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.
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.
One thing is for certain: the new drive for large-scale solar will require land. The U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management so far has issued permits or is conducting environmental reviews for solar, wind and geothermal projects covering about 310,000 acres — an area around 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 serving 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, 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, promising 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.”
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, along with lower electric bills in 11 of 14 states it examined.
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 an area dentist even submitted a development application in the initial frenzy.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” Lamfrom said.
Don’t miss a single Center for Public Integrity investigation on the environment.
Sign up now to receive special newsletters relevant to your interest.
Among the biggest flash points have been three projects located close to national park land in the California desert. 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 won’t face any liability for the endangered animal’s death.
“We had not included it [in the company's permit] or addressed it, so there’s no way the solar company would have known or would have been prescribed any action specifically,” Hendron said.
She said the agency planned to begin monitoring the site and others more intensively to gather hard data on what might be confusing the birds. It’s thought that the reflective panels could look like fresh water to the migrating waterfowl, Hendron said, but little hard science on the phenomenon exists.
“We have to make decisions based on the best available science,” Hendron said, “but if you don’t have the science, you can’t just go out and make willy-nilly hypotheticals.”
The third controversial project adjacent to parkland is set to open later this summer as the world's largest solar plant, a 3,500-acre development in the Ivanpah Valley at the California-Nevada border near Mojave National Preserve.
The Ivanpah developer, Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, ended up spending years and millions of dollars relocating desert tortoises found living on the site and had to suspend construction for months. The company says it has spent $22 million taking care of the animals, which the federal government classifies as a threatened species, and plans to spend as much as $34 million mitigating the plant’s impact on their habitat.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the Ivanpah site, near Primm, Nevada on July 1 and praised the developers as “pioneers.”
Lamfrom uses a different word. “I call them dinosaurs,” he said. In his view, under new standards the BLM has adopted to take into account the potential environmental impacts, the projects might not be approved today.
The BLM says it works with local residents and conservation groups to mitigate projects' environmental impact. For example, in March, before the agency approved a 200-megawatt wind farm southeast of Las Vegas, it worked with Duke Energy's Searchlight Wind Energy to ensure that the project, though located on 9,300 acres, only disturbed 160 acres of land. A plan is being implemented at the site to protect bats and birds, and an ethnographic study is underway aimed at protecting cultural resources. Still, the Interior Department faces a lawsuit filed by Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains, who argue the plan threatens golden eagles and bald eagles that fish nearby in Lake Mojave, among other impacts.
Solar projects have become the biggest prize for developers as the BLM has worked to facilitate an “all-of-the-above” energy plan, a review of agency data shows. They produce more megawatts, in total, than wind or geothermal projects, on less land. They also will create about 50 percent more jobs, on average, than wind projects — at least according to claims made on permit applications.
But Lamfrom worries that the huge projects, if not properly managed, will spoil the desert’s sweeping vistas and mar places like Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks with thousands of reflective panels. The projects also can require the clearing of huge swaths of native grasses and cacti.
Some environmentalists feel their views were ignored by the administration years ago.
The move to increase solar permits “just shows the utter blindness that there is in the administration,” said Blaeloch, of the Western Lands Project. “The ‘all-of-the-above’ approach — what kind of thing is that to say about what our energy policy is?” she said. “Let’s be a little more discerning."
Tracts used by solar projects become “private industrial zones” that the public can’t access, Blaeloch said, which is why her group and two others are suing the Interior Department in a bid to elicit changes to a key planning document released last year. The document established 17 solar energy zones, totaling nearly 300,000 acres, thought to provide the best conditions for plants with the least impact on the environment. But the document would still allow the BLM to approve projects on up to 19.3 million acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah — an area larger than the state of West Virginia -- although permits would be harder to get.
The goal, Blaeloch said, is to force the BLM to redo the document, called a Preliminary Environmental Impact Statement, to consider generating power from less-pristine sites. The Environmental Protection Agency does have an initiative to site renewable energy on old industrial and waste sites; the agency says more than 200 megawatts has already been sited on such sites, and it compiles an extensive list of contaminated sites that could be of use to renewable energy developers, posting it on its website. Blaeloch’s group contends that significant BLM land is also scarred and similiarly could be used for renewable energy projects.
Blaeloch said she understands the threat of global warming but believes more drastic lifestyle changes will be needed than what the president’s plan requires. Delicate public lands shouldn’t be sacrificed, she said.
The deserts “are as rich as old-growth forests,” Blaeloch said. “They may be a little harsher to be in and to walk in, but they have a huge amount of value to the planet and to species.”
David Quick, a BLM spokesman, said in a statement that the agency's approval process takes into account the need to balance environmental concerns. The process “ensures opportunities for all interested parties and stakeholders to be engaged in the review process and identify mitigation alternatives and the appropriate siting of projects to avoid resource conflicts to the greatest extent possible,” he said.
Bobby McEnaney, deputy director of the NRDC’s Western Renewable Energy project, acknowledged that solar development can be challenging. Still, he said the group didn’t think it was possible to generate enough energy to replace dirty fuels without some industrial-scale development. The NRDC is focused on making sure the administration’s renewable energy program doesn’t end when Obama leaves the White House, McEnaney said.
While he described others’ misgivings as a “very legitimate concern,” McEnaney said the BLM had existed historically to promote the use of public lands in addition to conserving them. With the growing threat of climate change, he said, “Unfortunately, we need it all.”
Julie Falkner, a senior policy analyst for renewable energy at Defenders of Wildlife, is measured in her assessment of the Obama program, saying she believes the BLM has learned from past mistakes.
“There’s an incredible value to having renewable energy go forward,” she said. “At the same time, it shouldn’t be done in a way that sacrifices the wildlife habitat that we’ve sought to protect over the last century.”