CVIndependent

Fri11222019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to the Mojave Desert this September to announce a multi-agency effort to boost renewable energy development in the desert.

But first, she had to go on a hike.

“We went out into the Big Morongo (Canyon) Preserve,” she told reporters. “Fifteen, 20 minutes from here, there are wetlands. Wetlands, and 254 different bird species. Who knew?”

I remember being amazed, too, on a 2008 visit to that same preserve with a couple of California conservationists. I thought I knew the dry desert, its banded sunsets and varieties of lizards. But Morongo was a wonderland of seeps and birds, where a couple of times we stopped to behold a desert tortoise munching on purple flowers.

It was also a wonderland through which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had hoped to string a transmission corridor. The city planned to call it the Green Path North, as it would haul geothermal energy from the Salton Sea to the transmission hubs that serve Los Angeles.

That transmission line never happened. As with so many renewable-energy projects slated for the Mojave and Colorado deserts of California, Green Path North mostly fell victim to market forces—but not before it sullied the utility’s reputation locally. The proposal had the effect of uniting off-roaders, rock-climbers and conservationists in protest against the careless industrialization of the desert for energy projects—even clean-energy projects.

The new Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a collaboration among federal, state and local governments; the solar industry; Native American tribal leaders; and environmentalists, is an attempt to get ahead of such careless proposals. An analysis of 22.5 million acres of desert land, both public and private, it sets aside habitat for desert species like the tortoise and bighorn sheep. It should guide developers toward land rich with transmission, but absent cultural and natural resources.

Jewell called it a “road map” that can be used for more renewable-energy development around the country. As she stood against a background of windmills just outside of Palm Springs, describing how the Obama administration means to “double down” on public-lands renewable energy development, the 8,000-page document went online.

So far, environmental groups have mostly praised the effort, as have Native American leaders and national park advocates. Kim Delfino, the California program director at Defenders of Wildlife, says she hopes it means that “we can focus on the projects we all can support.” The Sierra Club calls the plan “a promising step” toward protecting “areas with environmental, cultural or scenic value that should be preserved for future generations.”

Energy developers, too, should be happy, as the plan promises to end the uncertainty that has wasted so much of their time and money. Two weeks before the plan’s release, for example, the California Energy Commission had belatedly approved the Palen Solar Power Plant, a collaboration between California-based BrightSource Energy and Spanish developer Abengoa. The commission had rejected the project last December, partially on the grounds that its peculiar technology—fields of mirrors that concentrate sunlight on a 750-foot high tower—would create hazards for birds in the Colorado Desert. A similar BrightSource solar plant on California’s border with Nevada seems to be creating an ecological “megatrap” that kills birds.

But in mid-September, the commission changed course: The project could go ahead, but at only half of its proposed size. Then, on Sept. 26, the developers suddenly withdrew their application. The delay had cost them a federal tax credit and, quite possibly, their power purchase agreement with a major California utility.

The Desert Sun called the cancellation “shocking,” accurately summing up the general reaction to the announcement. But the real shock should not have been that Palen was canceled, but that the project was ever considered an appropriate idea for a place where it could do so much damage.

Will the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which clears the way for 20,000 more megawatts of solar and wind on desert lands by 2040, prevent more ill-planned projects that stutter and fail? Everyone I talked to who’d come to hear Secretary Jewell speak said they were optimistic.

But a conservation plan is only as good as the people who make it happen on the ground. It’s worth remembering the lesson of the Green Path North: No energy project can be green without the support of the people who will have to live alongside it. And environmental ideals mean little if they aren’t backed up by genuine care for the local landscape.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared. She is a contributing editor for the magazine.

Published in Community Voices

I'm a health nut, so I almost never eat at fast-food restaurants. But I notice that every time there's a new burger joint here in the valley, it opens to much fanfare. These establishments are very popular with people who have little time on their hands, not to mention the slime on their hands when they're eating all the greasy food.

But what's wrong with this picture? Shouldn't we be encouraging people to live a healthier lifestyle? We live in an area that offers plenty of outdoor recreation, yet not everyone takes advantage of it.

We can eliminate much of the debate about health care by just focusing on prevention. If we teach people how to take care of themselves, that will decrease the chances of them becoming dependent on the system. For those who have already become ill, I propose instituting an incentive-based health-care system. For example, if an obese person loses a specific amount of weight, they would be offered a discount on their insurance premium; after all, money is a great motivator. But let's take a look at some practical solutions to get people started.

Anyone who has driven into the Coachella Valley has noticed those unsightly windmills located next to the freeway. They've always been an eyesore. Perhaps we should remove all the windmills and replace them with people. If someone is in need of more exercise, they would have the opportunity to stand in the wind-prone areas and flap their arms as hard as they could. By doing this, they could generate power, and burn calories at the same time. It would be a win-win situation for everyone, not to mention a wind-wind situation.

Another suggestion is to have our own “running of the bulls” event here in the desert. The idea would be to let loose a herd of bulls through the streets and have them chase a group of people who need exercise. There's no better way to get in shape quickly than be forced to run for your life.

But before you dismiss all this as a bunch of bull, we need to recognize the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Activity is the key to longevity.

One of the best ways to stay active is to swim, and here in the Coachella Valley, we're lucky to have a body of water large enough to accommodate thousands of swimmers. I'm talking about the jewel of the desert, the Salton Sea. There's nothing more satisfying than taking a dip on a beautiful day surrounded by the aroma of rotting fish. And that's the point: There could be a race called “Last One Out Is a Rotten Egg.” All the contestants would swim as fast as they could to get out of the water quickly. The last one out would, indeed, smell like rotten eggs.

The ideal solution would be to combine all of these activities together to create the First Annual Coachella Valley Turbine Toro Tilapia Triathlon. Participants would start off by flapping their arms like a wind turbine, then be chased by bulls all the way to the Salton Sea, where they could swim alongside floating tilapia.

When the swimmers emerge from the sea, each of them would be personally dried off by former Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack, who's used to throwing in the towel. The winner of the competition would be invited to have a Big Mac with Bono Mack and her husband, Connie Mack. Of course, Big Macs aren't exactly the healthiest food in the world, which leads us back to our original goal of living a healthier lifestyle.

Our new congressman, Dr. Raul Ruiz, spent a year as a medical student with Partners in Health, an organization dedicated to providing health care to impoverished countries. His services could certainly be used to educate people here about the benefits of taking care of themselves.

In the meantime, you deserve a break today. Forget the burger; get your buns out, and do something active.

Published in Humor