March 27, 2009

California's Solar Flare-Up

Energy: The governor wants to carpet the desert with solar panels. The senator says it will destroy the ecosystem. The battle between environmentalists and conservationists is one of alternative energy's big drawbacks.


We have commented frequently on how our energy needs have been thwarted repeatedly by the not-in-my-back-yard (Nimby) crowd and the new Banana (build-absolutely-nothing-anywhere-near-anybody) phenomenon.

Environmentalists and conservationists have long fanned local fears to block oil and gas exploration from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Outer Continental Shelf. Even nonpolluting and carbon-free nuclear power plants have been stopped dead in their tracks.

So it's delicious irony to watch conservationists and environmentalists at each other's throats over where to site the alternative energy facilities and transmission lines designed to save us from our carbon addiction and our dependence on coal and foreign oil.

One of the problems with wind and solar, aside from the fact the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine, is that they are land-intensive and require vast amounts of acreage to gather their little nuggets of energy.

In January, three solar researchers wrote in Scientific American that by 2050 America could get all of its electricity just from solar panels in the Southwestern desert. All that would be necessary would be 46,000 square miles, or about one-third of the state of New Mexico, America's fifth-largest state. Al Gore repeated this proposal before the Senate Energy Committee in February.

Based on this idea, some 19 companies involved in 14 solar and five wind projects have submitted applications to build solar and wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 acres in California's Mojave Desert that would seem ideally suited for a solar or wind farm.

These companies are encouraged by a 2006 California law that requires utilities to produce 20% of the state's electricity from renewable resources by 2020. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to up that to 33%.

Not so fast, says California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She says the land in question was donated or purchased over time for the express purpose of blocking development. "I'm a strong supporter of renewable energy and clean technology," she says, "but it is critical that these projects are built on suitable lands."

"This is unacceptable," she wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "I urge you to direct the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) to suspend any further consideration of leases to develop (these) former railroad lands for renewable energy or for any other purpose."

The plan faces several obstacles aside from the obscene amounts of land required. It also requires huge amounts of water in a water-starved region. Solar panels accumulate dust, dirt and sand and have to be continually cleaned with water. Not much thought has been given to finding enough water to wash down 10,000 square miles of solar panels every month.

Then there's the problem of getting the power from where it's produced to where it's needed. From the Mojave, high-voltage lines are separated from customers by two large national park properties, several wilderness areas and military facilities such as the Marine base at Twentynine Palms. And don't forget the angry communities and endangered critters.

"If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it," an irritated Schwarzenegger told an audience at Yale University. Some have made their own suggestions where to put it. They involve where the sun doesn't shine.

Our own suggestion is, once again, to classify nuclear power as a renewable resource, which in fact the reprocessing of spent fuel rods makes it. Then use infrastructure money from the stimulus package to subsidize a job-creating building program, sort of a domestic Manhattan Project.

That would satisfy the energy needs and rules of both California and the nation. It would create "green" jobs and energy. And you wouldn't have to carpet the Mojave Desert with solar panels.