Harvesting the sun, but at what cost?
August 22, 2008
Daniel Nocera is an unabashed proponent of ramped-up development of solar energy. A professor of energy and chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he says that solar alone, among the various renewable sources, can do the heavy lifting needed to meet future demand.
And what a demand he foresees: Barely more than half of today’s 6.2 billion people on the planet lead energy-intensive lives. Should they get what you, me, and most everybody in the developed countries take for granted, demand will swell.
Add another 3 million people on the planet, as is projected, and you have a tripling of demand by mid-century, said Nocera during a conference in Telluride last year. (He also spoke in Aspen during March.)
It will take everything we have to meet that demand, he said. But he does not see the knives in the renewable drawer being equally sharp. Wind will be part of the answer. So will biomass, although if every last blade of grass on the planet was processed, it would not be enough, he said.
The most promise, says Nocera, is in solar. The technology still needs improvement; the most efficient photovoltaic panels are little more than 20 percent effective at converting the sun’s rays into electricity.
Better storage is also needed. Currently, energy retention is limited to six hours in even concentrated solar ” although Nocera and another MIT researcher in July announced a new chemical process they say allows the solar energy of daylight to be converted into hydrogen fuel for storage, available when demand arrives. If that is so, the sky is the limit for solar energy.
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Even without that technological breakthrough, there has been a new gold rush to harvest the sunshine in the American Southwest.
Forget about Colorado’s generic boast of 300 days of sunshine per year, which includes days when the sun appears only briefly. In maps of solar potential issued by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, much of Colorado has a complexion no darker than that of a Spaniard.
Really good solar is represented on the map by deep red tending toward purple. Think of road rash. Parts of the San Luis Valley look like that, and the broad swath of desert from St. George, Utah, to the outskirts of Los Angeles looks like flesh rubbed raw on asphalt.
A trio of scientists, writing in the Dec. 16, 2007, issue of Scientific American, gushed about what they called the “solar grand plan,” which could end U.S. dependence on foreign oil and slash greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.
Only 2.5 percent of the radiation falling in the Southwest could, if converted into electricity, match the nation’s total energy consumption in 2006, said Ken Zweibel, James Mason and Vasilis Fthenakis.
The scientists estimated that 250,000 square miles of land in the Southwest are suitable for solar power plants.
But there are differing opinions about just how much of this land ” especially public lands ” should be dedicated to solar resources. The sharpness of that disagreement became evident in June, after the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management ordered a moratorium on new applications.
Since late 2006, the BLM has been flooded with 130 proposals to use public land for solar installations, about half of them in California’s San Bernardino County, which has more than 20,000 square miles, including federal lands. Alone it is bigger than nine other states.
But despite the immensity of the desert, there are competing needs and uses, pointed out Brad Mitzelfelt, a county supervisor. “All we are asking is that we slow down to make sure these projects don’t do irreparable harm to our shrinking desert,” he said.
Andrew Silva, an aide to Mitzelfelt, further explained that San Bernardino County already has the Mojave National Preserve and parts of Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks, plus two military bases that hope to expand. Wind farms are also proposed.
“The Southwest is not a big flat empty parking lot,” added Silva. “It is a thriving, sensitive, fragile ecosystem.”
The BLM lifted the moratorium in early July, responding to unhappy solar companies and public officials.
“Time is not on our side,” said Morey Wolfson, of the Governor’s Energy Office in Colorado, at a late-June hearing held in Golden. The impacts of climate change are sufficiently dangerous to justify ramped-up development of renewables, he said. “We can’t push this off for 10, 20 or 30 years.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, who is running for Senate, was among those protesting the moratorium, but far more important was the voice of Nevada’s Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. The moratorium, he said, “is the wrong signal to send to solar power developers, and to Nevadans and Westerners who need and want clean, affordable sun-powered electricity soon.”
Still continuing is work on a programmatic environmental impact statement that is to provide a broad, consistent policy governing installation of solar collectors on the 119 million acres the BLM administers in the six Southwestern states. That overview is expected to be complete in 2010.
California’s mandate for renewable energy is fueling this new solar gold rush. The state requires investor-owned utilities to get 20 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2010. As of last year, they were at 13 percent. Now under discussion is a new goal, 33 percent by 2020.
The rush into the Mojave is creating ironic partnerships among traditional adversaries in public land disputes.
“You have folks who have been at war for decades who are saying: Wait a minute,” reports Silva. “You have the OHVers and Sierra Clubbers on kind of the same page.”
Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts fear loss of access to public lands. Environmental concerns are focused on habitat for the desert tortoise, which is listed as threatened in the Mojave Desert under the nation’s Endangered Species Act.
“Until the technology changes, and they can put the solar collectors into the rocks and cliffs, it will impact desert tortoise,” said Greg Miller, renewable energy program manager in the BLM’s California Desert District. “That will be a huge issue itself, determining how much impact we can tolerate to these desert species.”
The Wilderness Society urges development, but with care. “We need renewable energy, but we also need healthy lands,” says Alex Daue, the Denver-based outreach coordinator for the BLM Action Center of the Wilderness Society.
Daue says solar projects can and should be placed to avoid sensitive lands in the West and prevent what he sees as the mistakes of the drilling frenzy now under way on public lands in the Rocky Mountains.
Craig Cox, executive director of the Interwest Energy Alliance, sees a different scale. “You are talking about hundreds and thousands of drilling pads in Wyoming and Colorado and elsewhere. We are talking about dozens of solar projects at most that I expect to see at the end of this process.”
Solar utilities, he added, need certainty. “Solar utilities need certainty. Wind developers, coal, nuclear ” you name it, they all want certainty in their planning and regulatory process, and at the end of the day I think the PEIS process will provide even greater certainty.”
Taking the big picture view of this latest dustup in the desert is Auden Schendler, the vice president for environmental and corporate responsibility for the Aspen Skiing Co. What is happening now is the “growing understanding of the scale of the problem,” he said. That problem is so large, Schendler added that “we will have to make compromises like putting wind turbines in beautiful places.”
Just what compromises will have to be struck with desert tortoises remains to be seen.