Around The Campfire Issue No. 27 April 6, 2011
Urban Solar NOW!
(And a Moratorium on Solar Industrialization of Wild Deserts)
It’s the Gobi Desert. There’s not much other use for it.
All over the world is a widely held belief that we have an energy shortage. Garret Hardin long ago warned that what we think is a shortage is often a longage. Instead of a shortage of stock, it is a longage of want. For energy—electricity, space heating, transportation, and running industry—our longage of want comes from overpopulation throughout the world and overconsumption and waste here and there in the world. Moreover, we’ve been using fossil fuels—long-buried biomass that geology has worked into coal, petroleum, natural gas, and so forth—for most of our power since 1800 C.E. Without fossil fuels there would have been no Industrial Revolution. Though a crunch of petroleum and natural gas may be not far off, there is yet coal galore. We have, however, already run out of the wherewithal of forests, oceans, and the atmosphere to soak up and hold harmless fossil-fuel-burning pollution of so-called greenhouse gases. If we don’t cut back quickly and deeply on fossil fuel burning, we are up against a crazy-house wall of unknown outcomes of global weirding. This is the true need to find alternatives to fossil fuels—not because we’re going to run out tomorrow, but because if we go on burning them we will reap all kinds of gruesome and ghastly outcomes, some of which are already upon us.
To get away from fossil fuels, making our energy from sunlight is likely our best choice however we look at it.
Conservationists need to call for an all-out blitz to build urban solar power plants on at least three grounds: (1) We need to draw more and more of our energy needs from the sun; (2) Energy should be made where folks live and work so there is no need for energy-losing and land-scarring transmission; and 3) We must save wild deserts from ill-thought-out solar factories. Make no mistake; scalping thousands of acres of desert is the path solar energy is following today. We who find wonder, loveliness, wild things galore, and inborn worth in drylands have a narrow window of time in which to shift the solar energy industry to already paved and built-upon lands.
All over the world, however, industrialists are casting newly opened eyes on Earth’s deserts, or drylands. China, with a Brobdignagian hunger for energy, looks west to the Gobi Desert. European countries peer south over the Mediterranean Sea to the Sahara, desert of deserts, and think of solar power plants and cables under the Mediterranean to keep Europe abuzz with electricity. In the United States, the federal government, electric utilities, and sparked-up solar energy industry look to the Southwest where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts sit seemingly not doing much of anything. These empty lands, once shrugged at as wastelands, now seem to be sprouting dollars, renimbis, and Euros from the sand. Boosters for putting solar energy factories in the world’s deserts see themselves as good guys helping to free Mankind from an energy crunch or from greenhouse gases or both. These would-be good guys have lots of environmentalists and environmental outfits in their ranks, too. The can’t-wait yearning to put solar-energy factories in deserts is driven by the belief that drylands aren’t good for anything else, as Wang Yu, the vice director of economic planning for the oasis city Dunhuang in the Gobi, put it so well above. After all, as the New York Times article, which quotes Wang Yu, says, it’s a “nearly lifeless plateau,” a “wilderness of beige sand dunes and vast gravel wastelands.” Heck, what else are you going to do with it? (“It” being wild drylands that get a lot of sunlight.)
Well, some of us think you shouldn’t do anything with it. And that means not building high-tech solar power plants in it, pimpling it with solar panels, and stringing it with new power lines. Such naysaying is shaky ground on which to stand, though. Solar energy has taken on a sheen of holiness lately and woe betide any who dare blaspheme whatever is seen as holy. So, let me blaspheme a bit. (Should I ever have a gravestone, etched deeply into it should be “Blasphemy was his middle name.”)
First off, I am not against getting energy from the sun. How could I be, being a careful learner from cats? I watch the behavior of cats because they are wise. They teach me much. In the winter, our arthritic black cat, Gila, ferries herself about to sundry sunny spots in our home all day long, seeking the best one at the time for warmth. Like Gila, Nancy and I warm ourselves with the sun. As I’ve written before, our home is passive solar and it works! I’m not worried about getting the sun’s energy; it is where we go to get it and how we get it that give me worry-sweats and headaches.
I am with the solar-power crowd in that I think we need to look into and build the means for gaining electricity and heat from renewable (non-fossil-fuel) sources. This does not mean, however, that we should do so wherever we can or that we should do so without careful weighing of what works and of how wild things could be hurt. I am worried that some environmentalists seem to have gone off as hothearted as Maenads for wind, solar, and other non-fossil-fuel power, whatever the cost to wild things.
Of those ballyhooing wind, solar, and such today, I am reminded of nothing less than the boosters of the friendly atom back in the 1950s. The nuclear power club always overstated the goodness, safety, and thriftiness of nuclear power, and they always understated that anything that could go wrong (“A tsunami? C’mon. How likely is that? Get real.”). Like so many true believers, they could not even think of downsides. One report from the Rockefeller Panel foresaw, “New technologies,more efficient extraction processes, new uses may open up new worlds. Even now we can discern the outlines of a future in which, through the use of the split atom, our resources of both power and raw materials will be limitless….” Ahh, yes! We crowed that power from nuclear plants would be “too cheap to meter!” Nuclear power plants were apple pie back then much as wind turbines and solar plants are today. Even David Brower and the Sierra Club were taken in for a while as drum thumpers for nuclear power.
