Environmentalist Infighting: Solar Panels in the Mojave Desert

by Brian McGraw on April 6, 2012

in Blog

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The Los Angeles Times takes a look at some infighting going on in the environmental movement, with local chapters of large environmental organizations feeling ignored by the large national groups pushing renewable energy projects. This specific controversy concerns a large solar panel project in the Mojave desert in southeastern California. Needless to say, I don’t think a vast array of solar panels should be built in the Mojave desert either, but likely for different reasons than the local environmental groups. Here’s the introduction:

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Calif. — April Sall gazed out at the Mojave Desert flashing past the car window and unreeled a story of frustration and backroom dealings.

Her small California group, the Wildlands Conservancy, wanted to preserve 600,000 acres of the Mojave. The group raised $45 million, bought the land and deeded it to the federal government.

The conservancy intended that the land be protected forever. Instead, 12 years after accepting the largest land gift in American history, the federal government is on the verge of opening 50,000 acres of that bequest to solar development.

Even worse, in Sall’s view, the nation’s largest environmental organizations are scarcely voicing opposition. Their silence leaves the conservancy and a smattering of other small environmental organizations nearly alone in opposing energy development across 33,000 square miles of desert land.

“We got dragged into this because the big groups were standing on the sidelines and we were watching this big conservation legacy practically go under a bulldozer,” said Sall, the organization’s conservation director. “We said, ‘We can’t be silent anymore.’ “

Similar stories can be heard across the desert Southwest. Small environmental groups are fighting utility-scale solar projects without the support of what they refer to as “Gang Green,” the nation’s big environmental players.

I think it is reasonable to assume that these locals are also concerned with global warming and would like to see a large national build out of renewable energy in order to stop what they believe to be dangerous climate change in the next century. Yet, local opposition like this exists throughout the country, and it adds up to death by a thousand cuts. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce keeps track of energy projects blocked by local opposition throughout the country, and its not pretty. Even if you are against fossil fuel development, visit the site and check out the hundreds of wind and/or nuclear projects stopped. At the national level, NIMBY (not in my back yard) becomes BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything).

While I believe there are some environmentalists in the country who would truly be comfortable living a life without automobiles, reliable and (relatively inexpensive) energy, etc. they do not represent the views of a strong majority of Americans who favor these things. So America is going to continue to develop our energy resources. Is it really smart to protect a small portion of a desert (as Wikipedia notes, the Mojave desert is sparsely populated, seems like an ideal location to build something) from something that they generally support?

California has a mandate to build renewable energy. If the solar project is stopped, what happens then? Do we think that there won’t be an alternative project built in its place, possibly more electricity from a fossil fuel plant?. Environmentalists are confusing:

“The Sierra Club and the NRDC — their mission is to work on climate change” above all else, Sall said. “We refuse to compromise on that level.”

The smaller groups have formed their own alliance, Solar Done Right, that supports renewable energy in previously disturbed or low-conflict lands. “We can have renewable energy — we can have tons of it — and we can do it in all the right ways,” Sall said.

I suspect this is very unlikely to be true. The desert was chosen for a reason; it was probably the cheapest place solar energy could be developed once you consider the amount of sunlight needed by the panels, distance of transmission lines, etc. There’s no free lunch, and a higher price for solar electricity will just mean less of it gets built.

Finally, the article has an interesting admission: big national foundations are pouring lots of money into climate change, and little else:

Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, a small public lands watchdog group, said Gang Green’s members are compliant in order to make themselves more inviting to major foundations. In recent years, grants for projects focusing on climate change and energy have become the two top-funded issues in environmental philanthropy. Foundations have awarded tens of millions of dollars in grants to environmental groups that make renewable energy a top priority.

“It’s not that they solely and directly make decisions based on funding, but they keep their eyes open to what foundations want,” Blaeloch said.

As a result, “you’ve got enviros exactly where industry wanted them to be,” she said.




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