The Energy Transition and Public Lands: Part IV
Living off the grid works, but requires a big energy rethink
An announcement: Woah. What?! This dispatch marks the one-year anniversary of the Land Desk’s launch. That’s right, the Land Desk is now a one-year-old. Over the last 12 months we’ve posted nearly 150 dispatches on myriad topics relating to the lands, communities, and cultures of the Western U.S., and will continue to do the same over the next 12 months. Your support has made it all possible and I hope you’ll continue to be part of the Land Desk community as we continue to grow and branch out in various directions.
From our vantage point—in a car speeding through the Mojave Desert just after we’d passed the “World’s Largest Chevron. 96 Pumps! 60 Restrooms!”—it looked like a control tower for a space alien landing zone: A glowing cylindrical orb perched atop a 500-foot pillar, surrounded by what appeared to be hundreds of thousands of worshippers, all turned toward the orb as if it were a god. The acolytes would turn out to be Ivanpah Solar Power Station’s heliostats—173,500 of them, each comprised of two mirrors— reflecting sunlight into three orbs, where steam is heated to 550 degrees Celsius to turn turbines to generate enough electricity to power more than 400,000 homes without emitting greenhouse gases1, harmful particulates, or brain-damaging mercury.
It truly was a stunning sight to behold. My daughter, wife, and I were on our way from Colorado to my father-in-law’s home in Southern California on a cloudless day in early January when we saw Ivanpah’s eerie orbs juxtaposed against the spare mountains along the California-Nevada line. We had already passed a dozen or so utility-scale solar installations (of the photovoltaic, not concentrating solar, kind). Most were on public land. A 250-megawatt installation on Moapa Southern Paiute land replaced the now defunct Reid Gardner coal power plant, which churned out health-harming and climate-warming pollutants for half a century. I couldn’t help but marvel at the technology and even the aesthetics—the sun’s glint off the shiny, geometrically exact pools of black amid the mesquite and gangly Joshua trees possesses its own sort of beauty.
But the desert pays a toll for technology. Ivanpah kills anywhere from 3,500 to 6,000 to 28,000 birds each year, depending on who’s counting. Birds collide with heliostats and are immolated when they fly through the concentrated beam of sunlight, which can reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Ivanpah and most of the other installations we saw that day were constructed in desert tortoise habitat that had been scraped clean of countless trees, bushes, and other vegetation, before the panels could be installed.
It surely must be worth it, I thought. After all, every megawatt-hour produced by the solar plants would offset the same amount of fossil fuel-fired generation and the attendant greenhouse gas emissions, thereby decreasing the chances that climate change—and its impacts—will grow more severe.