Sadly, I see too many boosters for alternative energy today playing the same game, and I see some environmentalists and even a few conservation clubs not taking a careful-enough look. The Obama Administration has followed the lead of the Bush Administration in throwing wide open the hot deserts under the Bureau of Land Management in southern California, Arizona, southern Nevada, and southern New Mexico. In the California Desert, they’ve egged on the solar industry to go for big solar thermal factories on BLM wildlands and have rushed out half-assed environmental impact statements for nine of these plants, which use mirrors to heat liquids in a tower into steam that then drives turbines. But some of these sprawling industrial sites are in key habitat for endangered species such as the Desert Tortoise, Desert Bighorn Sheep, and Richardson’s Ground Squirrel. Some are in lands named by conservationists as likely Wilderness Areas or other wild havens, or that grow lovely spreads of wildflowers, cactus, and odd, endearing worts. I don’t know if solar thermal is better or worse for wild things than the lower-tech photovoltaic panel farms. Solar thermal needs a lot more water, but the panels need more land. Both are bad in wildlands and for wildlife—vertebrates, invertebrates, plants, and soil microorganisms. Clearing off 20,000 acres or more for solar panels or mirrors is much the same as a 20,000-acre strip mine. It’s a big wild neighborhood utterly scalped and gone with nowhere for the wild things to go.
At first, it seemed as though conservation groups and our friendly politicians were saying that solar plants on public lands overall were okay, we just needed to find the right whereabouts. Therein lies the plight. Picking sacrifice areas on our public lands is fraught with threats to wild things. Going along with the thought of solar plants on public lands makes it hard to keep saying no, no, no, as each new deal comes up. I worry that some of our watchdogs for wild things might yet sell out. Insofar as I know, this hasn’t happened yet. The Sierra Club is suing to shield wild neighborhoods dwelt in by endangered species. Some Indian tribes have also sued on behalf of wild things, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, bless her heart, has blocked some as well. My friends in Defenders of Wildlife are talking tough, too. Such roadblocks have hurt the solar entrepreneurs with their need to raise funds and have thereby put a crimp into their hopes.
I’m not going to talk about the kinds of threats to dryland wilderness from industrial solar facilities. Some conservation outfits have done a good job of spotlighting awful drafts for solar thermal industrial factories, photovoltaic panel farms, and the new power lines needed to bring the electricity to where it’s “needed.” See the websites:
* BLM’s Solar PEIS website:http://solareis.anl.gov/
* BLM’s Solar PEIS maps:http://solareis.anl.gov/maps/index.cfm
* Defenders of Wildlife Renewable Energy Websites with good publications, factsheets, white papers/principles, etc:
Thanks to Matt Clark of Defenders of Wildlife for these web addresses. Below are other websites against putting solar energy facilities on BLM wildlands. Thanks to Christianne Hinks for finding these.
* Basin and Range Watch: http://www.basinandrangewatch.org
* The Wildlands Conservancy: http://www.wildlandsconservancy.org/
* Arizona Wilderness Coalition:http://azwild.org/action/Solar_AZ.php
What I will talk about here is another path we can take right now to get the most out of the sun for our true energy needs. I offer the Nine Point Rewilding Institute Urban Solar Blitz.
Urban Solar Now!
Make Sun Power Where Folks Live
Leave Wild Deserts Alone
One. Sun Power Now!
A Man-on-the-Moon-kind of campaign and commitment should begin now to fast-track sun energy output in cities and towns. Such a campaign should meet these standards: 1) make power where folks live so there is no need for long transmission; and 2) put solar power plants in already developed areas where there will be little or no harm to wild things. Among the many ways to bring about this step are:
Two. Blanket all Parking Lots
There are likely a million acres of parking lots in the US; most are paved, and many are in the sunniest shires of our land. Every parking lot should be roofed with solar panels. Since fees go up for parking in the shade, these panels would add to the worth of the parking lots. The power could go to nearby office buildings, apartments, stores, restaurants, bars, schools, sports arenas, airports, light rail, car dealerships, workshops, and factories. Moreover, as electric cars become more sought-after, plug-in meters can be put in each slot so each car can be recharged while parked. By the way, this is done in Fairbanks, Alaska parking lots in the winter to keep engines thawed so cars will start when it is below zero, so the craft for these plug-in meters is already here.
Three. Every Roof a Solar Panel!
Every big-box store, factory, warehouse, school, apartment, hotel, bank, government office (the Pentagon!), and so forth should have their roofs blanketed with solar panels. What energy not needed onsite would go into the grid.
Four. Every Home a Power Plant!
