Environmentalists: a new challenge to utility-scale solar?

I’d really like to hear what you think of the Sierra Club’s decision to sue the California Energy Commission over its approval of the 663.5 MW Calico solar thermal project in San Bernandino Country, California. One of the largest environmental NGOs coming up against a renewable energy project – seems hard to believe, no?

The lawsuit, filed December 30, 2010, charges that the CEC rushed the environmental review of Calico without fully considering the impacts on rare plant and wildlife species (such as the protected desert tortoise plodding along below), and without identifying adequate mitigation measures.

Photo: Desert tortoise roaming the Calico site.  Photo from BLM biological assessment, courtesy of the Mojave Desert Blog.

I suppose the suit isn’t as big of a shock – outspoken criticism of siting solar projects on undisturbed land emerged well before, and previous projects were blocked for similar reasons.  After BrightSource Energy announced its Ivanpah project, for example, the California Wildlands Conservancy responded by introducing legislation to ban renewable energy development on more than a million acres of the Mojave Desert – incidentally some of the land closest to transmission lines and the huge Southern California market.

(Governor Schwarzenegger then countered “If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it [them].”)

As a card-carrying environmentalist whose also convinced of the need for large-scale, rapid renewable energy deployment, I admit this lawsuit has left me a bit conflicted: if climate change is a real, pressing, and to many, a livelihood-threatening phenomenon, which I believe it is, should there be special consideration of the  environmental impacts of renewable energy developments in the siting process? By special consideration, I mean in this case – allowing projects to be constructed on public BLM land, and giving developers permission to relocate protected species?

The answer from certain environmentalists has been a clear No – developers should exhaust the widely available rooftops and already-disturbed land before they move on to pristine desert. Some point to the fact that transmitting electricity from solar farms in the desert is inefficient – 10 to 15% of the electricity generated can be lost en route to urban markets. Desert ecosystems in SoCal are unique, irreplaceable, and highly fragile – no place for ‘industrialized solar farms’, it’s argued.

On the other side, Michael Kanellos, editor-in-chief of the popular cleantech news site Greentech Media, was vocal in his disagreement with the Sierra Club, titling his recent editorial on the decision, “Dear Environmental Community: Please Shut Up.” In Michael’s defense, he thinks the risks have been duly analyzed, and emphasizes that renewable energy generation has a zero sum relationship with fossil fuel generation – “Circumscribing solar and wind farms leads to only one thing: more natural gas, coal and nuclear plants”.

So, where do I stand? I think the best available technologies should be deployed at a scale that will meaningfully reduce GHGs. In doing this, some landscape changes are inevitable. But projects shouldn’t be developed in a way that will cause significant and irrevocable harm to the land or to species. For this reason, I actually think the Sierra’s lawsuit could be a good thing – in the best case, it would allow a closer look at the environmental impacts of all proposed solar projects in the SoCal deserts (from my count of the CEC’s website, there are over 3,500 MW proposed), and it would allow careful weighing of what changes are permissible.  As the NYT’s Green Blog notes, casinos, strip malls and subdivisions have permanently changed the SoCal deserts. There are better and worse reasons to alter these desert ecosystems.

Efforts such as Ivanpah’s tortoise monitoring program, and NREL’s study on how to restore habitat shaded by solar panels seem promising of mitigating harmful changes. There’s room for lots more.

Relatedly: I had said I’d earlier to post slides from an SPI presentation made by Jimmy Nelson, a University of California Berkeley PhD candidate, on the environmental benefits of CPV (the type of solar panel that will be deployed at many of the utility-scale projects discussed above). Here they are:

Quantifying the Environmental Impact of CPV

Nelson’s work, which relies on a sophisticated model called the SWITCH model (what that stands for is in the pres.), calculates that CPV’s higher efficiencies mean less water is used and less land is disturbed to generate the same amount of power.  CPV’s energy and GHG payback times are also under half those of conventional solar panels.

An Update:

On February 9, 2011, more than a dozen U.S. environmental NGOs wrote a letter to President Obama urging for a comprehensive, upfront process for siting, planning, and monitoring the environmental impact of renewable energy projects. The letter followed Obama’s State of the Union Address, made on January 25, 2011, during which he announced a target of producing 80% of U.S. electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

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8 responses to “Environmentalists: a new challenge to utility-scale solar?

  1. Pingback: Nic’s Thoughts on Environmentalists vs. Solar Farm Developers | The Unofficial Morgansolar Weblog

  2. You might be interested in this article:

    As California moves to license dozens of huge solar power plants to meet the state’s renewable energy goals, some developers contend they are being pressured to sign agreements pledging to use union labor. If they refuse, they say, they can count on the union group to demand costly environmental studies and deliver hostile testimony at public hearings.

    If they commit at the outset to use union labor, they say, the environmental objections never materialize.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/19/business/energy-environment/19unions.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1&ref=energy-environment

  3. Thanks Harrison. Hadn’t heard of that, but something to be aware of. That said, as Nic says in the next post, we’ll try to stay away from projects that do have significant env. impacts.

  4. That’s the thing, the threat of greenmail to slow or stop projects is based on calling for environmental impact investigations.

  5. Reuters today reports that California’s Supreme Court has refused to consider the lawsuit, offering no explanation for its decision:

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/04/14/solar-lawsuit-idUSN1421829320110414

  6. Interesting there was no comment on it. One lawsuit was dismissed but the thing with legal challenges is you can slightly change one aspect of a case and it starts all over again.

  7. Pingback: MARITA NOON” In Anti-Spending Climate, DOE Gives $4.5 Billion in Taxpayer Backed Guarantees to Solar Manufacturer

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