Here Comes the Sun

Here Comes the Sun

Our southwest's deserts offer promise for solar power development. They also boast incredible biodiversity. New initiatives are looking to tap into the vast energy potential without threatening the wildlife and plants that depend on this fragile landscape.

By Judith Lewis Mernit/Photography by Michael P. Berman
Published: September-October 2011

The DRECP group has its sights set beyond the public land parcels that solar developers have mostly focused on so far. Lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management cost less for solar developers--yearly rents range from $65 to $300 per acre--but are more likely to abut wilderness areas, national parks, or preserves. Developers complain that it's hard to find a contiguous and affordable parcel big enough to accommodate a utility-scale solar plant unless you stake your claim on public land. So the working group is looking to pre-negotiate deals between federal agencies and private landholders in order to knit together pieces of territory for developers. "It's the most complicated and the largest such plan ever conceived, let alone developed," says the Sierra Club's Boyle. "It's going to take longer than people think it will. But it's the best we've got."

The BLM has launched a similar initiative in Arizona, called the Restoration Design Energy Project, to identify segments of chewed-up land--federal, local, and privately held--for renewable energy development. The agency has also teamed up with the Department of Energy to draw maps designating solar energy zones entirely on public lands in six western states--California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado--where developers might obtain streamlined permitting.

Initially neither developers nor environmentalists had much good to say about the BLM's plan, which has been in process since December 2008. Joint comments submitted on behalf of Audubon, the California Native Plant Society, the Sierra Club, and eight other environmental groups criticized the first draft of the plan for including in its zones crucial, well-known routes desert bighorn sheep use to access springs and seeps. The plan also left out degraded areas in the Sonoran Desert's Chocolate Mountains and the western Mojave near the towns of Palmdale and Lancaster. Linda Resseguie, who manages the BLM's solar zones effort, says the agency "doesn't necessarily disagree" with the criticism. "We took our best shot identifying the areas most appropriate for utility-scale solar," she says. "But that was two years ago, and we have a lot more information now about some of the sites."

In July the BLM began work on a supplement to the solar zones study, addressing key public comments and pledging to work in concert with state efforts like the DRECP. A final report on preferred development zones may be ready as early as next year; the DRECP, however, won't completely wrap up until 2013 at the earliest. Still, George is optimistic that the group's work will provide a roadmap for renewable energy development nationwide. "We're hoping it will serve as a model for the rest of the U.S., not just for solar development but also for wind," he says. "This kind of planning never happened with oil and it never happened with coal. But no one wants to spend millions of dollars developing a project that will only get canceled, and environmental groups don't want to be fighting against renewable energy. So now we're all getting together to say, 'Let's do environmentally responsible renewable energy development.' We all want that."


For the developer who doesn't want to wait for state or federal planners to finish drawing their maps but still wants a low-conflict development process, there's yet another option: Find your own five-square-mile tract, and buy it outright.

 Kate Maracas, vice president of operations in Arizona for the solar developer Abengoa, suspects that corporate history inspired the Spanish company's leadership to back her in 2008, when she proposed looking first into degraded private land for the site of the company's first U.S. project, the 280-megawatt Solana Solar Generating System. Abengoa had already pulled out of a project in Spain after construction uncovered archaeological ruins; it wants to avoid that kind of obstacle again. Solana will use parabolic troughs of mirrors to heat a fluid that passes through in tubes. It will also store some of the day's heat in molten salt to continue generating power through cloudy days and evenings.

Maracas concedes that private land costs more. "But even with government-designated renewable energy zones, it's still more time-consuming to go on public land. There are many more rules and many more queues."

Across her desk Maracas spreads a map showing the United States color-coded by incoming solar radiation, or "insolation." In the cold North and East, the map pales to a drab yellow; in the Southwest it turns to dark red. She runs a finger across a brick-colored area of Arizona southwest of Phoenix--a region of the Sonoran Desert where the sunshine rivals the mid-elevation Mojave. "We started here," she says. "After we'd homed in on four or five areas that looked like they met all the criteria"--great sun, close to transmission, and a reliable local workforce--"we retained a broker and said, 'What's for sale out here that's a large area of contiguous land?' Then we put on our cowboy boots, got in the truck, and drove miles and miles around in the desert."

They settled on a 4.7-square-mile site west of Gila Bend, Arizona. The area, part of what was once the 68,000-acre Paloma Ranch, is veined with irrigation canals dating from the 1920s. Snowy egrets and burrowing owls live here, and white-winged doves and vermilion flycatchers stop by on migration. Abengoa worked with the nonprofit rescue group Liberty Wildlife Foundation to protect the birds from construction operations.

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Thank you for bringing light to the pitfalls of utility-scale renewable energy generation. However, I think this article is a bit dismissive of the potential of distributed generation. Other countries have been quite successful in cutting reliance on GHG-emitting energy sources through rooftop solar and other local renewable energy facilities. Energy conservation could also put a huge dent in our energy consumption, and thus our dependence on fossil fuels.

Also, the article suggests that German firm Solar Millennium cancelled its plans to develop a solar facility in the western Mojave Desert because of impacts on the ecosystem. This is incorrect. The company has since petitioned the California Energy Commission to renew its application for this facility, which would disrupt a corridor for the rare Mohave Ground Squirrel and the desert tortoise.

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