There is a widely held misconception that point-of-use distributed rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) is too expensive, too slow to implement, and inadequate to meet our renewable energy needs, and that remote utility-scale solar power plants should be the centerpiece of our nation’s solar energy policy. The California Energy Commission has said in staff assessments of various utility-scale solar power projects that, although such projects will cause substantial and unmitigable harm to the environment, regulations normally restricting these impacts should be overridden in light of the urgency of reducing greenhouse gases and meeting California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). Yet distributed PV can achieve the same objective without the environmental harm and at lower cost.
Here we summarize concerns regarding the environmental impacts of massive solar project infrastructure development in the desert. This summary is focused on California, where many projects are in process on public lands. Much of the impetus for this large number of projects comes from California’s goal of meeting 33% of its energy needs through centralized renewable energy generation — i.e., a 33% “renewable portfolio standard (RPS)” by 2015. We also include some discussion of impacts in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, another area where industrial-scale solar projects are proposed on both private and public land. Many of the impacts in these states can be extrapolated to other states.
Our deserts are irrigated by water that fell thousands of years ago, covered in vegetative assemblages that have been developing for longer than recorded human history, and some of the individual plants in them are older than the oldest bristlecone pines. Once altered, those plant communities may never return to their original state even under optimal conditions. If the desert’s aquifers and vegetative communities are forever changed, the animal wildlife that has evolved dependence on local springs, plant habitat and edible vegetation will suffer. Hundreds of thousands of acres in the desert are being studied as possible alternative energy sites. Given the permanent damage that would result from industrial energy development in desert wildlands, it’s time we stopped calling such development “renewable energy.”
In the course of their construction and normal operation, industrial-scale solar generating plants accrue their own significant greenhouse gas footprint, which must be accounted for before we can really gauge the prospective climate benefit of any such project.