By Miriam Raftery
March 23, 2009 (San Diego)--Congressman Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego) has coauthored H.R. 964, a measure that would exempt any solar energy project on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands from Environmental Impact Report requirements. Sempra Energy, Bilbray's third largest campaign contributor, seeks to import power from desert solar farms on BLM lands.
On Friday, California's Senator Diane Feinstein sent a blistering letter to the Secretary of the Interior opposing solar farms on BLM lands, citing massive environmental damage from scraping bare a half-million acres of desert lands proposed for solar mirrors.
"It would destroy the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem," David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, said of a Mojave Desert solar project which Feinstein seeks to block. Solar farms would do great harm to the desert tortoise, a threatened species and California's state reptile, he warned.
Gary Thomas, a board member of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, charges that "those (energy) farms are nothing more than an open pit mine without a pit. They are going to go in and clean everything out to bare dirt, then they fence them and everything that was living in that place will be gone."
Lands for the Mojave project were donated or purchased with intent that they would be protected forever. But now, BLM considers the lands to be open to all developments except mining. In a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (http://yubanet.com/california/Desert-Protection-Feinstein-Seeks-to-Prese...) , Feinstein wrote, "This is unacceptable. I urge you to direct the BLM to suspend any further consideration of leases to develop former railroad lands for renewable energy or for any other purposes." Feinstein has announced her intention to block solar power from desert lands in the Mojave and have the acreage in question declared a national monument. The Democratic Senator cites concern over severe environmental impacts. Nineteen companies have submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities on half a million desert acres. Feinstein said development on sensitive acreage in the Mojave would violate the spirit of conservationsts' intentions when they donated lands to the public.
The Wildlands Conservacy, which helped fund the government's purchase of the land from 199-2004, is opposed to solar projects on the lands. But H.R. 964, the Emergency Solar Power Permit Act coauthored by Bilbray, would amend the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 to exempt any action relating to development, deployment, or operation of a solar energy project from environmental impact statement (EIS) requirements on lands owned by the BLM. The bill's 17 cosponsors are all Republicans.
The Obama administration and the Democratic Party both support development of renewable energy such as solar. Yet no Democrats felt compelled to support a bill that would cut out all environmental review in order to fast-track solar projects on desert lands.
Why might Bilbray be so interested in eliminating environmental protections to make it easier for massive solar farms to be built on formerly protected federal lands? Sempra Energy's San Diego Gas & Electric(SDG&E) (www.sdge.com) has announced intentions to bring 300 to 900 megawatts (MW) of solar power from Stirling Energy Systems (SES), a Phoenix-based company (www.stirlingenergy.com ). Under the plan, SDG&E would buy electrical energy produced from a solar farm consisting of 12,000 solar dishes in the Imperial Valley. SES also aims to build a 500 MW solar project in the Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles to include 20,000 dishes. Sempra Energy was the third largest donor to Bilbray's campaign in 2007-2008, forking up $10,750 to help him win reelection. (http://www.opensecrets.org/politicians/summary.php?cid=N00006981)
Larry Hogue of the Desert Protection Council described details of potential damage to desert wildlife and terrain in his blog (http://www.dpcinc.org/blog/2008/12/03/problems-with-big-desert-solar ) "We don't see forests being clearcut to make way for solar mirrors, because that would clearly be absurd. Yet thousands and even millions of acres of desert are currently proposed to be scraped to make way for solar power plants and their accompanying transmission lines," he wrote.
Scraping bare vast areas in the desert would cause damage that could take eons to heal, he warned, noting that plant growth and soil creation rates in the desert are very slow. "This kind of direct habitat destruction is the main cause of the massive extinction event the Earth is currently experiencing," he said, adding that the desert tortoise (California's state reptile) and the Mojave ground squirrel, both listed as threatened species, would be seriously harmed by solar farms in the desert. "Creating such vast swaths of destroyed habitat to provide energy for human use is no greener than any other type of habitat destruction," he added. Hogue said scraping deserts for solar farms could actually contribute to global warming. "As reported here previously, studies have shown that the Mojave Desert in particular stores as much carbon as some temperate forests," he wrote. "Scraping the ground cover, including microbiotic crusts, would remove this function of the desert as a carbon sink, offsetting to some (currently unknown) extent the greenhouse gas reductions provided by the solar power project."
Concentrating solar power plants also use two million gallons or more per megawatt per year when they are "wet-cooled," Hogue reported. "One 280-megawatt plant proposed in Arizona is projected to use 600 to 700 million gallons (1900 acre-feet) each year. Where will that water come from? This is a desert after all. Will it come from our dwindling and over-subscribed Colorado River supply? Or from the desert's own scant groundwater, vital for maintaining many desert habitats?" Impacts from pumping desert groundwater would extend far beyond the projects, he warned. "The decline of mesquite groves around Borrego Springs is just one example of the impacts of groundwater pumping. Since the groundwater could eventually run out completely, this practice is by definition not renewable."
Sean Gallagher, vice president for Stirling Energy Systems, said the company's project proposed for the Plaster City area in Imperial County would not "scrape" vast areas of the desert bare. "Our technology has numerous environmental advantages, including the lowest water use of any electric generating technology, minimal grading and trenching requirements, no excavation for foundations, and the highest sun-to-grid efficiency of any solar generating technology, which minimizes both cost and land use," Gallagher said. Instead, the project calls for a dish system on pedestals. "We expect that much of the land that we will use will be able to re-vegetate. We are also not planning to build in most wash areas, where a good deal of the vegetation is found," he noted. The company does not yet have a position on the Bilbray bill, he said, adding that Stirling expects to go through a full environmental review.
But environmental advocate Jeanette Hartman had this to say. "The Sierra Club position is that the Stirling technology is unproven at the commercial level and is therefore not suitable as a key part of a major industrial project," she oserved. "In addition, the Stirling project is inconsistent with the plan prepared by Bill Powers,which was endorsed by the Sierra Club. The Powers plan calls for "In-Basin" power production using upgrades to existing lines and use of small peaker plants. Even if the Stirling technology were proven to be commercially viable, the need for a major transmission line like the Sunrise Powerlink and access roads expand the impacts of such as system considerably beyond those stated by Stirling."
Feinstein is not opposed to all solar farms, only those in the most sensitive habitat regions. But others who oppose desert solar farms contend that better options exist to meet future energy needs by harvesting solar or wind energy closer to home. Some cities are experimenting with new incentives for rooftop solar on a large scale, for example. Gainesville, Florida, recently introduced "feed in tariffs" for home and business owners who install solar panels. Salon.com reported the Gainsville is "essentially requiring a local utility to pay a guaranteed sweet rate for the next 20 years for all solar-generated electricity, creating a big incentive to install those panels." In Berkeley, Calif., the city will front costs for homeowners to install solar and gets paid back through an increase in property taxes over 20 years. Both programs are so popular that the cities aren't accepting any new applicants for now.
Even some utility companies are now working to provide incentives for locallly-generated solar. Southern California Edison is developing a massive 250-megawatt project to put solar panels on 150 commercial buildings, totaling 65 million square feet of solar cells in southern California. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power will put 400 megawatts worth of solar panels on city-owned rooftops, parking lots and reservoirs by 2014.
"They're proposing photovoltaic projects on a scale that's as big or bigger than these big solar desert projects," says Bill Powers, a San Diego energy engineer. (For details, see http://www.salon.com/env/feature/2009/03/23/power_lines/index.html) .
Supporters contend that those measures are inadequate. Besides Bilbray, defenders of desert solar farms include Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In a speech at Yale last year, the Governor complained, "If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it."