Update: Partly in response to this post, Vote Solar has removed the sentence to which I objected most from their large-scale solar page. Vote Solar’s Adam Browning tells me that it was an older phrasing that no longer reflected Vote Solar’s position but which had remained online due to work overload. That’s certainly an explanation I can relate to. There’s still much I disagree with on the page, but I appreciate that change. As suggested by Adam in comments here, he and I will be talking sometime soon. I’ll keep you posted.
I got a piece of bulk email today from Vote Solar, an organization among other things is pushing for greater incentives for solar in California. And that email just about turned my stomach.
This is a long blog post, so I’ll give you my tl;dr right up front: We need to move to a solar economy and off carbon fuels as soon as possible, but Vote Solar is working to make it easier to destroy the desert habitats readers of this site care about, and even their support of urban, rooftop solar is weak-willed and ineffective.
Right now Vote Solar is pushing “net metering,” a weak-sauce version of the Feed-In Tariffs that have made Germany the solar capital of the world. In a Feed-In Tariff the local utility buys whatever power your solar cells produce at a premium rate. In Net Metering you only get “paid” for as much energy as you consume from the utility. The best you can do with Net metering in California is zero out your electric bill. Meanwhile people in Germany are making thousands of Euro a year. Support for Net Metering is better than opposing it, which the utilities often do. Overall, though, it’s the kind of policy that people push for if they really can’t face the thought of restructuring the badly designed parts of the world. It’s like driving a hybrid Hummer or changing the Twinkies recipe to include some whole wheat flour: a change that you can push without ever actually changing anything.
That’s not what made me vomit in my email inbox, though. Net Metering is a superficial benefit at best, and pushing for it is a sure sign that you’re letting the electrical power industry status quo do your thinking for you. But it’s not necessarily evil.
This second paragraph of the Vote Solar email isn’t so innocuous:
A huge thank you to our Equinox 2012 sponsors for their support: Recurrent Energy, Borrego Solar, BrightSource Energy, CalCEF, Dow Solar, enXco, First Solar, Intersolar, Keyes & Fox, Perkins Coie, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Q-Cells, SolarCity, SolarFrontier, Solaria, SolarReserve, SPG Solar, SunEdison, SunPower, Suntech, Winston & Strawn, and Yingli.
BrightSource and SolarReserve and First Solar are some of the worst actors in the rush to destroy the desert for solar energy installations.
Not all the firms on the list are bad actors necessarily. Some of those firms just build PV cells. Some are service providers of various kinds: accountants, trade associations, law firms and such that serve the big solar industry. On first glance that last is distasteful, I agree. But in the United States, we’ve long held that even the most scurrilous people — confidence men, Nazi synagogue vandals, pedophiles and serial cannibal murderers — have a right to legal consultation, and thus it’s only a little bit of a stretch to decide that desert solar contractors probably ought to have that right as well.
BrightSource, however, is busy destroying more than six square miles of the last best tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert so that they can sell electricity to San Francisco, thus keeping Vote Solar’s decorative party lights lit. Solar Reserve is in the Concentrating Solar with Molten Salt Thermal Storage business. They’re building a plant near Tonopah Nevada on intact dune grassland, with others planned near Joshua Tree National Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument and a fourth not far from Quartzsite, AZ. These projects all involve very tall towers which will have blindingly bright boilers atop them, not exactly what most people visiting National Park holdings have in mind for their vacation viewing. First Solar, for its part, builds giant solar facilities with the same photovoltaic panels that could easily be put on rooftops. As it turns out, First Solar’s PV panels work better on rooftops than they do in the desert: the heat’s too much for them and they degrade, lose production efficiency, and eventually break. Another way of putting it is that a First Solar PV panel will produce more electricity over its lifespan on a rooftop in Seattle than it will on a rack in the desert. First Solar is taking this new information about their product’s weaknesses and amending their future plans to account for those weaknesses. They’re not shifting their focus to urban use. They’re expanding the amount of desert they want to destroy to make up for the loss in efficiency.
Vote Solar takes money from these people.
And that relationship would seem to be reflected in Vote Solar’s public statements about large scale solar. Their formal position on industrial scale solar in the desert, or in the Carrizo Plain, or for all I know on what will once have been ancient giant sequoia forests once First Solar gets through cutting them down to put PV panels on the stumps, boils down to this:
Unlock Land-Use Issues: Large-scale solar energy project development will require the use of large tracks [sic] of land. The key will be to ensure that this development is done in a way that minimizes impact and maximizes our conservation values. It is absolutely imperative however that conservation does not stand in the way of smart renewable energy development on public and private lands.
