Mojave solar plan besieged by opponents

Source: By Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle • Posted: Wednesday, July 27, 2016

An ambitious federal-state plan to open up the Mojave Desert for solar and wind development in order to fight climate change might backfire, scientists say.

Proposed by the Obama administration more than seven years ago, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, when it is likely finalized this summer, would make almost 2,000 square miles of desert available for renewable energy development. The energy generated could go far in helping California meet its own goal to reach 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030.

Although the desert may appear to be a sunny wasteland, scientists say the California desert ecosystem is largely intact and a vast carbon sink.

“Globally, there’s probably about as much carbon bound up in [desert soil] as there is in the atmosphere,” said Michael Allen, director of the University of California, Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology and a soil biologist. “It’s a very large pool.”

Spearheaded by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, the plan also sets aside 7,812 square miles for conservation.

Other opponents include the solar industry, which says the initiative leaves too little land open for development, thwarting the Obama administration’s climate goals.

Installing rooftop solar on existing homes and businesses could meet demand, say some local officials and environmental activists; however, others argue rooftop solar doesn’t provide the same scale in a timely fashion.

“Rooftop is a really important part of the portfolio,” said Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission. “It will get more important, and it is getting more important, but we have big goals. Large-scale projects, they also get you scale.”

Environmental groups are split over the plan. Some argue a landscape approach to desert development can both balance conservation and shepherd development to nonsensitive areas, while others point to government-subsidized projects that elicit concern. That includes the solar farm Ivanpah, located north of the Mojave National Preserve, which has fallen short of its projected energy output and incinerated thousands of birds with its giant mirrors (Carolyn Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle, July 22). — BP