The Politics Of Renewable Energy In The Deserts Of California
G. Sidney Silliman
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Prepared for presentation at the “Conservation vs. Sacrifice: Weighing the Consequences of
Utility-Scale Renewable Energy Development in the California Deserts” Symposium of the
Society for Conservation Biology North America Congress For Conservation Biology. Oakland,
California. July 15-18, 2012. Revised October 17, 2012. Published with permission here.
Public lands in the West are undergoing a massive transformation as dozens of renewable
energy projects are approved for development on lands administered by the Bureau of Land
Management (BLM). Twenty-three renewable energy facilities – solar, wind and geothermal –
have been approved since the beginning of 2009 for construction on 122,026 acres (U.S.
Department of the Interior June 22, 2012). Another 212,127 acres of public lands will be
permanently altered if all sixteen of the projects designated for 2012 priority status are approved
and constructed (U.S. Department of the Interior June 21, 2012).
While wind energy projects are authorized or under review for siting in Oregon and
Wyoming, the vast majority of the energy plants on the BLM lists are targeted for public lands in
the deserts of the Southwest. The Imperial Valley Solar, Lucerne Valley Solar, Silver State Solar
Energy (North), Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, Genesis Solar Energy, Abengoa
Mojave Solar, C Solar South, Desert Solar Sunlight Solar Farm, C Solar West, Rice Solar
Energy, and Centinela Solar Energy projects are all under construction or authorized for
construction in the deserts of California. The massive Tule (12,133 acres) and Ocotillo Express
(10,151 acres) wind energy facilities are also slated for desert lands.
Behind the industrialization of the desert is a view of public lands as resources for
commercial development rather than as diverse landscapes rich in biodiversity. Developers
speak of radiation levels and solar resources rather than fragile habitats that support endangered
species. Their concern is with the slope of prospective sites rather than the unique and sensitive
life on an alluvial fan. Their concern is with water for dust control as they scrape away cactus
and creosote rather than the rains that nourish often spectacular fields of wild flowers or the
natural springs that quench the thirst of bighorn sheep. Arnold Schwarzenegger remarked at the
October 2010 ground breaking ceremony for Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System: “There
are some people that look out in the desert and they see miles and miles of emptiness. I see miles
and miles of a gold mine, of a gold mine of great, great opportunities” (Soto 2010). The
California Governor saw only a golden opportunity for industrial use of the land, to construct
“miles and miles” of big power plants and transmission lines whereas the Ivanpah site in fact
supported federally-threatened Mojave desert tortoise and rare desert plants.
Behind this transformation of desert lands is a model of energy production by large
power plants situated great distances from urban centers rather than a model of local, small-scale
energy production in the built environment – decentralized or distributed generation. The
extension of the utility-scale, long-distance transmission model to the deserts of the Southwest is
patterned after the “legacy model” that generally dominates electric power production in the
United States (Weinrub 2011). Fossil fuel, nuclear, and hydropower generation favor large-scale
power plants and transmission-distribution infrastructure appropriate to a central-station
generating system, and this model is reflected in each of the renewable energy projects approved
for or requesting approval for siting on public lands. It is a model that, applied to desert lands,
transforms ecosystems into industrial zones linked to urban centers by miles of buzzing power
Three political factors drive the reconfiguration of the deserts of the Southwest. Federal
and state policies are the primary stimulus for the rush by energy developers to stake out their
claims to the desert and gain government approval of power plant proposals. The job creation
and clean energy goals of the President, the Obama Administration’s targeting of public lands for
resource development, and Federal subsidies for “clean energy” define public policy at the
Federal level. Energy policy in California is a factor of singular importance in the redesign of
the Mojave desert for industrial development. Second, the Secretary of the Interior, the
California Governor, and their respective offices are exercising their considerable powers to
ensure rapid approval and siting of large-scale energy plants and transmission lines. Third, an
advocacy coalition comprised of the renewable energy industry, wind and solar associations, and
national environmental organizations is working in cooperation to facilitate renewable energy
development on public lands.
The Policy Stimulus
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 includes “the sense of the Congress” that the Secretary of
the Interior should “seek to have approved non-hydro- power renewable energy projects located
on the public lands with a generation capacity of at least 10,000 megawatts of electricity” within
ten years (Public Law 109-58, Sec. 211) and provides for a “Renewable Energy Production
Incentive” (Sec. 202). The BLM, however, had not approved any solar energy projects and had
authorized only 566 megawatts of wind energy and 942 megawatts of geothermal capacity prior
to 2009 (U.S. Department of the Interior June 22, 2012).
The rush to develop renewable energy on public lands began during President Barack
Obama’s first year in office and was stimulated by Administration policies to revive the
economy, create jobs for workers, and develop domestic “clean energy” to reduce American
dependence on foreign oil. President Obama declared before a joint session of Congress in
February, that “now is the time” to revive the economy and to build a foundation for lasting
prosperity (The White House 2009). “Now is the time to jumpstart job creation, re-start lending,
and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy….” His
economic agenda, the President said, “begins with jobs.” Further on, he declared that his agenda
for reviving the American economy “begins with energy.” Under his recovery plan, Obama
explained, “we will double this nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years” and
“lay down thousands of miles of power lines that can carry new energy to cities and towns across
this country.” He added, to “truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our
planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy
the profitable kind of energy.” While the President’s definition of clean energy includes “clean
coal,” natural gas and nuclear power, renewable sources like wind and solar are accorded a
prominent place on his agenda. “Thanks to our recovery plan, we will double this nation’s supply
of renewable energy in the next three years,” he declared (The White House 2009).
