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Written by Elizabeth Jones   
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Thursday, 19 July 2012

Mojave Solar

California has distinguished itself as being at the forefront of environmentally progressive initiatives in the United States. Assembly Bill 32 (2006) requires California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 2004 baseline levels by the year 2020.1 In addition, California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard requires utility companies to increase procurement from eligible renewable energy resources to 33% of total procurement by 2020.2 These ambitious targets mean that California will have to invest heavily in renewable energy , particularly solar energy.

In order to meet these goals, several colossal solar facilities have been sited in the Mojave Desert. Although all of this solar power will help the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it also brings some trade-offs between conservation of habitat and expansion of renewable energy to the forefront. Solar installations in the Mojave have forced environmentalists to evaluate their goals, and also to take a stand on what their vision of “environmentalism" embodies and excludes.

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Why the Controversy Over the Mojave?
The Mojave Desert is one of the best areas in the world for solar as it receives “up to twice the sunlight received in other regions of the country.”4 Thus, the Mojave is an ideal location for building solar plants. Unfortunately, the Mojave is also the site of some of the Southwestern United States’ most iconic landscapes, and home to endangered animals like the desert tortoise, western burrowing owl, bighorn sheep, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, and golden eagle.5

Mojave Desert Tortoise
Mojave Desert Tortoise 6

Due to the conservation value of the Mojave, it was donated to the U.S. Interior Department under President Clinton, with promises to protect the land for future generations. However, under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the land was opened up for solar projects. With the go ahead from the Bush Administration, BrightSource Energy Inc. and several other solar firms designated distant sections of the Mojave Desert in 2009 for 400MW of solar power on approximately 5,130-acres.7 Unlike rooftop photovoltaic panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal farms built by BrightSource use the sun to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating industrial turbines. It was with this 2009 proposal that controversy began. Backed by environmental groups, Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed that the land be protected as a national monument. She designed a bill to “designate new lands in the Mojave Desert for conservation, enhance recreational opportunities, and streamline and improve the federal permitting process to advance large-scale wind and solar development on suitable lands.”8 After several months of clashing with environmental activists, BrightSource decided to back down and move 500 acres of the plant elsewhere in order to accommodate an endangered species of desert turtle.9;10

What’s Happening in the Mojave Now?

The Mojave solar projects are currently under construction.11 The BrightSource farm along with several others will eventually produce a total of 4,143 megawatts.12 That’s enough energy to power 2 million homes,13 and equals the output from several nuclear facilities!14 The approval of the projects comes after years of environmental review and controversy over the installations’ impact on the environment. The power plants licensed so far will cover some 39 square miles of land with a variety of solar thermal technologies.15

How Do We Define Environmentalism?
The situation in California is a strange one, considering that it’s usually environmentalists and liberal interests that are promoting alternative sources of energy. Now it looks like alternative energy companies are being attacked from both sides, from conservatives who would rather see funding go to nuclear and fossil fuel efforts, and from liberals who prioritize conservation over developing industry, even green industries at that.

BrightSource has been widely criticized for clearing land to make way for transmission lines, disrupting habitat,16;17 and for cutting the tops of desert plants so that they “fit under elevated solar mirrors.”18 This policy of "gentle mowing" is especially annoying to Larry LaPre, the Bureau of Land Management's wildlife biologist for most of the Mojave, who notes that barrel cacti, even small ones, take 100 years to grow.19

As one environmental attorney at the National Resources Defense Council put it: "I have spent my entire career thinking of myself as an advocate on behalf of public lands and acting for their protection, [yet] I am now helping facilitate an activity on public lands that will have very significant environmental impacts.” She went on to explain: “We are doing it because of the threat of climate change. It's not an accommodation; it's a change I had to make to respond to climate."20 Climate change is forcing people to rethink what it means to do the best thing for the environment. Although many might agree with this reasoning, others fear that concerns for habitat loss and pollution are being marginalized.

The development of solar energy production facilities in the Mojave forces us to wrestle to find a balance between renewable energy production and protection of wildlife. As the threat of climate change increases, we will have to continue to make hard choices about just what kind of, and how much development we can accept in our desert terrain.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 19 July 2012 )