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The deserts of the American Southwest have come under a new assault in the last decade. The few, fragmented areas of these austere, rugged, yet delicate landscapes that had managed to survive relatively intact from mining, ranching, military use (including nuclear tests), urban encroachment and motorized recreation, are now being targeted for the development of large-scale “green” energy projects, many of them on public lands.
After Obama’s election in 2008, a raft of federal incentives including grants, loan guarantees and tax breaks were offered for renewable energy with the ostensible purpose of reducing the nation’s carbon footprint. This was greeted by cheers from many environmentalists, but as has been characteristic of Obama’s administration, the hope turned out to be hype. Big corporations have been the beneficiaries and the environment is still the big loser. If any reduction in US carbon pollution has occurred since 2008 which isn’t just the result of fudged numbers (such as the allegedly smaller footprint of natural gas versus coal), the actual cause is likely the lower consumption of a faltering economy. But that’s not something any politician (or their partisan followers) would want to take credit for.
Basin & Range Watch is a non-profit that operates out of Beatty, Nevada, in the Mojave Desert. Their mission is to “conserve the deserts of Nevada and California and to educate the public about the diversity of life, culture, and history of the ecosystems and wild lands” there. Central to this mission is opposing the many large-scale solar and wind projects that have been proposed in the area, a number of which have been built, all with deleterious consequences. In these efforts, Basin & Range Watch has sometimes found themselves at odds not just with big corporations and big government but also with big environmental organizations, because some of the latter have gotten cozy with the corporations and the state.
I first heard of Basin & Range Watch a year ago while living in Joshua Tree, California, where I became aware of local opposition to large-scale renewable projects by people there who loved the desert ecosystems and didn’t want to see them destroyed. Through the Basin & Range Watch website I learned more about the issues, which include threats to wildlife habitat, endangered species, aquifers, recreation areas and scenic vistas, as well as to individual or community-level efforts to build small-scale renewable energy projects. So when I found myself in Mojave Desert again this year, I contacted them to see if we could meet up. They readily agreed.
On the drive to Beatty from the Mojave National Preserve, where I had been camped out photographing wildflowers, I found myself at a high point along Interstate 15 that featured a spectacular view of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. Ivanpah is a very large-scale example of what is called a “concentrated thermal solar plant.” It functions by using mirrors – in this case, 173,500 pairs of them – to focus sunlight on central towers that contain water boilers. The resulting steam turns turbines that generate electricity.
The system is not carbon-free in its daily operation, requiring natural gas to start it up every morning. According to Wikipedia, “In 2014, the plant burned 867,740 million BTU of natural gas emitting 46,084 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is nearly twice the pollution threshold at which power plants and factories in California are required to participate in the state’s cap and trade program to reduce carbon emissions. If that gas had been used in a conventional fossil fuel plant, it would have generated nearly 124,000 MW·h of electrical energy. That is enough to power the annual needs of 20,660 Southern California homes.”
Ivanpah is notorious for regularly killing birds, literally burning them – sometimes to the point of complete incineration – when they fly through the super-heated air around the tower, which can reach temperatures of 1000 degrees. It’s brutal. So is the footprint of the power plant in the desert, where thousands of animals and innumerable plants once had their homes. I was quite taken aback by its scale. I had seen photos but they don’t do it justice.
Ivanpah has also been plagued with performance and financial issues. It has never produced as many megawatts as promised, its power is expensive to purchase, and the entire project is in danger of defaulting. The word that comes to mind is, “boondoggle.”
The day after I saw Ivanpah, I interviewed the founders of Basin & Range Watch, Kevin Emmerich and Laura Cunningham at their home and headquarters. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
SONNENBLUME: How and why did you start Basin & Range Watch?
EMMERICH: We lived here for a little while and we decided that no one was giving a lot of attention to some of these flatlands in Nevada, some of these unknown mountain ranges, some these unknown areas. We decided we wanted to create an educational type of website that would talk about these areas and some of the issues that face them. We got into mining issues and an off-road race, which was quite controversial.
In about 2008 or so was the land rush of big solar and wind energy. The current [presidential] administration really wanted a lot renewable energy and a lot of it on public lands and opened almost everything up to big solar and wind applications. We looked at map of the Amargosa Valley, and it was covered in applications and we really wanted to make this an issue. Other people wanted to but it was “green” big energy and because it was “green” big energy, it was a sacred cow and it’s something that a lot of environmental groups and environmental reporters really didn’t want to touch. We’ve been doing it for a while, like seven years now.
