A Renewable Energy Debate Heats Up In The Mojave

The Mojave is home to mountain ranges, endangered wildlife and pictographs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has proposed a national monument to keep some desert lands off-limits to energy development. But solar developers say there's room for both conservation and renewable energy.

The Mojave Desert in southeastern California is the mother lode of renewable energy. The sun shines about 360 days a year, making it hugely valuable territory for developers of solar power.

But the Mojave is also valuable to rare plants and animals and the people who want to protect them. That's why Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has proposed a national monument to keep some Mojave lands off-limits to energy development.

Some supporters of solar power worry that the establishment of a national monument in the Mojave could slow down the fight against global warming. But David Myers, director of the Wildlands Conservancy, says the lands were donated to the federal government for conservation. His organization raised $45 million to buy hundreds of thousands of acres, cleaned them up and then donated them to the government to preserve them.

Protecting Mountains, Wildlife And Pictographs

Myers says this land deserves protection even if most people think of it as just a whole lot of empty space.

"There's nothing out there, and yet everything's out there," Myers says. "The great prophets, poets and redeemers of civilization always sought the nothingness of the desert because, by and by, that nothingness adds up to an awful lot."

And if you know this territory in detail, you know there's a lot more here than just nothingness. Nearby are mountain ranges, sand dunes, ancient lava flows, fossil beds, endangered wildlife, cactus forests and American Indian pictographs.

So Myers was shocked when he discovered that the Bush administration had allowed energy companies to apply for permits to build large-scale solar projects on the donated lands.

Impact On The Desert

Solar power has the reputation of being green, he says, but its impact on the desert would be anything but.

"One project proposed to grade off all the native vegetation [from] 5,500 acres, bring in a quarter-million truckloads of gravel and put up a lot of industrialized buildings and then put a chain-link fence around it," he says.

Myers saw plans like this as a betrayal, and Feinstein was sympathetic.

"When someone comes forward and gives money to preserve land, it is really important that that commitment be carried out," Feinstein says. "Otherwise, people are not going to come forward to help preserve the land."

And so Feinstein introduced a bill to establish the Mojave Trails National Monument. It includes a lot of the land donated by the Wildlands Conservancy. Then she got in touch with the prospective solar power developers.

"The companies that I met with were really very good," Feinstein says. "They said they did not know that this land was supposed to be in conservation."

The companies did realize after meeting with the senator that they'd never be able to get financing for projects on land that might be turned into a national monument. So all of them dropped their plans to build solar power plants there.

Developing Solar Energy In The Mojave

But there is still a big push to develop solar in the Mojave. It was the topic of a recent gathering of hundreds of environmentalists and energy developers at the University of California at Riverside. V. John White is the director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, a nonprofit that promotes renewable energy. He's concerned that much of the Mojave is already off-limits for solar power.

"There's 4.5 million acres [set aside] for the desert tortoise, there's 3.5 million acres for the military reservations, there's 1.5 million acres for state-protected species, and the monument will take another million acres off the table," White says.

The Mojave is a big place. And White says there should be room for everybody. "But not if everybody sort of takes what's theirs and leaves solar for last," he says. "Right now we have more [land] available for off-road vehicle parks than we do for solar, and that's crazy."

It's not just global warming that has added urgency to this debate. In 2020, California will require one-third of the state's power to come from renewable sources. There's also $5 billion in federal stimulus money for California-based solar projects that can get permits approved and be ready to break ground by the end of the year.

So the clock is ticking.

"We can't stub our toe too many more times," says Kevin Sweeney, who teaches at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. Lately, he has also been facilitating meetings between solar power developers and the environmentalists who often challenge their projects.

Sweeney says Feinstein's proposal for the Mojave Trails National Monument "brought people -- forced people -- to come to the table and actually start talking through these issues."

Feinstein's monument proposal hasn't had a Senate hearing yet. It may or may not pass someday. But it is already having an impact. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.