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US Solar Industry

Environmental Impact of Solar Development

Project: US Solar Industry
Open-Content project managed by matt, Derek, KJF, mtuck

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The Los Angeles Times publishes a long analysis of the environmental impact solar power projects are expected to have on the southwestern US desert (see August 13, 2013). Written by Julie Cart, the analysis focuses on the Ivanpah solar power project in the Mojave (see September 22, 2013), which is projected to expand to some 3,500 acres of public land when finished. The plant “will soon be a humming city with 24-hour lighting, a wastewater processing facility, and a gas-fired power plant. To make room, BrightSource [the firm building the plant] has mowed down a swath of desert plants, displaced dozens of animal species, and relocated scores of imperiled desert tortoises, a move that some experts say could kill up to a third of them.” Environmental attorney Johanna Wald, who was involved in the negotiations to build the plant, says: “I have spent my entire career thinking of myself as an advocate on behalf of public lands and acting for their protection. I am now helping facilitate an activity on public lands that will have very significant environmental impacts. We are doing it because of the threat of climate change. It’s not an accommodation; it’s a change I had to make to respond to climate.” Cart says that plants like the Ivanpah facility will result in “a wholesale remodeling of the American desert” in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. “[H]undreds of square miles of wild land will be scraped clear,” Cart writes. “Several thousand miles of power transmission corridors will be created. The desert will be scarred well beyond a human life span, and no amount of mitigation will repair it, according to scores of federal and state environmental reviews.” Dennis Schramm, the former superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, warns: “The scale of impacts that we are facing, collectively across the desert, is phenomenal. The reality of the Ivanpah project is that what it will look like on the ground is worse than any of the analyses predicted.” Cart writes that at the moment, solar energy is “three times more expensive than natural gas or coal” because of “capital costs and other market factors,” and ratepayers will pay “as much as 50 percent higher for renewable energy, according to an analysis from the consumer advocate branch of the [California] state Public Utilities Commission.” The impact on the environment will be dramatic in some places, with birds and other wildlife abandoning some areas entirely, and the possible “massive losses of pollinators because you have all these insects getting burned in the mirrors,” according to government biologist Larry LaPre. Desert tortoise expert Jeffrey Lovich says no one really knows the impact the plants will have on the desert. “This is an experiment on a grand scale,” he says. “Science is racing to catch up.” Most large environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have chosen not to protest the development, instead agreeing to become part of the negotiation process and winning some environmental concessions from the developers. Wald, who works with the NRDC, says of the projects: “We didn’t make them perfect. We didn’t eliminate their environmental impact because you can’t eliminate the environmental impact. But we made them better.” [Los Angeles Times, 2/5/2012]
Refutation of Land Use Requirements - In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.” Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development. The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” [National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration, 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife, 1/14/2013 pdf file; Media Matters, 1/24/2013]

Entity Tags: Ivanpah Solar Complex, Energy Information Administration, BrightSource Energy, US Department of Energy, Sierra Club, Los Angeles Times, Dennis Schramm, Natural Resources Defense Council, Julie Cart, Larry LaPre, Jeffrey Lovich, Johanna Wald

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Solar Industry, Popular Media

The conservative Investors Business Daily (IBD) publishes an op-ed criticizing the White House’s willingness to grant permits for solar energy producers to use public lands to build their solar plants. The editorial says, “Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, who has apparently forgotten about the Obama administration’s many solar power scandals, announced the initiative in what he called a ‘proud moment,’” apparently a swipe at the administration over the Solyndra bankruptcy, and then makes the broad claim: “There were no solar projects on federal land when Barack Obama was elected four years ago. And for good reason: Solar is an inferior source of energy.” Fossil fuels are cheaper, more efficient, sun-dependent, and even cleaner, the editorial claims, writing: “Solar power needs a large—and ugly—footprint that creates its own environmental issues. Solar cells contain toxic materials and therefore create toxic waste.” The editorial concludes by lambasting the Obama administration for not opening public lands for oil and gas development. [Investors Business Daily, 8/1/2012] In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.… Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development.” The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” [National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration, 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife, 1/14/2013 pdf file; Media Matters, 1/24/2013]

