Daniel H. works in renewable energy development in the Houston area. He studied at Rice University and researched energy policy in Denmark as a Fulbright Scholar.
If you were driving from L.A. to Phoenix, and you happened to look left a few minutes after driving through Barstow, C.A., you would see an open expanse of Mojave Desert. In fact, you will see an open expanse of desert pretty much any time you look out of the window between L.A. and Phoenix. Thirty seven miles east of Barstow, though, just north of I-40, that desert would be the proposed location of the Calico Solar Project.
“Proposed” is the operative word here, and has been since at least 2005 when Calico’s former owner signed an agreement to sell the power to a Southern California utility company. There’s a litany of reasons why, almost seven years later, the project site remains empty. The proposed technology (Sterling Energy System’s SunCatchers) was flawed and is no longer cost competitive compared to photovoltaic panels. The project’s financial backer was a renewable energy investment firm from Ireland, a country that recently ran out of money. And, perhaps surprisingly, the project has been sued, repeatedly, by organizations that are usually strong advocates of renewable energy: the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Defenders of Wildlife. The groups want the project moved to a location that isn’t one of the few remaining habitats for the desert tortoise, burrowing owl and bighorn sheep.
Broke investors and too-good-to-be-true technology are risks in any industry, including the nascent renewables business. But should companies trying to build solar or wind farms need to worry about opposition from the same groups that push for laws mandating a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources, or a national tax on carbon?
The major fault line that seems to lead an organization like the Sierra Club to sue a solar plant owner is a difference in each group’s vision of a renewables-rich future. In the environmental NGO picture, most renewable energy comes from distributed sources, like rooftop solar panels or small facilities located in previously-disturbed areas. Developers and their close cousins, utility companies, prefer large-scale, remote facilities that generate more cheaply and offer more return on investment for their owners. There’s an argument that the resulting tension is a good thing: NGO lawsuits keep developers away from the most sensitive areas, and utility cost concerns keep us from breaking the bank to meet renewable energy targets. The truth is, however, that we don’t need a narrow middle ground, we need all of the above. If we have any hope at all of reigning in our greenhouse gas emissions before it’s too late, we need pricey rooftop panels and the habitat-encroaching Calico Solar Project. There is no doubt in my mind that, compared to either renewables future, unchecked climate change will be worse.
Photo by lorenzemlicka