Solar in the Desert: Can We Get It Right This Time?

Photo by the United States Department of Energy

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It’s partly the florid language that makes me and some other Westerners uneasy.

Arizona, the New Frontier! Armed with an abundance of sunlight, Arizona is the land of sunshine and opportunity.

That palaver could have been lifted from a 19th Century swindler’s sheet, written to separate greenhorns from their golden coins. But, in fact, I just cut-and-pasted it from the Bureau of Land Management’s current website. The BLM controls vast areas of the West, (68% of Nevada, 40% of Utah, 17% of Arizona) and is pitching the opportunities for “solar development companies, or ‘prospectors‘” in the old New Frontier of the American Southwest.

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (who oversees the BLM) designated 670,000 acres in six Western states as Solar Energy Study Areas. The Las Vegas Sun described these tracts of BLM desert lands as being “on a fast track for development” as giant solar power farms. To ensure that permits are issued quickly, Salazar announced that the BLM will open four new offices in California, Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming.

Now, I know we need to kick our addiction to fossil-fuel. And I also believe that using renewable energy sources like solar and getting serious about energy conservation are keys to a livable future. But I’m also aware of our history of “development” — the Western spin-cycle of boom and bust, hope and despair, professed love of the land and simultaneous destruction of it.

Sandy Bahr knows all of this, too. But, she says, “Maybe this time we can get it right.”

Bahr is the director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, an organization which was working on land use issues before Arizona was a state. “We don’t need to get into those old conflicts this time,” she says.

There’s plenty of “disturbed” land in the West, she points out. Why not build renewable energy power plants on the scars left by the old polluting ones? Why not recycle abandoned agricultural land that should never have been cultivated and let solar power companies buy water-depleting farms and use that land (some forms of solar power plants are water intensive, but still need less than agriculture)?

Transmission lines, which can interfere with migrating wildlife, don’t have to be a problem either, Bahr says. Route them alongside freeways, which already prevent animals from crossing.

There are cultural and human rights issues to consider, as well.

During a BLM sponsored public hearing on solar development in California in 2008, Carmen Lucas, a member of the Kumeyaay Nation, told the Bureau that before anything was built in his area, someone from the Kumeyaay community would need to examine the area to make sure it wasn’t an ancient burial site. The “need for speed,” he told the BLM, must not be allowed to trump Native people’s rights.

Over the next several months, the BLM will be making siting decisions for these new solar mega-plants. That, says Bahr, is when we’ll see how committed to meaningful change the nation really is.

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.

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