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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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But there's another approach to Ivanpah, literally and figuratively. You can start driving there from the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, and thread your way up through the Mojave National Preserve. You can rumble along busted-up tarmac roads past the original Roy's Motel along old Route 66 and the eerie black protuberance of the Amboy Crater, and pass through the Joshua tree forest at Cima, as dense as any stand of coastal redwoods. When you come at it this way, the Ivanpah Valley belongs to a continuum of open space extending west across the rugged Clark Mountains. It's a swath of land stuck between segments of the Mojave Preserve that remains unexploited simply because no one has gotten around to exploiting it.

Back at the Joshua Tree café, Harvey goes through a series of calculations to determine how much rooftop solar California would need to meet its state-mandated goals. A reasonably sufficient solar array for a single-family home generates about five kilowatts, he figures; many homes in the desert where he lives run on arrays of two or three kilowatts. If we all lit our homes with compact fluorescents and LEDs, if we outfitted them with better insulation and passive solar heat, if we just plain used less energy, couldn't we easily displace 400 megawatts of coal-fired generation, just as BrightSource claims Ivanpah will?

Most of all, if the United States, or at least California, adopted an energy policy more like Germany's, couldn't we stall climate change without any large-scale renewables at all?

There's just one problem: Germany, for all its success with solar, still burns the coal of two Californias. In fact, this spring, Vattenfall Europe is haggling over the terms of a 1,640-megawatt coal plant it hopes to build in Hamburg without burdensome environmental restrictions.

Harvey is not deterred. "All that means is that we've got to use conservation, too," he says. "We can't just keep using more and more energy."

Four days earlier, Harvey had stood before the Sierra Club's Desert and San Gorgonio Chapters in Shoshone, on the edge of Death Valley, and presented his findings. "You should have heard the room in there," he says. "People were literally jumping to their feet applauding what I had to say." Unfortunately, the club still refused to give a clear thumbs-down on Ivanpah.

"Literally, they were talking about how they were going to relocate all the tortoises. Do you know what that means?" A recent plan to move desert tortoises off land to be occupied by a military base in the Mojave was abandoned when more than 15 percent of the animals turned up dead.