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Seeing Green: Giving solar its just deserts

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When I was small, the word “desert” conjured images of towering Saharan dunes: windswept sand punctuated by rare oases, the only sign of life an occasional animal track quickly buried by the next sandstorm. Then, when I was 13, my parents took me to the Southwest. We visited Saguaro, Joshua Tree and other parts of the Mojave Desert, chased tarantulas, and watched cactus wrens build nests.

Since then, I’ve been hooked on the desert and the quirky plants and animals adapted to its harsh conditions. I’ve returned often: to glimpse the winter rains, stand at the lowest point on the continent and even track rare desert tortoises. Though I will always find my “home” in the damp forests of the Pacific Northwest, part of me is a born-again desert rat.

Over the course of American history, however, most of our country’s citizens have held my childhood view: that deserts are barren wastelands full of deadly hazards. They have often been correct; during the great westward migration of the mid-1800s, many would-be settlers lost their lives on the hot, dry expanses. And with no available irrigation water, deserts have become mining grounds or, where they lack mineral value, military staging and testing grounds. In general, though, deserts have been considered rather useless.

So it was with delight that we turned to the deserts as the prospective site of massive new solar installations. The sun, so long the bane of desert-goers, could become the cornerstone for the new green economy by providing a potent, renewable source of electricity. As solar panel technology has improved, installations have been planned across America’s deserts.

Many of these installations are landing in California, where extra-sunny environs are located next to the high electricity demands of sprawling population centers. And the state, which hopes to produce a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, has mostly welcomed the industry. Today, California has the largest installed solar capacity of any state–1,877 megawatts, with another 3,373 megawatts in the works.

Among the new installations may be the McCoy Solar Energy Project, slated to add 750 megawatts of capacity by 2016. Last week, the Bureau of Land Management released a preliminary Environmental Impacts Statement for the project, which would cover 7,700 acres in the Colorado Desert. For comparison, Stanford’s contiguous peninsula property–including the Dish, SLAC, Jasper Ridge and various shopping and business complexes, totals 8,180 acres.

But the plan will doubtless find critics in those who see deserts as more than desolate deathscapes. Past installations have drawn criticism from American Indian groups protecting cultural heritage sites, and from environmental groups worried over the fate of more than 70 threatened and endangered species in the region.

In an attempt to be proactive, Californian stakeholders have spent the last two years drafting the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which would streamline permitting of renewable energy across 22 million acres of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, while protecting species like the Mojave ground squirrel, burrowing owl and desert tortoise. The plan, due out next month, should help reconcile conservation and preservation aims with the larger environmental and economic concerns driving the renewable energy sector, but it won’t arrive in time for the McCoy Project decision.

For now, deserts represent the low-hanging fruit for industry members focused on centralized, large-scale solar installations. Not only is the light right, but competing land uses are rare–where else in California would McCoy find the space for enough solar panels to power 260,000 homes?

Yet, the more of Earth’s surface we commandeer for our own purposes, the fewer of our co-inhabitants we’ll share it with. No matter how carefully installation sites are selected or how many animals are relocated, an acre covered by solar panels is an acre lost from the desert ecosystem.

That’s another good reason for keeping solar energy supplies localized. Solar panels are ideal for distributed energy collection: they can be (and are) placed on roofs, alongside buildings and atop streetlights.

Back in 2007, a National Renewable Energy Laboratory report calculated the area of installed solar panels needed to meet the average American’s electricity needs. Using five-year-old technology, each person needs a photovoltaic bank of 181 square meters–less than a lane and a half of an Olympic-sized swimming pool–to meet both personal and industrial needs. That’s the areal equivalent of 12 percent of our developed area footprint, or 22 percent of our urban area footprint.

Granted, we can’t just enrobe our cities in a bubble of solar panels. Day lighting, rooftop gardens and a general desire to see the sky preempt that. But as economics and technological advances drive renewable energy closer to viability, one can only hope that we take serious steps towards integrating solar panels into existing infrastructure needs.

Saving the deserts? Just an added bonus.

Speaking of added bonuses, Holly would be happy to talk to you more about this or any other topic! Send her an email at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu

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Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).