Academic journal article Policy Review

The Environmentalist's Dilemma

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Environmentalist's Dilemma

Article excerpt

ABOUT 40 MILES southwest of Las Vegas, drivers on Interstate 15 reach a section of the Mojave desert called the Ivanpah Valley. For most travelers, the valley is a nondescript landscape of creosote bushes, cactus, and sand; but devotees of the desert sometimes leave the main road to see much more. The uninterrupted views of the surrounding mountains are especially crystalline on early spring mornings when unusual plant species like the Mojave Milkweed and the Desert Pincushion are in bloom. Several birds that nest in the valley, including the burrowing owl and the loggerhead shrike, have protected status under federal law, as does a reptile called gopherus agassizii, or desert tortoise.

BrightSource Energy, a firm that plans to develop a 390-megawatt solar complex in the valley, has been counting the tortoises it would have to relocate in order to proceed with the project, and BrightSource's census takers are finding far more than they, or anyone else, expected. Since the history of successfully relocating this tortoise is not encouraging, and since the small reptile has an ever-growing cohort of protectors, BrightSource is no longer as sure as it once was that this project, at the scale proposed, will be feasible.

Currently, the Bureau of Land Management has about twenty solar, wind, and geothermal projects under various stages of development review in the desert Southwest--Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California--and two more wind projects in Oregon. All of these face varying degrees of opposition from environmental groups. Some are also being contested by Native American tribes, whose objections are both environmental and cultural, in that some of the lands are considered sacred burial grounds.

For environmental advocates of renewable and sustainable energy, their colleagues' objections can be both nettlesome and embarrassing. The Mojave is ideally situated for solar development; these desert lands are bombarded with more of the sun's rays than almost any place on earth, and that sunshine conveniently arrives at the perfect time to he converted to electricity to meet the peak power requirements of large nearby population centers: Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Diego, and the megalopolis that combines Riverside, Orange, and Los Angeles counties. Since more than one million acres of the Mojave have already been excluded from such development by a law sponsored by U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein in 2.009, projects like BrightSource's become an even more important element in fulfilling California's ambitious plan to obtain at least 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Feinstein's original proposal was to exclude over 2..5 million acres, but that was scaled back in the face of opposition from unions who foresaw an enormous loss of construction jobs. But the same groups that encouraged the set-aside in 2,009--organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society--continue to push for further restriction of energy development on any public lands that come close to being in pristine condition. There is some irony in the fact that the main reason such lands are "pristine" is that they were unsuitable for any other kind of development. Except for their mostly newly discovered environmental sanctity, these desert areas would have been the cheapest land upon which to develop solar resources.

In some locations, wind power can compete in the marketplace even without production tax credits, but solar still heavily relies on subsidies or renewable energy mandates to compete with fossil fuel. So, until renewables have become fully competitive in the marketplace, does the outcome of these struggles between environmental supporters and opponents of utility-scale projects really matter?

The answer is surely yes. Geothermal, like wind power, is already competitive in many locations; meanwhile, solar energy's costs are decreasingly fairly rapidly. The price of silicon the primary raw material in solar has fallen dramatically; so have engineering costs, as successful techniques are increasingly replicated and perfected. …

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