Tag Archives: Energy

Could green kill the desert?

Biologist Bruce M. Pavlik, author of The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery, which I’m working my way through this week, has a great piece in the Los Angeles Times on Big Solar vs. the deserts.

The costs of industrializing the biologically rich California deserts will be measured in terms of species extinction, ecosystem degradation and the perpetuation of human self-deception.

We know better than to rush. A cautious, informed and integrated approach will secure sustainable, clean energy without sacrificing the future of these precious lands.

Read the rest.

Compare and contrast

Below are two satellite images, courtesy Google Earth, of different pieces of the Ivanpah Valley. Both photos show land at around 3,000 feet in elevation, at a resolution equivalent to 1,500 feet up.



One of the photos is of land whose wilderness habitat value was important enough that in 1994 Congress designated it part of the Mojave National Preserve.

The other shows land deemed “heavily impacted by human use” by the developer who wants to build a massive solar generating facility thereon.

Can you guess which is which? Feel free to click through to the Flickr site to see the higher-resolution versions if you think that’ll help.

In the meantime, I’m off to Death Valley first thing in the morning for a meeting, and then Sunday afternoon I hope to swing by the proposed solar generating site to get some photos from six or fewer feet above the ground. See you all Monday.

Ken Salazar gets off to a good start

From the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance:

More than 100,000 acres of Utah wilderness will be protected from oil and gas drilling after the Department of Interior announced today that it will cancel 77 leases issued under the Bush administration. This is among the first actions taken by the Obama administration to protect America’s wild lands. Since December, a coalition of environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Earthjustice, and the Wilderness Society have been working to protect these public lands. In December, the coalition filed suit to stop the leasing, and, in January, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina of the U.S. District Court granted a temporary restraining order preventing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from moving forward with these leases.

Is a fish more important than a tortoise?

In Adam Hochschild’s book The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin, Hochschild describes a conversation with Alexander Vologodsky, a Russian physicist. Vologodsky had noticed an abandoned settlement as a youth in the extreme north of Siberia, and found that the settlement was the remains of a prison labor construction project. Stalin had been looking at a map, noticed a blank spot on the Arctic coast between the mouths of the Yenisei and Ob rivers, and decided he wanted a railroad built connecting the two rivers — across 800 miles of tundra. As Hochschild relates:

“As far as [Vologodsky] can figure out, there was no logical reason to build this long and expensive railroad — particularly in the famine-ridden, ravaged, exhausted USSR of 1948… The Soviet Union is famous for grand public works projects that turn out not to work; but this Arctic railway, said Vologodsky, was ‘the acme of the absurd.’ 

“In the frantic haste to satisfy Stalin’s orders, Vologodsky said, when construction began in 1948, ‘they were laying the tracks at the same time as they were surveying.’ The terrain was a builder’s nightmare: below ground was rock-hard permafrost; on top of this lay six feet of snow in winter, and, in the summer, vast bogs that swallowed up ties, tracks, and equipment. Although the work force of prisoners reached as high as one hundred thousand, in five years they succeeded in laying tracks over little more than half the route.

“Today, thinking of this waste of resources and human life, it seems easy to condemn the folly of this railroad. But listening to Vologodsky talk, it occurred to me that in other parts of the world, when such projects reach their aim, we often honor them as great feats of engineering or symbols of national grandeur. The Pyramids, the First Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal. Between these efforts and something like Stalin’s Arctic railway, where do you draw the moral dividing line? It is not always easy.”

The passage has stayed with me since I read it a decade ago. The Arctic Railway, which ended construction on Stalin’s death, is a useful absurdum to which one can reductio a whole lot of development proposals. The tragic story emphasizes the importance of the practice described by the jargony phrase “ground-truthing,” almost always an effective counter to grand development plans decreed by fiat, whether that fiat comes from a dictator or a bureaucracy or — even — a well-meaning environmentalist.

David Brower learned this lesson in the early 1960s when he bargained away the irreplaceable Glen Canyon in a meeting room somewhere, then actually went out and belatedly ground-truthed his act by visiting the place. He had the best of intentions: saving Dinosaur National Monument from a dam. It worked. The Yampa is still free-flowing and beautiful. It was a victory Brower regretted for the rest of his life.

Brower’s lesson seems to have been lost on at least one person charged with preserving his legacy. Last year, the current editor of the Earth Island Journal, Jason Mark, charged dismissively that opposition to opening up desert wilderness to renewable energy project development is NIMBYism, and “fueling climate change.”

“…it’s hard not to think that some local activists have their priorities misplaced. One conservationist told Lewis, ‘No opening of any wilderness areas in this state to any energy corridors ever. Absolutely not.’

“According to Amy Atwood, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity: ‘It’s hard to see which Western constituency could possibly support this.’

