Solar Rush

California's solar boom threatens the very places it's meant to protect.

By Amy Leinbach Marquis

The Mojave Desert is on fire. Private land worth $500 an acre five years ago is now selling for as much as 20 times that amount, with Fortune 500 companies scrambling to place their bids. A steady flow of entrepreneurs from individuals to industry leaders are swamping the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with permit applications that would affect almost a million acres of federal land.

Why all the fuss? California’s going solar.

“It’s like a gold rush,” says Michael Cipra, NPCA’s California desert program manager. “And that raises a very important question: Should our collective energy future be about striking it rich, or should it be about finding the proper balance between development and our environment?”

The solar boom started in 2002, when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger passed legislation that would force the state to switch 20 percent of its energy to renewable resources by 2010. Few would argue the wisdom and foresight of that decision. But in the rush to meet that deadline, critical questions aren’t being asked—like whether or not the Mojave desert is really the best place for a solar boom.

“There’s an old mindset that land out here is ‘just desert,’” says John Slaughter, Joshua Tree National Park’s chief of maintenance. “But it’s not. It’s a complex ecological system, and what you do to it has an impact.”

And that’s exactly what many park and wildlife advocates fear: That by applying a quick-fix to some environmental problems, you end up creating others.

The Mojave Desert is one of the last, relatively intact desert ecosystems in America—and the land up for grabs has long provided critical corridors for wildlife, connecting parks like Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Air quality, historic park views, natural soundscapes, and wildlife would suffer—and even though they may be hard to see, there is wildlife out there (see “Forged in Flames”).

What people may not realize is deserts like the Mojave absorb just as much carbon dioxide—the molecule largely responsible for global warming—as a temperate forest of the same size. In fact globally, desert ecosystems suck up as much as 5.2 billion tons of carbon, or half of the amount emitted by burning fossil fuels. Scientists aren’t sure how this happens, or if such measurements are even the norm—but until they know for sure, bulldozing such a resource could cancel out the benefits of solar.

“Is it better than continuing to mine and burn coal?” Cipra says. “Absolutely. But solar is difficult and nuanced, and it takes time to get it right. We should have addressed these questions 50 years ago, but suddenly they all have to be addressed right now.”

These desert projects would use several technologies, but one in particular is problematic: solar thermal. Rows of mirrors direct sunlight to a central tower filled with liquid, which then stores the energy. But in extreme temperatures that tower can quickly overheat—and the cheapest way to cool it down is by using large quantities of water.

“Where will that water come from?” Cipra says. “Will you draw it out of the ground? Will you pipe it in from Lake Mead? Will you draw it away from the springs that our wildlife depend on to survive? Not enough people are asking these questions, but the answers are important for our parks and preserves.”

Next, you’ve got to get the energy to the people, and since many of the proposed solar plants are in the middle of nowhere, new transmission lines need to be constructed. Not only would the lines threaten to cut through critical wildlife habitat to reach Los Angeles and other cities—but they would lose energy with every added mile.

“Efficiency has to be part of any energy plan,” Cipra says, “and it’s simply more efficient to generate power where you need it instead of hundreds of miles away. We should be developing solar closer to cities and in areas that are already impacted—like landfills, the edges of airports, or as shade structures over parking lots.”

But it’s just so easy to buy leases on BLM land. If you found gold, for example, you could stake a claim, pay a small permitting fee, and start mining. You don’t even have to be an American citizen.

The problem, Cipra says, is that most laws regarding the use of public lands date back to the 19th Century. “We’re still caught up in this idea that we can do whatever we want to the land and not have to pay the consequences. There should be a more thoughtful process for evaluating which uses are appropriate, and which aren’t—and we should carefully consider the effects of bulldozing land that absorbs so much carbon and provides habitat for plants are literally thousands of years old.”

As of July, more than a hundred BLM land claims for solar applications hung in the balance—and while the amount of energy generated from all those plants could power California twice over, building them could devastate a unique desert habitat and the wildlife that depends on it. Several applications in particular would mar a large plot of pristine land that not only serves as lambing grounds for desert bighorn sheep, but should, in many opinions, become part of Mojave National Preserve. If development threatens that plan, NPCA will step in, turning discussion back to the value, leadership, and ingenuity of California’s desert parks.

Taking the Lead

Think national parks are standing in the way of solar? Think again. Photovoltaic solar (think solar panels on rooftops) is the fastest growing technology in the world, and few are riding that wave like Joshua Tree National Park. Almost 40 percent of the park’s energy comes from locally-generated solar: A 64-kilowatt system powers much of the headquarters area in the park, and a 14.5-kilowatt solar system being installed on a new building will increase Joshua Tree’s carbon offset even more. (To give some perspective, an average-sized single family home could operate on a 2.5-kilowatt system.) Headquarters operations alone save roughly $14,000 a year. The panels themselves are easy to maintain, and since they’re mounted on rooftops and around existing structures, the Park Service didn’t have to bulldoze any land to make them work.

Eventually, Slaughter hopes to interpret more of this technology on park tours. “When people come to Joshua Tree, they’ll see solar in action,” he says, “and they’ll see that it doesn’t require a lot of oversight or technical knowledge. The two greatest impacts we have on the environment are the energy we use at home and carbon emissions from our vehicles. This is one way to significantly reduce that impact.”

This article appears in the Winter 2009 issue.

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