Mojave Desert at stake in far-reaching federal energy plan

Updated: Aug 27

Carolyn Lochhead

July 22, 2016


In its final months, the Obama administration is racing to complete a far-reaching environmental initiative that could forever alter one of the wildest places left in California.


A giant energy plan for the Mojave Desert attempts to reconcile two contradictory goals: fast-tracking big solar and wind installations across 10 million acres of public lands to reduce carbon emissions and slow climate change, and preserving the region’s natural beauty and ecological integrity.


Solar and wind developers say they will need broad expanses of public land to build their big installations. But scientists say those large-scale developments will permanently scar the desert landscape, destroy native plants and wildlife, and, to top it off, may not do for the environment what they were intended to do.



At the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California's Mojave Desert, some of the plant's 347,000 garage-door-sized mirrors used to generate power can be seen. California is looking for a reliable way to store green energy for when customers need it. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)Mark Boster/McClatchy-Tribune News Service


More than seven years in the making, the joint state-federal Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is driven by President Obama’s promise to install 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy on federal land and by the state’s ambitious new effort to get half of California utilities’ electricity from renewable sources by 2030.


The administration’s goal is to deliver the equivalent of almost a quarter of California’s current daily electrical generating capacity. That’s enough to provide power to 3.28 million homes, according to solar industry estimates.


The plan attempts to correct mistakes made early in the Obama administration, when the California desert was opened to large-scale solar development by the Bureau of Land Management, the current plan’s chief architect, without taking into account the broader environmental impacts on the desert. Unlike the National Park Service, whose mission is conservation, the bureau encourages multiple use of public lands, including mining, hunting, recreation, logging, grazing, oil and gas drilling, and renewable energy production.



Some of the 300,000 computer-controlled mirrors, each about 7 feet high and 10 feet wide, reflect sunlight to boilers that sit on 459-foot towers. The sun's power is used to heat water in the boilers' tubes and make steam, which in turn drives turbines to create electricity Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 in Primm, Nev. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across roughly 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, will be opened formally Thursday after years of regulatory and legal tangles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)Chris Carlson/Associated Press


The bureau’s plan is to set aside 388,000 acres, or more than 600 square miles, of public land in the Mojave for renewable energy development and make another 842,000 acres available if needed. In all, nearly 2,000 square miles of desert could be developed.


The plan also sets aside 5 million acres, or 7,812 square miles, for conservation.


Going ‘under the radar’


Administration officials are expected to sign off on the plan this summer. After that, only litigation or an act of Congress could prevent it from going forward. While the state is a partner in the effort, only federal land will be developed.


The California desert plan is “an environmental story in the United States that hasn’t received the attention that it’s owed,” said Rebecca Hernandez, an earth systems scientist at UC Davis. It “has really gone under the radar.”


Outside its three national parks at Death Valley, Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve, the desert has been long considered a scrub wasteland. For decades it’s been a repository for sprawling military bases, off-road vehicle playgrounds and booming desert cities, divided by three interstate highways. It’s been mined and grazed for a century and a half. And, with a solar intensity that rivals the Sahara, the California desert is now seen as a natural place for renewable energy development.


Despite these human incursions, the desert remains one of the most intact ecosystems in the continental United States.



Desert Tortoises can be found in Eagle Mountain and Soda Mountain. David Lamfrom


Scientists have come to understand that the desert is a major carbon sink, whose ancient, deeply rooted plants are a slow-motion machine for drawing carbon from the air and burying large stores of it underground in stable form.


They have shown that deeply rooted desert plants suck huge amounts of carbon from the air and bury it in the earth, where it interacts with soil calcium to form the white desert crusts known as caliche. When these soils and plants are disturbed, this natural process of carbon sequestration is disrupted.


In other words, critics say, building big solar and wind plants on undisturbed desert soils to fight climate change could backfire.


“Globally, there’s probably about as much carbon bound up in (desert soil) as there is in the atmosphere,” said soil biologist Michael Allen, director of UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology and a pioneer in studying desert carbon sequestration. “It’s a very large pool.”


Little land for development



PRIMM, NV - MARCH 03: A solar receiver and boiler on top of a tower is reflected in heliostats at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System on March 3, 2014 in the Mojave Desert in California near Primm, Nevada. The largest solar thermal power-tower system in the world, owned by NRG Energy, Google and BrightSource Energy, opened recently in the Ivanpah Dry Lake and uses 347,000 computer-controlled mirrors to focus sunlight onto boilers on top of three 459-foot towers, where water is heated to produce steam to power turbines providing power to more than 140,000 California homes. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)Ethan Miller/Getty Images


Opposition to the administration’s plan also comes from the solar industry. In a last-ditch effort to make changes, industry groups warned in a memo this month that the initiative will make it “impossible” to achieve the administration’s climate goals — including those that came out of last year’s landmark Paris climate accord — because it leaves too little public land available for development.


“California is home to the best solar radiance in the world,” said Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-Scale Solar Association, and the Bureau of Land Management “is on the threshold of locking it off against development in perpetuity.”


Environmental groups that support the administration’s plan fear the desert will be under significant threat from solar development without the government’s protection of 5 million acres.