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Can solar farms and wild places coexist in the American West?

My first impression of the Desert Sunlight solar farm was that it was staggeringly big.

I visited the sprawling facility — which spans six square miles, north of Interstate 10 between Palm Springs and Phoenix — six years ago this summer. It was still under construction, but already the panels seemed to stretch into the horizon, sleek dark surfaces reflecting an expansive blue sky and massive puffy clouds. Mountains ringed the area.

I learned later Desert Sunlight was the world’s largest solar farm by power capacity, although that record was quickly broken.

Here’s a picture from my visit:

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Desert Sunlight solar farm
I toured the under-construction Desert Sunlight solar farm, in California’s Riverside County, on Aug. 20, 2014.
(Sammy Roth / Los Angeles Times)

The next day, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent to sue two federal agencies, arguing they had failed to protect the endangered Yuma clapper rail, a bird found in freshwater marshes. Two Yuma clapper rails had been found dead at Southern California solar farms, including Desert Sunlight. Conservationists speculated that a “lake effect” may have caused the birds to mistake the sprawling solar farms for bodies of water.

So here was a huge clean energy project that would reduce climate pollution — and some environmentalists had concerns.

And it was all happening on public lands — treasured spaces that are now being fought over more fiercely than ever.

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The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank whose leadership includes several former Obama administration officials, released a report last week faulting the Trump administration for tripping over itself to approve oil and gas drilling while stifling renewable energy development. The report noted that federal agencies have approved eight solar and wind farms on public lands and waters since President Trump took office, compared to 15 by the same point in President Obama’s first term.

The center also said Trump’s Bureau of Land Management — which manages roughly one-tenth of the nation’s land acres, mostly in the West — has “failed to hold a single competitive lease sale on public lands for wind and solar energy development.”

In practice, President Trump’s “all of the above” energy policy has mostly meant “all of the fossil fuels.” Which maybe isn’t a surprise given that Bureau of Land Management acting director William Perry Pendley is one of many administration officials who has rejected climate change science. (Trump formally nominated Pendley to lead the agency this week.)

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“At a time when the nation’s leaders should be working to address climate change and rebuild a just economy that will serve all families, the Trump administration has, instead, actively undermined progress of solar and wind energy development,” the Center for American Progress concluded.

A federal Interior Department spokesman sent me an emailed statement calling the center’s report “another fundraising effort by an extremist, special interest organization,” and saying the Trump administration “supports all-of-the-above energy approach which strengthens American energy security, supports American job creation, and strengthens America’s energy infrastructure.”

It’s worth noting that while Obama’s appointees did a lot more to get renewable energy built than Trump’s have, they definitely exaggerated their track record.

The center’s report cited the Obama administration’s oft-repeated claim that it approved 60 solar, wind and geothermal facilities on public lands, collectively capable of powering up to 5 million homes. I dug into those numbers in 2016 and found that just half of the 60 projects were operating or under construction at the time. Several had been canceled and many were downsized. (Also, two were actually approved by the Bush administration.)

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Sally Jewell speaks at wind farm
Sally Jewell, who served as Interior secretary during the Obama administration, speaks at a Palm Springs-area wind farm on Sept. 23, 2014.
(Los Angeles Times)

Looking forward, there’s a growing chorus of voices calling for more renewable energy on public lands. I wrote this week about the idea of building long-distance transmission lines to move clean energy from the sunniest and windiest parts of the country to the places that use the most energy.

But here’s the tricky part: Not all clean energy facilities are created equal.

There’s a fine line between using America’s public lands for energy projects that can help address the climate crisis, and needlessly disturbing pristine lands that provide habitat for wildlife, spiritual value for Indigenous peoples and solace for hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Almost anywhere in the West that a developer wants to build a solar or wind farm, someone will object. Depending on the location, maybe many someones.

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There’s also a climate argument for keeping wild places wild.

Public lands remove enormous amounts of heat-trapping gas from the atmosphere, through forests, wetlands and grasslands that absorb and store carbon — but only if those ecosystems aren’t cut down or paved over. Public lands also allow plants and animals to seek out cooler habitats as the planet warms — but only if the paths they must travel aren’t blocked by homes or infrastructure.

