Solar energy development in California is largely driven by artificial state mandates that now have utilities increasing their use of expensive renewable energy.
It's a dubious legacy of a state government that can't maintain its highways or keep felons in prison but can arrogantly assign itself the responsibility of curing “climate change” by destroying its citizens' economy.
The tools to fast-track this renewable energy development include preferential regulatory treatment by federal and state agencies along with government “stimulus” incentives, tax breaks and loan-guarantee subsidies.
The costs of all of this will be fully realized when the electric bills come due in the near future. That indicates that this is hardly being driven by economics, but rather by politics. And the politics of saving the planet derive from the same movement that ostensibly tries to protect the environment from the impacts of development.
However, this new, well-connected renewable energy development sector – in the form of unionized large-scale solar energy generation projects on California's federal desert lands – has elbowed its way ahead of all other types of development, including mining, which actually produces things people need.
This is one of several attempts to grab more desert away from average Californians. The U.S. Marine Corps is proposing to take over a majority of the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle recreation area to add to its sprawling Twentynine Palms training base. Eight-hundred-thousand people a year visit Johnson Valley – as many as 40,000 in a single weekend.
As a former Marine who served in a desert war, I certainly want the Marines to have the land they need to realistically train. But I also believe that if they don't have enough room on their current base, they could simply apply for BLM permits for periodic training exercises on the nearby lands as is done in other parts of the country with no problems.
At the same time, Senator Dianne Feinstein is proposing a second so-called “Desert Protection Act” that would take 1.6 million additional acres of BLM land out of potential development, including mining exploration, by designating two new “National Monuments”, one adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve (which was created by the 1994 Act, taking 1.5 million acres out of BLM multiple use in addition to 800,000 acres out of private ownership), and one adjacent to the Joshua Tree National Park.
These proposals sound harmless, but what most people don't realize is that just about every square inch of the desert is spoken for, either for military use, national parks, wilderness and special conservation areas, Indian reservations and other types of land management. Half of the lands under BLM management, the supposed “multiple use” agency, are protected under wilderness or special conservation area restrictions.
Projects that would disturb or destroy habitat, say, of the desert tortoise, must make up for that loss by purchasing private habitat at ratios of usually at least three acres for every one acre disturbed. At that rate, even in the nation's largest county - San Bernardino – just three solar projects on federal land will require an unacceptable amount of private land acquisition - 22,000 acres, or roughly 34 square miles. And that land will come off of the county's tax rolls. We will literally run out of mitigation land after a handful of projects.
The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires that 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy be generated on public lands in the west. To meet California's mandate of having 33 percent of our energy come from “renewable” sources, it requires more than 20,000 megawatts of production and they are looking mainly to public lands.
If we approved that much solar, the result would be a regulatory lockdown on the rest of the desert by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Department of Fish and Game.
And we still wouldn't be making a dent in the problem these projects purport to solve. California has the ninth largest economy in the world (and falling) but we generate less than 1.5 percent of the world's so-called greenhouse gases. If we slash emissions by half, we've reduced global emissions by a scant three-quarters of a percentage point.
I do support accommodating our fair share of renewable energy as part of a portfolio of economic land uses. More than $5 billion is currently being spent in San Bernardino County on projects and there is some economic benefit there. That benefit would increase if we were to direct those projects to private lands, where they can have more positive economic benefits and less environmental impact.
For projects on public land, we must stop the unsustainable private-land acquisition requirements in favor of scientifically supportable efforts to effectively recover species on existing federal land. Head-starting (raising juvenile tortoises until their shells can withstand predator attacks), which is successfully used by the military, should be allowed for other types of land management.
Aggressive predator control to protect tortoises from ravens and coyotes would also be more effective than simply putting land off limits. They have been doing that for 20 years and the tortoise is still going extinct.
These public lands have long supported a range of beneficial uses. Let's not destroy the desert, or our ability to use and enjoy it, in the name of saving the planet. All we'll get in return is a world and a way of life less worth saving.
Brad Mitzelfelt is vice-chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and is a Member of the Public Lands Committee of the National Association of Counties.