“Well, how about a constituency that recognizes that climate change is already dangerously altering Western ecosystems, contributing to droughts, wildfires, and shrinking and shifting habitats?”

We have to destroy the wilderness to save it, Mark would seem to be saying.

Or take renewable energy activist Gar Lipow’s odd rant in comments on a post in the online magazine Grist, responding to desert protection activists concerned about careless “renewable” development:

“Yeah, let’s stay pure.

“Lets burn more coal -cause we can’t put up one acre of mirrors in the desert.

“Let’s drill oil off the coasts of California and Florida because we are too pure to put wind generators offshore where a couple of Senators have to look at them.

“Let 1 in 4 children in Harlem continue to suffer asthma caused by fossil fuels so that we don’t have besmirch the purity of Wolverine and Stopgreenpath. I hope those snowy white garments you wear don’t get stained by splatters from all the people you will trample if you win what you are asking for.”

Lipow’s comment really has it all: the straw-children, the conflation of habitat preservation with scenery, the Cheneyan accusation that the opponents’ environmental concern is a matter of “personal purity,” and a literal “bloody shirt” threat besides. (An explanation of just what effect transmission lines in the desert would have on the diesel exhaust that chokes kids in Harlem? That Lipow does not provide.)

Here’s the thing. The Glen Canyon Dam provides renewable energy too, and yet I don’t see too many “big picture” enviros like Mark and Lipow self-righteously demanding new dams be put up on free-flowing rivers. Big hydro is a cost-effective source of huge amounts of electricity, and new large dams could conceivably replace a significant amount of fossil-fuel-generated power. Why aren’t enviros demanding new dams, and spattering fishermen and river rafters with the figurative blood of their straw victims? Hochschild’s question about drawing lines would seem relevant here. Where, exactly, is the line between a new Glen Canyon Dam on the wild river of your choice, on the one hand, and paving 689,910 times as much desert as Lipow sneers about on the other?

The line, I suggest, is entirely in the minds of people who talk the way the above-quoted environmentalists do. The fact is, reactions like those offered by Mark and Lipow are fueled by a combination of ignorance of, and apathy toward, the actual groundtruthable reality in the desert. As Hochschild put it later in “Unquiet Ghost”:

“We are back again at the issue raised by the finger on the map. I want a railroad, there. Because it’s good for humanity. Or, perhaps, because I want it there.”

Those who would save the planet at the cost of the desert look at maps like this


and this


and put their fingers on the map right on that sunny blank spot. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it would seem that the functional difference between the Mojave Desert and Glen Canyon is not in the value of the habitat to its wildlife, nor in the efficiency of power generation in each locale, but simply in the fact that most environmentalists don’t give a shit about the Mojave Desert.

The thing is, even if enviros don’t ground-truth their decisions about the Mojave Desert, the developers do, lest they sink their own metaphorical railroad ties in bogs. As a result, there are other, more useful maps of the areas proposed for solar development. Here’s a fragment of one, obtained from this site (hat tip to Larry Hogue):


That’s 1.3 square miles of the Ivanpah Valley, about a third of the planned Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. The developers hired someone to walk every square foot of their project site to note what would be displaced. Those little colored dots, which turn out to be numbers if you look closely, are tortoise-related sites. The brown and black numbers mark burrows or other sign. The green numbers are places where live tortoises were found by the surveyors. The red numbers mark the location of found carcasses. Four times as many carcasses as live torts seen, in part because dead tortoises aren’t as good at hiding as live ones, and in part because tortoises are dying off from a contagious respiratory infection and heightened predation and general habitat disruption.

By law, all live tortoises on a site to be developed must be relocated to intact habitat. The two dozen live tortoises found on the Ivanpah SEGS site will need to be moved uphill, toward Clark Mountain. There they’d rub elbows with a whole lot more tortoises relocated from the immediately adjacent Ivanpah Airport. One problem with tortoise relocation is that it spreads that respiratory disease. Another is that disoriented tortoises, relocated away from a territory they may have known for decades, are easy prey for coyotes, a fact that shut down the US Army’s relocation program at Fort Irwin last year. (The proposal for Ivanpah SEGS tortoise relocation uses the same target tortoise density as Fort Irwin’s plan.)

That’s just one of several threatened species on the site, and we’re only discussing one big solar thermal site in dozens proposed in the American desert. And yet any hesitation desert habitat advocates express to scraping away the soil, denuding habitat, and building massive industrial facilities to generate solar thermal power is criticized as obstructionist. Meanwhile, big hydroelectric, which also offers a theoretically carbon-neutral source of electrical power, is opposed by those same critics simply because it destroys habitat,  with neither hemming nor hawing about regrettable sacrifice and cost-benefit and dire emergencies and wheezing fourth-graders.

Which raises the question: why is a fish more valuable than a tortoise? Before we put our fingers on the map and say “there,” I’d like to hear an answer to that.

