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."

Abused lands for solar
Lawrence Hogue
Lawrence Hogue
May 13, 2009 10:48 AM
Great article!

David Myers was spot-on when he said there are a lot of abused lands in the California desert that could be used for solar, instead of the good habitat at Ivanpah, or the bighorn sheep habitat near Ocotillo where Stirling Energy Systems wants to put a 7,000-acre project.

The Desert Protective Council has worked to identify some of these degraded lands, and a very good spot would be Mesquite Dry Lake in Imperial Valley. It's mostly salted-up, abandoned ag lands that are now part of a the Imperial Valley Enterprise Zone, with various incentives for developers. Here's a map:

If solar developers would focus on lands like this, there would be no argument: we could develop solar energy and protect habitat at the same time.
High Noon
Mark Andre
Mark Andre
May 16, 2009 11:15 AM
Great article and thanks for covering this. While we certainly need a massive shift to solar thermal, wind and photovoltaics, industrializing places like the Ivanpah Valley
in the Mojave is an absurd notion. Large-scale facilities and their associated jobs sited on wild areas and biological hot spots cannot be deeming “green”.
The southwest, including the Mojave and the Colorado Desert contain large areas of already disturbed terrain that should be the priority for solar electric generating stations.
Roof top solar closer to the metro areas of makes the most sense. How many acres of roofs exist on top of Costco’s and Wal-Mart’s alone in the LA basin?

High noon
Florence Caplow
Florence Caplow
May 22, 2009 12:59 AM
Bravo! This is the most under-reported environmental story in America. One thing I've heard is that if all the preliminary permits on public land for wind and solar were actually permitted, it would destroy more public land than all the public land damaged by mining since the passage of the Mining Act in the 1800's. Is this really what we want to do to our last arid-land wildernesses in the name of "green energy"?

And by the way, the California Native Plant Society is one of the few environmental organizations to speak up against these projects. If you belong to others, you might want to send them a link to this article.

what about increases in blowing dust?
Brandon Mitchell
Brandon Mitchell
May 23, 2009 08:59 PM
Another issue to consider that may be related to clearing desert vegetatin. I know there’s been ongoing research about “Snirt” (snow/dirt layer) lately, and it’s implications for water supplies since it causes snow to melt faster with the increased albedo factor. Your article regarding large-scale solar development on California’s Mojave Desert made me think about how this could also add to the dust that’s being carried by the wind and deposited on mountain snow. These type of developments will potentially clear large desert areas of their vegetation thereby leading to increased disturbances of fragile desert soils and increases in air borne dust…..

link to article on Snirt: http://www.fseee.org/forestmag/1001best.shtml
Dust Storms Threaten Snow Packs
Brandon Mitchell
Brandon Mitchell
May 23, 2009 09:02 PM
SF6 leakage
Jim Harvey  AREP
Jim Harvey AREP
May 25, 2009 09:50 PM
Good point Brandon. The whole picture must be looked at.

We now know that SF6 is more toxic than CO2 by 23,000 times. Over 80% of all SF6 emissions occur in electrical transmission, yet we have Sierra Club's Carl Zichella working in the California RETI process, endorsing new high voltage transmission lines for remote generation facilities that will scrape and permanently destroy some of the best carbon sequestering ecosystems in the nation. We are not advocating for bulldozing millions of acres of intact, healthy, carbon sequestering forests. Why is this being considered for our deserts that scientists now believe sequester carbon just as well?

The clear answer is point of use generation which requires no bulldozing for mirrors, no billions of gallons of ground water, and no new SF6 spewing dangerous transmission infrastructure. We now have an opportunity to leave the 19th century behind us once and for all, break the century long Big Energy monopoly - price/supply manipulation, and generate truly clean renewable energy through home and business owned micro PV and wind.

Germany installed 1,700 MW of building integrated/rooftop solar in 2008 alone. In fact, over 90% of all the solar energy generated in Germany is from PV installed on buildings. Germany has half the solar resources we have here in the U.S. What is our excuse?

rooftops vs. desert
Steve Stout
Steve Stout
Jun 24, 2009 07:04 PM
First and foremost we all have to agree we need to get off of fossil fuels and onto renewable energy. If you think solar thermal is bad, take a look at coal strip mining in Appalachia. Once the mirrors are in place, wildlife will still walk through the place and enjoy some much needed shade under the mirrors. Solar thermal isn't perfect, but what is?

I agree that they need to pick the most abused land and preferably private land. Public land is donated to the government to preserve it, not develop it. Maybe because BrightSource is from Israel they don't much care about what happens to our environment.

You call the utilities liars, but the government is mandating them to have 20% renewables and they do not control the rooftops. They will buy from virtually any approved renewable project, so if you can make that happen on rooftops, everyone wins. There are existing programs that make it attractive to put PV solar on roofs, but there just aren't enough takers. What should we do to create rooftop programs as effective as Germany's that will work here?

By the way, I lived in Victorville in the Mohave for 6 months back in 1977 and yes, when the flowers bloom it is absolute magic.