Opening public lands to oil and gas leasing by private companies is, in the
Administration’s view, critical to the nation’s energy security (The White House March 30,
2011, 9). Opening public lands to private wind and solar development is an important tool in it’s
efforts to diversify the nation’s energy portfolio, and the Administration would announce in its
Blueprint For A Secure Energy Future that the Interior Department was siting the world’s largest
solar power plants on public lands in order to promote clean energy (The White House March
30, 2011, 7). The approval of BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah project, First Solar’s Silver State
(North) project, and NextEra’s Genesis project for public lands are only three of numerous
utility-scale solar facilities that evidence the consequence of providing private corporations with
this resource subsidy. Which public lands will be open to exploitation and the size of the land
grant is a matter of contention. Yet access to public lands for corporate use is a huge incentive.
Two economic policies -- the Federal government’s provision of grants under the
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and credit support from the Department of Energy --
are an even stronger stimulus for the massive development of utility-scale renewable energy in
the deserts of the Southwest.
The Recovery Act is designed to stimulate the American economy through provisions for
infrastructure, energy, education, health care, and tax relief. Its particular stimulation of energy
development comes from Section 1603 that allows taxpayers -- corporations in reality -- to
receive cash assistance from the Treasury Department in lieu of tax credits for putting into
service specified renewable energy property by a specified deadline. The Treasury Department
makes Section 1603 payments in an amount generally equal to 10 percent or 30 percent of the
basis of the property, depending on the type of energy project. Applications are to be reviewed
and payments made within sixty days from the date of the complete application or the date the
property is placed in service, whichever is later. Applicants who receive payments for property
under Section 1603 are not eligible for production or investment tax credits with respect to the
same property for the taxable year of the payment or subsequent years (U.S. Treasury
Department 2009, 2-3). Initially, under the stipulations of the Recovery Act, only renewable
energy projects deemed “shovel ready” by December 31, 2010 were eligible to receive cash
grants from Treasury. However, the 2010 Tax Relief and Job Creation Act extended the authority
to provide grants in lieu of tax credits for one year through December 31, 2011.
Although the 1603 Program is no longer available, developers are eligible through 2016
for a tax credit to be taken over five years.
Projects eligible for funding under the Treasury’s 1603 program include fuel cell power
plants, projects that use solar power to generate electricity, small and large wind projects,
geothermal property that generates electricity and thermal energy, micro-turbines that convert
fuel into electricity, and combined heat and power system property that generates electricity.
Geothermal, micro turbine, and combined heat and power project developers are eligible to
recover up to 10 percent of the eligible cost basis; all others, including wind and solar
developers, may recover up to 30 percent of the cost basis in cash assistance. By the end of
September 2010, the Treasury Department had made 2,818 awards for $5,259,546,357 (U.S.
Department of the Treasury 2010). The 1603 cash grant program had awarded $1.76 billion for
solar projects alone as of early 2012 (Cardwell 2012, B5).
An additional policy stimulus for energy development in the desert comes from the
Department of Energy’s Loan Guarantee Program. Adopted as a provision of the 2005 Energy
Policy Act (Section 1703) and authorized through The Recovery Act of 2009, the “Temporary
Program for Rapid Deployment of Renewable Energy and Electric Power Transmission
Projects” (Section 1705) authorizes loan guarantees for renewable energy systems, electric
power transmission and “leading edge” biofuel projects that commence construction not later
than September 30, 2011. According to Loan Programs Office Director David Frantz (2012),
credit support is crucial “because private lenders are often unwilling or unable to absorb the risks
associated with financing truly innovative or advanced technology projects at scale until such
projects have been proven in the marketplace.”
Public monies under the program are invested in some of the largest renewable energy
projects, including NRG Solar’s Agua Caliente photovoltaic project in Yuma County, Arizona,
and the Caithness Shepherds Flat wind farm in eastern Oregon. BrightSource Energy alone
received $1.6 billion in federally guaranteed loans for its Ivanpah project. To date, the program
has covered $34.7 billion in loans to private companies (U.S. Department of Energy 2012).
In California, the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) program for a shift from
gas and coal generated electricity to renewable sources of energy is a major factor driving the
redesign of our deserts due to its requirement that investor-owned utilities, electric service
providers, and community choice aggregators increase procurement from eligible renewable
energy resources to 33% of total procurement by 2020.
The RPS mandate -- established in 2002 with an initial goal of 20 percent renewable
energy by the year 2017 -- has grown more aggressive over the years. By Executive Order S-14-
08, Governor Schwarzenegger set the renewable energy target at 33 percent by 2020. The
Executive Order declared that California has some of the best renewable energy resource areas in
the world and that “the development of these resources must be accelerated.” The Order further
argues that the push for renewable energy development means California's agencies must
streamline the siting, permitting, and procurement processes for renewable generation and
encourage feasible distributed renewable energy opportunities. The State government and solar
developers are in agreement that this push should occur in the deserts. The 33% by 2020
mandate was codified into law in 2011 by legislative action.
