America’s deserts are stark, quiet places, where isolation and the elements have long kept development at bay. To outsiders, these arid expanses may not seem like prized land.
But they are poised to play a key role—and perhaps, to serve as a battleground—in President Obama’s plan to double U.S. electricity from wind, solar, and geothermal sources by 2020. To help ramp up that amount of clean energy, the White House has urged approval of an additional 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy production on public lands. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Solar Energy.”)
Estimates vary on exactly how many households would be served by the expansion, but the Obama administration says the 25 utility-scale solar facilities, nine wind farms, and 11 geothermal plants it has approved on federal lands so far will provide enough juice to power 4.4 million homes. (See related story: “Obama Unveils Climate Change Strategy.”)
One thing is for certain: The new drive for large-scale solar will require land. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) so far has issued permits or is conducting environmental reviews for solar, wind, and geothermal projects covering about 310,000 acres (125,450 hectares)—an area about the size of Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. Many projects require that electric transmission lines be built over miles of open space to connect the remote renewable generating plants to the grid that serves population centers.
The administration generally wins plaudits from environmentalists for its effort to expand energy that doesn’t belch smoke, cancer-causing chemicals, or heat-trapping carbon dioxide. But there is growing concern among a number of environmentalists, particularly in the West, about the impact on fragile ecosystems, plants, and animals. Some have filed lawsuits that could slow the effort to devote more public land to renewable energy.
“We need a new model for the way public lands are managed that recognizes we can’t keep trying to divide the pie up between exploitation and preservation,” said Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, a Seattle-based group that has filed a legal challenge to the program.
As Obama noted in his State of the Union address, renewable energy from sources like solar and wind doubled in his first term. Economic stimulus funding in 2009 made it easier for projects to take shape. Despite the enormous growth, though, fossil fuels still dominate. Together, wind, solar and geothermal energy accounted for just 2 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption in 2012, government data show.
“Using less dirty energy, transitioning to cleaner sources of energy, wasting less energy through our economy is where we need to go,” Obama said at Georgetown University June 25, when he promised to issue enough permits to double the number of megawatts solar and wind projects generate on federal property. “And this plan will get us there faster.” (See related story: “Obama Pledges U.S. Action on Climate Change, With or Without Congress.”)
The abundant sunlight in desert regions makes them some of the world’s best locations for solar energy projects, and the nation’s largest environmental groups were quick to praise the new climate initiative. The Natural Resources Defense Council released a study showing 210,000 jobs would be added by 2020, and that electric bills would be lower in 11 of 14 states it examined. (See related: “10 Ways Obama Could Fight Climate Change.”)
But the effort to devote large tracts of public land to renewable energy has not been trouble-free.
Combined with stimulus financing that came with strict deadlines to break ground, a land rush ensued—and regulations were sometimes slow to catch up. That led to speculative investments, lawsuits, canceled projects, and other complications.
David Lamfrom, a senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association who works in California’s Mojave Desert, said a local dentist even submitted a development application in the initial frenzy.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Lamfrom said.
Among the biggest flash points have been three projects located close to National Park land in the California desert. (See related story: “California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?“) One of those, a solar farm proposed near Death Valley National Park, was later abandoned by its bankrupt developer, Solar Millennium.
Another solar project, First Solar’s Desert Sunlight near Joshua Tree National Park, now under construction, was scaled back to one-fifth of its originally proposed size, and special lighting technology is being implemented to preserve night sky views. The developer was required to retain BLM-approved biologists to monitor bird activity, including bird deaths from collisions with solar panels, according to the project’s environmental impact statement.
But in recent weeks, an unanticipated environmental problem has surfaced at Desert Sunlight. More than a dozen migratory birds have been found dead, including water fowl that somehow landed at the desert construction site: an eared grebe, three brown pelicans, and an endangered Yuma clapper rail. Jane Hendron, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the developers wouldn’t face any liability for the endangered animals’ deaths.
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