August 16, 2009

Follow sun into desert for richest source of solar power

Opinion - California Forum - The Conversation

By Joseph Romm
Sacramento Bee

Sen. Dianne Feinstein appears to like deserts so much that she wants them to stretch from Oklahoma to California and cover one-third of the planet. Nineteen companies have submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities in the Mojave Desert, but Feinstein has said that these renewable energy plants would violate the spirit of what conservationists intended when they donated much of the land to the public.

I am sympathetic to "conservationists," but mostly to those who are trying to conserve what matters most, a livable climate. The solar resource is the only one capable of sustaining the nation's and world's population, even if we all become far, far more efficient.

The good news is that concentrated solar thermal power is such an efficient converter of the sun's energy that we could generate half the country's power with a 65-mile by 65-mile square grid in the Southwest. The bad news is that the obvious place to put much of this generation is the Mojave Desert.

Deserts are certainly fragile, inhospitable ecosystems – a key reason that nobody should want them spreading over one-third of the planet or the entire U.S. Southwest for 1,000 years .

Feinstein said the lands in question were donated or purchased with the intent that they would be protected forever. But the Bureau of Land Management considers the land now open to all types of development, except mining. That policy led the state to consider large swaths of the land for future renewable energy production.

I have little doubt that the solar resource can be tapped in a way that can preserve the desert tortoise, but I have no doubt whatsoever that failing to take advantage of the massive solar resource in the California desert – and in deserts around the country and around the planet – will wipe out a large fraction of the species on this planet.

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and editor of the weblog