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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Environmentalists against solar energy

Normally when it comes to environmental policy, the renewable energy industry is on the side of the angels. A rare exception is Sen. Diane Feinstein’s imminent proposal to block off portions of the Mojave Desert from renewable energy projects.

As the AP summed it up:
California's Mojave Desert may seem ideally suited for solar energy production, but concern over what several proposed projects might do to the aesthetics of the region and its tortoise population is setting up a potential clash between conservationists and companies seeking to develop renewable energy.

Nineteen companies have submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 desert acres, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein said last Friday that such development would violate the spirit of what conservationists had intended when they donated much of the land to the public.

Feinstein said she intends to push legislation that would turn the land into a national monument, which would allow for existing uses to continue while preventing future development.
The main focus on the controversy has been on solar energy. The Mojave is the site of America’s first commercial-scale solar (thermal) energy system, the nine plants of the Solar Electricity Generating Systems dating back to 1985. The 354 MW capacity were once the largest in the world.

However, the desert is not far from the wind farms of the Tehachapi Pass, which with more than 4000 turbines is said to be the 2nd largest collection of wind generators in the world (after the Bay Area’s Altamont Pass). Depending on the boundaries, the monument might impact either wind generator or transmission.

While exacerbated by the increased clout of environmentalists in the White House and and Congres, the controversy has been simmering for a while.

Nearly 12 months ago at the Yale Climate Change Conference, Gov. Schwarzenegger blasted environmentalists. It was in the context of the San Diego’s planned powerline to Imperial County, but it would also apply to this month’s dispute:
One energy expert the other day said that the California Mojave desert which is a vast space with thousands of square miles is one of the best spots on planet earth for solar power plants. Pacific Gas & Electric wants to put three huge solar plants right there. And the whole world the Germans, the French, the Canadians, the Japanese they all want to come out to California and put solar power plants in the Mojave desert and in other places. The only thing is that the problem is getting that new energy to the power grid because of environmental hurdles.

What they have here is a case of environmental regulations holding up environmental progress. I don't know whether this is ironic or absurd. But, I mean, if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it. (Applause)

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the real world. We have to make some tradeoffs. I think both the environmental activists and their opponents cannot let "perfect" become the enemy of "possible," because the fact of the matter is nothing is perfect. Solar still needs transmission lines.
The governator is well-informed. For now, utility-scale plants appear to be the future of solar energy generation in California (if not the Southwest), and those plants require land that has high insolation, proximity to population centers and transmission lines back to those cities.

Moving the panels out of California will increase the transmission costs — both in terms of capital costs and transmission losses. It will also make it harder for California utilities to meet their 2020 renewable energy mandate.

Even the progressive editorialists of LA Times are skeptical:
We'll withhold judgment on Feinstein's monument proposal until she actually produces it -- the senator is still studying which lands to protect in a swath between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. The decision-making process presents a welcome opportunity for dialogue about balancing the need for renewable power with the need to conserve sensitive lands.

Yet perhaps it's possible to love the desert too much; if we go too far in protecting it from solar development, those wide arid spaces promise to become a lot wider in the scorching future.

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