Yes We Can drill off the California coast?

Connect the dots.

From a San Francisco Chronicle article published yesterday, written by the estimable Jane Kay.

The context:

The federal government is taking steps that may open California’s fabled coast to oil drilling in as few as three years, an action that could place dozens of platforms off the Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt coasts, and raises the specter of spills, air pollution and increased ship traffic into San Francisco Bay.

The nut graf:

President-elect Barack Obama hasn’t said whether he would overturn President Bush’s lifting last summer of the ban on drilling, as gas prices reached a historic high. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Col., Obama’s pick as interior secretary and head of the nation’s ocean-drilling agency, hasn’t said what he would do in coastal waters.


In Congress earlier this year, Salazar, Obama’s nominee for interior secretary, supported a bipartisan bill allowing exploration and production 50 miles out from the southern Atlantic coast with state approval.

The reveal:

“We’ve been encouraged that the president-elect has chosen Sen. Salazar,” said Dan Naatz, vice president for federal resources with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a group with 5,000 members that drill 90 percent of the oil and natural gas wells in the United States. “He’s from the West, and he understands federal land policy, which is really key.”

The cliffhanger:

[Obama] reiterated his campaign position that he was open to the idea of offshore drilling if it was part of a comprehensive package, adding that he would turn over the question to his team.

Here’s the change.gov “Contact Us” page. Let them know what you think.

Ivanpah Solar Project

Left out of my discussion yesterday of the big solar thermal proposal for the Ivanpah Valley—because I didn’t find out about it until just now—was the fact that the site that would be bulldozed for construction of the Ivanpah Solar Generating Station is of significant botanical importance.

As James M. Andre, Director of the University of California’s Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, says in his article “Will We Know What We Lost?”, in the December 2008 issue of Desert Report:

The nearly 10,000-acre Ivanpah solar energy development project, located in San Bernardino County near the California-Nevada Border, is (at the time of this article) close to approval and implementation. Prior to project surveys at Ivanpah Valley, there existed no database or herbarium records of rare plants in the footprint of the project. Results of project surveys there, however, documented 11 CNPS-listed rare plant taxa, including 80% of the known California occurrences of Asclepias nyctaginifolia.

A previously unknown type of manzanita, for instance, was recently discovered growing on a ridge above Andre’s Desert Studies Center sitting there unnoticed despite the presence of generations of botanists working below. Andre points out that this sort of thing is likely to be the case on many desert sites slated for development, as the California desert’s flora is, quite frankly, poorly known:

There is a broad misconception among the public (and to some extent among scientists and land managers) that we have completed our floristic inventory of the California desert, and that the remaining hotbeds for botanical discovery are limited to places like Indonesia and the Brazilian Amazon. Yet the California desert is, in fact, one of the remaining floristic frontiers in the United States. Numerous mountain ranges (e.g. Turtles, Dead, and Avawatz Mountains) have fewer than 100 herbarium voucher records currently housed in herbaria. The vast majority of herbarium specimens from the desert region are recorded along paved roads. New, rare, and localized endemics continue to be discovered, noteworthy range extensions are still frequently reported, and distributional limits of common taxa are poorly established. Even in areas of high research focus, such as the University of California’s Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, a new manzanita species was found growing on a ridge overlooking the laboratories below. Clearly, the Jepson Desert Manual represents only a work in progress rather than the final word on floristic diversity and distribution in our desert.

Larry Hogue has been asking whether we’d clearcut forests to put up big solar installations. It’s a fair question! And when we consider the fact that the California desert would seem to be every bit as unexplored, botanically, as a tropical rainforest or coral reef, the question arises: should we even consider paving them to provide power for people who still use incandescent light bulbs, or whose “standby-powered” electronics annually waste the equivalent output of 18 typical electrical power generating stations?

My answer: hell no.

Put your computer and your microwave and your television on a power strip that you turn off or unplug, replace your incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs, and learn how to cope with room temperatures above 72 degrees without turning on the AC, and get your neighbors to do the same, and then, maybe, we can talk about installing some big solar-generating facilities, as long as we focus on appropriate places near population centers, like this project in California’s Central Valley.

Yes, like the President Elect said, it’s gotta be about more than changing a light bulb in your house: industry, transportation and commerce account for 78% of total US power consumption. A lot of the reason for inefficient energy use is structural, in both the building and societal senses. In the household, building codes should be amended to mandate a wall switch that turns off power to all but one wall outlet, so that “standby power” can be cut off at the source easily. (Just plug your clock into the live outlet.) The building materials market is ready to explode with new photovoltaic materials, from tinted windows to siding and sidewalks.

Paving the desert should be the absolute last resort.

689,910 Acres

The Bureau of Land Management reports that it has received applications for large solar electrical generating projects, around 80 of them, that would cover 689,910 acres of California, almost all of it in the desert.

