High Noon

As the climate warms, environmentalists square off over Big Solar's claim to the Mojave Desert

  • Jim Harvey in the Mojave Desert near Primm, Nevada, on the Nevada-California border, where 7,000 acres could be scraped clean to build a 400 megawatt solar project.

    George Wolf
  • Beaver tail cactus

    George Wolf
  • A model rendering of BrightSource Energy's 400 megawatt Ivanpah Solar Power Complex.

    BrightSource Energy
  • Software allows BrightSource's heliostats to track the sun throughout the day to directly concentrate its energy on a boiler, which sits atop a tower.

    BrightSource Energy
 

Jim Harvey loves Germany. Not that he's ever been there, to appreciate the sauerbraten, for instance, or revel in the Bavarian Alps. What he loves about Germany he loves in the abstract; he finds it on spreadsheets, in databases and academic studies. Specifically, studies that describe how Germany gets thousands of megawatts of electricity from solar energy without plowing under a single acre of pristine land.

"In GER-many," Harvey says, laying extra stress on that first syllable, "they will have installed 10,000 megawatts of solar energy by the end of 2011, 90 percent of it in buildings and on rooftops." Compare that to California, where "we put 100 megawatts of rooftop solar on the books for 2008 and have the nerve to say 'Yippee! We're right on schedule.' And then we spend the rest of our time sitting in meetings and hearings and conferences talking about how we're going to let big energy companies scrape our deserts to build their big solar plants, and how that's the only way we can stop climate change."

The dilemma is "bogus," Harvey says, savoring one of his favorite words. "It's bogus."

Outside the window where he sits this February day at the Joshua Tree National Park Visitor's Center, a Japanese mom in shorts and a T-shirt snaps pictures of her shivering kids against the distant sable hills. Snow shimmers on the surrounding mountains; all around tower piles of granite boulders dotted with barrel and beavertail cactuses. This is the Mojave Desert, for which Harvey left his native Chicago eight years ago. It is a land he now claims he would throw himself in front of a bulldozer to save.

And, he fears, he might have to. As of late March, the Bureau of Land Management had received 199 applications for industrial-scale solar plants, totaling 1.7 million acres, in the desert Southwest. Companies like Solar Millennium, Optisolar and Chevron Energy Partners have filed requests for nearly 1 million acres of land in California alone, the vast majority of it in Harvey's beloved and sun-drenched Mojave.

"These big solar companies," Harvey concludes, "they're no different from big oil or coal."

Tall and sturdily built, a Web site designer by trade, Harvey lives with his wife, Catherine Janowicz, in the Johnson Valley, a small desert community near Joshua Tree. He wears a bandana around his forehead underneath a charcoal rancher's hat, and his face is pierced in seven places. (There used to be more, he says, before his dentist threatened him with a $15,000 bill.) In his spare time, he tinkers with a fleet of antique Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and at regular intervals heads out to tour the West's open roads on his bike, Catherine on the back.

Harvey had no record as an activist until about three years ago, when he helped bring San Bernardino water officials to task for violating public meeting laws. But living in the embattled desert has changed him. In the late summer of 2007, Harvey started going to meetings about a 500-kilovolt transmission corridor for renewable energy that would cut through the Johnson Valley on its way to Los Angeles, and started to see a pattern: It wasn't simply one energy corridor he was fighting, but a whole movement to turn the open Mojave into an industrialized renewable energy zone.

"It all started with the Energy Policy Act of 2005," he says. "The goal of that bill was to add 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2015." Add to that several states' laws requiring utilities to get more electricity from carbon-free sources; California, for instance, ordered investor-owned utilities to draw 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010, and 33 percent by 2020. "The land grab was on," Harvey says. "These big energy companies got busy making us think they were doing something for the environment. But they're liars."