Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Oh, Where Shall We Put It?

Take a deep breath, and calm down. Everybody loves this place, that's why they are all fighting about it... I'm talking to myself.

I just finished reading this New York Times piece on the emerging fight over solar panels in the California Desert. In my most recent job, one of my organization's responsibilities was in protecting California desert park lands. Now free to have a more public opinion on this topic, I must say that I still take that side.

The Times reports on the fight between environmental organizations over whether or not we should develop large-scale solar farms in the deserts in Southern California. Folks from NRDC and some from the Sierra Club have taken a position that we should be moving toward large-scale solar developments, and agree that the desert is a great place to put them. Others, like the Wildlands Conservancy, think that the desert is a horrible place to put them.

Unfortunately, this Times piece tells less than the full story. First, it seems to pit NIMBY folks against "ecowarriors" who have the good of the planet at heart. Let me say this: Everybody in this argument has the good of the planet at heart.

But, much more importantly, it only covers the emotive side of this important conversation, trying to focus on the personalities rather than the important stuff. It doesn't talk about the science, the actual ecological and economic trade-offs of solar placement in the California desert. So I will.

California's deserts are not dry expanses of nothingness. A desert is defined by its precipitation (less than 10 inches per year), and so soil and therefore habitat can vary widely, which is where we need to start the conversation. Some research has shown that some desert habitats, including the Mojave, may actually be huge carbon sinks, sequestering carbon at rates similar to woodlands. If this is the case, then tearing out hundreds of thousands of acres of desert may not be the highest and best use of this land.

Now, add in additional factors. First, water: Large-scale solar facilities operate by heating water, and the employees also need water to operate, so a large amount is going to be needed. Where will this come from? If we attempt to use water from the underground aquifers, the facilities won't expect a long life. Therefore, we will have to further engineer water transport tens or hundreds of miles to these facilities. Who will give up their water rights? How much will the transportation cost? How much energy will it use? Currently, about one fifth of California's entire energy consumption goes to water. Last, what is the carbon footprint for the water aspect of the proposal?

Next, energy production: The current electrical grid in the deserts can not support the proposed production, so additional energy transportation will have to be built. In habitat as sensitive as desert, the placement of transportation and energy "ribbons" is very important. Deserts have few corridors that allow animals to move from one water source to another. Currently, desert bighorn are killed on highways that were inappropriately placed before we understood the particular corridors throughout the desert ranges. To alleviate that problem, CalTrans built tunnels for them (asking a desert bighorn to walk into a tunnel is akin to asking an astronaut to step out of the space shuttle without his suit, just for a second). How will the grids affect the already-impacted desert corridors? And the new roadways built to maintain them?

So we are left without adequate research regarding the current relationship of wild desert lands to carbon sequestration, of the total carbon footprint of construction of the entirely new system, or of its effects on habitat. And yet, we are told that to save the world, we must first build as much as we can.

What could stop this fight? If only we could find a huge expanse of land that has already been heavily developed, gets tremendous amounts of sunshine but relatively little precipitation, has dedicated energy corridors and water resources, a huge workforce who need jobs, and whose current land use was already controversial and environmentally damaging, so its new use farming solar would actually improve conditions...


NorCal Cazadora said...

Nicely written!

I'm not sure you'll get a whole lot of support for the San Joaquin Valley idea (being a former San Joaquin Valley resident).

But coming from a family that loves deserts, I love what you say about the desert - it is not a wasteland as so many seem to think.

Thanks for laying out the arguments here.

Bob J said...

I happened to read that article too and your take is pretty much my take also. Nicely recapped. Do you have a different job now?

Josh said...

Thanks, folks.

Cazadora, in recent years I've grown a serious appreciation for our deserts here. Let's hope the water issue looms so large for folks that they take it seriously enough.

Bob, I'm between jobs now. If you see anything you think I'd be good at, let me know!

Thomas Bachand said...

The meat of the NYTimes article seems to be: "Mr. Harvey’s group says that rooftop solar panels could be vastly expanded in heavily populated areas around Los Angeles. With energy conservation that would make desert clusters of solar plants unnecessary, it says."

Solar is not well suited to the centralized production model used for other energy sources, such as oil, gas, and hydroelectric. It only makes sense to exploit solar's low hanging fruit by first offering incentives to place solar panels on rooftops and adjacent the point of consumption.