Solar in the desert finally gets some scrutiny

 

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to California's Mojave Desert this September to announce a multi-agency effort to boost renewable energy development in the desert. But first, she had to go on a hike.

“We went out into the Big Morongo Preserve,” she told reporters. “Fifteen, 20 minutes from here, there are wetlands. Wetlands, and 254 different bird species. Who knew?”

I remember being amazed, too, on a 2008 visit to that same preserve with a couple of California conservationists. I thought I knew the dry desert, its banded sunsets and varieties of lizards. But Morongo was a wonderland of seeps and birds, where a couple of times we stopped to behold a desert tortoise munching on purple flowers.

It was also a wonderland through which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had hoped to string a transmission corridor. The city planned to call it the Green Path North, as it would haul geothermal energy from the Salton Sea to the transmission hubs that serve Los Angeles.

That transmission line never happened. As with so many renewable energy projects slated for the Mojave and Colorado deserts of California, Green Path North mostly fell victim to market forces — but not before it sullied the utility’s reputation locally. The proposal had the effect of uniting off-roaders, rock climbers and conservationists in protest against the careless industrialization of the desert for energy projects – even clean-energy projects.

The new Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a collaboration among federal, state and local governments, the solar industry, Native American tribal leaders and environmentalists, is an attempt to get ahead of such careless proposals. An analysis of 22.5 million acres of desert land, both public and private, it sets aside habitat for desert species like the tortoise and bighorn sheep. It should guide developers toward land rich with transmission, but absent cultural and natural resources.

Jewell called it a “road map” that can be used for more renewable energy development around the country. As she stood against a background of windmills just outside of Palm Springs, California, describing how the Obama administration means to “double down” on public-lands renewable energy development, the 8,000-page document went online.

So far, environmental groups have mostly praised the effort, as have Native American leaders and national park advocates. Kim Delfino, the California program director at Defenders of Wildlife, says she hopes it means that “we can focus on the projects we all can support.” The Sierra Club calls the plan “a promising step” toward protecting “areas with environmental, cultural, or scenic value that should be preserved for future generations.”

Energy developers, too, should be happy, as the plan promises to end the uncertainty that has wasted so much of their time and money. Two weeks before the plan’s release, for example, the California Energy Commission had belatedly approved the Palen Solar Power Plant, a collaboration between California-based BrightSource Energy and Spanish developer Abengoa. The commission had rejected the project last December, partially on the grounds that its peculiar technology — fields of mirrors that concentrate sunlight on a 750-foot high tower — would create hazards for birds in the Colorado Desert. A similar BrightSource solar plant on California’s border with Nevada seems to be creating an ecological “megatrap” that kills birds.

But in mid-September, the commission changed course: The project could go ahead, but at only half of its proposed size. Then, on Sept. 26, the developers suddenly withdrew their application. The delay had cost them a federal tax credit, and, quite possibly, their power purchase agreement with a major California utility.

The Palm Springs newspaper, The Desert Sun, called the cancellation “shocking,” accurately summing up the general reaction to the announcement. But the real shock should not have been that Palen was canceled, but that the project was ever considered an appropriate idea for a place where it could do so much damage.

Will the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which clears the way for 20,000 more megawatts of solar and wind on desert lands by 2040, prevent more ill-planned projects that stutter and fail? Everyone I talked to who’d come to hear Secretary Jewell speak said they were optimistic.

But a conservation plan is only as good as the people who make it happen on the ground. It’s worth remembering the lesson of the Green Path North: No energy project can be green without the support of the people who will have to live alongside it. And environmental ideals mean little if they aren’t backed up by genuine care for the local landscape.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is a contributing editor for the magazine, and is based in California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.