CUNNINGHAM: I came to it because I went to Berkeley and studied biology there and then through the years got into the field of tortoise biology. I went into the Mojave Desert and worked as a contract biologist for these companies where you literally march along with a shovel – all this university eduction and it came down to carrying a shovel! – walking within survey lines, ten hours a day, digging out tortoise burrows, bashing creosote bushes down to the ground, to get every last tortoise out of a 20 square mile area before the bulldozers come for large projects.
I learned what happens when you mitigate for tortoises. It is uglier than people think. You physically destroy desert ecosystems, and usually 50% of the tortoises die during that translocation process from stress or predation. So that’s when I joined Kevin. (He’s my husband, too.) We saw the same things are going to happen when you build a giant solar project on 20 square miles or 10 square miles. You’re going to have to hire the tortoise biologists and dig tortoises out, and then huge earth moving machines come and just destroy this beautiful wildflower desert ecosystem.
We had a big push to educate people that there’s got to be better alternatives, because these desert soils store carbon, for one thing, and when you bulldoze them up it releases carbon. And all the roots and plants and mycorrhiza, and really interesting little puffball mushrooms that come up in a spring like this [when there has been enough rain]: all this biodiversity that we’re destroying when we do large-scale – even renewable – energy in these deserts.
SONNENBLUME: And also, what are they called – “cryptobiotic crusts”?
CUNNINGHAM: Exactly! Even in the Ivanpah Valley. I have pictures of mosses and even little liverworts and blue-green algae and you can see them in little patches here and there and they’ll green up in the winter rains. I asked, how are you going to mitigate that? They said, “We might be able to roll them up like a lawn.”
SONNENBLUME: [laughing] Like sod?
CUNNINGHAM: [also laughing] Right. Like sod. Then they can put them somewhere else. But they didn’t even try because they knew that wouldn’t work.
SONNENBLUME: I think there is a misunderstanding that a lot of people have about the desert where they think, “Oh it’s empty, there’s nothing out there.” People don’t see the amazing life.
CUNNINGHAM: Exactly. So we would always try to write comments and say there’s better alternatives. Maybe not the giant power towers, but definitely the solar photovoltaic panels can go on parking lot rooftop structures, even little disturbed lots in urban areas. So we’ve been trying to shift alternatives to the built environment, but that’s been a really tough sell.
EMMERICH: What’s fascinating about that perception of the desert as a wasteland is the way it’s morphed over the past 6-7 years. Whereas in 2008, [when the Ivanpah solar array project was started] they were saying that the Ivanpah Valley was not worth that much, because of the power line going through and the highway going through and there’s a casino and a golf course. But these are little dots compared to the amount that they developed. They portrayed it as lower biodiversity because if you go to the other side of Ivanpah Valley there were more desert tortoises. So they had to really to spin that “wasteland” portrayal to support a lot of these large-scale energy sites – most of them “renewable” – as really “worthless.” They called the Ocotillo wind site “disturbed” and it really wasn’t. Maybe there was some litter out there and somebody drove off-road in that particular area.
But now we’ve got Senator Harry Reid designating the Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada. It’s really a beautiful place, but there isn’t a basin in Nevada that’s not beautiful! It looks exactly like the five solar energy areas that were called visually “worthless,” “ugly”. There’s one up the road that I think is as beautiful as anything in the monument. We’re able to point out some of this hypocrisy now. You really can’t find a big piece of desert that you can put a giant solar farm in that’s not going to be a visual clusterfuck.
SONNENBLUME: And that’s going to affect a whole ecosystem.
EMMERICH: Exactly. That’s true with Ivanpah Valley. They said it was only going to be 25 desert tortoises because that’s what the biologists found in a survey. But really it turned out to be like a 150.
CUNNINGHAM: When they went in with the shovels and dug all the burrows, the number more than quadrupled because tortoises spend most of their life underground.
SONNENBLUME: Like, over 90% of the time.
CUNNINGHAM: Right. It was the mayor of Barstow who said at a public meeting [about a proposed large-scale renewable energy project]: “We get Chinese tourists in big buses. They come from China and they drive through places like the Silurian Valley and they get off the bus and they say, ‘There’s nothing here!” and then they say, ‘Value that. because we don’t have that where we are.'” They literally come to see the nothingness of the great desert.
EMMERICH: The perception of the desert changed when people saw what happened at Ivanpah.