Governor Schwarzenegger removed the property tax on large solar plants and distributed
$90 million in exemptions from sales and use taxes as a further stimulus for industrial-energy
development (Cart February 5, 2012, A15).
Policy declarations, as with President Obama’s State of the Union announcement of jobs
and energy goals, are only beginnings. Their realization requires action by administrative
departments and agencies. Even national laws, as with the 2005 Energy Policy Act and the 2009
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, require administrative action to implement their
provisions. In the course of administration, regulations are formulated and decisions are made as
to specific applications of policy. More often than not, the process of defining regulations and
applying agency rulings determines precisely “who gets what, when and how” (Lasswell 1936).
This is no less true with respect to energy development on public lands than with other policy
areas. Whether a project will be approved and the specific location, size, and configuration of a
power plant or transmission line is determined through a series of decisions by numerous federal,
state and local agencies. The process is complex. The decision-making process is political as
interested parties strive to support, modify or oppose specific decisions in the different
Formal decision-making power with respect to the siting of energy projects in California
is lodged with the California Energy Commission and BLM if the application is for siting on
public lands. The Commission has exclusive jurisdiction under the Warren-Alquist Act to
review and certify thermal power plants of 50 megawatts or larger. The BLM is responsible
under federal law for processing right-of-way applications to determine whether to authorize the
development of power plants, transmission lines, and other facilities on lands it manages. The
management of BLM-administered lands in the California Desert District is governed by the
California Desert Conservation Area Plan of 1980; all sites associated with power generation or
transmission not specifically identified in the Plan must be considered through the amendment
In order to qualify for a cash grant from the Treasury Department under the 1603
Program, an energy developer needed to have its project “shovel ready” by the last day of
December 2010. These “fast track” projects required numerous state and federal approvals by
the fall of 2010 in order to commence construction by the end of the year and thus meet the
Congressional deadline. In addition to a California Energy Commission license, the projects
required a right-of-way grant from BLM authorizing private construction on BLM-administered
public land. A ruling or “opinion” from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as to the possible impact
of a project on threatened or endangered species was required as well because energy developers
commonly proposed to site projects on occupied habitats. In each instance, as with the
Department of Energy cash grants and permits from local and state entities, the necessity of
department, commission, or agency approval offers opportunities for the interested public,
organized groups, private corporations, the staff of elected officials, and higher-level bureaucrats
to use their influence to shape policy implementation.
The Secretary of the Interior (and his Office) and the California Governor (and his
Office) are actively exercising their powers to ensure rapid approval and siting of renewable
Given the Obama Administration’s offering up of public lands for exploitation, it is not
surprising that the Department of the Interior, responsible for more than 20 percent of the
country’s lands, plays a prominent role in coordinating and ensuring energy production.
Encouraging the production, development and transmission of renewable energy is, in fact, “one
of the Department’s highest priorities,” and Secretary Salazar designated two top officials in the
Interior Department -- the Deputy Secretary and the Counselor to the Secretary -- as co-chairs of
a special Task Force On Energy and Climate Change (Secretary of the Interior 2009).
The Interior’s Task Force on Energy and Climate Change is notably charged with
responsibility for formulating a strategy to increase the development and transmission of
renewable energy on public lands (Secretary of the Interior 2009). This strategy includes
identifying specific locations for large-scale production, identifying the transmission
infrastructure needed to deliver renewable energy to population centers, and working with states,
tribes, local governments, renewable energy generators, and distribution utilities to identify
locations for generation and transmission. The Task Force tracks agency progress in meeting the
Administration’s energy goals and works to remove obstacles to renewable energy permitting,
siting, development, and production.
Governor Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order S-14-08 guides the growth of renewable
energy on public lands in California. As described above, it mandates that all retail sellers of
electricity “shall serve 33 percent of their load with renewable energy by 2020” (the Renewable
Portfolio Standard, or RPS) and directs all State government agencies “to take all appropriate
actions to implement this target in all regulatory proceedings, including siting, permitting, and
procurement for renewable energy power plants and transmission lines” (Office of the Governor
2008). The Order directs that the California Energy Commission and Department of Fish and
Game expedite the development of RPS eligible renewable energy resources. The Executive
Order further stipulates a "one-stop" process for permitting renewable energy generation power
plants, a concurrent review process by Fish and Game and the Energy Commission instead of
reviewing multiple, sequential applications from developers.
Governor Schwarzenegger’s Order requires the formulation of a Desert Renewable
Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) for the Mojave and Colorado deserts. As a foundation for
the DRECP, the Renewable Energy Action Team of the Energy Commission and Fish and Game
is ordered to develop a conservation strategy that identifies areas for RPS project development
and areas intended for long-term natural resource conservation. Two specific provisions are of
considerable importance with respect to environmental impacts on the desert: (1) the DRECP
shall provide “binding, long-term endangered species permit assurances” and (2) “all state
regulatory agencies shall give priority to renewable energy projects.”
