Flyover follow-up: where to put solar

Last Thursday, Desert Sun photographer Marilyn Chung and I joined two other journalists, clambering in to a six-seater airplane flown by Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight, for a flyover of the Riverside East solar zone.

The sponsoring organizations — EcoFlight, the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association — wanted to give members of the media a birds-eye view of what those 147,000 acres of pristine desert between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe look like — utterly breath-taking — and the impact of large-scale solar development on the land.

The flyover was scheduled on the day of the public meeting in Palm Desert about the federal Programmatic Solar Environmental Impact Statement – the big-picture plan for solar development on public lands in six western states, including Riverside East, which is the largest of the 17 areas identified as potential solar zones.

We flew over both GE-NextEra’s 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight project and NextEra’s 250 megawatt Genesis project — both in the early stages of construction. What you see from the air are the graded, raw patches of land with truck tracks and, in the case of Desert Sunlight, some solar frames, but no panels yet. The graded areas visible now are only a small part of the projects’ ultimate size.

In other words, these are going to be big projects, and they will change the visual landscape.  Many environmental groups have repeatedly criticized solar development on federal lands, saying smaller-scale projects — rooftop solar, projects on previously disturbed or fallow agricultural lands — are a better way to go.

The issue with rooftop solar is putting together financing packages to get it on the roofs and overcoming homeowners associations’ aversion to it, again because they don’t like the way panels look. Flying back into Palm Springs airport after the flyover, we also got a birds-eye view of rooftops around the airport, and the ones with solar panels stood out because there were so few. The Walmart on Ramon Road has a large rooftop installation, but next door, Lowe’s — with an equally flat and large roof — doesn’t.  We flew over one residential community that had solar on its roofs; most don’t.

Everyone likes the idea of solar, it seems, but conflicts over where to put it and how to pay for it, are ongoing roadblocks.

Environmental groups are not in total agreement on the issue either–with most falling into one of two camps. First, there are the people with a more local focus — most of the groups speaking at Thursday night’s meeting — kind of NIMD, not in my desert. They are concerned about potential impacts on Joshua Tree National Park, on wildlife migration corridors and cultural resources such as sites still used for tribal ceremonies.

The other groups are taking a more global approach — arguing that the impending impacts of climate change and the critical need to cut greenhouse gas emissions sooner rather than later mean we may have to sacrifice some public lands if they offer the best place to put solar — large, flat areas with high-intensity sun.

Saving desert tortoise habitat isn’t going to do much if the weather changes and the desert no longer provides good habitat for the tortoises, they say.

Obviously, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and the environmental groups downplay media reports of conflict between them. Individual groups may have different focuses and may not always agree on tactics, said Jennifer Dickson of the Wilderness Society, but they all know each other and keep talking to each other.

As Shannon Stewart, a program manager for the Bureau of Land Management, said at the end of Thursday’s meeting, we need it all — energy efficiency and both rooftop and large-scale solar, along with other renewables — to meet the ever-shortening time line of climate change.

And, as Anjali Appadurai, a young delegate to the UN climate talks in Durban, said in a rousing speech last week — we need to get it done now.