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Solar Plan Ignites Some Environmental Concerns

Sierra SunTower, a new solar facility in Lancaster, Calif., generates electri...

Credit: Courtesy of eSolar

Above: Sierra SunTower, a new solar facility in Lancaster, Calif., generates electricity for Southern California Edison. It was activated in August.

An Obama administration plan to build huge new solar energy plants in the Southwest is causing heartburn in the environmental community.

The Interior Department has proposed allowing two dozen solar energy study areas on public land in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. These would be industrial facilities that would require huge amounts of land and water to operate. They wouldn't allow room for other uses on the land such as recreation.

While conservation groups generally support the president's campaign for more renewable forms of energy, some local groups are concerned about putting industrial-scale solar projects on public land.

In the Southwest, the U.S. government is the largest landowner by far — in Nevada, it owns 85 percent of the state. The Southwest also is one of the best regions in the world for producing energy from the sun. So, it might seem like a no-brainer to build more solar in the unpopulated desert. But Terry Weiner of the Desert Protective Council in San Diego opposes it.

"It doesn't make any sense to slap up big industrial projects hundreds of miles from where the energy's going to be used," Weiner says.

She says she understands the climate change arguments for getting more of the country's energy from renewable sources. But she says these projects could displace endangered species, such as the desert tortoise.

"You're destroying habitat and creatures to save the planet?" Weiner says.

Around the Southwest, local groups like the Desert Protective Council have similar concerns. But national environmental groups have a slightly different point of view.

"All of our energy has to come from somewhere," says Alex Daue, renewable energy coordinator for the Wilderness Society. "I would rather not see a single additional industrial development on the land. But if we don't develop renewables, we're just going to have more mountaintop coal mining removal or additional drilling in the Rockies."

Daue says his group also is concerned about losing the benefits of recreation and habitat for plants and animals. But he says the effects of climate change have a significant affect on public lands and endangered species, too.

The Wilderness Society has pushed the Interior Department to choose properties that already are degraded in some way by past industrial activity or farming, for example. And they've encouraged the department to select parcels that are close to existing transmission lines so new ones won't have to be built.

Daue echoes arguments made by the solar energy industry that rooftop panels alone aren't enough to supply the country's energy needs.

"The bare-bones fact is that we have a centralized electricity infrastructure in this country," says Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association. He says that to replace existing coal-powered energy facilities, the country will need industrial-scale solar-powered ones in addition to things like rooftop solar panels.

Resch is frustrated by criticism from within the environmental community, because his industry wants only 670,000 acres of public land for the solar energy study areas.

"When you look at the oil and gas industry today, they have over 44.5 million acres of public land under lease," says Resch. "So you're looking at maybe 2 percent of all the oil and gas lands that are currently leased are being evaluated and considered for solar."

Of course, after the government evaluates the environmental effects of the solar facilities, the number of acres dedicated to them could grow substantially. And that's what really worries local environmental groups concerned about losing special places for recreation and habitat for endangered species.

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