In the desert, ‘clean energy’ is a dirty word

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A solar farm in rural Apple Valley, California. Photo by Evan George
A solar farm in rural Apple Valley, California. Photo by Evan George

On a rural stretch of Navajo Road outside Apple Valley, a mile or so from the nearest neighborhood of ranch homes, sit two shiny new farms that could be the future of the Southern California desert. Inside an eight-foot chain link fence are row after row of industrial-sized solar panels. Outside the fence, native brush and desert critters show what the land looked like before the installation was built a few months ago.

This solar farm is operated by a company called S Power. Their motto is “Others see a desert. We see opportunity.” And that pretty well captures the dispute that’s been building in the desert communities of the Mojave in recent months.

Federal and state officials, along with private utility companies, are eyeing the Southern California desert as a crucial resource for meeting renewable energy standards and fighting climate change. And it’s pitting California’s progressive energy goals against some desert residents.

“It’s zoned for rural living and large parcels and the people who come here assume they’re going to have that lifestyle — not industrial sized energy projects right next door to them,” says Bob Howells, a writer who now lives in Los Angeles, but is a fifth-generation desert dweller and grew up here. He helped start the Alliance for Desert Preservation.

“The concept of renewable energy appeals to any sensitive person,” says Howells.“But when you see the impact right here on the ground …it’s one of those examples of destroying the environment to purportedly save the environment,” he says.

Bob Howells and John Zemanek of the Alliance for Desert Preservation. Photo by Evan George
There’s a stark difference between the natural desert landscape outside the fence and the solar farm inside. Photo by Evan George

In the coming months, state and federal agencies will finalize a 25-year master plan for 22 million acres of the desert, deciding which land to develop and which to conserve. The Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan (DRECP) identifies 2 million acres for potential development and would streamline the permitting process, making it easier for developers to get approval.

Battles have played out for years in remote parts of the Mojave over solar and wind projects. Ivanpah, the world’s largest solar thermal plant near the California-Nevada border was opposed by environmentalists who said it would zap birds and displace tortoises. But now, the fight includes residents and homeowners in desert communities.

One area that’s targeted is Lucerne Valley, population 7,000 or so. It’s a small town with one general store, where Bill Lembright is the manager. Lembright calls himself a “desert rat.” He also opposes big development.

“I think some well intentioned but money-motivated guys are seeing a way to make a quick buck,” he says. “They’re coming in buying land as cheaply as they can, they’re putting in these installations, subsidized by our tax dollars and unfortunately then the property values around them all drop so they’re really stealing the equity from the neighbors properties.”

It can be jarring for city dwellers to hear words like  “solar” and “renewable” spoken with the contempt usually aimed at Big Oil, Wall Street or or tobacco companies.

It can be jarring for city dwellers to hear words like  “solar” and “renewable” spoken with the contempt usually aimed at Big Oil, Wall Street or or tobacco companies. But that was the case at an Oct 29 meeting, when more than 300 people filled a Victorville hotel to comment on the plan. Many said it should be delayed or scrapped. Why, they asked, should rural residents bear the brunt of industrialized energy plants for electricity that will mostly go to distant cities?

Bill Lembright, a longtime resident of Lucerne Valley, opposes large-scale solar projects in his town. Photo by Evan George.

However, a renewable energy infrastructure is necessary if California is going to meet its climate change goals, says California Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas. “We are dealing with an area that has this tremendous renewable energy potential,” she says.

Her agency and others have spent five years completing the plan. It’s 8,000 pages long. It also sets aside 4.9 million acres of the Mojave as off-limits to development, protected for conservation.

But since the goal is to generate 20,000 megawatts of clean energy in the desert, she says the question is not if or even when but where the state will encourage utility projects.

“Some projects can be quite large and we do think of them as utility-scale or large-scale projects,” she says. “That’s exactly why we wanted to identify areas where these kinds of projects can be sited more easily.”

There’s a risk to zoning land for mega projects when new technology like cheaper, smaller solar panels could make them obsolete in just a few years. Activists like Howells point to the growing popularity of rooftop solar panels.

But Douglas says waiting for millions of homeowners to install rooftop panels is not realistic. “I think it’s important that we take action over time and we take today the concrete steps we can take in a responsible way,” she says.

Energy experts agree that big-scale projects trump one-off rooftop installations. Severin Borenstein, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Hass School of Business, says it’s all about “economies of scale.”

“We could instead put solar on residential houses, as we’re doing right now, but that’s a much more expensive approach and would, in the long run, cost consumers more at least for right now than putting them out in the desert,” Borenstein says.

State and federal agencies are accepting public comments about the desert master plan until February 23.