689,910 acres is a big number, and it’s hard to put into perspective. Past a certain size, land area stats are a little hard to grasp. Two acres, the size of the piece of land my parents had when I was small, that’s an easier area to grasp, mentally: if it was all lawn, you could cover it with a walk-behind power mower, figuring a 12-inch wide swath mown at about three feet per second, in four hours or so.

At that speed, assuming you never took breaks to eat or sleep or stretch your lower back, if you started today you’d get 689,910 acres of lawn mowed sometime in June or July of 2165.

That’s still hard to imagine, and besides there is precious little lawn in the desert. How about comparing the 689,910 acres with familiar places of known area? 689,910 acres, about 1,078 square miles, is more than three times the size of New York City, the five-borough total of which runs to 309 square miles. Sprawling Los Angeles, at 465 square miles contained within its city limits, doesn’t even reach half the size of the pending desert solar projects. Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the second-largest state park in the US, covers approximately 600,000 acres. It is huge, but it covers less land area than these solar projects would.

Put it this way: if you bulldozed every bit of land in the city limits of both Phoenix and Houston—possibly a good idea in and of itself—then put all the pending California Desert solar projects on the land that had been occupied by those cities, you’d have just sixteen square miles left over, which I suppose you would need for employee parking.

Yesterday, in the course of a KCRW Interview featuring Coyote Crosser Larry Hogue, among others, it was pointed out that the staggering acreage covered by these proposals will likely be whittled down, that this is a bit of a land rush that has as much speculation at its root as energy policy planning. It was also pointed out that while current technology for big solar development involves grading the site, destroying all habitat thereon and essentially paving the land with mirrors, that we’ll likely be able, within the next couple years, to install massive photovoltaic fields where the only ground disturbance necessary is the pile-driving of supports for the panels. Oh, and driving the supply trucks and installation machinery from one pole to the next. And running cable between them. And maintaining maintenance access roads.

Paving the desert.

Take a look at this map the BLM provides of proposals in the California Desert. There’s a site hard up against the east border of the Mojave National Preserve: called the New York Mountains site, the red crosshatched area actually falls in the Lanfair Valley, a bit of extremely marginal ranchland and irreplaceable Joshua tree forest that was jerrymandered out of the Preserve boundaries before final passage of the California Desert Protection Act in 1994. It was excluded from the Preserve because locals raised a stink, fearing the Preserve management would forever change their way of life. Paving the Lanfair Valley with mirrors is apparently a less drastic change for the ranchers than just buying out the grazing rights, as the Preserve would have done.

Or look at the east end of the (789,745-acre) Joshua Tree National Park, at the mouth of that “little” notch in the Park boundary. That’s a valley that has had a few projects planned for it, including a gigantic garbage dump that would have been the final resting place for Los Angeles’ unrecycled aluminum cans and uncomposted disposable diapers. Now it’s contending with a giant solar project, in an area that—like the Lanfair Valley—should by rights now be protected in perpetuity.

A few days ago The Raven and I drove through Ward Valley, west of Needles. I told her how the valley had been the site of a proposed commercial nuclear waste dump, in which so-called “low-level” waste would have been buried in unlined trenches. The project was never approved, due to the efforts of the Mojave and Chemehuevi people and their allies like my friend Phil Klasky. There is now a solar project proposed for Ward Valley as well.

Just south and west of the spot where the city of Las Vegas wants to build a major international airport in the Ivanpah Valley, backers of the proposed Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System would build three heliostat towers, on which more than 3,000 acres of mirrors would concentrate the desert sun. Water heated in the focal points of the mirror arrays would drive turbines, which would generate a peak of 400 megawatts of electrical power. The installation would use up to a hundred acre-feet per year of groundwater. I have not yet been able to determine whether the site would cover some of the tortoise relocation area cited in planning documents for the Ivanpah Airport: at a minimum, tortoises would have to be relocated from both sites and put somewhere else, a process that has recently proven to be pretty much a death sentence for the tortoises.

All told, if the 80 solar installations in the California Desert are built, they’ll produce a peak of 54 gigawatts of electrical power. This would represent a doubling of California’s electrical generating capacity. It’s clear that these projects are not being proposed as part of a sensible energy strategy, with conserved “negawatts” at the forefront of the strategy. As the majority of current generating capacity in California is much closer to urban areas, these new sites would mean a significant additional loss of energy through transmission line inefficiency.

This assault on the desert is, plain and simple, intended to line the pockets of speculators looking to stake a claim in a burgeoning “green” energy field. Big solar may be a sensible idea in a few unusual locations, but in general it represents business as usual for the energy companies.

And the desert pays.

Vox Clamantis in Deserto

If the next President makes good on his promise to expand the use of nuclear power plants, the desert will pay.

The desert always pays.

