Nature vs Solar Power: Environmentalists Clash Over the Mojave Desert

By Rachel Cernansky | March 25, 2009 5:31 pm

desert.jpgThe Mojave Desert has become a battlefield for how President Obama’s clean energy goals should be moved forward, and conservationists and renewable energy advocates, usually natural allies, are now pitted against each other. California Senator Dianne Feinstein proposed legislation last week that would designate more than 800,000 acres of desert land a national monument, putting it off-limits to energy projects.

The area of concern to Feinstein is between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park…. The area includes desert tortoise habitat, wildlife corridors, cactus gardens and the Amboy Crater [Los Angeles Times]. While many believe that the desert is an ideal location to establish solar and wind farms, conservationists say that such projects would destroy the ecosystem. David Myers, head of the Wildlands Conservancy, says, “How can you say you’re going to blade off hundreds of thousands of acres of earth to preserve the Earth?” [The New York Times].

Myers stands firmly on one side, while other environmentalists are working with the state on its renewable energy plans for the desert. “We have to accept our responsibility that something that we have been advocating for decades is about to happen. My job is to make sure that it happens in an environmentally responsible way” [The New York Times], says Johanna Wald of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Feinstein, who regards the 1994 California Desert Protection Act as one of her proudest achievements, noted that the Wildlands Conservancy spent more than $40 million buying the former railroad land in the desert and turning it over to the government in one of the largest land purchases in California history, with the intent of protecting it. “I feel very strongly that the federal government must honor that commitment” [Los Angeles Times], she says.

The Bureau of Land Management is currently reviewing 130 applications for solar and wind energy projects in more than 1 million acres of public California desert land, at least 19 of which have been suggested for placement in the territory concerned by the national monument legislation. There is particular urgency to the hunt for renewable-energy sites in California. A 2006 state law requires utilities to produce 20 percent of the California’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020…. Getting there will mean rapid construction of plants and power lines [New York Times].

Opponents of the Feinstein legislation see it as hypocritical. Says Republican Representative Doc Hastings: “If there is such strong support for renewable energy, then why are they moving to block renewable energy production in their own state?” ….[And California Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger said in a speech last year at a Yale University climate-change conference: “If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it”  [Los Angeles Times].

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Image: Wikimedia

  • Tom

    Its not hypocritical as much as it is ignorant and down right stupid.

    They are fencing off the solar installations and they are scraping the desert so that there is nothing but earth or road under these solar panels.

    Why? For what reason?

    Raise the height of the solar panels enough for wildlife to walk under, leave the desert plants intact underneath. There are plants that would love that shade to conserve their water…infact the shade could cool and green the desert at the same time it generates power.

    Instead of putting the solar panels on the ground…put them 4-8 feet in the air and allow them to be lowered for repairs….let the desert plant life grow, the the small (say under 3 feet) desert wildlife roam.

    The desert stays the desert and the power can still get generated.

    The only thing making this bad is the typical suburban/urban/industrial mindset that cant coexist with whatever environment its being built in.

  • YouRang

    And Tom just how are you going to get the panels and the support structure there? Are you going to use a skyhook? And the shade produced, which dessert animal is going to live there–the norwegian rat. Oh no, that’s right, the norwegian rat is an alien city species that eats everything including nowegian rats. The list is endless.

  • Psycho

    Why make this a big corporate effort at all? Just so that huge companies can make huge profits while destroying the environment (and not paying the actual cost of doing business).
    Put the solar panels on buildings and houses in the cities where it is needed! Access, infrastructure, and power grid connections are already available. Moreover, the homeowners and building owners who consume the energy can get a break for the use of their wasted surfaces!

  • FILTHpig

    They should just install them on everyone’s roof, including commercial buildings. Am I being too obvious here?

  • MC

    I have to second/third/fourth/whatever the obvious … why are we putting solar panels in the remaining wilderness areas instead of on our roofs?

    The answer is not compelling- yes, it’s more expensive to add solar panels to the roofs of private residences than it is to bulldoze a few cacti and put in roads and concentrated solar panels, but Californians would rather pay a little more and do something right than save a few pennies and destroy the remaining un-concreted land. Or at least I’d like to think so, being a Californian myself. If we still need more surface area, I’m willing to pay a premium to build the solar power facilities the RIGHT way in the desert … Mr. ‘YouRang’ (above poster), this is why you’re not an engineer. You lack imagination! You don’t need skyhooks, you just need people and time.

  • Jack

    there are many reasons that it is more advantageous to put solar farms in the desert than on your roofs, one of which, plain enough, is that solar energy is in abundant, constant and stable supply in the desert, as compared to an urban area, which would make it more cost-effective. in your city, every cloudy (diffused light is quite useless) or rainy day you get is a day wasting away precious fossil fuels.

  • Dan

    What about doing both Urban and Wilderness applications. The power generated from a Desert Solar project and Urban solutions can greatly affect the tremendous power consumption of CALIFORNIA. Why does California and other Urban areas want the Nation to provide for their power extremes? Since California will undoubtedly use all of the energy produced, then California should bear the burden of its own consumption.
    Any good conservationalist could find suitable uninhabited (by animals of any kind) desert land to place a solar farm; then they could lead the fight for where the farms would be placed.


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