In October 2012, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a record of decision creating a program for utility-scale solar energy on public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. This sounds like a positive step in the right direction toward a clean energy future, but there is a catch.
Most of the Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) identified by the Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) are located in undeveloped desert areas. Large-scale solar development requires essentially the same kind of surface disturbance as strip mining — scraping the ground flat and wiping out whatever plants, animals, agriculture, recreation or other users inhabit the area in order to install an array of solar panels. That’s not to mention constructing new transmission lines to carry the power generated.
The area of impact is not small either. Seventeen designated Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) would eat up about 285,000 acres of desert public lands. The program also keeps the door open to solar projects outside of SEZs on about 19 million additional acres. In Utah, the three SEZ areas total 18,658 acres in the southwest desert near Cedar City: Escalante Valley, Milford Flats South and Wah Wah Valley. These areas are habitat to a variety of desert animals including the endangered Utah prairie dog, sage grouse and spadefoot toad.
The Utah SEZ areas are generally “low conflict” with regard to wilderness values, critical wildlife habitat and protected areas, acccording to the Wilderness Society. But that’s not true in other states, especially in the Mojave Desert of California where SEZ areas overlap with proposed wilderness, wildlife and recreation and are generating tremendous public controversy.
Given the public outcry in California, it’s reasonable to ask whether utility-scale solar is even the best strategy for a clean energy transition.
A 2011 report from Solar Done Right, a coalition of scientists and public land activists, questions the whole premise of large scale “greenfield” solar development. The report, “U.S. Public Lands Solar Policy: Wrong From the Start,” points out that “unlike other forms of energy extraction, concentrating solar development entails use of as much as 100% of the surface of a site. Environmental impacts will endure for decades to centuries, and the prospects for restoration are purely speculative.” The report says that SEZ areas should at least consider the presence of endangered species and require technologies that reduce the environmental footprint.
“By offering up public resources, the BLM is subsidizing the same energy interests that have profited by oil and gas development on public lands and waters (BP, Chevron),” according to the report. “Taxpayer-funded subsidies in the form of cash grants and federal loan guarantees are going to the same financial players that helped bring the country to the edge of financial meltdown (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs). But if we are to realize our full renewable energy potential, we must make a major departure from the old energy business model.”
What are alternatives to utility-scale solar?
One option is “brownfield” development. Brownfields are defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as areas where “reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” The areas are already so badly impacted that building big solar arrays would not damage a functioning ecosystem.
Another option is distributed solar, sometimes called “rooftop” solar: People pay to install their own solar panels, and a meter credits the value of energy produced to their electrical bill. Utility don’t earn any revenue from home electricity generation. However, if enough people had solar panels on their roof, it could generate enough electricity to eliminate the need for new utility-scale power plants, whether solar, coal, nuclear or hydropower (this is already happening Germany, a place not exactly known for its sunny climate).
A third option is policies that promote solar development on private land rather than continuing to subsidize energy development with the sacrifice of America’s public lands.
It may seem counterintuitive that environmentalists could be simultaneously in favor of clean energy development and opposed to solar energy development on public lands. However, the Solar Energy Development Programmatic EIS envisions solar energy development as just like fossil-fuel extraction, only with solar panels. That’s a problem.
In developing an entirely new solar energy infrastructure, we also have a chance to develop a less destructive model for energy production and delivery. Coal-fired power plants need to be built out in the sticks because nobody wants to live next to dirty emissions, but solar panels can be easily integrated into the built environment.
For example, Salt Lake City Corporation has created a 3D model of the city to analyze the solar potential for every square meter in the city. You can easily figure out the potential of your own roof to supply power.
As Solar Done Right says, “Habitat destruction threatens the diversity of life on our planet. Renewable energy strategies that damage habitat only make the problem worse. Distributed generation such as rooftop solar is the faster, cheaper, cleaner and more effective way of meeting our energy needs in the next century.”