Environmentalists need to cooperate on solar energy

Rachel Alexander

In the discussion about America’s energy future, solar power is the shining star of the environmental movement. Whitman’s own solar panels, installed on the roof of the Brattain Tennis Center in the summer of 2009, were celebrated as a major achievement by environmental groups on campus. Far from campus, in the Mojave Desert, another type of solar power is pitting environmentalists against each other. As part of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s plan to put 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy generating capacity on public lands, many utility-scale concentrated solar projects have been proposed in the sensitive desert habitat of the Mojave. Unlike photovoltaic (PV) panels, concentrated solar plants use mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays towards a focal point, which heats water to run a steam turbine and generator. While many environmental groups are eager to build plants as quickly as possible, others are categorically opposed to all utility-scale projects in the desert because of the effects they would have on habitat. Both of these sides have valid points, but they will need to be proactive and work together to reinvent our grid.

Concentrated solar is no silver bullet. Although carbon neutral, the proposed projects in the Mojave are far from environmentally benign. The Mojave is the only relatively intact ecosystem in North America besides the tundra, and provides habitat for a variety of plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth, including the endangered desert tortoise. Building concentrated solar plants would require leveling the ground and in some cases, fencing off areas up to ten square miles. Building transmission lines to remote desert sites would add exponentially to the negative environmental impacts of the solar. Because of these impacts, groups like the California Sierra Club, the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy and Desert Survivors have organized in opposition to all proposed public lands solar projects. They believe that solar policy should focus on small-scale, decentralized PV generation, which would incentive projects like Whitman’s panels on the tennis center. This system works via a feed-in tariff, which charges all power users a small premium on their electricity to fund payments to people who produce power for the grid.

This energy future is very appealing; it’s simple, logical and cost-effective. However, it’s also impractical. Groups who favor the decentralized grid point out that Germany has been very successful using a feed-in tariff model to incentivize small-scale PV solar development. But the US isn’t Germany. We exist in a political climate where many politicians refuse to admit that climate change is occurring at all, and even the most vocal defenders of renewable energy are unwilling to go head-to-head with large utilities over their virtual monopoly on power production. PV also has its environmental problems, as many panels contain cadmium, which is a highly toxic heavy metal. This isn’t to say that the feed-in tariff isn’t a good idea, but it’s unlikely to become widespread enough in the US to install the generating capacity we need. Climate change might heat the Mojave enough that the desert tortoise is no longer able to exist there at all, rendering any efforts to save its habitat by preventing development ultimately meaningless.

If opposing any and all desert solar projects is short-sighted, it is equally dangerous to push renewable energy development at all costs, without consideration for site location. Some groups like the Nature Conservancy and the Wilderness Society are making efforts to identify good sites for development, like lands already degraded by mining or agricultural use. The Bureau of Land Management should begin to take a more proactive role in solar development, by proposing these ideal sites to solar companies, rather than waiting for them to select areas of their own. By proactive collaboration, environmental groups can increase renewable energy generation while preserving the most ecologically sensitive areas of the desert.

However, even the best solar site proposals won’t mean anything for the planet if we keep burning coal to get our electricity. Solar power isn’t clean energy if it doesn’t result in fossil fuel plants getting taken offline. Regardless of how we choose to harness the sun’s energy: concentrated mirrors, PV panels, or some combination of the two: we need to make sure that we don’t lose sight of the bigger energy picture. If the California Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society combined forces to close coal plants, we’d be one step closer to greening our grid.