Solar Power Is Valuable, But NPCA Report Says It Needs To Be Generated Away From National Parks

This map highlights how close three solar energy projects are to units of the National Park System in California. NPCA graphic.

Solar energy is one key to sating the United States' enormous energy appetite, but federal officials need to be careful not to overly impact national parks and other public lands when it comes to siting these facilities.

Current proposals in California by the Interior Department place some of these solar farms close to parks such as Death Valley and Joshua Tree, as well as the Mojave National Preserve. By highlighting impacts created by those decisions, a report from the National Parks Conservation Association aims to generate public pressure on federal agencies to make wiser choices with future decisions on where to erect such facilities.

The Amargosa Farm Road Project to be built near Death Valley will "destroy 4,000 acres of desert scrub habitat, fragment the larger landscape, and mar scenic views from Death Valley National Park’s wilderness lands," according to the executive summary of Solar Energy, National Parks, and Landscape Protection in the Desert Southwest. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station also stands to destroy valuable desert tortoise habitat near Mojave National Preserve while also impacting the viewshed, and the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm proposed to go in about 2 miles south of Joshua Tree would impact viewsheds and could fragment migratory corridors for desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife, the report adds.

These approved solar facilities demonstrate that large, industrial-scale solar energy development will have significant impacts—despite the best efforts at resource protection and mitigation. In particular, the resulting habitat fragmentation and destruction, impaired visual resources, and lost wildlife connectivity will affect not only BLM lands but adjacent national park lands as well . In short, while there are great benefits to harnessing sunlight for electricity generation, these benefits come at a significant cost to desert resources . This reinforces the need to responsibly site solar facilities while continuing to support this needed upgrade to renewable energy.

While the report's authors acknowledge that changes made to the initial plans for siting and developing these facilities will reduce their impacts, they note that some issues remain and that going forward more scrutiny and greater input on pending projects can produce better siting decisions. Federal officials, they say, should work with stakeholders in the Southwest to identify lands with lower conflicts for solar projects. Another benefit would be to site these projects on lands that already have been degraded, such as former Defense Department lands.

"I think that part of the message we want to share today is that we do want to encourage both the public and the administration to stand strong in support of national parks. We recognize that it's really important to forward our solar future, but we think that can best be accomplished by a diversified portfolio where we're looking at options like not just roof-top solar, but also looking at development on disturbed lands," David Lamfrom, NPCA's California Desert senior program manager, said during an hour-long conference call Tuesday.

"I think that we've been lulled into a false choice where we now believe we can either move forward with solar on pristine public lands or not at all, but in reality that's not the case," he said.

The proximity of energy exploration and development have arisen as viewshed issues at Arches and Theodore Roosevelt national parks and Dinosaur National Monument, just to name three areas in the park system. Similarly, solar development in California mars viewsheds near parts of Mojave National Preserve, pointed out Dennis Schramm, a former superintendent of Mojave National Preserve.

"The Ivanpah project was about a mile, a mile-and-a-half away from the Clark Mountain boundary, and it sits on this slope that is the primary access to that part of the Mojave unit," said Mr. Schramm. "Clark Mountain is the tallest peak in the park, and as you're driving along I-15, that view of Clark Mountain is now dominated by almost 200,000 mirrors the size of billboards, and the three tall towers that are going in there."

The same cluster is visable if you're on top the 7,929-foot mountain looking down, he added.

During the call Mr. Lamfrom voiced his belief that "financial and tax-based incentives" could be leveraged to see solar facilities sited in "the right places to reduce conflicts.

More than 75 proposed solar projects proposed for California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico are being reviewed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has expanded review through its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to include lands in Utah and Colorado, the NPCA report points out.

One of the alternatives in the PEIS, the “Modified Solar Energy Zone Alternative," would restrict solar farm sitings to these so-called "SEZ" areas and effectively ban them from more than 22 million acres of "variance" lands, many of which bump up to units of the National Park System, the report said.

"Millions of acres of variance lands abut or are very close to national parks. If the BLM decides to make these areas eligible for solar development, there will be significant impacts on national parks if developments occur," the narrative states. "NPCA believes that developing solar energy resources and protecting resources in our national parks and other public lands are not mutually exclusive.

"The BLM’s efforts to develop a framework for evaluating solar energy project proposals has initiated an important national discussion—one that requires us to consider the benefits of solar energy and weigh them against the costs to desert landscapes. These are not wastelands, devoid of life and low in value. Instead, these places provide habitat for specially adapted desert plants; these intact landscapes connect wildlife that range over significant distances; and these open spaces connect us to the living things that surround us, giving us places to explore and enjoy with family and friends."

Comments

I think we are going about solar power the wrong way. We should add solar to existing structures, like homes and shopping centers, more than we build huge solar farms on land.

I AGREE!!!

My research shows that it's not cost efficient for a homeowner, however, it seems to be cost efficient when somebody builds a solar farm. Therein lies the issue.

BTW, how are the tortoise impacted by the solar farms?

If someone ones to live off the grid, they'll invest in solar and they'd be wise to invest it at the site, not on some stupid "solar farm"...

Zeb, tortoises lose habitat in some cases.

For what it's worth, Xanterra a few years back installed a rather larger solar energy system at its Death Valley operations. When we last checked in, in 2008, company officials said that during mid-day in the summer the system was producing as much as 75 percent of the total electricity used by their Furnace Creek facilities.