The orders from the Interior Secretary and the California Governor structure the
implementation of their respective government’s energy policies. Outside the public eye, the
Interior Secretary’s Office and the California Governor’s Office pressure administrative agencies
to produce the decisions that advance the interests of the renewable energy industry and its allies.
Department of Fish and Game field staff were removed from project reviews when they
contested developers’ portrayal of project impacts on threatened species or insisted on strong
mitigation measures for environmental impacts. Both offices convene meetings of corporate
representatives, agency personnel, and the staff of national environmental organizations to
resolve impediments to rapid permitting and siting. Department of Interior lawyer Steve Black
invited environmental groups to meet with developers and agency representatives in November
2011 with the idea of reaching a settlement of protests to the Calico Solar Project. Governor
Brown’s office facilitated the discussions leading to the settlement agreement of Sierra Club,
Defenders of Wildlife, and Center for Biological Diversity with SunPower Corporation and
Topaz Solar Farms regarding two solar photovoltaic power plant projects under development in
San Luis Obispo County (Defenders of Wildlife August 9, 2011).
Advocacy For Renewable Energy
From a cumulative analysis of regulatory decision making on project siting since 2009, it
is evident that an advocacy coalition composed of renewable energy industry employees,
representatives of wind and solar associations, and staff from national environmental
organizations is working to facilitate renewable energy development on desert lands, to sacrifice
the desert rather than conserve desert ecosystems.
The coalition -- identified as “the major utility-scale solar developers” and “major
conservation organizations working on energy issues” -- urged President Obama by letter in
December 2011 to “strongly support” an extension of the Section 1603 grant program for
renewable energy development due to expire at the end of the year (Utility-Scale Solar
Developers 2011). The letter was signed by the CEOs of BrightSource Energy and NRG, by the
vice presidents of Torresol and SunPower, and by Amonix, Recurrent Industry, and K-Road
Power. The letter was signed as well by the presidents or executive directors of Defenders of
Wildlife, The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Audubon
Society, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, and other environmental organizations.
The coalition – now functioning as the California Desert & Renewable Energy Working
Group – submitted detailed recommendations to Interior Secretary Salazar in December 2010
“on ways to improve planning and permitting for the next generation of solar energy projects on
public lands in the California desert” (2010a). The signatories included representatives of four
large-scale energy developers (First Solar, Tessera Solar, BrightSource Energy, and Solar
Millennium), Pacific Gas & Electric, the Large-Scale Solar Association, and the Center for
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra
Club, The Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, and Natural Resources Defense Council
joined the submission with the signatures of staff members.
While the Working Group, according to the letter, “seeks to protect ecosystems,
landscapes, and species while supporting the timely development of renewable energy resources
in the California desert,” it also states that its recommendations are focused on BLM lands (in
California) and intended to assist the Secretary to “facilitate the permitting of well-planned and
sited renewable energy projects in 2011.” The document submitted to Salazar notes that the
analysis of a full range of alternatives is one of the most important aspects of environmental
review, yet there is no discussion of (much less advocacy for) decentralized generation of
electricity as an alternative that definitely would protect desert ecosystems, landscapes and
species (California Desert & Renewable Energy Working Group 2010b, 8). The document
merely accepts the “legacy model” of big power generation.
The “legacy model” figures as well in the California Desert & Renewable Energy
Working Group’s comment letter on the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement
(PEIS) for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (2011). Indeed, the letter
restates that the intent of the Working Group is “to improve planning and permitting for largescale
solar energy development on public lands in the California desert.”
Advocacy coalitions consist of an array of participants in a policy subsystem who
organize themselves around common goals and strive to influence decision makers so as to
achieve those objectives. Typically loosely structured, a formal organization is not required for
an advocacy coalition to be recognized. And the individuals within the coalition need not be
engaged on every decision with respect to a particular policy. Representatives of K Road Power,
enXco, and Southern California Edition added their signatures to the Draft PEIS for Solar
Energy Development comment letter while Terrera Solar and Solar Millennium did not sign.
The Center for Biological Diversity did not sign the Draft PEIS comment letter, while staff from
The Wilderness Society and Audubon California added their names to the signatures of others
from environmental organizations. What is necessary to fulfill the definition is a pattern of
interaction among a set of participants and structured efforts to shape policy to realize those
objectives. The common goal of this coalition is to site utility-scale renewable projects on public
lands, albeit with some protection for landscapes and species. As Julie Cart writes with respect
to the development of solar energy in the Mojave desert:
The public got its chance to comment at scores of open houses, but the real political horse
trading took place in meetings involving solar developers, federal regulators and leaders
of some of the nation's top environmental organizations. Away from public scrutiny,
they crafted a united front in favor of utility-scale solar development, often making
difficult compromises (February 2012, A14).
Energy industry participation in the advocacy coalition is obviously driven by its
economic interests. The Canadian company First Solar’s interest is in gaining political support
for the construction of its Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, Silver State Solar Energy (North), Silver
State South, and Stateline projects in the Mojave desert. BrightSource Energy lobbied
Department of Interior and Department of Energy officials to secure approval, funding and
public lands for its Ivanpah solar project. In Sacramento, BrightSource pressured the California
Office of the BLM, the California Natural Resources Agency, and the Department of Fish and
Game for favorable rulings (Silliman February 2011, 10). Its campaign for project approval was
supported by the Large-Scale Solar Association, whose purpose is to support market penetration
of utility-scale solar technologies through favorable public policies. Participation by Southern
California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric is also economically motivated; the utilities profit
from the construction of miles of transmission lines to link distant power plants to urban centers.
The Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT) is an active
member of the coalition. Its Executive Director, John White, is a prominent participant in public
forums to advance the utility-scale renewable energy, long-distance transmission model. White
is “something of a kingmaker in California on renewable energy,” deciding who will represent
environment interests on various planning groups overseeing renewable energy development.
“Every appointee he has chosen came from a major environmental group that supports most solar
development” (Cart April 2012, A16).
CEERT helped expand coordination among state and federal agencies to hasten the
permitting process for corporations applying for federal financing from the Treasury and Energy
Departments. The organization “played a critical, behind-the-scenes role in expediting
renewable project approvals, and met regularly with Steve Black at the U.S. Department of
Interior and with Michael Picker and Manal Yamout, special advisors to Governor
Schwarzenegger” (CEERT 2011). Its links within the coalition are indexed by directors on its
Board from the solar industry (Darren Bouton of First Solar, Diane Fellman of NRG Energy,
James A. Walker of enXco, and Arthur Haubenstock of BrightSource Energy) and national
environmental organizations (Ralph Cavanagh and Carl Zichella of Natural Resources Defense
Council, Jim Marston of Environmental Defense Fund, and Kim Delfino of Defenders of
National Environmental Organizations
Given their roots in the conservation movement, one might expect that environmental
organizations with any concern for ecosystems, landscapes, and species in the American West
would be alarmed by the massive transformation of the desert now underway. Yet, the national
officials and professional staff of many of the large environmental organizations are part of the
advocacy coalition facilitating the siting of large-scale energy projects and the construction of
transmission lines on public lands. Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Fund, and
Sierra Club staff are consistent participants in the coalition. The Wilderness Society and
Environmental Defense Fund are frequently active around the same goals and join efforts to
realize those objectives. Personnel from Center for Biological Diversity, National Audubon
Society, National Wildlife Society, and The Nature Conservancy also operate within the
It is fair to say that the national leadership and professional staff of these groups would
prefer to characterize their political role as a balanced approach that seeks only responsibly sited
solar and wind projects. Johanna Wald, senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council
(NRDC), defends her work “to facilitate environmentally responsible renewable energy in the
west” as just that, a balance between the need for cleaner sources of energy and her career-long
goal of protecting public lands (2012). She writes:
By focusing on a “Smart from the Start” strategy that aims to site projects on public lands
with the greatest possible care, NRDC and our partner conservation organizations have
achieved significant success resulting in more than 2,000 megawatts of clean power on
public lands in California – and we’re aiming for more.
On its web page “Partnering for Success,” Defenders of Wildlife explains that it works with
“partners in the conservation community as well as the renewable energy industry to find
solutions that work for everyone involved.” The web site explains that Defenders cooperates
with Natural Resources Defense Council, The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, National
Audubon, The Nature Conservancy and other organizations “to evaluate renewable energy
projects and develop policy recommendations aimed at getting responsible clean energy projects
on the ground quickly.” Defenders’ participation in the Desert & Renewable Energy Working
Group “to help shape the Bureau of Land Management’s long-term solar energy strategy for
public lands in the southwest” is noted as one example of these collaborative efforts, confirming
its role in the advocacy coalition formed around large-scale renewable energy development.
The national environmental organizations -- by not challenging utility-scale development
and by participating in the coalition -- permit, indeed facilitate, the sacrifice of thousands of
acres of public land. Most of the national environmental organizations gave the Department of
the Interior significant leeway during the 2009-2010 rush to approve solar projects; “criticisms
were muted in deference to the broad goals of kick-starting renewable energy development on
public lands and combating global warming…” (Kenworthy 2011).
The groups only seek avoidance of some impacts to desert lands, modifications in the size
and configuration of proposed projects, and a negotiated mitigation for damage to habitat. In this
respect, the nationals continue the “reform environmentalism” that has characterized the large,
foundation-funded, and Washington-oriented organizations since the 1970s (Manes 1990,
Chapter 3). The nationals more often than not act only to reform energy policy and moderate its
implementation rather than seeking to fully protect desert ecosystems. By no means are the
national environmental organizations adhering to Aldo Leopold’s formulation: “A thing is right
when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong
when it tends to do otherwise” (1989, 224-225). Utility-scale renewable energy construction is
an assault on the desert but the national environmental organizations have yet to launch a major
campaign to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the largest intact ecosystem in the
United States. They advocate for utility-scale energy development instead.
Portraying national environmental organization participation in the advocacy coalition as
merely a balancing act or a search for solutions that work for all obscures the extent to which the
organizations are pulled or pushed to support utility-scale renewables in order to make
themselves more attractive to foundations. Fund raising to support a professional staff and
national programs are a central concern for these organizations and embracing renewable energy
generates dollars to balance their budgets. Grants for projects focusing on climate change and
energy are the two top-funded issues in environmental philanthropy with foundations “awarding
tens of millions of dollars in grants to environmental groups to make renewable energy a top
priority” (Cart April 2012, A16). The Desert & Renewable Energy Working Group, for instance,
is partially funded through a grant from The Energy Foundation, whose mission is to promote the
transition to a sustainable energy future by advancing energy efficiency and renewable energy.
