September 23, 2009

Greens Vs. Solar

Investor's Business Daily

Environmentalism: The ditching of a desert renewable-energy project shows just how difficult it is to maintain our standard of living while pleasing the purists. Maybe we shouldn't even try.

Anyone who has set foot on a dry lake bed in California's Mojave Desert knows the meaning of barren. There's not much growing or moving there — just hot sun beating down on parched earth. So why not use it for a solar farm, since nothing else can be done with it?

That train of thought has led a number of solar power companies, backed by utilities and encouraged by the federal government, to propose big energy facilities in the wide-open spaces between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Huge swaths of that land are under federal ownership, and a law passed in 2005 opened up most of those federal holdings for solar and wind energy projects.

A land rush has ensued, with firms such as Oakland Calif.-based BrightSource Energy staking out sites to develop solar power plants.

The technology to be used is called "solar thermal." Rather than convert sunlight directly into electricity (photovoltaics), solar thermal plants use mirrors to heat water with sunlight and create steam to power electric generators.

Of all the solar technologies in use or on the drawing board, solar thermal is the cheapest per watt. With the right economies of scale, it also seems to stand the best chance of getting the price of its power down to that of coal-fired plants.

But those economies of scale are part of the problem for the dominant left wing of the environmental movement. One activist, Santa Monica attorney Sheila Bowers, told the Los Angeles Times that the new solar power firms "are trying to perpetuate the old Big Energy paradigm into the renewable-energy era ... They have a monopoly agenda."

Then there are the preservationists of the BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) school.

You can always find someone with a passionate argument about building something large and visible on empty land. Often those arguments prevail, not because they make sense but because those who make them have a law or a powerful politician on their side. This is a bicoastal problem, as the aspiring wind farmers of Nantucket Sound will tell you.

BrightSource, despite its green-energy credentials, ran afoul of environmentalists because it wanted to build a 500-megawatt plant at the Broadwell Dry Lake, a basin in the Mojave just north of Interstate 40 and the old Mother Road, Route 66.

That spot was good for many reasons, from the abundant sunshine to the strategic location between two big energy-consuming metropolitan areas, L.A. and Vegas. But it turned out to be politically sensitive.

An environmental group, the Wildlands Conservancy, had bought the land, formerly a railroad right-of-way, and had donated it between 2000 and 2004 to the federal government to be preserved as a wildlife corridor. The conservancy raised a fuss and got into a very public squabble with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who advises a venture capital firm backing BrightSource.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has crusaded for most of her Senate career to preserve much of the Mojave Desert from development, stepped in on the conservancy's side and said she would push for a law to turn the Broadwell Dry Lake area into a national monument, thereby barring all energy development.

BrightSource saw the writing on the wall and announced last week that it had scrapped the project. This editorial page tends to be skeptical about solar energy as a viable replacement for conventional power, so it's not the loss of one desert solar-thermal plant that worries us.

But this story stands as a reminder of how easy it is for groups fighting energy development — be it solar, wind, coal, nuclear, hydro or anything else — to stop progress if they have their hands on the right levers.

America needs more energy from all feasible sources. Without it, we face a very different, far more limited standard of living in our future. The argument that "they can always build it somewhere else" is running thin, because that "somewhere else" is likely to be someone else's pet cause.