But let's set that quibble aside and make the safe assumption that our politicians and regulators will continue to believe that they do have all the answers. In other words, these so-called renewable portfolio standards are not going to go away.

These mandates are driving a land rush in the Southwest as would-be renewable energy producers vie for the best spots, especially for locations suitable for producing solar energy. As a result, a conflict is brewing between the energy and conservation wings of the environmentalist movement. Why? Because solar plants take up a lot of space. In addition, new power lines will have to be built to transmit the renewable power to growing desert and coastal cities. This means trade-offs. Some desert acreage will have to be sacrificed in order to produce energy.

So far the federal Bureau of Land Management has received applications for more than 130 projects in the desert Southwest that could occupy more than 1 million acres of land. A million acres is more than 1,500 square miles. On the other hand, the Mojave Desert measures over 50,000 square miles. According to one estimate, if all these projects were built they could supply enough electricity to fuel 20 million homes.

While some national environmental groups recognize that such trade-offs are necessary, some local groups are fiercely fighting the development of utility-scale solar power generation in the desert. The California-based Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy argues that the push for Big Solar promotes the "permanent destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of pristine public lands designated for multi-purpose use that belong to the people." The Alliance also accuses the development of solar power in the desert of "wilderness killing, unacceptable groundwater depletion and the erosion of hard fought protections of public lands and private rights."

The San Diego-based Desert Protective Council also opposes the construction of a high voltage power line that San Diego Gas & Electric says it needs to transmit renewable power from a solar generation project planned for California's Imperial Valley. The power line would run through an existing right-of-way in a state park, but each of its 141 new towers would average 130 feet in height. "Our take has been from day one, 'Here we go again,'" said Terry Weiner, Imperial County conservation coordinator for the Desert Protective Council to the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Here is where we can do everything out in the desert that we don't want to do in our own backyards in the city,'"

The Desert Protective Council has allies in this fight. "The idea that we're going to sacrifice critical pieces of our environment to protect other pieces of our environment seems a little ironic," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the nonprofit California Parks Foundation in the Los Angeles Times. "That's an irony I cannot accept. We have to find a way to do both." In other words, no trade-offs. These groups want renewable power to be generated locally, preferably by placing solar photovoltaic arrays on roofs.

"It's not just businesses that have slowed things down, it's not just Republicans that have slowed things down, it's also Democrats and also environmental activists sometimes that slow things down," declared a frustrated Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) during a speech at Yale University this past spring. "They say that we want renewable energy but we don't want you to put it anywhere, we don't want you to use it." Schwarzenegger added, "I don't know whether this is ironic or absurd. But, I mean, if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it."

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.