Right now, the upfront outlay for putting solar panels on one’s home can be too much even though you will save money in the long run. Therefore, power companies or local government should put in solar panels for willing homeowners free in exchange for an agreement to buy electricity at a fixed rate from the electric company or government co-op until the panels are paid off. I’d do it yesterday. An energy company in New Jersey is doing this now. In the Southwest, this would work well. The same should be done with rooftop sun-heated hot water heaters.
Five. Passive Solar Heating for All!
The more moving parts something has, the more tangled the set-up and the more likely it is for ghastly breakdowns (think Japan). Space heating grabs a big slice of our overall energy budget. We can deftly end much of this want for electricity, natural gas, coal, heating oil, or whatever. As I wrote, Nancy and I have a passive solar house (see Campfire # 26). I think it is a lovely home and the sun gathering helps that pretty look. Thanks to a clerestory that lets in sunlight six months of the year (but not in the summer), we have awesomely low bills from the gas and electric companies in the winter. We likely sock away $5,000 a year. Passive solar beats other ways to heat buildings owing to no moving cogs and wheels and no upkeep. As I drive about Albuquerque, I wonder at all the houses and other buildings without passive solar. Each could save thousands of dollars a year in energy bills. Architects, engineers, and builders should take on the dare to go all out for passive solar building design. Make it pretty, make it thrifty, and make it work in all kinds of building styles. Energy companies and governments should come up with incentives or even regulations to get builders to build passive solar homes, offices, strip malls, warehouses, schools, and so on, and to get owners to retrofit to passive solar. Sunrooms and greenhouses are among the straightforward ways to put the sun to work in already built buildings.
Six. Other Clever Deals
I’m sure that there are other ways to make solar power near where it is wanted and on already built-up land. What about movable rigs with solar panels that could span over highways and plug into each other? Think of the acres of highways. As solar panel craft gets better, there will be more and more ways to make power without needing to industrialize and scar public lands.
Seven. Cap the Grid
If solar energy is only one more wellspring of energy, then we will have gained little. Therefore, a bedrock step in any new energy policy is to cap the grid. This means that all energy use in the United States is reckoned as of today. It becomes the cap, beyond which we will not go. Neither energy use nor production may ever go over this cap. In a nutshell, it would work this way: As new “good” energy production, from sun or wind (in the right steads), comes on line, coal power plants or hydroelectric dams with the same BTUs will be shut down. Freezing how much energy to be used or produced in the United States will shut down or take down dirty (coal) and ecologically harmful (hydropower dams) plants, and it will make consumers, power companies, and governments become earnest about energy conservation and lower use. Capping the grid is for overall energy use, not per person energy use. If the US keeps growing, overall energy use does not get to grow so as to keep the same per capita energy use. So, if population grows, per capita energy use goes down. The energy pie from capping the grid is just so big. If more folks want a slice, the slices become smaller.
Eight. Moratorium on Leasing or Building Industrial Sun Energy Plants in Wildlands or Public Lands
A halt should be called on today’s steamroller to lease public lands for industrial sun plants or to let such set-ups be built on any wildlands, public or private, by withdrawing all go-ahead steps for needed permits to do such building. This stoppage should go on until urban and suburban solar production is full. If, at that time, we find that we still need more electricity from the sun (but without going over the cap), we can carefully rethink the moratorium.
Nine. A Thorough Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on All Sides of Solar Energy Development on Public Lands and Other Wildlands.
This EIS should thoroughly weigh all sides of sun energy building on public lands and other wildlands, such as water need, landscalping, endangered and other at-risk wildlife, fragmentation of wild neighborhoods and wildways, cradle to grave greenhouse-gas making, loss of carbon sequestration in Nature, harm of power lines, worth of solar power for cutting the need for fossil fuels, alternatives, etc. Thorough.
Moreover, any building of sun power plants in drylands that is brought up later must have full EISs done on each undertaking.
Done right, these city and town sun-power steps would cost less than scalping and building on wildlands for clustered solar plants and their needed infrastructure and web of power lines. These deals would be well liked by most folks if marketed well. And, I think, if we were to do all this, there would be no need to throw away wild deserts for power company bankrolls. Conservation, environmental, consumer, tribal, and greenhouse outfits should get behind the urban solar path instead of helping to find public land desert areas that can be trashed for solar energy production.
What you can do:
Say YES to Urban Solar
Say NO to Wild Desert Solar
For this path to a solar-energy tomorrow to open up, folks will need to get behind it. Forward this essay to others, ask conservation and other clubs to which you belong to back an urban solar energy campaign and call for a moratorium on leasing BLM lands. Write BLM offices, the Secretary of the Interior, the President, and your members of Congress. We can keep our wild deserts and we can greatly jack up how much energy we get from the sun. Oh, and don’t forget to go passive solar in your home.
Bosque del Apache NWR
 Keith Bradsher, “Green Power Takes Toot in the Chinese Desert,” The New York Times,July 3, 2009.
 William R. Catton Jr., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1982), xii.
 Todd Woody, “Solar Energy Faces Tests On Greenness,” The New York Times,February 23, 2011; Todd Woody, “Solar Projects Pit Green Against Green,” Green: A Blog About Energy and the Environment, The New York Times, February 24, 2011.
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