On Jan. 13, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a right-of-way request made by Intersect Power. The move allowed the company to proceed with construction on the Oberon Renewable Energy Project near Desert Center, located about 50 miles east of Indio along the north side of Interstate 10.
The Oberon project, slated to be built on some 2,600 acres of public land (about four square miles), is expected to be completed by the end of next year. It the latest effort by Intersect Power, which “develops and owns some of the world’s largest clean energy resources providing low-carbon electricity, fuels and related products to customers across North America,” according to the company website.
Intersect Power—which did not respond to the Independent’s requests for comment—is a big player in this country’s renewable-energy push. The BLM press release issued on the day of the approval stated: “As part of the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035 and meet the Energy Act of 2020 goal of permitting 25 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2025, the Bureau of Land Management has approved the Oberon Solar Project, which will generate up to 500 megawatts of renewable energy and have capacity for 200 megawatts of battery storage.”
Given the increasingly bad news about the amount of carbon in the planet’s atmosphere, and the worsening effects of climate change, the United States certainly needs more truly carbon-free energy production. However, an increasing number of ecologists and environmental activists are beginning to speak out about large-scale desert solar projects like Oberon—because, they say, these projects will do more harm than good.
“Industrial scale solar is appropriately controversial,” said Cameron Barrows, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Center, during a recent email exchange with the Independent. “On the one hand, we need to facilitate what you referred to as the ‘rush to renewables.’ Climate change is real. It is serious. There is a long list of reasons why. Climate change is already impacting people’s lives—(with) flooding, unseasonable hurricanes and tornados, historic drought and forest fires.”
The Obama administration thought industrial solar, built across our deserts, was a solution to this problem, Barrows said.
“They held the naïve but popular view that our deserts are wastelands and that industrial solar was the highest and best use of those lifeless wastelands,” Barrows said. “They could not have been more wrong. The reality is that our deserts are among the richest regions for biodiversity, below tropical forests, but significantly above other regions in terms of plant, insect, reptile and mammal species richness.”
Our deserts are not only homes to a richness of biodiversity; they’re also places where a lot of carbon has been sequestered.
Robin Kobaly is the founder and executive director of the SummerTree Institute, based in Morongo Valley. Her lengthy resume on the institute’s website, in part, says that she “has served as both United States Bureau of Land Management District botanist for the California Desert District and preserve manager at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. … Robin co-founded and helped to develop The Wildlands Conservancy, one of the largest nonprofit land conservancies in the United States.” During a recent interview with the Independent, she said the demolition of ancient desert lands will release a whole lot of carbon—sequestered in desert plants and their root systems for hundreds to thousands of years—back into the atmosphere.
“Classically, stored carbon has been quantified just on above-ground biomass, like in the forests,” Kobaly explained. “So the trees and the mulch on the ground, and a couple of inches under—that’s the stuff that has been studied.”
The desert, on the other hand, has been misunderstood, Kobaly said.
“When (government policymakers) look across the desert, they see really short plants that are well-spaced apart,” Kobaly said. “The studies that have been done on sequestered carbon in the desert have looked just at this above-ground biomass, which is not large, and go down to what they call ‘plow depth.’ That’s where they look for carbon in the desert—the same way they look for it in the forests and the grasslands of the Great Plains. But the desert is an entirely different animal.”
Because there’s so little water and so much heat in the desert, plants need extremely deep roots to survive.
“Most of a (desert) plant is underground,” Kobaly said. “If we could take that plane of the desert, look into that soil and then flip the whole thing upside down, we would have what would look like the densest tropical forest (made up) of all the roots that extend between three feet (for perennial plants) down to 100 to 150 feet—which is storing carbon. But nobody looks at this.”
Oberon is one of three projects the BLM and the Interior Department announced in December 2021—and more are on the way, thanks to the BLM’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) Land Use Plan Amendment.
“The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan covers 10.8 million acres of public lands spanning the desert regions of seven California counties and is a landscape-level plan streamlining renewable energy development, while conserving unique and valuable desert ecosystems and providing outdoor recreation opportunities,” that Jan. 13 press release said.
Kobaly said the BLM’s decisions are doing the exact opposite of “conserving unique and valuable desert ecosystems.”
“I originally worked on the science advisory panel for the California Energy Commission when the first phase of the DRECP was started, and the guiding light … for all the biologists working on that was, ‘Do no harm,’” she said. “We viewed everything through that lens, and we’d say, ‘If we don’t know enough about it, then let’s not screw it up.’ We wouldn’t say, ‘Well, we don’t know enough about it, so let’s go ahead and screw it up.’”
