Keeping the Desert Green By Banning Solar Plants, Wind Farms

Greg Galitzine : Green Blog
Greg Galitzine
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Keeping the Desert Green By Banning Solar Plants, Wind Farms

One of our blog's readers, Sally, sent me a Dec.21 New York Times story on legislation introduced by U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein to protect some 1 million acres of the Mojave Desert in California for two parks, the Mojave Trails National Monument and the Sand to Snow National Monument. Yet doing this, said the paper, will scuttle some 13 big solar plants and wind farms planned for these lands via leases.

The newspaper reports that a fair-sized portion of that land had been donated to the federal government a decade ago by an environmental group, which had purchased the property from Catellus Development with private and federal money. The rest has been protected in some form or another.

The rub comes with commitments for conserving this wide open space when the land was accepted and goals for green energy from two Administrations.

The Times said the federal government "made a competing commitment in 2005 when President George W. Bush ordered that renewable energy production be accelerated on public lands, including the Catellus holdings. The Obama administration is trying to balance conservation demands with its goal of radically increasing solar and wind generation by identifying areas suitable for large-scale projects across the West."

"Not only is the desert land some of the sunniest in the country, and thus suitable for large-scale power production, it is also some of the most scenic territory in the West," adds the story. "The Mojave lands have sweeping vistas of an ancient landscape that is home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, fringe-toed lizards and other rare animals and plants."

Sally adds that some believe the desert is the best place for utility scale wind and solar. "But that is not true, especially solar," she said. "Especially for solar thermal. Because the kind of solar proposed for that area needs lots of water and lots of new power lines. Neither of which exist where the power plants were proposed."

Sally and the other environmentalists who want to preserve the vistas have a valid point. Just because the power source is green it doesn't mean the power is green.There is not only the habitat destruction and the visual pollution--"utility sprawl"--but there's also emissions from the service vehicles. 

This isn't new for those of who live in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia especially. Our rivers have been dammed (damned?) for decades for green hydroelectric power, which have wreaked havoc on the salmon runs and the salmon fishery. And there are few scars uglier than the tree stumps and other remains when the water levels drop in the reservoirs. Except for the slopes stripped and despoiled with wires and pylons.

Senator Feinstein is striving to balance the green and the green. The Times reported that she had shrunk the parkland from 2.5 million acres; her bill would provide a 30 percent tax credit to developers that consolidate degraded private land for solar projects.

"I strongly believe that conservation, renewable energy development and recreation can and must co-exist in the California desert," Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement.  "This legislation strikes a careful balance between these sometimes competing concerns."

The Senator has a point. The green energy developers would be better off in more ways than one if they brownfielded their projects instead. For (and ironically) they are falling into the same lazy and environmentally destructive pattern of commercial and residential developers by focusing on greenfields.

Further to the legislation why not look for alternative power sites at the huge parking lots at malls, 'office parks', and distribution centers many of which are vacant and whose landlords are hungry thanks to the downturn. Couldn't panels be mounted on new rooftops to create covered parking? Or wind turbines erected on towers that also carry power/voice/data, cell repeaters, and lighting. One big benefit is that the utility infrastructure is already there, which minimizes construction costs and line losses.

Here is another option: how about locating these plants over and by the massive amounts of publicly-owned 'freeways' throughout the region? The 'power rights' can be sold to support California's planned new high-speed rail (HSR) line, and when the trains begin to roll, to supply electricity to them. The same concept could be deployed in the Northeast with supplemental power to help power the region's large electrified high-speed and commuter rail networks. And in Texas where LRT lines are expanding in Dallas and Houston. With creaking progress now being made towards HSR in Florida perhaps solar power in the Sunshine State can help make that a reality. 

Going green does not have to mean destroying green.

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