SONNENBLUME: I saw it yesterday. It’s astounding. Obviously the fossil fuel burning is a problem – something else needs to happen – and so there’s the interest in wind and solar because they’re are, quote, carbon-free. Although they’re not in the sense that there’s a lot of carbon pollution involved in their production and then there’s the extraction of all the rare earth metals that are needed. Maybe you could talk about the corporate connection – making money off these things – and how people are not looking at the option of localized solutions.
EMMERICH: First off you have to ask yourself, how many megawatts do some of these really big wind arms, for example, produce. Ocotillo, for example. They said it would produce power for 130,000 homes but it’s only running at maybe 50% of its capacity. So how much is that really replacing? As far as the last part of your question, the alternative is that we can easily get that amount of megawatts through using the developed environment. There’s so much room in Vegas for example, so much that’s wasted down there.
There’s a big corporate tie to owning energy. And there’s even a lot of solar and wind projects that are being built by British Petroleum and a lot of people see that as a good thing because here are these fossil fuel giants moving into renewables and big solar. We’ve also got Warren Buffet getting big tax credits for building big projects. That’s where the corporate ties are. There’s huge tax credits for really big companies that are more interested in producing energy and making a lot of money than being “green.”
CUNNINGHAM: It’s not like this is us little people controlling this. We’ve been looking at what we call “energy democracy” on one side and the corporate ownership of renewables on the other side. You do get a lot of tax credits [as a big corporation]. In the past there have been federal grants and Department of Energy loan guarantees to really help build these projects, such as Ivanpah. So there’s been a huge push of taxpayer money to build the central station utility plants. But on the other hand, the more distributed generation types of solar that individual homeowners can participate in have been tamped down. Even in Nevada, there’s a raging controversy right now because a lot of people want to participate in a net metering system where you get a little incentive from the utility. It’s profitable for them [the utilities] because they will purchase your excess energy and sell it on the grid. It’s not like they are losing money on it. The home owner has the incentive to help pay for the rooftop solar, which is good for everybody, good for climate change. The Ivanpah project got a billion dollars in incentives. A grant. Free money to build the project. [Actually, it was $1.6 billion! -KtS]
But the utilities have really been pushing back on this energy democracy model and lobbying politicians and they successfully reduced the incentives. And they’re not raising the caps. There’s actually caps for how many houses can have rooftop solar [and be eligible for the incentive]. If Climate Changes is an emergency, you’d think we would want to have no cap – get this as extensive as we can.
SONNENBLUME: There’s caps?
CUNNINGHAM: There are caps. In Nevada and in California. I was just reading this morning that PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric] is approaching the cap for how any houses in the PG&E utility district can participate in net metering. It’s so popular. The cost of photovoltaic panels has come down so much. People are pushing to put rooftop solar panels on their houses, but there’s a cap and we’re going to reach it. Then there’ll have to be public utility commission meetings about whether we should raise the cap.
There is a big push back from the utilities and it’s not solved yet because there are benefits that the homeowners are providing to the grid that the utility companies benefit from, so it benefits everyone, not just the people with rooftop solar. For example, the peak time of use is right when all those rooftop systems are feeding electrons back into the grid when everyone’s air conditioning is running. There’s arguments that utilities won’t have to construct so many natural gas peaker plants to keep up with the peak time of day. It helps stabilize the grid having these distributed systems everywhere.
It parallels local, organic urban gardening: Small systems that are in-filling in urban areas. You don’t have to truck produce and vegetables miles and miles. Rooftop solar is the same thing. You don’t have to build a 500 kilowatt transmission line 300 miles long. That Ivanpah transmission line to LA, they had to upgrade it and all rate payers had to pay for that. So there’s an interesting parallel between local food production and local energy production. We’re trying to explore this but it’s hard when you have the big utility companies pushing back on you.
And people don’t realize the facts about these transmission lines. When I was a biologist, I took a safety class because I was going to work for one of the utilities. They built a 500 kilovolt transmission lines – giant metal towers – to get the wind power from Tehachapi Pass to LA. People don’t realize what that takes. I was amazed at the amount of impact that has. They had to build it through this beautiful Joshua Tree forest in the West Mojave Desert and they just took out hundreds of trees. I had a friend who worked on it. There were Joshua Trees she couldn’t put her arms around, their trunks we’re so big, and they knocked ’em over, killed them, to get these towers through. They tried to salvage some but they mostly didn’t. Then they needed to get this transmission line over the San Gabriel Mountains which is huge, rugged, steep, rough mountain range and that involved helicopters putting in towers and blasting the sharper ridges. One of the biologists died because he fell off a cliff while he was monitoring the impact. So people were dying building these renewable projects.