The Energy Foundation made $150 million in grants for renewable energy efforts over the past
five years, including $8.5 million to Natural Resources Defense Council and $6.2 million to the
Sierra Club (Cart April 2012 A16).
The portrayal of the national environmental organizations as merely engaged in a balancing
act obscures the extent to which the Sierra Club, the organization with the largest membership
base, limits the voice and energy of local members who oppose the industrialization of the
Over the course of the Sierra Club’s history, its local groups and chapters generally have
had latitude to oppose energy projects and other developments within their respective areas of
concern as long as the opposition followed the Club’s conservation policies. Now the localmember
structures must consult the Clean Energy Solutions Campaign, a Sierra Club unit
dominated by professional staff and a few volunteers at the national level, before taking a
position on any large scale renewable project or transmission proposal.
The shift from local to centralized decision making is dictated under the Sierra Club’s
“Guidance On Transmission And Large Scale Renewable Energy Production On Public Lands”
(2010), a document with the stated purpose of helping Club members, committees, groups, and
chapters “be effective in advocating for the responsible and appropriate siting of renewable
energy facilities on public lands.” Now, the Club has “an overarching goal” of reducing global
warming -- and thus a compelling need to support renewable energy. In focusing on climate
change, the Sierra Club made a decision to diverge from its traditional focus when presented
with large, new developments, especially those on public lands. Historically, the Sierra Club
opposed a large percentage of development proposals due to its commitment to conservation. In
mandating national guidance over local members, the Sierra Club changed to ensure that local
activists toe the line, a pattern that began several years earlier.
In February 2008, Carl Zichella, then Sierra Club Director of Western Renewable Energy
Programs, appeared at the Shoshone, California meeting of the California/Nevada Desert
Committee to instruct its members on the necessity of evaluating and expediting appropriately
sited solar, wind, and geothermal resources and the transmission capacity needed to bring these
resources to market. “We need it all,” he proclaimed, “including large-scale wind, solar and
geothermal.” Zichella objected vigorously when a Sierra Club chapter went on record later that
month as opposed to the possible construction of the Los Angeles Department of Water and
Power’s Green Path North Transmission Project through environmentally sensitive areas in the
Morongo Basin. The chapter stood with local communities in expressing alarm at the prospect
of a new transmission corridor through the desert.
Local Sierra Club leaders were cautioned by national staff against making public
statements that large-scale renewable projects would do irreparable damage to the Mojave desert;
local members who spoke about the threat of big power to the deserts received telephone calls of
admonishment from national staff. Proposals directed through channels that the Sierra Club
formally intervene in the regulatory process on the siting of big power projects (after the chapterinitiated
intervention on Ivanpah) were rejected time and again by the San Francisco office.
A November 2009 California/Nevada Desert Committee resolution recommending that
the Ivanpah solar power plant be sited on previously disturbed lands outside the Valley, although
adopted by the California/Nevada Regional Conservation Committee in May 2010, failed to alter
the national organization’s position. The Sierra Club Board of Directors voted in October 2010
against litigating the Ivanpah project; then-Executive Director Carl Pope had given assurances to
BrightSource Energy behind the scenes that the Sierra Club would not sue on the project.
There is a history of litigation by national environmental organizations on conservation
issues and many of those lawsuits successfully protected wilderness, habitat, and endangered
species. However, on this issue, the national organizations have largely elected to settle with
energy corporations rather than mount a vigorous legal defense of fragile desert landscapes.
Sierra Club did file a legal challenge with the California Supreme Court in December
2010 against the California Energy Commission’s approval of the Calico Solar power project,
arguing that the Commission rushed the environmental review without full consideration of the
impacts on wildlife and without identifying adequate mitigation measures (the Supreme Court
announced in April 2011 that it would not review the Sierra Club lawsuit). And Sierra Club sued
BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Interior Department in federal district court in March
2012, arguing that the government violated environmental laws by failing to adequately consider
the impact of Calico on the Mojave desert tortoise and other threatened wildlife. Defenders of
Wildlife and Natural Resources Defense Council filed a separate lawsuit on similar grounds
The legal defense of the desert at Calico is heartening as the solar project would destroy
more than 4,600 acres of valuable habitat. Any solar development on those lands threatens
wildlife, numerous plant species, and adjacent protected areas. At the same time, the Calico
lawsuits reflect the preference of the national environmental organizations to reach settlements
with energy developers rather than mount a full defense of desert ecosystems in the courts. The
environmental organizations met numerous times with the BLM and the Calico project’s
developers (K-Road Power and Tessera Solar respectively) to urge these private companies and
the Department of Interior to relocate the project to less environmentally sensitive lands (Natural
Resources Defense Council 2012). The lawsuit is warranted, yet it reflects the reform approach
of the nationals; the goal is to modify project proposals rather than fully defend the desert. In the
60-day notice of intent to sue on Calico, Defenders of Wildlife staff attorney writes on behalf of
Defenders, Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council: “we have engaged in
discussions with nearly every developer of a proposed utility-scale solar energy project in the
state and have settled or supported nine utility-scale solar projects...” (Buppert 2011, 4).
