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

Solana had to go through an environmental review process anyway, to qualify for a $1.45 billion guaranteed loan from the Department of Energy. That review didn't pronounce Solana perfect. Unlike the California and Nevada projects planned by BrightSource and Solar Millennium, it will use water as a coolant to return steam back to a liquid state. The BLM has all but forbidden such so-called wet cooling in desert systems, requiring developers to use dry desert air instead. But Solana sits atop the plentiful Paloma aquifer, which has served local agricultural operations for close to a century. The 3,000 acre-feet of water Solana needs every year is roughly one-tenth of the amount ranchers previously used to grow alfalfa. The project consequently has the support of just about every environmental group, from the Sonoran Institute to Defenders of Wildlife. (Audubon has not taken a position.) So far no one has sued.

Abengoa also has a California project in the works, a 250-megawatt concentrating solar thermal plant on fallow agricultural land on Harper Dry Lake. It met some resistance from the California Energy Commission, ever concerned about drought, for its proposed use of wet cooling, but eventually a conservation agreement was worked out. The approval process was still faster than it would have been had the plant been proposed for nearby public land.

And more such land exists. In addition to fallow agricultural fields, more of which become available as market conditions make crops like alfalfa and cotton less profitable, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified literally millions of acres of contaminated and degraded land that could be right for renewable energy development. In California alone, the agency has pinpointed 215 sites covering 1.7 million acres, including 90 sites larger than 200 acres. "I would not say Abengoa has a policy never to build anything on public land," Maracas says. "But if we ever do, we'll make sure we avoid any areas of contention. We just don't need it."


Back in the Mojave, construction on Ivanpah resumed on June 10, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a new biological opinion. It strengthened tortoise protection provisions and acknowledged that more animals are likely to be injured or killed than originally thought. The tortoise losses may seem small compared with the threat of catastrophic climate disruption, but Jim Andre doesn't believe the choice is so plain. "It's not a matter of global climate change versus bulldozing the pristine desert," he says. "How many acres are you willing to destroy of this pristine, highest-quality ecosystem, when there are degraded lands that could be used just as well? It's as simple as that."

Audubon's Taylor hopes it won't come down to that. By providing state and local leaders with clearly defined areas suitable for renewable energy development and areas that should be protected, "it appears that they'll consider that information and adopt the best practices." If that's the case, solar will indeed have a bright future.

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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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