The Yin & Yang of green energy

DFN: The ‘other’ side of large scale solar plant development. No perfect answer, like the thought of ‘dry’ lake beds, though I don’t have a handle on the acreage, nor the lake beds proximity to transmission. When I worked for Calpine, we built a power plant, thinking transmission would happen; never ended up using the plant, as transmission was not forthcoming.

DESERTS AT RISK IN PUSH FOR GREEN ENERGY
By Richard R. Montanucci
http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/sep

Thursday, September 2, 2010 at midnight

What is about to unfold in California’s deserts is nothing less than wholesale destruction of the environment. Utility-scale solar energy plants are about to be approved that will erase wildlife habitat over immense areas, consuming thousands or tens of thousands of acres for each project.

It is an unmitigated assault on our public lands.

This solar energy development, touted by politicians, environmental organizations and state energy officials as “green energy,” a term having benign connotations, is being justified in order to meet California’s goals of AB 32 greenhouse gas emissions reduction and a renewable portfolio standard of 33 percent by year 2020. Ultimately, a cumulative area the size of Rhode Island, about 1,200 square miles of desert, could be destroyed in California alone.

The far-reaching and irreversible negative consequences of these projects are now apparent to many environmentalists, scientists, state energy officials and industry representatives, but little is being said publicly. The predicted impacts include the fragmentation of wildlife habitat and loss of essential habitat corridors. Plant and animal populations will be extirpated as land is scraped bare and rendered biologically sterile. In many cases, localized, threatened and endangered species populations will be further imperiled.

Additionally, desert landscapes will be permanently disfigured, with consequential loss of their intrinsic aesthetic value for tourism and outdoor recreation.

The Chuckwalla Valley west of Blythe, an area rich in biological, archaeological and aesthetic resources and certainly qualifying for national park status, is threatened by dozens of renewable energy projects. There is tremendous pressure to develop the Chuckwalla Valley due to its proximity to transmission lines that feed into Los Angeles and Phoenix, but approval of these projects would be a tragic loss for wildlife conservation. The valley supports an array of unique, rare and sensitive species, including the desert pupfish, Alverson’s pincushion cactus and the desert tortoise, a federally threatened species. Chuckwalla Valley supports one of the finest stands of ironwood trees in the entire Sonoran Desert region. Some trees were growing along the McCoy Wash before Christopher Columbus landed in America. They have survived the hottest climatic periods and droughts, but they will not stand against the bulldozer.

In the Imperial Valley, another project will destroy foraging habitat for the peninsular desert bighorn sheep, a federally endangered species, and habitat for the flat-tailed horned lizard, a candidate for threatened species status. Thousands of these lizards, other reptiles and small mammals will be killed or displaced during project construction, including sensitive species such as the kit fox, badger, burrowing owl and golden eagle. The aesthetics of the Anza Trail, managed by the National Park Service, will be impacted, and Native American cultural resources, including sacred sites, will be lost as well.

What is the alternative?

The use of “brownfields” – decommissioned landfills, abandoned mines and other degraded lands – should be the first priority. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, at least 11,000 suitable sites exist nationwide. There are many such sites in Southern California.

Desert playas also could serve as project sites with minimal impacts on wildlife habitat. These dry lake beds are “abiotic zones,” devoid of living organisms. During seasonal rains, they fill with several inches to several feet of water that eventually evaporates. Some engineering tinkering would be required, such as trenching the perimeter of the lake bed to capture water inflow from surrounding higher ground. Also, access roads and buildings would need elevated foundations, but “sun-catcher” dishes mounted on columns would be unaffected by standing water.

Another option is converting fallow agricultural land for solar collection, as private landowners in many areas are willing to sell their acreage.

The most environmentally friendly option for site placement would be the unused rooftops of homes and office buildings that can be used for distributed photovoltaic energy generation. There are thousands of acres of rooftops in Albuquerque , Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. It can be argued that this is the low-cost, high-value way for California to achieve its goal of 33 percent renewable energy use by 2020. Promoting these installations would create a growth industry.

Many destructive projects are being fast-tracked so they can meet the December deadline to qualify for federal stimulus dollars. In the end, significant parts of our natural heritage will be lost forever.

Montanucci is associate professor emeritus of the Department of Biological Sciences at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C.

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