A sweeping climate plan unveiled by House Democrats this week highlights those benefits. It recommends protecting at least 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 — the so-called “30 by 30" concept that I wrote about in May.

“By expanding protections for America’s lands, waters, and ocean, the U.S. government can reverse decades of deforestation, bolster the capacity of nature to capture and sequester carbon, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the plan reads.

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House Democrats’ climate roadmap also calls for more renewable energy facilities on public lands, and more transmission lines. Again, there’s a tension here. Nuance is required.

Nuance was the idea behind the Obama-era Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a state-federal effort that took eight years to complete and protected millions of acres of public lands in California, while setting aside smaller areas for clean energy. The idea was to resolve the land-use conflicts up front. But the Trump administration threw a wrench in the works in 2018, saying it would consider changes to the plan. (So far, no changes have been announced.)

There’s also lots of potential for building renewable power plants away from untrammeled public lands.

In California, developers are building solar projects on former farmland as water constraints push some agricultural operations to scale back, a trend I wrote about last year. The developer First Solar finished construction last year on a sprawling solar field in the middle of a working cattle ranch in California’s Monterey County.

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Cattle graze outside California Flats solar farm
Cattle graze outside the California Flats solar facility built by First Solar in Monterey County.
(Courtesy of Laura Abram / First Solar)

Today the Desert Sunlight solar farm — the one I visited six years ago — generates climate-friendly electricity for customers of Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric. The Center for Biological Diversity never followed through on its threat to sue, with staff scientist Ileene Anderson telling me federal officials “got a lot more serious about having companies monitor for the Yuma clapper rail as well as other birds, and put in safeguards to try to prevent mortalities.”

Again, nuance is required. The Audubon Society says solar power is good for birds on the whole, because it can lessen the impacts of global warming. Audubon also “supports properly sited wind power as a renewable energy source that helps reduce the threats posed to birds and people by climate change.”

Something to remember the next time President Trump starts talking about how wind power “kills all your birds.”

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And now, here’s what else is happening around the West:

TOP STORIES

Remember the disastrous gas leak at Aliso Canyon? When I reported a few weeks ago that Southern California Gas had ramped up use of the Los Angeles-area storage field, the company told me the facility is now one of the safest in the state, if not the nation. Well, turns out SoCalGas was simultaneously trying to get state officials to delay required safety testing, as I reported this week.

Hardly anybody likes looking at power lines. But as I mentioned earlier, I wrote a story this week exploring how building more long-distance transmission would make it easier to replace fossil fuels with solar and wind power, potentially creating lots of clean energy jobs in the process. There are definitely challenges — power lines can do environmental damage when sited across undisturbed landscapes, as can the big solar and wind farms they’re built to serve. I unpacked the pros and cons in the story.

The climate plan released by House Democrats this week prominently features California. As Hayley Smith reports for The Times, the plan lauds California’s 100% clean energy law as a model, calls for offshore oil and gas leases to be prohibited in West Coast waters and cites the Golden State as a case study for negative climate impacts. Vox’s David Roberts describes the 547-page document as “the most detailed and well-thought-out plan for addressing climate change that has ever been a part of US politics.”

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Beachgoers take to the water at San Clemente Pier
Beachgoers take to the water at San Clemente Pier on June 30.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County beaches will be closed this weekend as COVID-19 infections surge. Please do not go to the beach even if the water is cleaner than in past years. You can learn more in my colleague Rosanna Xia’s story about Heal the Bay’s annual pollution report card, which gave high marks on water quality to 92% of the state’s beaches.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

California is mandating a huge increase in zero-emission trucks, which could help reduce pollution breathed by people of color and low-income families in “diesel death zones.” As Russ Mitchell reports for The Times, a first-in-the-nation regulation is meant to result in 100,000 zero-emission trucks — most of which are expected to be electric — sold in the state by 2030, with the number increasing to 300,000 by 2035. Transportation is also California’s biggest source of planet-warming emissions.