The most egregious settlement in the view of many desert activists is the October 2010
agreement between Center for Biological Diversity and BrightSource Energy with respect to the
Ivanpah solar project, a 3,500 acre power plant constructed on nearly pristine habitat with a large
and reproducing population of Mojave desert tortoises (Silliman September 2011). Despite its
earlier history of aggressive defense of threatened ecosystems and wildlife, Executive Director
Kieran Suckling opted not to challenge BLM and California Energy Commission review and
approval of the BrightSource power plant (Center for Biological Diversity 2010).
In addition to the resulting negative environmental impacts, these settlements have
political consequences. First, environmental group collaboration with energy developers shifts
the balance of power toward large corporations and the utilities because the environmental
groups at the start accept private occupation of public lands for industrial use rather than pressing
for wholesale conservation and multiple use.
Second, the interested public is excluded when environmental organizations meet with
developers outside the formal decision-making forums. There is no public notice of behind-thescenes
meetings and no official report to the public (or even to the membership of the respective
organizations) as to what transpired or what was agreed to. Defenders of Wildlife, Natural
Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, for example, brokered an
opaque deal with Palo Verde Solar (a subsidiary of Solar Millennium) clearing the way for the
company to construct the Blythe Solar power project, despite the objections of Native Americans
concerned about ancient geoglyphs on the site. The agreement came to light only after the
Department of Interior provided documents under the Freedom of Information Act (Anonymous
Third, collaboration between energy developers and national environmental organizations
reinforces or shifts power within the national groups from the membership to professional staff
as the latter define the agenda of behind-the-scene meetings and decide whether to accept or
reject settlement offers.
Numerous local and regional groups with a commitment to protecting arid landscapes are
engaged in active resistance to the industrialization of the desert. Some, like Desert Protective
Council, have decades of experience in advocacy; others, such as Desert Biodiversity, are
relatively new. Save Our Desert is focused on the local threat of a wind energy project proposed
for Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa (two buttes in the Pipes Canyon and Pioneertown area
of California's high desert) whereas Western Lands Project is broadly concerned with threats to
the public domain posed by the privatization of public lands. Various Native American groups
are also offering resistance to the transformation of Southwestern deserts. Some of these groups
represent broad tribal interests, while others are organizations focused on protecting particular
Public protests on the ground, in the desert publicize local and Native American concerns
over the environmental and cultural impacts of large-scale, energy projects. The Colorado River
Tribes (Chemehuevi, Fort Mojave, and Quechan) convened a spiritual run in June 2010 to protest
the looming damage to cultural sites -- the Blythe Intaglios by the Colorado River in particular --
that would result from the construction of Solar Millennium’s Blythe solar project. Camp
Ivanpah, a group that opposed the construction of the Ivanpah solar project, organized a nonviolent,
legal camp in September 2010 to educate the public about the wealth of biodiversity on
the site. Chuckwalla Camp was a peaceful gathering on BLM-administered lands in January
2011 to protest the push by the Interior Department to turn desert wilderness into an industrial
solar zone. The protesters asked: “Why are we killing our living deserts with green energy when
Germany has already installed 8 gigawatts of solar energy on their rooftops in the built
environment?” Most recently, in June 2012, Native Americans from at least four tribes took part
in a five-day “occupation” at Ocotillo to be with the spirits of their ancestors and to show that the
devastation from the construction of the 20-square mile Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility is wrong.
The dusk-to-dawn ceremony mourned disruption of their ancestors' burial sites.
The resistance to industrial scale renewable energy is evident as well in the variety of
legal challenges to energy and transmission projects by local, regional, and Native American
The Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation won an injunction in December
2010 temporarily blocking construction of Tessera Solar’s Imperial Valley solar project
(McBride and Baynes 2011). That same month, La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Site Protection Circle
(and others) filed suit in U.S. District Court challenging BLM permitting processes related to six
large solar facilities that would collectively cover 23,841 acres of desert lands in Southern
California. La Cuna de Aztlan contends that fast-track approvals of solar developments violate
laws that protect the environment and sacred places. The suit specifically states that the
expedited approval process endorsed by Secretary Salazar in 2009 circumvents laws that protect
Native American burial grounds. The complaint seeks to rescind the approvals of the Ivanpah,
Calico and Lucerne Valley projects in San Bernardino County, the Genesis and Blythe projects
in eastern Riverside County, and the Imperial Valley project in Imperial County (Danelski 2010).
The Western Watersheds Project is the only conservation organization to litigate against the
Similar groups are mounting legal challenges to the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility. The
Quechan Tribe went to court in May 2012 to seek a temporary restraining order to halt
construction of this wind-turbine project until the legal issues could be reviewed. The complaint
from Desert Protective Council alleges several violations of the 1976 Federal Land Policy and
Management Act, while Community Advocates For Renewable Energy Stewardship filed on the
basis that the Ocotillo wind facility lacked the necessary legal requirements when obtaining the
federal right-of-way grant (Davila 2012). The Protect Our Communities Foundation and
Backcountry Against Dumps lawsuit against the Imperial County Board of Supervisors and
Pattern Energy Group (the developer) contends that the Supervisors’ approval of the project
violated the California Environmental Quality Act and that the Final Environmental Impact
Report failed to analyze off-site or distributed generation alternatives such as rooftop solar
(Third Lawsuit…” 2012).
