Sunny Day Real Estate

By Tommy Purvis

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Posted May 12, 2011 in Feature Story

Question: When is an environmentally-friendly source of energy not-so environmentally friendly? Answer: When it’s solar-powered. The rush to create new sources of “green,” renewable power has led to the ultimate irony: vast expanses of pristine desert habitat currently stand threatened to be turned into enormous industrial landscapes as a result of solar energy development that is expected to turn portions of California’s rugged, arid regions into “Solar City.”

And at the center of “Solar City” will sit the 653-foot-tall Rice Solar Energy Project (located near Twentynine Palms) surrounded by a mile-wide circle of mirror. This project will discharge industrial wastewater, emit a glow that will be visible in five wilderness areas (including Joshua Tree National Park) and negatively impact the fragile desert ecosystem.

IMPACTS DISMISSED

The limits of Solar City territory will stretch along the eastern flank of the California back country from the southern tip of Nevada to the U.S.–Mexico border. The plan for the remote and largely untamed region is revealed through stacks of solar energy project applications filed in a public land grab by private energy interests. Soon the paperwork will turn some of the last pristine expanses of Mojave and Sonoran Desert wilderness into massive industrial energy factories and storage zones. The adverse impact on the fragile federally protected land detailed and dismissed in numerous environmental impacts statements that lead to a well-inked rubber stamp approval.

In the haste to transition from a fossil fuel based economy options are being left on the table that could save the desert ecosystem and turn the IE into the capitol of the renewable energy movement. A series of lawsuits and civil disobedience by environmental activists has become the last line of defense for vulnerable ecosystems and numerous archaeological and historical places threatened by solar development. Lost in the impending devastation is a troublesome proposal being pushed by the Department of Interior as a renewable energy priority project that is set to break ground in the remote Rice Valley.

HIGH-TECH HEAT

The Rice Solar Energy Project is a new age renewable energy concentrating thermal power plant. Solar Reserve, the Delaware-based limited liability corporation with an office in Santa Monica, will develop and operate the 2,560-acre property around a centrally located 653-foot-high tower. A solar receiver heat exchanger on the summit of the power tower will collect the suns redirected reflection from a mile wide circle of elevated mirrors called heliostats. Each one of the 17,500 strategically placed mirrors will track the sun across the sky and is capable of capturing solar rays through cloud cover. A thermal energy storage system will allow the solar energy to be stockpiled throughout the day and retained in a liquid salt storage and transfer medium.

Despite the technological advances the electricity will still be generated through the use of a conventional turbine powered by steam. A hot liquid salt mixture that is sent through a series of heat exchangers will boil water. An air-cooled condenser will reduce water consumption from two on-site wells. A ten-mile-long generation tie line will extend from the power tower and leave a 150 foot-wide path in route to a substation on the banks of the Colorado River. A drainage system will release industrial waste water into a trio of five-acre double-lined evaporation ponds.

Solar Reserve will sell electricity to Pacific Gas and Electric. The plant will be able to produce an output capacity of 150 megawatts. It will provide 450,000 megawatt-hours per year during periods of peak energy demands.

LIGHT POLLUTION

Secretary Order 328—issued by the Department of Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar—was an early Obama administration initiative to fast track renewable energy project permits in the southwest. The order, combined with the incentive of stimulus funding, made the California Renewable Energy Coordination Offices in Palm Springs and Moreno Valley a one-stop shop for energy start-ups and big oil cartels seeking to lease or purchase land. The Bureau of Land Management led locations operated under a memo of understanding between the state and federal government to work towards “the timely and responsible development of renewable energy and associated transmission lines while protecting and enhancing the Nation’s water, wildlife, cultural, and other natural resources.”

The California Energy Commission wholeheartedly dismissed the directive in their approval of the Rice Solar Energy Project. The impact of the single project alone is enough of an eyesore on the terrain to remove State Route 62 from consideration as a scenic route. The night glow will create light pollution visible in five surrounding wilderness areas, and the eastern slope of Joshua Tree National Park. It will be the first of four similar projects on a remote 100-mile drag east of Twentynine Palms. The two-lane road currently offers no services for passing motorist but one day will become main street for the 106,522-acre Iron Mountain Solar Energy Zone.

