Neither California nor the Mojave will survive unrestricted emissions of heat trapping greenhouse gases, but we can harness solar energy responsibly
by Jessica Goad (with some thoughts by Joe Romm at the end)
The Los Angeles Times recently published a story on large-scale solar that gets much of the context and many of the facts about renewable energy on public lands flat out wrong.
The Times piece, called “Sacrificing the desert to save the Earth,” describes an apparent land rush for solar energy development on public lands, and raises important questions about the impacts of this technology on the Mojave Desert in California.
However, it gets the comparisons to oil and gas development completely wrong, and also omits important details about what the government has done thus far to ensure that solar on public lands does not become a real land rush.
First, much of the story is based on a comparison to oil and gas development on public lands. The Times argues that financial incentives for solar development in southern California have “sparked a land rush echoing the speculative booms” of other land rushes in the past:
Industrial-scale solar development is well underway in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The federal government has furnished more public property to this cause than it has for oil and gas exploration over the last decade — 21 million acres, more than the area of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties put together.
Even if only a few of the proposed projects are built, hundreds of square miles of wild land will be scraped clear. Several thousand miles of power transmission corridors will be created.
The desert will be scarred well beyond a human life span, and no amount of mitigation will repair it, according to scores of federal and state environmental reviews.
It is important to understand that this 21 million acres is the amount of public land that could be made available to solar energy development in six states (AZ , CA, CO, NV UT, NM), rather than the amount that will be eventually leased. (This is an arcane but important distinction when it comes to public lands, because companies bid for leases on parcels that are made available for development). “Available” means that there is sufficient sun, the land is flat enough, none of the lands are protected (such as national parks), etc.
The data show that the Times’ comparison to oil and gas is totally incorrect. According to a Wilderness Society analysis, in just five western states (CO, NM, MT, UT, WY) over 50 million acres of public lands are already available to oil and gas development.
Oil and gas also take the cake in terms of the acres that have been or will be permitted. All in all, 7 solar projects have been given the green light on public lands in California, and total about 28,000 acres. And, an Interior Department analysis shows that the most solar that would likely be developed on Bureau of Land Management lands in six western states over 20 years is 214,000 acres.
Comparatively, the Interior Department stated in May 2011 that, “currently, 38.2 million acres of public lands are under lease for oil and gas development, of which 16.6 million acres are active and 21.6 million acres are inactive.”
In addition to misreporting the oil and gas comparison, the Times completely ignores what the administration is doing to ensure that solar is done right. The Interior Department’s approach to solar represents an entirely new and far better way of developing energy on public lands than has traditionally been done. Thanks to a flexible Administration, companies willing to negotiate, and conservation groups understanding that tough choices need to be made about our energy future, solar development has not become a “land rush” that will destroy the Mojave desert — though it very well could have been had history played out differently.
Indeed, at the beginning of the Obama administration, there were hundreds of solar project applications in the queue, waiting to be processed and approved. But through agency guidance and updated policies that changed with the times, the suite of applications (many of which were speculative) was narrowed down — in October of 2011, only 79 projects remained in the queue, not all of which will be developed due to market forces.
A second critical step in ensuring that solar has not become a land rush is the Interior Department’s commitment to solar energy zones, a radically new way of thinking when it comes to energy development on public lands. Zones are selected in advance for their high resource value and low potential for conflict. The numbers show just how fundamental this change is for the Interior Department.
All in all, 22 million acres of BLM-managed land were deemed to be available for solar projects, as described above. But in December 2010, the Interior and Energy Departments announced that incentives and preference would be given to projects sited within 677,000 acres of “solar energy zones.” After many public comments, the zones were further scaled down to encompass 285,000 acres. Solar will not be restricted only to the zones—the 22 million acres are still available, but under a “variance process” that will make it more difficult to site there due to increased environmental analysis, agency attention, and costs.
As the Center for American Progress has discussed in great detail, this is by far a better model for energy on public lands than the project by project approach taken for oil and gas.
Despite the factual errors and omissions, the LA Times story raises an important question for those who appreciate the varied values of our public lands (unlike Mitt Romney, who doesn’t know “what the purpose is” of public lands).
It is clear that oil and gas development is still the dominant use of our lands (not to mention the extraction of coal), eclipsing solar by millions of acres. What do we want the energy coming off of our public lands to look like? And what does it take to make sure that other values of public lands like recreation, hunting, fishing, and our heritage, are valued?
The reporter glosses over these important questions by making some pretty glaring factual errors on the comparison between renewable energy and fossil energy development on public lands.
Note: We’ve just addressed one angle to the story. BrightSource, the solar thermal company mentioned in the piece, has also published a piece on its blog focused on the economics and environmental impact of its Ivanpah project in the Mojave.
– Jessica Goad is manager of research and outreach on the public lands team at the Center for American Progress.
JR: Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.
Deserts are certainly fragile, inhospitable ecosystems — a key reason that nobody should want them spreading over one third the planet or the entire U.S. Southwest for 1,000 years (see “Nature Publishes My Piece on Dust-Bowlification“). Certainly, Californian, Nobelist, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu gets this (see Chu: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California”).
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine even the harsh Mojave ecosystem surviving another 10°F warming and over 100°F temperatures for nearly half the year along with even more aridity (see “How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces“). Or worse (see “Science stunner — On our current emissions path, CO2 levels in 2100 will hit levels last seen when the Earth was 29°F (16°C) hotter“).
So California and the Mojave (and civilization as we know it today) can’t be saved without significant solar energy in the desert (see “The full global warming solution: How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm”). So we need to move beyond the issue of whether we will be deploying solar in the desert to how we can do it in the most responsible fashion, which appears to be the process that has now begun.