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High Noon

As the climate warms, environmentalists square off over Big Solar’s claim to the Mojave Desert


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"The solar plant will use less water than the alfalfa did," Hogue says. "We have to support that."

This is the real discussion, Hogue argues, that is missing from the enviro-on-enviro media narrative. It's not that some environmentalists are opposed to renewable energy. It's that states, the federal government, solar developers and utilities have not taken the time to arrive at a thoughtful land-use policy that would move solar projects forward.

"We are not opposed to renewable energy," says The Wildlands Conservancy's David Myers. "But if you read the New York Times, you might think that we are. All our preserves run on wind and solar." What Myers does oppose is giving over the land his organization donated for conservation to any kind of private development, whether tract housing, solar plants or wind farms. "If Ken Salazar does not stop this, then the Obama administration is breaking a 100-year tradition of conservation that extends back through three generations," he says.

Myers claims that BrightSource uses "absolutely no discretion in placing its projects. But I would personally go out and find BrightSource the right places to put their solar energy farms. We're great at finding land. We have hundreds of thousands of acres in California along grid interties that are fallowed farmlands we would welcome them to use. There is degraded land throughout the Mojave, lands that the whole environmental community will support."

Myers predicts that even if all state and federal agencies sign off on Ivanpah, BrightSource will end up stuck in court with Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club for years over exactly how much land should compensate for the desert tortoise habitat lost to its solar plant. On the other hand, if the company had gone about the process more reasonably from the get-go, "all of these projects could have been fast-tracked."

There's a way of looking at the Ivanpah site, passing by it on the I-15 freeway, that makes it seem like a fine place to put a concentrating solar plant. In fact, in the shadow of Primm, Nev., an unmitigated monstrosity of casinos, fast-food chains and amusement park rides, a few thousand acres of mirrors might actually look like a work of art.