WASHINGTON (AP) - California’s Mojave Desert may seem ideally suited for solar energy production, but concern over what several proposed projects might do to the aesthetics of the region and its tortoise population is setting up a potential clash between conservationists and companies seeking to develop renewable energy.Nineteen companies have submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 desert acres, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Friday such development would violate the spirit of what conservationists had intended when they donated much of the land to the public.
Feinstein said Friday she intends to push legislation that would turn the land into a national monument, which would allow for existing uses to continue while preventing future development.
You knew it had to happen, didn’t you? Somebody finally took notice of those plans being made for those gargantuan solar and wind installations and started considering their environmental aspects.
In January 2008, three solar scientists made a proposal in Scientific American that America produce all its electricity in the year 2050 by covering a mere 46,000 square miles of Arizona with a solar collectors. That’s one-third of Arizona, which is the fifth largest state.
Al Gore testified before Congress in February that we could do it on only 10,000 square miles - “a square one hundred miles on each side” - and accomplish this in the next ten years. He’s basing this on the claims of Cogentrix, a North Carolina company that just acquired the 20-year-old SEGS (Solar Energy Generating System) facilities in California.
Both these systems do not include energy storage, which could take up an equal amount of space. They also assume a complete reconstruction of the national transmission grid to 765 kilovolts so that all this electricity can be ferried around the country.
Yet nobody ever bothered to ask the question, “Where are we going to get 10,000 square miles of desert to do all this?” The assumption - much like that of the early American pioneers - is that there are vast tracts of land somewhere out there in the West waiting to be put to our use. Has anybody ever heard the term “environmental impact?” Is it conceivable that you can mark off 10,000 square miles on the map and not come across some endangered species in there?
Here’s another consideration. One of the biggest problems with solar mirrors and photovoltaic panels is they get covered with dust and grim and lose much of their effectiveness. They have to be washed off at least once a month. Where, in the middle of the desert, does anyone expect to find enough water to wash down 10,000 square miles of solar collectors one a month?
All of a sudden, nuclear energy is starting to look awfully good. Its principle advantage is its amazing energy density. The energy release from the uranium atom is 2 million times what you get from breaking a carbon-hydrogen bond in coal. And fossil fuels themselves have about 50 times the density of solar energy. That’s why the electricity generated from 75 square miles of solar collectors can be equaled by a mile-square coal or nuclear plant.
You can’t argue with physics. All of this is going to start playing a part in our energy discussions before long.