There’s a human impact. It had to go through the city of Chino and the whole city of Chino said, no, we don’t want this giant transmission line ploughing right through our neighborhoods, so the city of Chino sued Southern California Electric and they lost. They used eminent domain through Chino. There’s quite a lot of impacts that people aren’t aware of for green energy.
SONNENBLUME: The transmission lines lose energy along the way, too, right?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, about 10%.
SONNENBLUME: So everything that leaves Ivanpah doesn’t arrive in LA. And when it’s coming from your own roof, you’re losing essentially nothing.
CUNNINGHAM: That’s right.
EMMERICH: And Ivanpah produces so little, you don’t want to lose 10%.
CUNNINGHAM: Yup, they’ve been having trouble. What you’re seeing in that valley is one giant concentrated solar plant and there’s two photovoltaic plants next to it. When clouds come over – even just one little cloud over the sun – it shuts the whole plant down.
So that’s a benefit of distributed generation, all the solar rooftops in the city interconnected with microgrids on the whole grid: it dissipates that cloud cover loss. Obviously there are still things that need to be worked out. We get a lot of push-back from people saying it’s too hard to do rooftop solar. And there are problems but when we look at these large scale projects out there, they have enormous problems to overcome. Ivanpah has never been at 100%.
SONNENBLUME: Is that typical of these large projects? Solar and wind both?
EMMERICH: It’s not been uncommon for the concentrated solar thermal plants [like Ivanpah] and the Solaris plant in Arizona. With photovoltaic, the jury’s out. They say they “overbuild” them so they can get more megawatts on cloudy days but I just don’t know. They have a peak time of day when they can sell energy and everyone’s competing for that.
CUNNINGHAM: The wind projects, too, have often been built in low wind resource areas and they’re running very low. The siting for large wind and solar has often been as close to existing transmission lines as possible, not [asking] are there tortoises here, or bats or golden eagles or – wind! It’s often been just ease of transmission.
EMMERICH: A lot of this projects have facilitated the need to build base-load natural gas plants, like Sentinal, near Desert Hot Springs. It’s used as a back-up for the big renewable projects that were built to the east. Natural gas plants don’t have as big of a land footprint but they have a big smog footprint.
The big thing is going to be energy storage. Energy storage for renewables is a long ways away. The best one so far is hydro-electric but they don’t really have what I would call a holy grail. They have this plant north of us called Crescent Dunes and it’s [a tower] like the Ivanpah power plant but they have storage in it, [in the form of] molten salt. And that’s a big deal to be able to do that but they needed a $730 million loan, and they were over-budget and it took ten years to complete it. They’re not going to be able to build a million of these molten salt towers worldwide without funding. That’s the future: where is the storage of the energy?
SONNENBLUME: Right, because people who have solar panels on their cabin or wherever have batteries they charge up, and it’s like that on a larger scale, too.
SONNENBLUME: There’s a storage project I read about on your website planned near Joshua Tree National Park, in the final stages of approval. I can’t remember what it’s called.
CUNNINGHAM:Eagle Mountain. It’s ridiculous. It’s a giant old mine pit and they want to fill it and make it a huge reservoir and then they would drill these giant tunnels through the rock and they would pump water using excess wind and solar from the large scale projects into the upper pool. Then they would let it go through tunnels to turn turbines, like a dam. But we’re like, where are they going to get all this water? This is an enormous reservoir in the middle of the desert and there’s barely enough water for farms and residences down there.
SONNENBLUME: The National Park Service is opposed to it.
CUNNINGHAM: Completely opposed to it.
EMMERICH: It”s supposed to be fossil water.
CUNNINGHAM: Right. Ice-age water .
EMMERICH: They will lose hundreds of acre feet a year —
CUNNINGHAM: – through evaporation —
EMMERICH: – and seepage.
SONNENBLUME: There’s several dozen oases left in Joshua Tree National Park and they’re getting their water from fissures in the crust where this ancient water comes up, and that’s why they are there. And these oases are fascinating places because that was the dominant ecosystem millions of years ago: palm trees. These are little relic areas that have managed to survive all this time and now that’s the threat to them. This is the concern of the Park Service, in part, that a falling water table in the area will kill them off.
CUNNINHGAM: For a very small amount of storage capacity.
EMMERICH: That one has a good amount of backup capacity. [The issue is] the amount of water it will use. But the question is, do they even have a need for it? Have they even figured out who will use it? Nobody has.