Entity Tags: Investors Business Daily, Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy, Obama administration, Ken Salazar

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Solar Industry, Popular Media

In an editorial claiming that the Obama administration is engaged in giving preferential land-use permits to solar energy producers over fossil fuel corporations, the Wall Street Journal claims, “The dirty secret of solar and wind power is that they are extremely land intensive, especially compared to coal mining, oil and gas drilling, or building a nuclear power plant.” [Wall Street Journal, 8/13/2012] In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.… Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development.” The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” [National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration, 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife, 1/14/2013 pdf file; Media Matters, 1/24/2013]

Entity Tags: Wall Street Journal, Obama administration, US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Popular Media, US Policies

A brief article in the Wall Street Journal claims that solar energy does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the aggregate, because the carbon savings from desert-based solar projects will be offset by “disturbing caliche deposits that release carbon dioxide.” The Journal cites a formal complaint filed by three Western environmental organizations claiming that desert-based solar projects not only endanger desert ecosystems, but “soil disturbance from large-scale solar development may disrupt Pleistocene-era caliche deposits that release carbon to the atmosphere when exposed to the elements, thus negat[ing] the solar development C [carbon] gains.” The Journal acknowledges that some aspects of the complaint may be exaggerated. The Journal does not mention that the report cited in the complaint, a 2011 study released by the University of California-Riverside, says that the 560,000 metric tons of carbon saved per year by a single solar plant would more than offset the estimated 6,000 metric tons of carbon released by disturbing caliche deposits. [Wall Street Journal, 9/4/2012; Media Matters, 1/24/2013]

Entity Tags: Wall Street Journal, University of California-Riverside

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Popular Media

As the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) begins phasing out coal and natural gas power plants, it is turning more and more to “solar parks” in the desert to the east to generate much-needed power. However, these solar parks are raising concerns among environmentalists and local residents. The Ivanpah Solar Complex in the Mojave Desert has taken steps to minimize the impact its existence will have on the fragile desert tortoise population. The Genesis Solar Energy Project in Riverside County, California, was recently forced to halt construction when Native American burial remains were found on the construction site. Donna Charpeid, a farmer in Desert Center, California, says of the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm being built near her home: “My heart aches every time I look out my window and see the construction over there. It’s just unbelievable, the destruction.” The Desert Sunlight plant is being built near Charpeid’s 10-acre plot near the Joshua Tree State Park. It is projected to provide enough power to run 160,000 average homes and decrease the amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by 300,000 tons annually. Seventeen “Solar Energy Zones” have been proposed for California by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Department of Energy. Charpeid says of the zones: “This is a whole new form of gentrification. If all these projects come to fruition, people will simply not be able to live here. This is all seems like corporate welfare to me.” Critics worry that although water is not used by all solar-thermal plants for power generation, the water consumed by the plants—keeping dust down, rinsing panels, providing for the needs of workers—will deplete the water reserves in the area. In Desert Center, the residents’ water comes from deep underground reservoirs that are not generally replenished by groundwater; Charpeid says their water was found to be up to 30,000 years old. She also worries about the impact on the local weather: dust storms have increased over the last few years, she says, threatening her ability to farm jojoba. And animal habitats are being threatened. “I really wish [President] Obama would’ve given out that stimulus money to do rooftop solar instead,” she says, “like they’ve done in Germany.” LADWP board commissioner Jonathan Parfrey, the director of advocacy organization Climate Resolve, says: “I’ve been out in the desert; I know some of the people being impacted. I’m an enviro, I want to conserve that land. But it’s not just as easy as saying LA’s got to slap solar on rooftops. There has to be a balanced approach.” Parfrey says that solar plants need to be constructed in areas that are not rich in wildlife or used for recreational purposes, but adds that these solar desert plants must be built somewhere. Using solar arrays on rooftops of businesses and homes is expensive, he says, and sometimes interferes with distribution balancing and voltage problems as they co-exist with grid-produced electricity. He says: “In my view the transition to clean energy has to happen as inexpensively as possible. Otherwise people will rebel and they won’t even want to pay for it in the face of climate impacts. They will say, ‘That’s too bad about what’s happening to the environment, but I can’t afford to put food on my table because my electricity bills are too high.’” The LADWP is experimenting with inexpensive solar rooftop arrays, Palfrey says. “If I could have my moment like in The Graduate where [a character] says to Dustin Hoffman, ‘The future is in plastics,’ mine is how do we do distributed generation where we maintain the utility business model and we’re able to provide continual service for people. When we find the magic key to that I think it will be a revolution. I think it will really help affect the transition away from fossil-fuel energy sources.” [Grist Magazine, 8/13/2013]