The Independent reached out to BLM representatives for their input, but after more than two weeks of email exchanges indicating that we’d hear back, we never did.
The possible reason for the BLM’s reluctance to talk: money.
Kobaly believes that an intense lobbying campaign by the utility monopolies—who are attempting to maintain total control over the generation and transmission of solar electricity—is impeding the efforts of scientists and environmentalists. These companies don’t want rooftop solar to succeed, she said.
“They want industrial-scale solar, so people have to pay those generation and transmission fees to them,” Kobaly said. “The (California Public Utilities Commission) is considering reducing the amount of credits you can get through their net metering program from about 80% of the energy you produce (going toward) a credit, down to about 20%. And they want to increase the fee for (a utility) to connect the people who have solar to the grid. The lobbyists for these energy companies are pushing the CPUC to really smash the incentives for rooftop solar.”
Kobaly said the utilities are claiming that poorer people are paying more for electricity, because it’s rich people who are getting solar.
“Well, I would love to be considered in the rich category, but I’m telling you that the only reason we could get solar is because (our installer charged) no out-of-pocket costs for it,” Kobaly said.
Vincent Battaglia is the CEO of Renova Energy, which he founded in 2006.
“The reason why those utility monopolies are building those larger-scale systems is because they do not want to lose their complete control of the generation of electrons,” Battaglia said. “Our governments (are) giving hundreds of billions of dollars to the electric utility monopolies for infrastructure, but if that money were to go toward incentives for installing rooftop solar, then those rooftop units will provide the power for the home or the business beneath it, thereby removing the necessity for generating electrons in a centralized power plant—be it a solar power plant or coal-fire power plant—and then carrying those electrons through miles and miles of infrastructure to a home.”
Battaglia said the utility monopolies are desperate to hold on to an outdated energy model they’ve controlled for more than a century.
“You’ve got a 130-year-old model of a hub that generates electrons that was created by Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse—all the old dudes who are dead and gone,” Battaglia said. “We didn’t have the technological (option) of creating distributed generation, meaning photovoltaic (solar) or wind, and then storing that power in batteries. … Now, here we are, continuing in that era of the 130-year-old model, yet we have technology of today that can release us from this centralized model that is extremely inefficient.
“You’ve got the hub, and the spokes are all these transmission lines that lose all the power on the way to the city center from where it was generated. You’re creating not only visual pollution, but you’re creating (the danger of) fire, too. On average, those transmission lines are now 50 years old, and that infrastructure is antiquated. It’s falling apart. And now we’ve got the utilities coming to (the public) and saying, ‘Well, we’ve been around for 130 years, and we’re dependable, so you need to help us upgrade those lines.’ Now, where do you think they’re going to get that money? They’re going to get it by fleecing the rate-payers. … Instead, the government policymakers should be saying, ‘You know what? We have a transitional technology called photovoltaic and battery storage. We should be turning more toward that direction.’ But the utilities keep saying, ‘No, no, no. Don’t look in that direction. We’ll do the solar and the batteries, as long as you allow us to keep our profits coming in on a quarterly basis.’”
Battaglia said the government needs to distinguish between what he calls “good solar” and “bad solar.”
“Good solar is rooftop solar that actually creates jobs and savings for folks, and doesn’t destroy pristine lands,” he said. “Bad solar is what the utilities are into because they have to (maintain their) quarterly profits. … Again, they’re just doing what they can to try to remain relevant as rooftop solar establishes its roots and … expands in the market. Therefore, they’re just looking for ways to eliminate their competition by doing things like creating these massive solar projects.”
To date, the rooftop solar industry has indeed established good roots in the Coachella Valley.
“We have about 14,000 solar systems installed on homes in the valley who are served by Southern California Edison,” Battaglia said. “So (rooftop solar) has reached about 10-11% penetration rate of our (eligible) population here in the valley. That’s high compared to 4% in all of California, or less than 2% across the United States.”
In the eastern Coachella Valley, the Imperial Irrigation District also offers a rooftop-solar arrangement to its customer base, but Renova Solar and some other companies have chosen not to install solar panels and battery units within their territory due to IID’s net billing business model, which is less favorable to rooftop solar customers than the net metering practice employed by SCE.