Some pretty nice weasel words there: “minimizing impact” and “maximizing conservation values.” Vote Solar’s funder BrightSource has used a lot of language like that, talking about how they are going to minimize their impact and maximize conservation values, by among other things “trimming” any vegetation that has the temerity to exist where they want to put their mirrors at Ivanpah. For those of you who haven’t yet seen it, here’s a video of BrightSource “trimming” a Mojave yucca that’s at least 500 years old:
Right now someone at Louisiana Pacific wishes they’d thought to claim they were only “trimming” the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Of course the nut of that paragraph, the really ugly threatening language in that paragraph, is “conservation can’t stand in the way.” If I was an optimist, I would imagine that whoever wrote that did so at some metaphorical equivalent of gunpoint, and that their soul died ever so slightly as they hit “publish.” I’m not an optimist. I fully expect that some person thinking of him-or-herself as an “environmentalist” wrote that line about conservation getting out of the way of our development projects utterly convinced of the line’s justification and validity.
When people use “conservation” as a noun like that, what they’re really saying is “non-human living things.” “Renewable energy development” is for the benefit of human beings alone, unless you can point to an example of an endangered Coachella fringe-toed lizard using an electric toothbrush. That’s what this issue comes down to: valuing people’s comfort and ability to maintain their bad habits more than the survival of whole ecosystems.
Never mind the fact that “pave the deserts or lose the climate change war” is a false choice, one that’s completely obsolete at this point, as we get more carbon reduction for the buck more quickly from rooftop solar than we ever will from the ecocidal monstrosities promoted by the likes of BrightSource and First Solar. Never mind that every dollar, every hour spent promoting desert solar makes any eventual solution to the carbon crisis that much further away. Never mind that Germany, with approximately the same amount of sunlight as Juneau, Alaska, installed more than 7.5 gigawatts of rooftop PV just in 2011, which is three times the output of all the fast-tracked public land desert projects assigned “priority status” by the BLM in 2011, and that those German panels are producing electricity right now while our “priority” plants might start getting us some power in 2013, if everything goes right for the developers, which it will not.
Never mind all that. Assume for the sake of argument that giant industrial solar in the desert actually makes sense from a strictly utilitarian perspective. We’re still left with “conservation” in opposition to “renewable energy development.” We’re still left with human comfort versus the continued existence of whole ecosystems. We’re still left with obliterating habitat with century-old animals and millennia-old plants because conserving that 30 percent of our energy use that the DOE says we waste completely would be too much trouble. People in the US use the energy equivalent of about 7,800 barrels of oil per capita per year. Germany’s per capita figure is 4,200. The UK’s: 3,900. Japan’s: 4,000. In Switzerland, a rich and luxurious country with plenty of winter cold to heat houses against, per capita annual energy use is less than half of that in the United States.
In other words, we could live better than we do now and reduce our carbon footprint enough to make any contribution from industrial solar in the desert completely irrelevant. And none of this is a secret. None of this is news. The only reason people still think paving deserts with mirrors makes any sense at all is because:
- Despite the ongoing collapse of the Big Solar industry, some rich people think they have a chance to get even richer by taking your land, industrializing it using government subsidies, and cashing out as quickly as they can when the project’s half-built, and;
- Those rich people give money to putatively environmental groups which then do their PR for them.
And the non-human world had better not stand in their way.
Vote Solar works to “unlock land use issues” to promote big desert solar. Translated from the stale Wise Use Movement jargon, that means rolling back environmental protection laws. Reducing public input on projects. Streamlining environmental review. Making it easier to get “take” permits for endangered species. Making it harder to sue developers or the BLM or the California Energy Commission for approving predictably destructive plants like Ivanpah or Genesis. Removing your rights to enjoy, protect and monitor the public land you own. Because if you do seek to make sure habitat isn’t unduly threatened, then you become part of “conservation,” and you are standing in the way.
That’s what that paragraph means.
We absolutely have to encourage rooftop PV and energy conservation, and we need to do it now. It pains me to interfere with the work of any group working to increase urban solar, even if they’re doing so ineptly. But if Vote Solar gets its program enacted, we will be losing our deserts for no reason. I urge you to withhold your support from Vote Solar and to consider any analysis they offer with a jaundiced eye.