Creating a Solar Industry That Benefits the Economy, Climate, and Wildlife

Photo: BrightSource

The nascent solar industry here could learn from the struggles the industry has endured in Spain, an article in today’s New York Times. Subsidies spurred an explosion of solar plant development in last decade, “But as low-quality, poorly designed solar plants sprang up on Spain’s plateaus, Spanish officials came to realize that they would have to subsidize many of them indefinitely, and that the industry they had created might never produce efficient green energy on its own,” Elisabeth Rosenthal writes. “In September the government abruptly changed course, cutting payments and capping solar construction.”

While some of the larger companies have survived, many smaller operations closed down. Rosenthal suggests that the U.S., where solar is a growing industry, might look at it as a “cautionary tale” that “points to the delicate policy calculations” necessary for fueling a solar industry and creating green jobs. Read more here.

Rosenthal focuses on the economic side of a burgeoning solar industry, but there are also important environmental considerations gaining public attention in the U.S. In February, the Energy Department announced that it would give BrightSource a conditional $1.4 billion loan guarantee for its as 392 megawatt solar thermal power complex in the Mojave Desert. As early as this year the company could break ground on the project—which will use mirrors that reflect the sun to a boiler filled with water that will make steam to run a turbine and produce electricity. The project will nearly double the existing generation capacity of solar in the U.S., and could create 1,000 jobs for construction, and 86 permanent jobs.

One of the conditions of the loan depends on environmental mitigation. Some environmental groups have argued that the project, which is being built on federal land, will negatively impact the desert tortoise and other rare desert species. As a result, BrightSource decreased the overall footprint of the complex by 23 percent and reduced the size of the project from 440 MW to 392 MW.

Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) in Rainbow Basin near Barstow, California. Photo: Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster)

While many environmental groups saw the move as a step in the right direction, some are still pushing for the Ivanpah Valley to be moved to a more “suitable” site.
Defenders of Wildlife, for instance, is working with the California Natural Resources Agency and other local groups to develop a desert renewable energy conservation plan to guide balanced energy growth in the desert. “We want to make sure that important desert wildlife habitat doesn’t become a solar sacrifice zone,” said Kim Delfino, Defenders of Wildlife’s California program director, in the group's magazine. “Renewable energy can be part of California’s clean-energy future, but it has to be done right and in the areas that cause the least environmental harm.”

The Nature Conservancy, meanwhile, is working on a nationwide ‘human footprint’ project to identify lands suitable for energy development that will cause the least harm to wildlife.

Materials on the federal Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development website indicate that ecological impacts of solar projects include: disturbing wildlife, mortality of birds colliding with facilities or being burned by concentrated solar rays, habitat fragmentation by access roads and fences. “The presence of a solar energy project could also interfere with migratory and other behaviors of some wildlife,” the website says.

It’s refreshing to see so much discussion about using a science-based approach to siting solar energy projects. Renewable energy is good for the climate—we should make sure it isn’t bad for our wildlife and the habitats they depend on.

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