Even if it’s the “safe nuclear power” that those of us in the extreme environmentalist community care about. When people talk about “safe nuclear power,” they’re talking about making one very short slice of the nuclear cycle safer: the part where the reactor is functioning. And you know what? I’m prepared to grant it might be possible to design a power-generating nuclear reactor that poses little risk to the environment in the course of normal operation. It certainly wouldn’t be hard to make them safer than the status quo, whether with pebble bed design or some other fourth-generation technology.

But the typical lifespan of a reactor is what, 20, 30 years? Let’s assume a hundred. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, a hundred years of safe power generation. That’s a thousandth of the nuclear fuel cycle at most. 

The nuclear waste has gotta go somewhere, and that somewhere will almost certainly be the desert. Yes, the amount of waste produced by current designs could be sharply reduced by new nuke plant designs, in theory. Even if they cut it down by a considerable percentage, like 95, it doesn’t matter. Considerably less waste times a justifiably frantic campaign to replace fossil fuels with “carbon-neutral” energy production times the foreseeable future is a very large amount of nuclear waste.

Even if the half-built federal high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain is never finished— and for his part, Obama has committed to killing the project, which I will be glad for when it actually gets killed and not a moment before — even if it is never finished, the desert will pay. Another site in the desert will be found, farther from the increasingly liberal burb of Las Vegas, where opposition to the dump is rock-solid — not because of the danger it poses to the desert, but because it’s only 90 miles away from the MGM Grand. Maybe an impoverished desert tribe will be willing to take on the high-level waste of the nation, the way the Skull Valley Goshute did their toxic waste dump, or the way the Torres Martinez band on the Salton Sea took LA’s sewage sludge on as landscaping material.

Or maybe Yucca Mountain will refuse to die. Harry Reid keeps vowing to kill it, and yet the project seems to stay alive.

The precise location may change, but it seems almost impossible that waste from these new “safe” nukes will end up somewhere other than the desert. Somewhere in the desert, anyway. Conservative Utah, or in Idaho’s Great Basin portion, or someplace in Nevada where the locals won’t kick up as much of a fuss. Probably not in Arizona: McCain supports Yucca Mountain, but squawked about shipping the waste to Yucca Mountain through Arizona. But in the desert.

The other end of the nuclear fuel cycle has affected the desert southwest as well. Uranium mining leaves radioactive mine tailings. The tailings aren’t nearly as radioactive on a pound-for-pound basis as spent fuel, or even as some low-level waste like contaminated moon suits and the like. But people don’t generally inhale moon suits. They do inhale the dust that blows off tailings piles, or for that matter off the equipment they operate in the mine.

Again, that “they” has turned out to be a Native “they” fairly often, whether “they” consist of mine workers, herders in mine country, or for that matter Dineh people affected by the spill of eleven million gallons of radioactive water into the Rio Puerco.

And it’s not just nuclear power for which the desert is asked to pay, as seen in the Sunrise Powerlink issue. I was amused to read a recent Washington Post essay in which science fiction writer Ben Bova advocated a new energy future based on orbiting solar collectors miles in diameter. (Space: the ultimate desert. No one to speak of lives there at the moment, the sun shines non-stop, and, like its equivalent on the surface, it’s littered with discarded junk.) Of course, for the project to have some utility to those of us on the surface, all the energy that gets solarcollected up there would have to get down here somehow, and this would be accomplished by way of a focused beam of microwaves a mile or so across aimed at the Earth’s surface. A miles-wide collector array on the ground would turn the microwaves back into electric power and feed it into the grid.

Three guesses where Bova suggests putting the collectors.

The skies over Laughlin, Nevada, not far from where I sit right now, once turned chocolate-colored on odd days. A power plant was responsible, fueled by coal mined from Black Mesa a couple hundred miles east in Navajo-Hopi country. The coal was shipped by way of slurry line: millions of gallons of the Navajo aquifer was mixed with ground coal into a toxic sludge that was piped across Arizona to Laughlin. The aquifer receded. Desert springs went dry and deep-rooted plants died, and of course there was the little matter of the strip mine on Black Mesa, and the social crisis spurred by relocating people away from the mine.

The Laughlin plant lies dormant now, closed by environmental and native rights lawsuits, waiting for an initiative like “clean coal” to give its single giant pink stack an excuse to smoke again.

The desert would pay for clean coal. Acid from clean coal would emerge from the stack at Laughlin, eat away at the millennia-old petroglyphs uphill at Avikwame.

