A Renewable Energy Debate Heats Up In The Mojave The Mojave is home to mountain ranges, endangered wildlife and pictographs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has proposed a national monument to keep some desert lands off-limits to energy development. But solar developers say there's room for both conservation and renewable energy.
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A Renewable Energy Debate Heats Up In The Mojave

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A Renewable Energy Debate Heats Up In The Mojave

A Renewable Energy Debate Heats Up In The Mojave

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And this next report is about the contested geography of a desert. Developers of solar power have a keen interest in California's Mojave Desert. There's lots of sunshine, potential mother lode of renewable green energy.

The trouble is all the solar panels and other things needed to generate power could be bad for the Mojave's ecology, which is why California's Senator Dianne Feinstein wants to make part of the desert off limits to solar developers. You hear about contests between business and environmentalists. This contest pits greens against greens. Here's NPR's Ina Jaffe.

INA JAFFE: The Mojave is known for its nearly constant sunshine. But the day I'm there, it rains. And it's magical. The sharp mountain crags are softened by mist, and the air is filled with fragrance.

Mr. DAVID MYERS (Director, Wildlands Conservancy): Right now, you're smelling the creosote bush and the rich apricot smell of burrobush.

JAFFE: David Myers is the head of the Wildlands Conservancy.

Mr. MYERS: You can even smell a little cheesebush. And it's a bush that smells like cheese.

JAFFE: Myers' organization once owned the spot where we're standing. They raised $45 million to buy hundreds of thousands of acres and donate them to the federal government for conservation. This land deserves protection, says Myers, even if most people think of it as just a whole lot of empty.

Mr. MYERS: There's nothing out there, and yet everything's out there, you know. The great prophets, poets and redeemers of civilization always sought the nothingness of the desert because by and by, that nothingness adds up to an awful lot.

JAFFE: And there's more here than nothingness. Nearby are mountain ranges, sand dunes, ancient lava flows, fossil beds, endangered wildlife, cactus forests and Native American pictographs.

So Myers was shocked when he discovered that the Bush administration had allowed energy companies to apply for permits to build large-scale solar projects on the donated lands.

Solar has the reputation of being green, he says, but its impact on the desert would be anything but.

Mr. MYERS: One project proposed to grade off all the native vegetation off 5,500 acres, bring in a quarter-million truckloads of gravel and put up a lot of industrialized building and then put a chain-link fence around it.

JAFFE: And Myers saw plans like this as betrayal. He got a sympathetic hearing from California Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): When someone comes forward and gives money to preserve land, it is really important that that commitment be carried out. Otherwise people are not going to come forward to help preserve the land.

JAFFE: And so Feinstein introduced a bill to establish the Mojave Trails National Monument, which includes a lot of the land donated by the conservancy. Then she got in touch with the prospective solar power developers.

Sen. FEINSTEIN: The companies that I met with were really very good. They said they did not know this land was supposed to be in conservation.

JAFFE: They did realize after that talk that they'd never be able to get financing, so all of them dropped their projects for the proposed monument area.

But there is still a big push to develop solar in the Mojave. It was the topic of a recent gathering of hundreds of environmentalists and energy developers at the University of California at Riverside. V. John White is the director of a nonprofit that promotes renewable energy. He's concerned that there's already a lot of the Mojave that's off-limits for solar power.

Mr. V. JOHN WHITE (Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies): There's 4.5 million acres for the desert tortoise, there's 3.5 million acres for the military reservations, there's 1.5 million acres for state-protected species, and the monument will take another million acres off the table.

JAFFE: The Mojave is a big place, says White. There should be room for everybody.

Mr. WHITE: But not if everybody sort of takes what's theirs and then leaves solar for the last. Right now we've got more land available for off-road vehicle parks than we have for solar, and that's crazy.

JAFFE: It's not just global warming that's added urgency to this debate. In 10 years, California will require a third of the state's power to come from renewable sources. There's also $5 billion in federal stimulus money for California-based solar projects that can get their permits approved and be ready to break ground by the end of the year.

So the clock is ticking.

Professor KEVIN SWEENEY (Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley): We can't stub our toe too many more times.

JAFFE: Kevin Sweeney teaches in the business school at UC Berkeley. Lately, he's also been facilitating regular face-to-face meetings between solar power developers and the environmentalists who often challenge their projects.

And what got these frequent opponents talking to each other?

Prof. SWEENEY: You really often need a real precipitating event. And I think Senator Feinstein's legislation served that purpose. It brought people or it forced people to come to the table and to actually start talking through these issues.

JAFFE: So Feinstein's monument proposal hasn't even had a Senate hearing yet. It may or may not pass someday. But it's already having an impact.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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