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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Route 66 views are more important than clean energy

The NYT report Tuesday covered several angles I hadn’t seen on Sen. Diane Feinstein’s bill to block solar energy development in the Mojave Desert.

First, it said that Feinstein’s concerns is not protecting flora and fauna, but aesthetics — having solar panels out there would look ugly. Of course, to renewable energy advocates the prospect of large facilities satisfying the energy needs of entire cities is quite attractive — and this is certainly not something that has discouraged the Germans or Spaniards. (Perhaps the senator should travel more). But this is also the argument that is often made against windmills on ridgelines.

Secondly, the article noted that even the prospect of legislation has killed the idea of developing solar farms in that part of the Mojave. In the face of uncertainty — high political risk — solar entrepreneurs have stopped working on projects for the area. When we teach business, we normally think of political risk as something that happens in third world countries, but of course it’s a problem in any context where the government is heavily involved in the market.

The article summarized a visit by Feinstein and her entourage to prospective solar sites in the Mojave:
As conflicts over building solar farms in the Mojave escalated earlier this year, Mrs. Feinstein trekked to the desert in April. …

The presentation over, the entourage rolled on to the next solar project site to hear the developer’s pitch. Mrs. Feinstein gave the developers a hearing but was not moved by their arguments, according to five people present on the tour. The senator seemed concerned about the visual effect of huge solar farms on Route 66, the highway that runs through the Mojave, they said.
Third, while this is an awful idea — legacy-building by a US senator who will be 79 when her current term expires — few Californians (union, solar, environmentalists, government officials) are willing to say so for fear of political retaliation. (Again, another example of why governing based on political influence and whim rather than policy is a terrible idea.)

Fourth, despite what renewable energy advocates said about George W. Bush, a Bush-era effort pushed for more solar development in the Mojave and other Southwestern deserts to meet society’s energy needs with renewable energy. (I guess the common thread is that if there’s something private industry could build to provide more energy, the former oilman was in favor of it.) The NYT makes it clear that Obama and particularly Feinstein are placing much more emphasis on conservation than Bush did.

So in the end, the indictment of the Feinstein plan comes from one of the few people who’s powerful enough to stand up to the senator — the namesake of a martyred US senator and nephew of the most popular Democratic president of the past 50 years:
“This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmentalist and a partner with a venture capital firm that invested in a solar developer called BrightSource Energy. In September, BrightSource canceled a large project in the monument area.
This proposal is among the worst examples of NIMBY-ism. Society wants and needs renewable energy, but various interests game the system to say “sure, but not in my back yard.” Laws are passed based on the intense opposition, overriding a more diffuse public need; hearings will be about saving the views and the flora and fauna, not the difficult it creates for meeting the state and country’s renewable energy goals.

As RFK Jr. notes, the Mojave is the best solar land in California and perhaps the world. There are many other scenic desert vistas in the United States — but further from large power-hungry metropolitan regions.

Perhaps Californians might have to drive to Utah or Arizona or New Mexico to see such vistas — or into one of the thousands of acres of existing monuments in California. But if it were put to a vote of California voters, I think the decision would be overwhelmingly in favor of using the desert for renewable energy rather than a monument to one senator’s political clout.

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