TRAINING PATTON-STYLE

The Rice Valley Wilderness Area is five miles south of the Rice Solar Energy Project footprint. The power plant will be built directly on top of the historical remnants of the Rice Army Airfield and half of nearby Camp Rice. The broad, flat plain needed for the project is drive through and fly-over country for most who follow Highway 62 across the Colorado desert. Few travelers who speed by know that the frequent dust devils that stir up columns of sand spin between debris pits lined with rusted C-ration cans, broken Coca-Cola bottles and Prince Albert Tobacco tins that rest in permanent decay.

Basalt rock-lined footpaths with roundabouts and curves connect with the multiple 90-degree angle outlines of tent colonies. The outpost served as the quartermaster depot for the 5th Armored Division which supplied troops with basic needs for the harsh desert deployment. Nearby are two mile-long runways that the desert reclaimed long ago. The abandoned military posts were once at the center of the California-Arizona Maneuver Area. The 350-mile-wide and 250-mile-long training field personally selected by General George S. Patton to get soldiers battle ready for an invasion of North Africa.

There is also a concern that the development will threaten the Iron Mountain Camp several miles to the west. The site has two well preserved rock altars made for Protestant and Catholic services. It also features a large mosaic relief map left on the floor that was used for training purposes. There are also rumors of a well preserved tank trap nearby. A site in Desert Center near the 9-hole Lake Tamarisk Golf Course was briefly considered as an alternative site for the Rice Solar Energy Project.

“LEAST ENLIGHTENED PATH”

Solar Done Right is a nonprofit coalition of biologists, public land activists, solar power wonks, electrical engineering experts, and renewable energy advocates. The organization formed in response to the Obama administration plans for large scale solar energy production in the southern California desert. In fact, eight of the 10 solar projects that received priority status by the Department of Interior are located in the Mojave and Sonoran Desert in southern California.

The potential output of all ten projects is about 2,950 megawatts. The average utility-scale solar plant will occupy 5,000 acres, or almost 8-square miles.

The online report released by the advocacy group called “U.S. Public Lands Solar Policy: Wrong from the Start” found the initial projects, and those that follow will cause long-term and irreversible ecological impact to the desert. Unlike other forms of energy extraction, the group says, concentrating solar development entails use of as much as 100 percent of the surface of a site. Environmental impacts from the solar city industrial complex will last for centuries. The prospects for restoration offered in environmental statements are purely speculative.

The Mojave Desert is already contaminated in multiple sites from toxic and radioactive waste that was released in prior electricity production. The group maintains that there is much more being ignored in the government plan then “the counter productivity of sitting industrial scale solar development on carbon sequestering, ecologically valuable intact public land.”

Instead of ushering in the era of decentralized generation and distribution the Obama Administration push to turn public lands to industrial energy factories is a renewable energy policy “that takes the least enlightened path possible, staying close to the status quo while attempting to create the illusion of change.” The report claims that when all costs are factored in—including new transmission infrastructure and transmission line losses—local, disturbed solar energy production is compatible in efficiency and faster to bring online than remote utility-scale solar plants.

ALTERNATIVE LOCATIONS

In California, environmental groups have found almost 300,000 acres of BLM land, and adjacent private lands that would meet their stricter siting criteria for utility-scale solar developments. The Westlands Water District in Central Valley includes approximately 30,000 acres of degraded agricultural land believed to be suitable for up to 5GW of solar power generation. A single commercial rooftop solar panel installation on a 600,000-square-foot-roof warehouse generates enough electricity to power 1,300 homes in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. 

It was the first step in a visionary $875 million plan by Southern California Edison to put 250 megawatts of solar panels on two square miles of rooftops. The approach could save swaths of untouched desert and meet former Governor Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order S-14-08. That order requires that a third of electricity produced in the state come from renewable sources by the end of the decade. The order combined with the Obama Administration goal of producing 10 percent of domestic energy from renewable sources has fated the desert to a forthcoming destruction.


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