SONNENBLUME: Isn’t there a perversity where not all of these projects are actually responding to a specific demand? Some of them are occurring because there’s money in building them.
CUNNINGHAM: Yes. There used to be these American [Recovery and] Reinvestment [Act] era grants and they would literally give hundreds of millions to these projects and we think it forced them to build too big. Ivanpah has had a huge number of problems because it was scaled so gigantically because money was funnelled into it to make it gigantic. You can build really small power towers that are 50 feet tall and they could be distributed in empty lots in cities. Same technology. But that wasn’t charismatic enough for politicians. They wanted something really big and showy. There’s been big problems and it’s been expensive to solve them. So we’re always looking for small and in the built-environment. And energy efficiency. We should be doing energy efficiency before any of this but that wasn’t on the radar.
SONNENBLUME: Like insulation, windows: the basics.
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, the basics. But it’s been backwards. You have these huge centralized power plants that have been really slow to produce but they look good and everyone’s impressed. The glittering mirrors dazzle reporters. Then it’s been very slow on the side where homes are made more energy efficient and we improve our grid in the city to be able to handle more renewable energy.
SONNENBLUME: How much would they have to do with solar and wind to replace a significant portion of coal, for example. What would that look like?
CUNNINGHAM: I’ve been studying the possibility of 100% renewables and I don’t think we’re capable of that. Germany thinks it could get to 60 or 80% and they’re not sure how they would get to 100% . Again, we need to reduce our usage of electricity, which we’re not really talking about. Our high standard of living is a real obstacle. Kevin and I talk to engineers and [they] are always telling us, this is going to be a very heavy lift if we’re going to keep our very high standard of living.
EMMERICH: Aspen, Colorado, gets something like 75% of their energy from renewables, but that’s because they have a dam right there.
SONNENBLUME: And dams have their own issues.
CUNNINGHAM: We totally don’t support more dams blocking salmon. salmon are almost extinct in California so the last thing that’s green is to dam more rivers. We don’t want to do that. Hydro isn’t exactly the greenest form of energy but that might be the only way to get to 100% because you can control how much water is let out and that will be a big balance to the intermittent peaks for wind and solar.
EMMERICH: What about the carbon footprint [of the big renewable projects]? Like Blythe Solar Energy Project. That was going to be a horizontal parabolic trough plant with mirrors and there were going to be four units and they were bragging how this plant is going to use as much steel as it took to build the Golden Gate Bridge. And I’m like, whoah, that’s one hell of a carbon footprint. But were going to save the planet from global warming.
We were morbidly fascinated at the construction of the Ivanpah project and I hung out there a couple times at quitting time and there were 200 cars leaving work and some were going to Barstow.
CUNNINGHAM: We’re trying to study life-cycle impacts of these projects. Even rooftop solar. There are impacts to any energy used. Battery mines. The lithium mines north of here, near to the town of Silver Peak which —
SONNENBLUME: This is the one that Elon Musk and Tesla is involved in?
CUNNINGHAM: He increased production for his giga-factory up in Reno to produce these lithium advanced batteries. They’re great. We like them, but there are impacts. There’s huge beautiful basins with playas and the playas have a lot of minerals in them, and to increase the mineral extraction form these playas they’re putting in new wells all over this basin and pumping groundwater like crazy. Now they’re flooding new areas to try to evaporate lithium out of these salts. Again, there’s resource extraction. We’re mining lithium to make batteries.
Kevin and I are definitely into solar. We are solar energy advocates and renewable energy advocates but we need to be aware of all the impacts of our lifestyle. Again, it would be really nice to reduce our use. And recycling the batteries: do they just get dumped into a canyon in Mexico or do they really get recycled?
EMMERICH: That’s the big deal about these big projects. They have an impact. They have a big carbon footprint. It’s almost hypocritical to say the Ivanpah project is off-setting anything.
CUNNINGHAM: They shipped those garage door-sized mirrors – hundreds of thousands of them – from Germany. There’s a carbon impact there. We’re trying to ask what the carbon offset would be: building this big plant that scraped up the biological soil crust which stores carbon, all these shipping and transportation carbon costs, the metal and cement.
SONNENBLUME: It starts in the red, basically is what you’re saying. So how long does it have to be up and running before it’s made up for what it cost, carbon-wise?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes. there are people trying to study that, but right now it’s a big experiment. So we’re saying, slow down bulldozing the desert until we understand what we’re losing.
SONNENBLUME: “First, do no harm.”