Entity Tags: Genesis Solar Energy Project, Bureau of Land Management, Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, Ivanpah Solar Complex, Donna Charpeid, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Jonathan Parfrey, US Department of Energy

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, located on 3,500 acres in the Mojave Desert, begins generating electricity. The solar thermal power plant uses a circular array of mirrors to concentrate sunlight at a water-filled central tower. The resulting steam powers turbines, which in turn produce electricity. When fully operational, the Ivanpah plant will feed 377 megawatts of power into two California utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison. During some days, the power generated could serve up to 200,000 residential consumers. The project is a partnership between NRG Energy, BrightSource Energy, Google, Bechtel, and the federal government, which leased public land to the plant and provided loan guarantees (see February 2009). Some environmentalists have been sharply critical of the impact on the desert environment (see August 13, 2013), and other critics have asked why a desert solar power plant is not using photovoltaic panels to collect sunlight. NRG Solar president Tom Doyle says, “Given the magnitude and complexity of Ivanpah, it was very important that we successfully complete this milestone showing all systems were on track.” Unit 1 is producing energy; Units 2 and 3 are coming online soon. When fully operational, the three plants will almost double the amount of commercial solar thermal energy capacity now operating in the US. [NRG Solar, 2012; Business Wire, 9/24/2013; Grist Magazine, 9/25/2013]

Entity Tags: Ivanpah Solar Complex, Bechtel, Google, Pacific Gas and Electric, NRG Energy, Tom Doyle, BrightSource Energy, Southern California Edison

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

Grist reports new data that shows America is using substantially less energy than in previous years, because of gains in energy efficiency as well as shifting market conditions and pollution regulations. CO2 emissions have dropped from 1.6 billion tons in 2007 (a record peak) to 1.4 billion tons in 2011, an 11 percent drop. Emily E. Adams of Earth Policy writes that both vehicle fuel efficiency and the number of miles driven by vehicles are improving, adding: “Average fuel efficiency, which had been deteriorating for years in the United States, started to increase in 2005 and keeps getting better. Americans are traveling farther on each gallon of gas than ever before. Furthermore, people are driving less. For many years Americans as a group drove billions more miles each year than the previous one. But in 2007 this changed. Now more cars stay parked because more people live in urban areas, opt for public transit, work remotely, or retire and thus no longer commute to work.” Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is shrinking in usage, though it continues to dominate conventional energy generation structures. Utilities are steadily shifting from coal to natural gas, and some are retiring old, inefficient coal plants instead of paying for expensive retrofits to bring them in line with current pollution regulations. US carbon emissions from coal have fallen 20 percent from their peak in 2005. Natural gas usage has risen sharply, and even though it produces only half the CO2 emissions that coal produces, natural gas added 373 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere in 2012. Solar and wind energy have no carbon emissions whatsoever; solar usage has increased 1,400 percent since 2007, and wind usage over 300 percent. Adams writes, “This is just the beginning of reductions in carbon dioxide emissions as the explosive growth of wind and solar power cuts down the use of dirty fossil fuels.” President Obama has set a goal for the nation to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020, and the decrease in energy usage and improvements in fuel efficiency are helping to reach that goal. [Grist Magazine, 10/2/2013; Grist Magazine, 10/11/2013]

Entity Tags: Grist, Obama administration, Emily E. Adams

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, US Policies

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