The next day, balanced in a lift about 30 feet off the ground, I help Brown scour a date tree for red fruit with white flesh, still crisp like an apple. The slightly unripe Hyany dates are prized by the Coptic Christians at a monastery south of here. "The red dates have a symbolic value," Brown says. "The red is for the blood of the Coptic martyrs, the white inside stands for their purity. And the firmness of the date symbolizes their resolve." We tear off whole stems and lay them lengthwise in shallow cardboard boxes.
The work is slow and meditative, leaving lots of time to talk. By 9 a.m. the temperature is pushing 100 degrees. Brown tells me his forebears dealt with the desert heat at night by wrapping themselves in water-soaked sheets, an altogether energy-efficient way of cooling, if not so good for uninterrupted sleep. "When the sheets dried, they'd wake up and wet them down again."
Brown knows the climate is changing. And he wants to believe there are appropriate places for massive wind and solar plants. First, though, he'd like to see rooftops exploited to their full potential in Southern California's sunny cities. He can imagine parking lots covered with solar canopies in the baking west Mojave cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, supplying those Los Angeles exurbs with the kind of "distributed" electricity generation -- electricity generated close to where it's used -- they need to keep their air conditioners running. "I don't understand why these utility companies aren't embracing distributed generation," he says. The simple answer: California's three largest utilities are owned by investors who expect a return. Putting solar panels on rooftops is not how they make money.
Nor is private land such an obvious option anymore. "For years, the conservation community has been saying, 'If you're going to do these things, do them on private land. Make them water-thrifty.' Well, guess what? Hidden Hills would be on private land. And the usage estimate is 140 acre-feet a year, which is pretty low. I struggle with that. Because if they can't do it on private land with a water use of 140 acre-feet a year, are we saying no solar anywhere in the desert?"
In early April, BrightSource Energy asked the California Energy Commission to suspend Hidden Hills' application. Recent hearings about the project had been contentious, with the commission's own staff presenting evidence showing that heliostats could fry birds' wings as they flew through the solar field. Richard Arnold of the Pahrump Paiute Indians had claimed the project would interrupt the sacred Salt Song Trail. Even the Nevada BLM had weighed in, concerned that the plant's water use would deplete the springs that sustain a federally endangered pupfish.
None of those concerns caused BrightSource to pause on Hidden Hills; nor is the project done for. Instead, BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs said in a statement that the company needs time to develop "more flexible resources," such as solar power with storage.
"Hidden Hills is a good site to deploy solar thermal with storage technology," Wachs wrote, but to change technology now will require new hearings and evidence. In the meantime, the company will focus on a solar-with-storage collaboration with Spanish developer Abengoa. The 500-megawatt Palen Solar Power Project will occupy 5,200 acres, all within the Riverside East solar zone. It is not without controversy: Its two 750-foot towers will be visible from the higher mountains in southeast Joshua Tree National Park.
Later, Brown and I head south to the monastery with our bounty of dates, pausing in the place where I felt the intense heat the night before. It's called the Silurian Valley, where the road descends from a high plateau to a dry lake just a few hundred feet above sea level. It got hotter on the way down, and windier, too, because the 6,000-foot Avawatz Mountains to the west concentrate the breeze in the playa. In the winter, it freezes.
It's here where you can stand on what feels like the edge of the earth and look far into the distance at uninterrupted space, here where I saw the couple I took to be European staring in the dim moonlight at a landscape that looks no different than it did 100, 300, even a thousand years ago. That, however, may soon change: Spanish developer Iberdrola is eying 15,000 acres in the Silurian Valley for a combination wind and solar facility. Fifteen thousand acres is hard to grasp: 23 square miles, sandwiched between the Avawatz Mountains and the Kingston Range -- wilderness areas that would be protected under Feinstein's new desert bill -- and Dumont Dunes, a popular off-road playground. Trucks, towers, construction and new roads; an industrial park where there once was nothing but extremes -- of distance, of heat and cold, of silence.
As of this writing, Feinstein hadn't yet reintroduced her desert bill. Rumor has it that her staff is busy writing up a new provision that will require renewable energy developers to pay into a wildlife habitat mitigation fund instead of finding land to replace lost habitat on their own. The retooling may take some time, and will have little near-term impact: With the state of California having nearly met its renewable energy goals and state and federal incentives close to exhausted, renewable energy development in the desert will probably stall out in the wake of the projects currently under way.
That lull will give us "some breathing space to get future planning right," Brendan Cummings says. He's hoping that California's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan helps both developers and environmentalists figure out where to put large plants when and if demand ramps up again. A state-federal partnership, the conservation plan has brought together private landowners, utilities, municipal governments and environmentalists to determine appropriate places for renewable energy, piecing together private and public parcels where necessary and lining up approvals in advance.
The Sierra Club's Boyle, who's heavily involved, says that a draft plan should be out next fall. "Right now, we're nailing down lists of covered species, biological objectives for keystone species, really getting into the important details," she says. "We're trying to tie the conservation effort to actual biological goals so it has scientific integrity."
Cummings hopes it works. "From a climate perspective," he says, "we want and need more renewable energy projects. If we're going to meaningfully address climate change, the state needs to raise its renewable energy standard from 33 to 50 to even 100 percent. We're an energy-intensive society. So even if these planning processes feel like we're planning for something that's already happened, the time will come again when we need them.
"If we don't," Cummings warns, "we'll have failed on the matter of climate policy. And if we fail on climate policy, we'll have far worse problems than arguing over the viewshed in the Silurian Valley."
In mid-September, a few weeks after my visit to Brown's date farm, my husband and I drive home through thunderstorms that start at the Virgin River Gorge in northwestern Arizona and carry on all the way to the California border. We've just been camping in Utah's Wasatch and Uinta mountains, and hiking around west Yellowstone. But nothing could top the dramatic scene we hit as we cross the Nevada border, where sunlight pierces curtains of rain over painted mountains, storms over the Mojave. We leave the interstate for lunch in the town of Nipton, and stand in line at the local trading post with an effusive electrician, blond and sunburned and well-fed, on lunch break from his wiring job at Ivanpah. "I have work lined up in this state for two years!" he tells me. We buy beers and Fritos to go with our packed leftovers. Then we sit outside at the picnic tables to watch the dramatic sky.
It's a view I used to love, across the Mojave Preserve to its next section, which begins on the other side of the freeway at the Clark Mountains. You can't see the freeway from here; you can't even tell it's there. You can't even detect the cheap circus carnival that is Primm, Nev., with its gaudy roller coaster and fast-food chains, tucked over the border to the north. What you can see, what I see for the first time, are the three towers of the Ivanpah Solar Generating Station, spaced one mile apart, each 500 feet tall, topped with large white frames around empty black spaces. They look like skyscrapers over a small city, built to power a small city -- a city nowhere near here.