Solar Panels in the Mojave Desert – America’s Contested Green Future

US President, Barack Obama speaks at the State of the Union Address, 2012.

In his final State of the Union address before the US elections, Barack Obama stated that the United States needed “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy – a strategy that’s cleaner, cheaper and full of new jobs,” (Goldenberg, 2012). The target of the declaration was undoubtedly the Republican politicians who are determined to push Keystone XL through Congress, but it also bought attention back to the USA’s clean energy aims.

The Sierra Sun Tower, California

The United States Department of Energy had approved 18 solar farm projects at the end of 2011, indicating that they are working towards a greener stance on energy; as the world’s second largest consumer of energy (Swartz & Oster, 2010) the US would be wise to invest in renewable sources.

Many of the planned solar panel farms are set to be constructed in the vast Mojave Desert; however two particular projects (the $1 billion Genisis Solar Project and the Solar Millenium Project) have been met by protests from environmental activists and Native American Groups. Their concern is that these enormous wind farms will damage the desert environment; Alfredo Figueroa, a Chemeheuvi Indian has criticised the projects saying they will affect important cultural features such as ancient rock art and sacred heritage sites (Helmore, 2012).

Environmentally there are worries that billions of water will be taken from the desert habitat (Glennon, 2009) and that the solar farms will not be efficient in water conservation. Infrastructure associated with energy development is likely to cause changes to desert quality (Allen & McHughen, 2011). The life span of solar farms has also been under fire. Additionally there are over 2,500 species of plants and animals which call the Mojave home, and which will be affected by the construction of the huge solar farms. So for the indigenous groups and the desert ecosystems that will be affected, the solar farms do not do much in the way of justice.

The Mojave Desert Tortoise will be one of threatened species.

However, the solar farms have many positive facets. They will increase employment and economic investment in the area and provide clean energy to over 3 million homes. BrightSource, operator of Ivanpah (a $2.2 Google partnered project which will be the largest solar plant on earth after its construction) further argue that the farms will only take up 0.26% of the entire Mojave Desert (Helmore, 2012). They are also dedicated to ensuring the protection of desert species and meeting state regulations. Campbell et al. (2009) suggest that the solar farms are the best option for California’s green aims. The Mojave Desert has excellent conditions for solar farms, and Glennon (2009) argues that ‘the area seems perfect of solar power; it’s hot and flat and vast’.

Computer image of the proposed Ivanpah Solar Farm. The farm will supply energy to 140,000 homes, provide 1,400 construction jobs, and save 13.5 million tonnes of CO2 in its lifetime.

If we consider solar farms in the long term they look set to increase the US’s use of sustainable and clean energy. The determination to implement renewable energy schemes looks like a gesture towards a greener future and to environmental justice, and after all, isn’t that the aim of renewable energy?

Sources

Allen, Michael F.; & McHughen, Alan. (2011). Solar Power in the Desert: Are the current large-scale solar developments really improving California’s environment?. UC Riverside: Center for Conservation Biology. Retrieved from: http://escholarship.ucop.edu/uc/item/2ff17896

Campbell, H et al. . (2009). Here Comes the Sun: Solar Thermal in the Mojave Desert—Carbon Reduction or Loss of Sequestration?. Available: http://circleofblue.org/waternews/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Solar-Thermal-Mojave-Desert.pdf. Last accessed 13th March 2012.

Glennon, R. (2009). Is Solar Power Dead in the Water?. Available: http://www.law.arizona.edu/news/Press/2009/Glennon060709.pdf. Last accessed 13th March 2012.

Goldenberg, S. (2012). State of the Union 2012: Barack Obama’s environment agenda in review. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/jan/25/state-of-union-2012-environment?INTCMP=SRCH. Last accessed 13th March 2012.

Helmore, E (2012) Solar power firms in Mojave desert feel glare of tribes and environmentalists. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/mar/11/solar-power-mojave-desert-tribes. Last accessed 12th March 2012.

Swartz, S and Oster, S. (2010). China Tops U.S. in Energy Use. Available: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703720504575376712353150310.html. Last accessed 13th March 2012.

Picture Sources

  1. http://www.ibtimes.com/articles/287605/20120125/obama-state-union-mortgage-refinance-changes-obstacles.htm
  2. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=first-us-power-tower-lights-up-california
  3. http://www.theurbn.com/2011/05/animal-conservation-technology-tracking-threatened-tortoises/dtrelease_007_med/
  4. http://ivanpahsolar.com/
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