The wrong sites for solar

May 19, 2011 By Erica Rosenberg and Janine Blaeloch

Is it possible that solar energy - clean, renewable, virtually infinite - could have a downside? As it's being pursued on our public lands, yes.

In the name of greening America, the Obama administration is about to open up as much as 21.5 million acres of mostly undisturbed, fragile desert land for potential industrial-scale solar energy development. That means huge swaths of public land in the West could be developed, degraded and effectively privatized.

But such degradation isn't necessary. We can have solar energy while keeping the desert wild and public lands truly public. The government has lower-impact options, such as putting solar developments on already degraded public and private land. It could also pursue the more efficient and far less damaging tactic of deploying across vast acreages of rooftops and parking lots.

With at the forefront of the administration's efforts to address energy dependence and , Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised in 2008 to "put a bull's-eye on public lands" for solar development, and he's keeping his word.

By the end of 2010, the Bureau of Land Management - the Interior Department agency that manages one-10th of America's land for multiple use - had fast-tracked 14 solar developments across the Southwest, including six in California. As part of streamlining the process, Salazar himself signed off on nine of the projects, thereby foreclosing public appeals.

Given the dizzying pace of permitting, each project was pushed through with little meaningful public review or environmental impact analysis. Each has an average footprint of 4,300 acres; when they're completed, conversion of the sites - from desert habitat and multiple-use land to single-use industrial zones - will be total.

To fend off litigation and controversy that the expedited process spawned, the Department of the Interior in 2008 also initiated a "programmatic" environmental impact statement, which allows it to establish a broader, systematic plan for solar development on public lands. Groups like ours hoped that the process would take a harder look at which, if any, public lands should be opened for potential solar development, with a clear assessment of projects' cumulative impacts. Early on, the administration said the programmatic process would look at 676,000 acres of "solar study areas." The assumption was that acreage would be whittled down as environmental conflicts and other objections were raised.

Instead, the December 2010 draft proposal throws open the gates to an ongoing land rush. The "preferred alternative" keeps 21.5 million acres open for development - 33 times as much acreage as originally advertised.

What's fueling the demand for land? Battling climate change and a dismal economy with green jobs, the Obama administration is offering generous subsidies for Big Solar development. These subsidies include cash grants of up to 30 percent of the cost of a project and loan guarantees in the billions, and they accrue to familiar corporate interests: oil companies, utilities and Wall Street firms. For example, $1.37 billion is going to Bright Source - whose investors include BP, Chevron and Morgan Stanley - for three proposed plants in the Mojave Desert. BLM tops it off by offering lease rates based on artificially low land values.

Claims of reducing greenhouse gases undergird the project approvals. Yet research shows that carbon storage rates in the Mojave rival or exceed those of some forest and grassland ecosystems, so the harm of carbon released during construction could offset the promised benefits of the utility-scale solar developments.

On top of that, the estimated operational life of each project runs from 30 to 50 years, but environmental impacts to the land will be felt for centuries. Although to some they appear devoid of life, the deserts and their fragile soils are biologically rich, providing habitat for rare and protected plants and animals like the desert tortoise, the fringe-toed lizard and the Joshua tree. Even BLM concedes in its draft analysis that desert ecosystems could take up to 3,000 years to fully recover from the soil and vegetation disturbances associated with the industrial sites.

Furthermore, construction and operation will both require scarce water, and the solar plants will require thousands of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines through public and private property.

When all of the effects are taken into account, it makes no sense to destroy the desert for large solar projects, and even less sense to turn over precious public land to corporate interests. Given the scale and the environmental impact, this use privatizes the land in a way that other sanctioned uses like grazing and pipelines do not. The Environmental Protection Agency, in reviewing the proposal, urged the Interior Department to consider putting projects on "disturbed, degraded and contaminated sites" rather than "large tracts of undisturbed public lands," and helpfully identified millions of acres of degraded lands potentially suitable for solar.

Renewable is crucial to America's future. But the Obama administration is moving backward by sacrificing public lands for development. With better siting and technological options available, we can have a renewable energy program that reflects 21st century values by not destroying the very environment we hope to protect.

Explore further: Matched 'hybrid' systems may hold key to wider use of renewable energy

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spectator
3.8 / 5 (4) May 19, 2011
For example, $1.37 billion is going to Bright Source - whose investors include BP, Chevron and Morgan Stanley - for three proposed plants in the Mojave Desert. BLM tops it off by offering lease rates based on artificially low land values.


Riiight, because there are millions of people lined up to buy a patch of otherwise worthless desert sand...

When all of the effects are taken into account, it makes no sense to destroy the desert for large solar projects, and even less sense to turn over precious public land to corporate interests.


The deserts are arid and have less cloud cover, making them FAR more efficient locations for solar power than any place else on earth.

It could also pursue the more efficient and far less damaging tactic of deploying solar panels across vast acreages of rooftops and parking lots.