The rooftop solar industry is also proving to be a source of jobs. The BLM press release touting the Oberon project said it will create 750 union construction jobs—but just eight permanent jobs. Meanwhile, Renova has about 300 full-time employees right now, Battaglia said.
“During the pandemic, we went down to about 125 workers, but about a year ago, we started to build back up,” he said. “We’re getting really good people, too. Our average age is 26 years old, and our average pay is $22 per hour.
“And I’d like to make the announcement here that rooftop (solar companies), and Renova in particular, have been in talks with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers so that we can put organized labor into rooftop solar. People don’t realize this, but right now, (IBEW workers) are only out in the fields building those ridiculous solar power plants, which will be disconnected when there are brownouts and blackouts, anyway.”
Battaglia added that the jobs on these major installations only usually last for six months or so.
“The union realizes this. They’re no dummies,” Battaglia said. “They know they have a membership base of intelligent, skilled electric labor, and I want them in rooftop. We’ve been actively talking with them to convince them that rooftop needs them. We need their journeymen to get on the rooftops and to move forward. America is not going to be able to install micro-grids in homes and businesses without organized labor being involved, both here in the United States and around the world.”
As Battaglia fights to keep Renova and the rest of the rooftop-solar industry relevant in the face of utility lobbying efforts, Kobaly, of the SummerTree Institute, worries that large solar installations like Oberon will end up having a net effect of releasing more carbon into our atmosphere. She explained how that would happen.
“What’s happening all across our deserts is all of these plants are breathing in excess carbon dioxide and storing it underground in a lock box that can stay that way for tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years—if it’s not disrupted,” Kobaly said. “What’s really fascinating to me is that all of these little carbon sequestration units that we call desert plants are so old that each individual plant can be storing carbon for 30 to 50 years—which is a short lifespan for a desert shrub—to 100 years or more. The average age of a normal creosote bush in our area is probably 600 years, but they can get much, much older. Single yucca plants that have been studied out in the Lucerne Valley area are at least 2,500 years old.
“So here we have these little carbon-sequestering units that can live many hundreds to several thousand years taking carbon out of the air and storing it underground … and the only way we can stop that is by putting a bulldozer blade down and removing all of them to put in an industrial-scale solar plant, under the guise of saving us from carbon dioxide in the air. And that industrial-scale solar plant probably has a viable lifespan of 20 years, if we’re lucky.
“As soon as you kill the plant … there’s no more carbon sequestration underground at depth. Instead, if there’s disruption at the surface, and there’s weathering or erosion, the calcium carbonate—the mineral form in which the carbon removed from the atmosphere stays sequestered—can be dissolved, and all that carbon is released back into the air. So if we disturb the desert, we not only stop the carbon sequestration that’s going on every day by all of our desert plants, but we release the carbon that has been stored there for millennia.”
The Independent reached out to the California Natural Resources Agency to discuss the concerns of Kobaly and others, and received this statement: “California is committed to protecting and supporting the health of our deserts through a variety of mechanisms, such as our 30×30 Pathways Strategy, our Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy, the Scoping Plan, the new California Desert Conservation Program, and implementation of our Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). We are also interested in deepening our understanding of the nexus between climate change and desert landscapes through California’s 5th Climate Change Assessment (which is currently under way).”
Meanwhile, the utility companies continue to make plans for more large-scale solar projects in the desert. Right now, in a roughly 90-plus square mile area in and around Desert Center on the northside of the Interstate 10, there are three existing solar energy projects already in operation; two projects under construction (including Oberon); and three proposed projects in various stages of the BLM right-of-way approval process.
Kobaly and her fellow environmentalists are preparing for the worst.
“We need to go out and map these areas so that we know exactly what’s there, and so we’ll know what we’ll lose if we allow renewable energy (installations) there,” she said.
“Don’t get me wrong: I love the rush to renewables. But we need to think smarter. We are venturing down pathways that the people who are approving these projects don’t know enough about. The bottom line is that we have to get our lawmakers more aware of the consequences of approving industrial-scale solar on intact desert land. So while I think this rush toward clean energy is fabulous, we need to be rushing toward (solar on) parking lots, roof tops, old agricultural fields and open canals and aqueducts.
“What rattles my cage is that the first knee-jerk reaction that everybody has—even the nonprofits who profess to be green—is to say that the answer to climate change is to put solar fields all over the desert, because there’s nothing out there anyway: ‘There’s no carbon sequestration. There’s no carbon storage.’ And they couldn’t be more wrong. What the desert is giving back to us is so underappreciated—until it’s gone.”