What's the best place for Big Solar?

by Sarah Gilman

In spring 2008, reporter Judith Lewis Mernit followed desert activists through Southern California's Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. They were tracing a proposed route for the Green Path North, a power line that would carry geothermal electricity to Los Angeles to help wean it off of coal.

It wasn't the Mojave Desert's best wildflower year, but the parched ground still flashed orange and purple. The hikers even encountered a rare desert tortoise, fresh blooms clamped in its craggy maw.

Judith, now a contributing editor for High Country News, never forgot what she saw that day, not least because it wasn't nothing: This desert that many saw as a wasteland ideal for gigantic energy projects seethed with life. It was her first glimpse of the deepening conflict between grassroots environmental groups determined to protect fragile ecosystems and national groups desperate to solve the climate change catastrophe.

Utility-scale solar power plants have become the center of that battle. Judith's first story led to a second in 2009, focused on the 370-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Generating Station, then in planning stages on BLM land near Southern California's border with Nevada. Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club cautiously supported the 3,500-acre development, setting off a furor among desert conservation groups and even the Sierra Club's local chapters. But soon after construction began in 2010, opponents were vindicated: There were many more federally protected desert tortoises and rare plants there than anyone had foreseen. "The warning bells that were sounded about Ivanpah," Judith says, "were true."

Was this sort of sacrifice necessary, she wondered, or was it inadvertently perpetuating the larger problem of natural resource overconsumption by targeting only its worst symptom -- climate change? "If you're building something that's supposed to be good for the environment and it renders a creature extinct, that's not a reasonable trade-off," she observes. "As a reporter, I was looking for middle ground."

She found it in Gila Bend, Ariz. -- the subject of this issue's cover story. The town sits amid tens of thousands of acres of fallowed, poisoned agricultural land. The housing boom never hit there, nor did much else in the way of economic development. But some solar developers and dreamers consider it perfect for the sorts of projects that have inspired conflict in the Mojave. Indeed, those underway at Gila Bend have yet to cause a single environmental ripple. It's the kind of place, Judith says, where "You go and look and say, ‘This is where this belongs.' If everything goes right, it could be this seed that spreads out to all these little communities" -- a foundation, perhaps, for both economic and environmental renewal.

But the solar conundrum remains unresolved. Without broad political support, there are limits to what can be done in places like Gila Bend. Which leaves environmentalists with a choice about renewable energy. Would they rather sacrifice places like the Mojave for the greater good? Or rally behind this surprising revolution in rural Arizona?

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