The future of solar energy may look bright, but it has a dark side

Posted: Sep 18, 2019

For many years, the idea of “open space” was a strange concept to me. I hadn’t been west of the Mississippi until my early twenties. My youthful experiences with nature were mostly confined to small parks amongst the concrete jungles of New York. This changed when I first drove across the country for a new job in California. As I first experienced the American West’s vast expanses of endless arid landscape I couldn’t help but think—wow this is boring. Can’t someone do something useful with all this land?

The Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) must be thinking the same thing I once did. The BLM is currently considering three solar energy projects that will cover 9,000 acres of desert in California. The proposed McCoy and Desert Harvest projects would be located in the Coachella Valley near Joshua Tree National Park and the Ocitillo project would be a few hours east of San Diego. This is in addition to the 7,000 acre Desert Sun solar project, also near Joshua Tree, which was approved in 2010 and recently began construction.

This spike in large scale solar energy projects is due, in part, to a push by state and national governments. California has led the way in renewable energy development by setting an ambitious goal that 33% of all retail energy sales be supplied by renewables by 2020. This plan was bolstered by Congress’ Energy Policy Act of 2005, which provides tax incentives for renewable energy projects, and a 2010 order by the secretary of the Department of Interior, which attempts to cut some red tape by making clean energy a priority.

These initiatives, cheered by environmentalists, have cleared the path for these recently proposed solar farms. If approved, the four projects together would generate almost 1,500 megawatts of electricity, which would produce enough power to supply over 400,000 homes. However, with peak demands reaching 62,000 megawatts, these projects barely scratch the surface of California’s energy needs.

Producing electricity has historically been a very dirty business. Coal emits 2,200 pounds of carbon dioxide for every megawatt of energy produced, 13 pounds of sulfur dioxide, and uses large amounts of water for cooling. This doesn’t even include the environmental hazards that mining and waste disposal present. Natural gas is a cleaner alternative, with no waste disposal concerns and half the emissions of coal. However, gas extraction techniques, such as fracking, also pose significant environmental problems. Electricity accounts for 39% of all energy use in the country, making it the biggest target for a switch to clean technology.

The future of solar energy certainly seems bright. Photovoltaic systems, which convert radiation from the sun directly into electricity using solar panels, don’t rely on the continuous extraction of resources. Solar panels emit almost no emissions, don’t produce waste, and don’t use water.  As energy corporations see the costs of solar production dropping to a level comparable with coal, they have become much more willing to invest in large scale solar projects. Not only will companies turn a profit, but they will also benefit from the positive publicity associated with renewable energy development.

At first glance this seems like a win-win situation; corporations make money and California gets clean energy. However, the true cost of solar energy doesn’t just include dollars and cents. The biggest cost of solar production is land—lots of it. The Nature Conservancy released a study in 2009 that investigated the “land-use intensity” of each method of electricity production. The study found that solar requires almost 30% more land to produce the same amount of electricity as coal. The Nature Conservancy applied their findings to estimates for increases in renewable production and concluded that a minimum of 175 million acres of land will be affected over the next twenty years.

Habitat destruction is the main concern. The desert ecosystem, although ideal for solar energy, is also extremely fragile. A complete recovery from land disturbances can take up to 3,000 years. Native plants struggle to survive changes to the soil, while invasive species thrive. The current proposed projects in California will also affect thousands of acres of habitat for threatened species such as the desert tortoise, flat-tailed horned lizard, burrowing owls, raptors, migratory birds, and other small mammals and lizards. Increased development could have devastating effects on these animals.

Although I may have once scoffed at such inconsequential losses, my first experience in Joshua Tree changed my perspective on the desert. As I looked out upon the vast “nothingness,” I didn’t see wasted land¬—I saw perfection. Each gnarled tree seemed to be placed in the sea of sandy soil with the greatest of precision. Every rock appeared to have fallen straight from heaven and balanced delicately upon each other by the world’s greatest artists. Tiny flowers contributed just the right splash of color, while curious lizards added just a bit of humor.

However, it wasn’t what the desert had that made it so appealing, it was what it didn’t have—people. Growing up in a city, I never realized the unquantifiable benefit of open space. The western deserts offer something not many other places can; solitude. As Edward Abbey pointed out in Desert Solitaire, “We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope.”

The conundrum for environmentalists is that large scale renewable projects appear to be the only option for changing the status quo. Even though the prospect of energy sprawl across the desert is troubling, continuing to rely on traditional energy sources is simply untenable. Stopping climate change currently trumps virtually every other environmental issue. There won't be a desert left to protect if emissions continue at their current pace.
However, this solution falls prey to the same mistakes of the past. Replacing “big coal” with “big solar” may be an improvement, but it is still misses the point. Producing enormous amounts of electricity at a single location and transporting it to individual users that span thousands of miles is not an effective or environmentally sensitive method of energy distribution. Much like all of our consumption habits, we have to start thinking completely differently about energy.

Local small scale production on disturbed land has been vastly underutilized. The Department of Energy states that only 7% of the area currently being occupied by residences and cities is needed to produce all the electricity needed in the country. Solar panels could be placed on rooftops, highway signs, sides of buildings, or in parking lots. Innovative ideas, such as Chicago’s solar skyscraper, could help transform the future of electricity production. Energy corporations have been reluctant to embrace on-site electricity production. Solar panels on your roof cuts into the industries profits and connecting many small producers into the grid can be costly.

Tackling electricity production with a whole new approach could bring about positive changes. Companies could seek out customers that would be willing to pay a flat monthly fee in exchange for a long term agreement that would allow the installation and maintenance of rooftop solar panels. Consumers wouldn’t face the large upfront installation costs of solar and would get a smaller, more predictable bill. Companies would get free land to install solar panels on and could recover their additional connection costs through the monthly fees. Creating these “micro-grids” will also help production reflect the actual need of an area, cutting down on wasted resources.

A massive restructuring of the energy grid would be highly beneficial, but it is also highly unlikely. Until energy corporations are forced to change, big solar will be the wave of the future. Facing this next phase of energy development, environmental advocates should ensure that the BLM chooses the most low-impact sites for solar development and that companies adequately compensate for negative environmental impacts. This may not save our untouched deserts, but it may be the best we can do in the current political and economic climate.

The BLM has received over 200 applications for solar energy projects that would occupy over 1.5 million acres of public lands. Before issuing permits for construction, the BLM is seeking comments from the public on three proposed projects in California.

Learn more about the Desert Harvest solar project and leave a comment for the BLM by July 17th.
Learn more about the Ocitillo Sol solar project and leave a comment for the BLM by July 18th.
Learn more about the McCoy solar project and leave a comment for the BLM by August 23rd.

~Brian O'Neill

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