Stimulating public concern is a further element of the resistance. Direct, public education
is one of the larger goals of Basin and Range Watch, a goal it seeks to achieve through its
comprehensive and detailed Internet site on industrial energy and the impacts of energy projects
on the deserts of California and Nevada (http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/). The continually
updated web pages present reports on project proposals, environmental impact statements,
calendars of comment deadlines, updates on recent decisions, and photographs of the desert
flora, birds, and wildlife threatened by utility-scale energy. Basin and Range Watch has an
active social media network that is approaching nearly 1,000 concerned citizens.
“Mojave Desert Blog” is a public source of news and commentary posted online with an
eye to advocating for the preservation of desert wildlands (http://www.mojavedesertblog.com/).
Its Facebook page "Save the Desert Tortoise" is specifically geared towards opposing industrialscale,
renewable energy development of tortoise habitat. The page now has over 5,000 "likes."
Solar Done Right is circulating a Call To Action For Energy Democracy “to demand a more
cost-effective, faster, less damaging, and more democratic path to renewable energy” (2012).
The petition seeks to move renewable energy development off ecologically rich public lands and
onto rooftops and elsewhere in the built environment (Solar Done Right 2012).
The groups in the resistance effort do not have the membership or financial resources of
the national organizations, yet they are consistent advocates within the administrative decisionmaking
process for desert conservation and the protection of cultural resources. A delegation
from Solar Done Right traveled to Washington DC to educate Congressional staff and resource
agency directors on the need to find less destructive alternatives for developing renewable
energy on public lands. Comment letters on all aspects of solar and wind energy projects are
sent to federal and state agencies. Basin and Range Watch, Desert Tortoise Council, and
Kerncrest Audubon Society gained intervener status with the California Energy Commission on
Solar Millennium’s application for certification of its Ridgecrest Solar Power Project (as did
Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project). Basin and Range Watch, with
the Desert Protective Council and Desert Tortoise Council, prepared and submitted to BLM
California and BLM Nevada a nomination to designate public lands in the Ivanpah Valley as an
Area of Critical Environmental Concern. The aim is to protect the unique biological, cultural
and visual resources under pressure for development from the energy corporations.
Local and regional groups are especially valuable as thoughtful critics of policy and as
generators of alternatives to utility-scale energy development.
Desert Report, published by the California/Nevada Desert Committee, regularly includes
articles on utility-scale renewable energy and its environmental impacts. The “renewable energy
issue” of March 2008 featured articles on energy transmission, coal-fired power plants in
Nevada, “big solar” (solution or threat?), and the scramble of energy companies to profit from
the “New California Gold Rush.” Continuing its goal of presenting objective analysis of desert
issues while welcoming differing opinions, Desert Report published Bob Tregilus’ article on
feed-in tariffs in its March 2011 issue, and Laura Cunningham’s review of changes in renewable
energy policy and Southwest desert conservation in the issue of December 2011. The June 2012
edition includes Ileene Anderson’s article on an outbreak of canine distemper among desert kit
foxes confirmed when dead foxes were found adjacent to an industrial solar project.
The Alliance for Responsible Energy delivered a biting critique of the Sierra Club and the
government’s energy policy at the May 2008 meeting of the California/Nevada Desert
Committee, well before the fast-tracking of large-scale renewables raced into the desert. The
Alliance felt its “Towards Responsible Energy Policy” presentation was necessary because
Sierra Club staff had become active participants with energy companies, utilities, and
government agencies to site power plants and transmission lines over and above considerations
of the environment. The Alliance argued that then current policies “intentionally ignore locally
generated energy potential, such as PV rooftop, that could meet renewable goals” (2008). Its
presentation closed with recommendations on needed policy changes and the appropriate role of
environmental organizations in the development of a responsible energy policy.
Solar Done Right’s “Wrong From the Start” commentary on the Draft Solar
Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) of the Interior and Energy Departments
offers a contemporary illustration of the critical importance of local and regional groups. Solar
Done Right argues that the Draft PEIS is “fundamentally flawed” because it adheres to an
exploitive approach to public lands and a subsidized technology that will fail to achieve a
responsible energy future. Although federal agencies are required to analyze a broad range of
alternatives, the Draft PEIS simply dismisses such alternatives as distributed generation. This is
a fundamental flaw in the government’s analysis as “massive solar power plants pose
irreversible, long-term, cumulative ecological threats to fragile deserts and grasslands” (2011, 3).
If the United States is to realize its full renewable energy potential, argues Solar Done Right, it
must depart from the old energy model. What is the alternative to the current approach of the
federal government? “When all costs are factored in…local, distributed solar PV is comparable
in efficiency, faster to bring online, and more cost-effective than remote utility-scale solar
plants” (2011, 5).
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