Solar Belongs on Rooftops


David Myers has spent 33 years as the head of various California land conservation organizations. For the past 16 years, he has been the Executive Director of The Wildlands Conservancy, which owns California’s largest nonprofit preserve system.

The Bush administration’s Energy Policy Act of 2005 resulted in proposals for solar and wind projects on 1.6 million acres of pristine public land in the California desert. This created a solar land rush in which companies sold public land application portfolios for hundreds of millions of dollars. When they found their applications hamstrung by endangered species laws, some energy companies, unfamiliar with federal and state environmental regulations, criticized the grassroots environmental community for holding up clean energy projects. The press sensationalized this conflict as a “Green versus Green” battle.

The media might have overblown the issue, but The Wildlands Conservancy was in fact shocked when a national environmental group took the position that we had to open desert lands for large-scale solar, the same lands that environmentalists had worked so hard to protect in the past. This is, in our opinion, nonsense. There’s no need to sacrifice unique habitats for utility-scale reneweable energy – especially when there are so many other already degraded sites that could be used instead.

One company proposed industrializing the Sleeping Beauty Valley, which was part of The Wildlands Conservancy’s privately funded 600,000-acre donation to link Joshua Tree National Park with Mojave National Preserve. University of California scientists call the Sleeping Beauty Valley one of the most biologically unique valleys in the Mojave Desert. President Clinton promised permanent protection of these donated lands, which Al Gore called “some of the most pristine and scenic desert lands in the world.” These donated landscapes were meant to accommodate north-south plant and animal adaptation over time, an important strategy as climate change starts to shift the boundaries of ecosystems.

photo of a verdant desert landscape, Joshua tree in the foregroundWolfgang StaudtThe Wildlands Conservancy says that instead of contructing large solar plants in the Mojave Desert,
we should build them in already-degraded urban brownfields.

There are better places to build large energy plants. The California Energy Commission states that 128,000 acres of solar is needed for California to reach its 33 percent renewable energy goals. The Wildlands Conservancy has pinpointed over 350,000 acres of degraded lands suitable for solar and supports dozens of utility-scale solar and wind projects proposed for these lands. The Westlands Water District alone has up to 200,000 acres of degraded lands on transmission corridors to Los Angeles, Sacramento, and San Francisco.

I say, let’s use these lands. When energy companies lack environmentalist support for poorly sited projects on pristine public lands, they resort to glib sloganeering about global warming. Instead of fighting, they should focus their efforts on building projects on degraded private lands.

Even better, how about moving toward a distributed-energy system that relies on microgeneration? A study commissioned by the California Energy Commission showed that California has the commercial and residential rooftop potential for more 70,000 megawatts of photovoltaic (PV) generation. This does not include the capacity for PV generation over the massive parking lots that clutter California’s cities. Currently California electricity consumption peaks at 65,000 megawatts on the hottest summer days. We could generate the power we need without tearing up the desert.

So why are we giving companies billions in tax dollars to destroy pristine public lands when the same monies could be making hundreds of thousands of Californians energy independent? Because there is a corporate lobbying push to focus federal stimulus funds on projects that keep renewable energy behind the meter. In other words, to stop the democratization of energy. Think about it. If in ten years we are driving electric cars, owning our own rooftop solar systems with battery backups would be like owning our own gas stations. Business models would be threatened.

Repurposing urban brown fields into clean energy hubs isn’t science fiction. I was the guest speaker at the dedication of North America’s first new solar-thermal power tower in 30 years. This utility-scale power plant is next to an asphalt recycling plant and an auto wrecking yard in Lancaster. It was permitted and built in about two years by eSolar. The eSolar business model is to build on degraded lands without government subsidy, and to deliver energy cheaper than coal. While other companies are complaining about the Endangered Species Act and government grants, eSolar is building renewable energy plants and bringing jobs to urban areas.

All of our environmental catastrophes, from the BP oil spill to global warming, are the result of expediency and a failure to explore the impacts of unintended consequences. Putting huge energy plants in the wilderness follows the same pattern: It’s a disaster waiting to happen. Our national energy policy should not be a raffle of pristine public lands that is technology agnostic and driven by speculators.

When I built my first 100 percent photovoltaic house 25 years ago, I believed we were on the verge of a green revolution. It turned out to be just another false start. Let’s get it right this time. Let’s put stimulus loans into the democratization of energy – not the further concentration of it.

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