Solar photovoltaics are 1/4 to 1/3 as efficient and cost several times more per unit area as compared to solar towers or trough plants.
spectator
4.2 / 5 (5) May 19, 2011
I'm all in favor of green technology and solar power, but you two ladies are being ridiculous.

Do you know how many PV panels on a non-orientable rooftop array it would take to make 40 megawatts, like a typical solar boiler power plant? You would basically need to double or triple up the panels, since they wouldn't be orientable on a roof top, which would double or triple your cost compared to mirrors and heliostats in the desert.

You're talking about 360 million dollars worth of roof-top panels alone, not counting install costs, to make an average of 40 megawatts worth of power during the day, or about $9 million per megawatt, PLUS install costs.

A parabolic trough solar plant in the desert can produce that much power for a fraction of the cost, and produce enough steam to use over night to have that average power day and night.
Milou
not rated yet May 19, 2011
What worries me is the long term shadow effect under the panels on the land that is use to having long term sunlight? The term "wasteland" should not to be taken literally.
kaasinees
not rated yet May 19, 2011
The deserts are arid and have less cloud cover, making them FAR more efficient locations for solar power than any place else on earth.

Deserts have a maintenance problem(desert sand). Plus it needs more cable making it more expensive.
unknownorgin
4.8 / 5 (4) May 19, 2011
The title of the article ,"The wrong site for solar" says it all because in the eyes of the evironmental faith there is no place for civilization or even people. Some of the statements made in the article are not based on real facts because large scale solar sites in the desert have never been there to study and the authers expect thier statments to be accepted on blind faith alone. In the heat of the day most desert animals seek shelter from the sun so the solar panels may benefit them. If you look at the big picture solar power is the next step toward world peace and a better standard of living for everyone.

spectator
4 / 5 (1) May 20, 2011
The title of the article ,"The wrong site for solar" says it all because in the eyes of the evironmental faith there is no place for civilization or even people.


Exactly.

I have a nagging suspicion that if someone invented a Zero Point Modulus some environmentalists would find some reason to complain about it.
antialias
5 / 5 (1) May 20, 2011
mostly undisturbed, fragile desert land for potential industrial-scale solar energy development. That means huge swaths of public land in the West could be developed, degraded

How much more 'degraded' can desert land get. Yes, it is an ecosystem - but there's really a lot of it. Do we need to really save all of it? The space solar would need is negligible (and it wouldn't necessarily make the arae completely devoid of life. A bit of shade is not the same as fillings omething with toxic substances)

Putting solar on rooftops is OK, but certainly more expensive/complicated than putting it out in the desert.

Deserts have a maintenance problem(desert sand). Plus it needs more cable making it more expensive.

having many solar isntallations on many rooftops needs a lot more cables than having one big installation out in the desert. And there are abrasion resistant technologies already on the market that make the sand-argument moot.
SteveL
not rated yet May 20, 2011
If it's a solar thermal project (rather than PV - I didn't see it specified) scale is an important factor. Also a large scale generation palnt can hook into one of the several HVDC lines already in place to boost the power. As the land, the towers and the rights of way are already in place for these HVDC lines projects like this should be welcomed.
pubwvj
not rated yet May 20, 2011
Desert. Empty, for the most part. Hot. Looking for shade. The plants and animals in the desert will love getting some shade... Just because it is desert doesn't mean the inhabitants want it to stay that way so that you can enjoy things not changing. At some point in the past it wasn't desert. At some point in the future it won't be desert. Maybe the solar farms will help.
RustyMustard
5 / 5 (1) May 21, 2011

having many solar isntallations on many rooftops needs a lot more cables than having one big installation out in the desert. And there are abrasion resistant technologies already on the market that make the sand-argument moot.


Decentralization is what's needed, and we won't need huge megawatt facilities. I get 100% of my power from solar, and have about 15 feet of wiring from my panels to my controller. When there's a power outage i'm unaffected by it.
spectator
not rated yet May 22, 2011
Decentralization is what's needed, and we won't need huge megawatt facilities. I get 100% of my power from solar, and have about 15 feet of wiring from my panels to my controller. When there's a power outage i'm unaffected by it.


You realize it depends on your lattitude and average cloud cover.

You can't expect every house in the country to be 100% self-sufficient from local solar power. Doing so would cost some people 5 to 10 times more money, either because of lattitude, topography, cloud cover, or nearby forestation.

Not only that, apartments and office buildings are, by design, far lower surface area per unit volume than ordinary homes. Which means you couldn't possibly put enough panels on the roofs or walls of a multi-story apartment building or commercial building to power all of the units' needs.
tjcoop3
not rated yet May 22, 2011
No surprise. Governments Lie-Always. ho is paying for all of these "subsides"? Why...you of course.

Conclusion-Governments steal as well. Throw em all out and go to local, county and state government except for, maybe, defense.

Let individuals decide what is best for them and let their them determine what, if any, government they want for themselves.

Then if you prefer something else you move somewhere that is more in line with how you want to live and be controlled by others who have their own best interests at heart.

Duh...Politicians do NOT care about you or what is best but what will get them more money and power to control you so they can guarantee the next election will favor them.

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