The grand planners can make the desert pay because on the whole, the desert lacks a voice. The vox clamantis in desierto, the voice crying in the wilderness (and please note that John the Baptist’s “wilderness” referred to in John 1:23 was indeed a desert) is an archetypal synonym for “Cassandra”: a voice heard but unheeded. Despite the existence of a burgeoning group of desert fanciers who’ve gotten to know these delicate lands, people, in the main, simply could not care less about the desert. It’s unpopulated, mostly, and that’s what matters. The desert is not someplace people imagine being for more than the five or seven hours it takes to get to the Luxor. Otherwise, it’s sterile, empty, vacant land, a place where you can do things like put your city’s garbage in a valley next to a National Park (c.f. the proposed Eagle Mountain dump tucked into a pocket in Joshua Tree National Park) or dump your low-level nuclear waste, some of which is highly radioactive despite the innocuous-sounding descriptor, in unlined trenches and then forget where those trenches are (as US Ecology did in Beatty, NV and tried to do in Ward Valley, California).

Even David Brower, the icon of 20th Century environmental activism, traded off a few hundred square miles of desert wilderness as part of a grand plan, agreeing not to oppose a dam in the “place no one knew” in exchange for saving a better-known canyon in Colorado. Dave at least regretted it later, and spent his life trying to find a way to undo the damage. But the Glen Canyon Dam still maintains its tenuous grip on the canyon walls, and the Grand Canyon ecosystem still declines while the Bureau of Reclamation sells electricity to Phoenix. Tourists speed nervously across miles of brilliant Triassic sandstone to plunk their houseboats into the sewage lagoon behind the dam named, in a fit of insulting hubris, for a man who strove to make the desert known to his fellow citizens.

No one knew Glen Canyon and so it was a fitting place to plug up with a cash register dam, to fill it with slackwater so that the BoR could raise money for other projects elsewhere.

Have a useless, dangerous, massive or ugly project you want to put somewhere? The desert is the ultimate vacant lot. Unused land. Empty space. A cipher, and not in the sense of “a thing whose mysteries deserve to be fathomed” but in the sense of “zero.” Even nuking it would be fair use. If you were to look for an image that encapsulates this society’s relationship with the desert, it would be hard to find a more iconic and resonant one than this:

Shot Fizeau

That’s “Shot Fizeau,” an eleven kiloton nuclear “device” set off at the Nevada Test Site on September 14, 1957.

Maybe I’m biased, given my particular botanical-arboreal affections, but when I look at that image the word “uninhabited” does not exactly spring readily into my waking mind. “Deserted,” maybe. I know I’d desert it in a hurry if I saw that cloud, not that the k-rats had that option. Desolate? Useless? Empty? None of those. Aside from the alpha particles and the need for SPF 3E+12 sun block, it looks like home to me.

But that is how the desert is seen by the majority: mostly devoid of people and therefore of little value, and therefore the rightful place for storage of the toxic leavings of industrial society, be those leavings waste from nuclear reactors, or fallout from generations-old atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, or weapons tests and training of the non-nuclear variety, or a metropolis’ trash, or violent ORV-riding lumpenproletarians. It’s a blank slate that seems to compel scrawling.

A few months ago, when the break with my marriage was even more fresh and my future even less certain than it is now, when I was homeless and living out of a suitcase in my Jeep, I walked out into the middle of the Ivanpah Valley at dusk until the red neon of Primm was a blur two miles distant. Powerlines hummed overhead, and the Interstate was a distant roar, but otherwise it was quiet: the wind had calmed and the crickets fallen asleep. I sat down for a while among the creosote, not sure what to do next or whether there even was anything to do next.

At some point I realized the creosote felt familiar and comfortable. An odd sensation: I haven’t spent all that much time in the creosote flats of the Mojave, aside from driving through them to get to the uplands. But it suddenly felt just as much like home as the Joshua trees and blackbrush. That feeling hasn’t gone away, these last months living in Nipton, creosote country at 3,000 feet. Creosote has been home since that night in May. Before, I didn’t worry much about commercial development displacing swaths of cresosote: the stuff is as common as dirt. It’s still common, but I wince now when I see a bulldozer uproot it.

I wonder sometimes whether that unfamiliarity with the desert, that alienation that fuels the lie of the blank slate desert, could be cured with a little sitting. If you could bring them out here, the engineers and the bureaucrats who determine the fate of entire swathes of desert, the offroaders who insulate themselves from the desert they trample with noise and speed and dust and armor, the planners of airports and the reckless drivers desperate to get to the casino bar, if you could bring them out here and park them in the outback with a cushion and a bottle of water and just ask them to sit, would they feel a change growing in them? Would familiarity breed contentment with the desert as it is, and reduce the need to scrawl venom across its face?

And then I shake myself awake. I remember the seemingly endless human capacity for maintenance and repair of that shell of apathy that protects most of us from actual engagement with the world. I remember that each surveyor, each backhoe operator, each off-road vandal and petroglyph defacer will claim to love the desert. I remember the old Gary Larson cartoon with the two loggers eating lunch in a sea of stumps, one saying that he could never work in an office because he loves spending the day in the woods.