Bike ridership has soared since the pandemic began. But will it last as driving picks back up? Susanne Rust tries to answer that question in this piece for The Times, looking at factors including the rise of “slow streets” policies to limit car traffic and encourage bicycling and walking. Biking, of course, is great exercise and doesn’t generate pollution or climate emissions.

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How is Los Angeles County spending its transit dollars? Turns out the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is paying $650 million over five years for policing — and activists say the money would be better spent on steps to make buses and light rail more accessible, including free fares and more frequent service, as my colleague Laura J. Nelson reports. Some reforms are coming.

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ON OUR PUBLIC LANDS

President Trump is heading to Mount Rushmore for a no-masks-required July 4 weekend event. Experts are worried not only about the coronavirus, but about the planned fireworks igniting forest fires, as the Washington Post reports. Indigenous leaders, meanwhile, are calling attention to the fact that Mount Rushmore was carved on land returned to Native Americans through treaty and later taken back by the U.S. — a seizure the Supreme Court ruled to be illegal, as the Argus Leader’s Trevor J. Mitchell reports.

Alabama Hills
California’s Alabama Hills have appeared in more than 700 movie and television productions, including many westerns.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
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A Confederate warship haunts California’s Alabama Hills National Scenic Area. I truly had no idea that this gorgeous spot in the Owens Valley — which I visited a few months ago — was named for the warship Alabama by Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War, until I read this story by Louis Sahagun for The Times. Yes, there’s an effort underway to get the name changed.

Trump has called for anyone who vandalizes a monument to be jailed, in response to protesters tearing down statues of Confederate leaders and slave owners. But what about the national monuments Trump himself has diminished, including Utah’s Bears Ears? “If he thinks that people who are destroying national monuments across America should go to jail and he is not restoring Bears Ears monument, then he should go to jail himself,” a Navajo Nation member told HuffPost’s Chris D’Angelo.

POWER STRUGGLES

The Trump administration is speeding up border wall construction during the pandemic. Federal agencies are waiving environmental laws, chopping down saguaros in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, sucking water from an ancient aquifer near a wildlife refuge and making plans to build through another refuge, as Molly Hennessy-Fiske reports for The Times. One area where construction is halted? Cocopah tribal land in Arizona, where a wall could block the tribe’s access to the Colorado River.

If someone comes to your door offering free solar panels, be wary. While there are reputable companies that install no- or low-cost solar for low-income families — GRID Alternatives comes to mind — there are also bad actors. The Times’ Andrew Khouri has more horror stories about predatory companies signing up homeowners for so-called PACE loans they can’t afford, putting them at risk of foreclosure. PACE is a nifty program designed to finance clean energy upgrades, but this kind of stuff has got to stop.

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America needs a nuclear waste solution. It’s been 33 years (!) since Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the nation’s radioactive waste repository. But with Nevada politicians blocking funding for Yucca, nuclear waste is still stored in a hodgepodge of sites all over the place. A new report from U.S. Rep Mike Levin — whose district includes California’s shuttered San Onofre nuclear plant — includes some ideas for solving this thorny problem, as Rob Nikolewski reports for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

What do you want to know?

When you think about California’s climate future, what comes to mind? What keeps you up at night, and what gives you hope or gets you excited? What do you want to understand, and what should I?

This newsletter is for you, to help you understand how we’re changing our world and what we can do about it, and I want to hear your questions, concerns and ideas. Email me or find me on Twitter.

ONE MORE THING

In a tweet sharing my aforementioned story about renewable energy and transmission, I made the following comment: “Nobody likes looking at power lines.”

Apparently I was wrong; at least one person responded that they do, in fact, like looking at power lines. Even more surprisingly, electricity analyst Dave Jones posted these photos of cool-looking transmission towers — and then someone else replied with an image of the Mickey pylon, a mouse-eared power pole at Walt Disney World in Florida:

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As an energy reporter and big-time Disney fan, this is very much my jam.

I’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider forwarding it to your friends and colleagues.


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