Can Solar Power in the Desert be “Green?”

Photo by the Department of Energy

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As the popularity of solar and other clean renewable energy sources grows, environmental groups are playing a major role in shaping how the nation makes the transition to the new energy economy. One of the most visible examples of this renewed role for environmentalists is found in the roll-out of Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) on public lands primarily in the Southwest.

That’s not to say that all environmental groups agree on all points. Todd Woody, who blogs for the NYT’s Green Inc., recently covered one contentious issue in the Mojave Desert. Over at High Country News, Judith Lewis wrote a fascinating article in May about a schism between environmentalists over “Big Solar” in the Mojave.

In The Phoenix Sun I’ve reported on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans for a Solar Energy Study Area (SESA) covering 670,000 acres in six Western states, here and here.

I had heard about, but not seen until recently, the formal recommendations made to the BLM by a coalition of environmental groups that includes some of the best known green players (e.g., The Wilderness Society, The Sierra Club) and some that you may not have heard of before (Great Old Broads for Wilderness).

The recommendations came in a 50-page letter sent to the government and provided by the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club.

You can download a full copy of the letter, but here’s a brief outline of the green groups’ major concerns.

Major Issues


Avoid siting in wilderness areas, national monuments, national conservation areas, national historic and scenic trails, areas of critical environmental concern (and several other specified areas).

Give priority for siting to already impaired lands such as abandoned mines, developed oil and gas fields and other brownfields.

Consider availability to water, shovel-ready projects and proximity to workers to minimize the need for additional infrastructure such as roads.

Right-of-Way Terms

ROW should not exceed the design life of the project.

ROW should require that companies exercise reasonable stewardship of the land.

ROW terms should change when applicable laws and regulations change.

Plans with the smallest footprints should be started first, to see if monitoring systems can handle them before scaling up.

ROW terms should require plans to and seeks to “avoid adverse impacts to land, air and water, and to cultural, biological, visual, and other resources, as well as to other land uses and users.”

ROW should allow for termination if holder fails to comply with terms.

Planning Criteria

Comply with applicable laws and policies.

Follow already announced plan to identify lands as “available for development,” “available with restrictions” and “not available.”

Coordinate plans with other tribal, federal, state and local governments.

Consult with tribal authorities to insure that cultural resources are protected.

Encourage public participation.

The letter also includes sections on wildlife habitat, socioeconomic impacts and the importance of looking at a range of alternative plans.

When I talked with Sierra Club AZ chapter head, Sandy Bahr, she had an upbeat view of the SESA plan, confident that the current administration has a genuine interest in developing solar power facilities while protecting the local environment.

The Sierra Club, and the other signatories to the letter, say they’ll be watching to make sure the BLM follows through.

A list of the organizations that signed the letter, along with links to their Websites, can be found, here.


Osha Gray Davidson is a contributing blogger at Mother Jones. He publishes The Phoenix Sun and writes the “Brief Back” page at True/Slant. You can follow him on Twitter at BriefBack.



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