Men will follow bighorn rams quietly, sometimes for days, observing them and learning the subtleties of their behavior, claim to reach new heights of respect for their majesty and grace, and then they will shoot them.

The temptation is to give in to despair, to see the mound of shattered beer bottles thrown in the face of the thousand-year-old desert pavement intaglio of Mastamho along the Colorado River near Blythe and decide that there are in fact two species of human, Homo sapiens and Homo phobiens, the latter characterized by its pathological, chronic fear and resentment of anything it does not understand. (The distinguishing feature of a species is reproductive isolation, and be honest: would you fuck ‘em?)

But to give in to that despair is to accept that spurious species division and then choose the wrong side. For every hundred people who find the flimsiest pretext to defend their ossified and cracking world view, there will be one or two who emerge from the shell a little dazed and gaping at the new bright light. I’ve done it myself once or twice, though not as often as I ought.

An hour after The Raven and I met that Mojave green rattlesnake, a woman in nearby Searchlight heard the story and asked if we’d killed it. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that that was an option. The snake was a neighbor and was merely suggesting we stay off its lawn. It had been a privilege to meet that snake. Ed Abbey famously described his “humanism” as consisting of the fact that he’d “sooner kill a man than a snake,” and while I don’t completely agree with the first half I related the quote to the woman anyway. She laughed and promised to use the line.

You do find enough people like her, willing to be flexible in their thinking, enough people willing to notice the Joshua trees in front of the mushroom cloud, to keep hope’s pilot lit. They make up, a little, for those who reflexively dismiss protecting the desert as an extremist pursuit.

They make the despair a little less tempting. But only a little.

If the next President makes good on his promise to expand the use of nuclear power plants, the desert will pay. The desert always pays. The President may nod and look concerned and express regret over this sad but necessary sacrifice of the Amargosa River basin near Yucca Mountain, or he may regretfully spearhead some other dump elsewhere in the desert to open in 25 years, or he may express no regret at all and talk about technological enterprise triumphing over adversity. And then he will leave office and a new President will come into power, and years and generations will pass, and the United States will first cease to exist, then pass out of memory altogether. The world’s climate will shift. Rain will reach the desert again, the way it did when people first lived here, and the Amargosa River will run fresh and sweet year-round.

And the people who live there, or whatever comes after people are gone, will know that the sweetness of the water belies a crippling illness swiftly visited on those who drink it, and they may attribute that illness to some malevolent entity, some sort of evil force that considers their welfare unimportant.

And they won’t be wrong.

Stop the Sunrise Powerlink: Call Now

I want you to pick up your phone today and call California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at (916) 445-2841. You may be on hold for a few minutes after you choose the voice mail option for “express your opinion on a hot issue.” You’ll talk to a human being after a short wait. Tell that human being that the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line routes now proposed for Imperial and San Diego counties are

1) destructive of desert wilderness in Anza Borrego State Park and nearby wildlands;

2) dangerous, given that the lines are expected to spark catastrophic wildfires in the backcountry every 15 years or so, and;

3) unnecessary, given that rooftop solar is a cheaper and more reliable way of providing southern California with electrical power.

You can also, if you choose, point out that Arnold has a good record on environmental issues (which, I am pained to report, he really does, for a Republican) and that he has a chance to keep that record intact here.

If you don’t want to use the phone, the DesertBlog has email links for you with pre-formatted messages. They also have links to more info.

Here’s the background.

Sunrise Powerlink is a project of Sempra Energy, a San Diego-based natural gas company and an indicted co-conspirator in the Enron-era gaming of California’s electricity markets. Sempra is owner of San Diego Gas and Electric company. One of the less-noticed aspects of the deliberate energy shortage in California in 2000-2001 was Sempra’s development of a power generating infrastructure in Baja California, centered on building gigantic Liquid Natural Gas (LNG)-fueled generating stations. An LNG terminal was finished this year in Costa Azul. The LNG is pumped out of the ground in Indonesia, chilled to cryogenic temperatures, then shipped on tankers to Costa Azul, where it is warmed back into a gas and piped to generating stations in the border town of Mexicali, Baja’s largest city.

A side note: aside from being yet another way of burning fossil fuels, LNG facilities and the ships that supply them are quite dangerous. LNG is highly explosive. An LNG tanker, or a pipeline or storage tank, presents a vulnerable target of opportunity for terrorism. A rocket-propelled grenade hit on an LNG tanker in a harbor could rival the World Trade Center attack in levels of carnage. This is one reason Sempra built the Costa Azul terminal in expendable Mexico rather than, say, Long Beach.

In order to get the electrical power from Baja to San Diego, Sempra/SDG&E says it needs new transmission lines from Mexicali to the coast. This makes a limited amount of sense only if we ignore certain tech developments I’ll get to in a minute, and if we also ignore the burgeoning respiratory ailments among kids in Baja that will be excacerbated by burning LNG under Mexico’s lax emissions standards, and if we further ignore that whole global warming issue, about which Sempra’s CEO Don Felsinger is on record as being in that abject flat-out denial typical of energy company CEOs.