If you've been to Furnace Creek and seen those facilities, and realized the need for air-conditioning, you'd have to admit the solar energy being generated is pretty significant.

http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2008/11/new-solar-power-system-puts-park-forefront-alternative-energy-use

"however, it seems to be cost efficient when somebody builds a solar farm. Therein lies the issue"

Solar on any scale (except in isolated areas where transmission costs are prohibitive) is not cost efficient on any scale as of yet. The only thing that makes it "seem" that way is the government subsidies.

But it is interesting to seeing the enviros here stumbling over this issue. Blind reverence to solar versus untouchable national parks. Maybe this will help them understand that absolutes don't work and some trade offs have to be made.


Blind reverence to solar versus untouchable national parks.


Talk about absolutes! Strawmen abound!

I should have qualified my statement by adding "under the current tax subsidies". :)

I expect that the subsidies will go away as the cost of solar comes down. At some point, it's bound to be cost efficient. Solar prices keep coming down while non renewable energy prices keep going up. Those curves got to meet at some point!

I read the executive summary. It's better and more carefully written than many advocacy documents and acknowledges that the solar projects have undergone what sounds like full environmental review and been modified after such review.

Its remaining post-review worries aren't, however, immediately convincing. The summary mentions that for one project, 4000 acres will be disrupted, but it doesn't describe the resulting energy benefit. In the context of the vast desert southwest, 4000 acres is tiny (how many golf courses does that amount to?), and it's unclear whether the disruption will be bad for wildlife or desert flora. (The New York Times or Wall Street Journal recently reported that cell phone towers have been a boon to osprey.)

I'm not persuaded that solar projects should be stopped because they impact views from a national park or other preserve. (In this regard, the report emphasizes that the viewers are in a Wilderness, but a majority of NPS property is Wilderness.) By that standard, why should airplanes be allowed to fly over the national parks? And shouldn't we close Interstates 10, 15, and 40, along with all other roads, to the extent that noise or light from them extends past national park boundaries? To me, the notion that the parks not only occupy their own boundaries but also are entitled to no development beyond those boundaries that can be seen or heard from within them amounts to overreaching.

I guess my skepticism comes from an awareness that some environmentalists are hostile to infrastructure development generally and overstate its risks and understate its benefits. Where the NPCA report fits in on that spectrum is unclear. The report's assertions may be correct, but I'd welcome an analysis from a source that's a step or two farther back from the environmental movement.

As for putting solar on roofs so that power is decentralized, I'm all for it, but society's demand for electricity far outstrips what can be generated by solar facilities on all of the country's roofs.


but society's demand for electricity far outstrips what can be generated by solar facilities on all of the country's roofs


As well as that which can be generated by solar facilities on all the areas surrounding National Parks.

One thing I like about this report is that it proposes an infrastructure alternative instead of just saying no, which is what one often sees. But I wonder about the viability of its proposal, which seems to be to concentrate solar collectors in a handful of small areas, notably one off I-10 near Blythe, Calif. What happens if it's rainy there for days on end, as can happen in the winter? The BLM plan would seem to allow for facilities throughout the southwest, which would seem to allow a more resilient and redundant power-generating network.

If you've traveled out of the US recently, especially to Europe, you won't have failed to notice the proliferation of solar panels and windfarms.

Even in supposedly overcast and rainy England there were solar panels to be seen everywhere. Wind turbine towers were notable too, but usually not in windfarms, although I did see a couple of those.

More often than not, the turbines were standing alone, usually on farms or smallholdings, but even on the gounds of some private homes. Mini turbines were to be seen gracing the rooves of homes and office buildings, farm buildings etc.

It was a ral eye opener and was yet another reminder of just how far the USA has fallen behind the rest of the western world in adopting new tech. We should be leading as we used to, although I don't doubt most readers of this article will be aware of the politics behind the stymying of alternative energy in the U.S.

I live in Southern CA, where people are supposedly progressive and forward thinking, early and eager adopters of tech, especially tech that advances humanity. It's my belief that every surface of every building should be covered in solar panels, solar sheets in or on glass, anywhere and any way of capturing that free and abundant, almost limitless energy supply.

And yet from the hill by my house, 1500 feet up, I can see four homes that have solar panels, one of which is mine. Just down the hil lthere's a Whole Foods Market which has a massive solar array on its roof and which the Market claims not only supplies all its daily needs but actually sends a lot of spare power out on to the grid.

Someonein these comments mentioned that solar panels aren't financially viable fo homeowners. I didn't care about financially viable when we bought our panels. I cared about not burning coal and who knowswhat elsefor my own selfish comfort. As far as i can tell that's why most people get solar panels, not becasue they expect to make a profit out of them.

It's sad and disappointing that we're not doing more, that we're not taking responsibility for our own energy needs. Presidents since Nixon have been talking about energy independence, but it's all talk. They never do anything about it (until now and even that's nowhere near enough).

But I understand the political climate - one party serves the needs of short term fossil fuel companies who could and should be looking at what they're going to do when they finally suck the last drop of oil out ofthe Earth...and then there's the other bunch who pay lip service to the idea of alternatives to polluting fossil fuels, but then do little to actually sell that to your average low-information citizen.

Let's do it and do it now.

It is nice for you that you are rich enough to not care that solar panels are not "financially viable". Most of us have to calculate when or if they would save us money.

For all the talk about about solar roofs and cool technology, the best Watt is the one that's never consumed. When we bought our house (built in 1972), we quickly realized that there was no insulation in the walls whatsoever. We spent the next few years insulating all those walls, which lead to a net decrease in our heating bill, and negated the need for air conditioning. My point being that a lot of home owners would be better off simply insulating their home rather than going out and buying solar roof tops.