And given California mandates to support new, carbon-neutral power generation, Sempra’s stated plan to hook the east end of the Sunrise Powerlink into geothermal, wind, and solar farms in the Imperial Valley’s desert could lead one to decide, after a superficial review, that new powerlines could make sense. Were you to decide that — wrongly, as we’ll see in a bit — there’s a transmission line corridor already in place that Sempra could use along Interstate 8, the route used by the existing Southwest Powerlink transmission lines, at present San Diego’s sole link to California’s grid, an Achilles heel that was the subject of much discussion during the fake power crisis of 2000-2001.

But instead, Sempra wants to run the Sunrise Powerlink through remote bighorn sheep habitat in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, bringing heavy construction equipment in to build towers and right-of-way roads and bringing latrines and noise and diesel exhaust into wilderness. It would be the first time wildland in California is removed from wilderness designation for a private industrial project. It would be devastating to Anza Borrego’s bighorn, whose habitat in California’s part of the Sonoran Desert is already fragmented to hell and back.

Perhaps worse, though SDG&E employees have lied about it in public testimony, the transmission towers are expected to spark huge wildfires in the chaparral west of the desert at least once every 15 years. Last year’s catastrophic Witch Fire, that burned from the outback nearly to the ocean, was caused by an arcing SDG&E transmission line.

And some people estimate that the fuel needed to build the line through remote desert and chaparral would more than offset any carbon conserved by the “green power” farms in the Imperial Valley, even if wildfires don’t release wild carbon on a regular basis.

The proposed Sunrise Powerlink alignment makes so little economic or ecological sense that its Environmental Impact Statement identifies six or seven preferable alternatives, with “don’t build it at all” leading the list.

So why does Sempra want to push a transmission corridor through Anza Borrego? Because the slightly economically preferable, somewhat more environmentally sound alignment along Interstate 8 is too far south for Sempra to hook in to Southern California Edison’s distribution grid, which would allow Sempra to sell electricity to Los Angeles. Sempra and SDG&E downplay these plans, but staffers have privately admitted that a substation along the proposed route exists to hook into LA’s grid.

Publicly, however, Sempra and SDG&E cast their project as a way of keeping San Diego’s lights on with “green energy” from the Imperial Valley.

This is where that tech development I referred to earlier becomes relevant to the argument. It used to be argued that the only cost-effective solar electric generation came from gigantic industrial facilities in the desert, mirrors focusing the desert sun on fluid which, thus heated, runs turbines. Photovoltaics, the kind of solar panels that convert light directly to electricity with no moving parts, were just too expensive for widespread use, it was said, and were practical only for very remote areas, affluent environmentalist homeowners wanting to make a point, and novelty gadgets.

But if that was ever true, it’s changed. In the last few months the cost of thin-film photovoltaics has dropped by half. Southern California Edison announced this year that it was going to spend $875 million to install rooftop thin-film solar panels on commercial buildings in Los Angeles, and that this would generate enough power to supply 162,000 private homes.

Do the math. That’s a wholesale cost of $5,401.25 per household, well within the amortization range of many property owners even if you don’t expect any government or utility company rebates. (Payments on a $5,500 5-year loan at 6% fixed interest would be $106 a month. How much is your electric bill?)

San Diego is even sunnier than Los Angeles, so the power generated per dollar spent would likely be a bit higher. Local generation means less reliance on fragile distribution lines, less energy lost in transmission, and a generally more robust power generating infrastructure, making not only the northern alignment of the Sunrise Powerlink utterly unnecessary but also obviating any need even for the southern route, for the LNG terminals and polluting turbines in Mexicali’s poor neighborhoods, or for Don Felsinger’s executive compensation. A good outcome all around.

And in fact, there’s something called the “San Diego Smart Energy 2020” plan, based on rooftop solar and local generation and efficiency, that would reduce San Diego’s carbon footprint significantly more than the greenwashed Sunrise Powerlink would at best.

So why call Schwarzenegger today? Because the Final EIR for the Sunrise Powerlink is out, and SDG&E is mobilizing supporters to call the Governor’s office, and because Arnold has some historic campaign funding ties to Sempra that are complex enough to cause Federal Election Commission investigators to scratch their heads, so he may well be leaning in a pro-Sempra direction. The more people like us he hears from, the easier it will be for him to do the right thing. California voters’ input is especially important, but we all know Arnold’s paying attention to the rest of the country as well.

I’ve made my call already. (916) 445-2841. Or see here for email links. Your message is important. Please spread the word by linking to this post or DesertBlog, or both: blog posts, Twitter, email, whatever. The bighorn thank you.