Energy transition & public lands
Figuring out a sustainable grid that doesn't come at the expense of open space
I guess it was more than 20 years ago that my wife, Wendy, and I hosted Christmas for my family at our home amid sagebrush and alfalfa fields outside the small settlement of Arboles. The house buzzed with the activity of a dozen people or more preparing for a holiday feast: food processors grinding, blenders pureeing, hair dryers drying, music playing, lights blazing.
The remarkable part of this is that the house – a funky affair built with mud and sticks, strawbales and juniper trunks – was off the grid, powered by a set of mismatched photovoltaic panels. And despite the near-solstice day’s brevity, the cloudy skies and the cold, the six Sam’s Club deep-cycle golf cart batteries we used to store the solar power held up to all of that use.
We sold the house long ago, but the memories of the view down the San Juan River and up the Piedra and of living among curvaceous, mud-plastered walls endure. And now, as we end a year of climatic nuttiness of fires and floods, of desiccation and deluge, of extreme heat and, well, more extreme heat, all of which conspired to wreak havoc on the electricity grid, I find myself yearning for that sense of self sufficiency. I also look back and wonder whether our experience may offer a glimmer of a solution to what I see as one of the biggest dilemmas to come: How do we decarbonize the power grid without wrecking public lands?
For grid watchers, this year was maddening: summer-long, above-normal temperatures punctuated by record-breaking, deadly heat waves kicked air-conditioners into overdrive to keep homes habitable. The resulting energy suck was severe, straining electrical grids from Seattle to San Diego. At the same time, drought diminished hydropower supply, leaving a yawning abyss between supply and demand. Though solar and wind power-generating capacity increased substantially over the last couple of decades, especially in the Southwest, it was not enough: The gap between supply and demand was filled not with clean energy, but with natural gas- and coal-generated power, the very same fossil fuels that got us into this climate mess in the first place.
The situation will only get worse.
Evidence continues to accumulate suggesting climate change will further warm and dry most of the West. The number of cooling degree days – an indicator of energy demand required to cool buildings – have increased over the last two decades and likely will continue to rise, and extreme heat events will become more frequent and severe. The push to replace natural gas-fired heating and cooking units with electric ones will further increase demand for power, as will the move to electric vehicles.
Meanwhile, power supplies – at least in the near-term – appear to be shrinking. Lake Oroville, one of California’s largest reservoirs, ceased producing hydropower altogether this summer due to shrinkage – only a super snowy winter can bring it back online. Glen Canyon Dam could fall below the minimum “power pool” level in the next two years, taking out one of the Southwest’s biggest hydropower generators. Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is set to go dark in 2025, depriving the California grid of enough electricity to keep air conditioners cranking in some 3 million homes.
If we can’t keep the lights on now without burning oodles of natural gas, how can we expect to do so in five years if current trends continue?
One way to solve the conundrum is to build, build, build: solar and wind installations paired with batteries, pumped-hydropower and compressed-air energy storage facilities, and more transmission lines to carry the clean power from one place to another. The Biden administration hopes to help this along by permitting 25 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity on public lands in the West, and developers are applying for these permits in droves.
But nearly every big project proposal runs up against stiff resistance, sometimes legitimate, other times not so much. A few examples:
• For at least a decade, developers have been eying the vast, flat expanse of Mormon Mesa in southern Nevada as a prime site for what would have been Nevada’s largest solar installation. But environmentalists pushed back because of the impacts to the desert ecosystem, recreational users worried about losing access, and art lovers didn’t want thousands of gleaming solar panels to encroach on the viewshed of Double Negative (a piece of land art in Moapa Valley). The developers dropped the proposal this summer.
• In southern Wyoming, the Anschutz Corporation has been slogging through the permitting process for 16 years to build the nation’s largest wind farm and a direct current transmission line to carry the power to a substation near Hoover Dam, where it will link into the California grid. The project would allow California to use Wyoming wind to cover the late afternoon hours when electricity demand peaks and solar generation declines – and solar power could be sent the other way, as well. But a single land-owner put conservation easements on their sprawling Colorado ranch just as the line’s final path was approved, blocking the transmission line and bringing progress to a standstill.
• Another wind project proposed for southern Idaho is facing resistance because of its close proximity to a World War II-era Japanese American incarceration camp.
• Residents of Pahrump, Nev., along with desert conservationists, are pushing against proposals to blanket thousands of acres of public lands with solar panels because of potential impacts to wildlife, views and access.
• A pumped hydropower storage project proposed for land in central Washington overlooking the Columbia River would use wind power during times of low demand to pump water from a lower reservoir to one above it, and then run the water through turbines to generate hydropower when needed. This type of utility scale energy storage system is needed to smooth out the variability of wind and solar power. But the land on which this project would be built, Pushpum, is sacred to the Yakama Nation, which opposes the project.
The list goes on. Sometimes one can’t help but bristle at the apparent cynicism of the opposition to such projects: In Wyoming, oilman and Dick Cheney-associate Diemer True once led a fight against wind development, even on private land; coal mine owner Bill Koch fought against East Coast offshore wind turbines for years; and residents of the small town of Boron, Cali., which sits on the rim of the world’s largest open-pit borax mine, are worried that development of a solar installation nearby will kick up health-harming dust.
But in many cases, the energy company clearly chose the site that they did out of ignorance, and probably deserve to have their plans thwarted. Solar developers tend to be drawn to vast swaths of public land in the deserts of Nevada and California, for example. That’s partly because there’s plenty of sunshine in the desert and because the population centers are nearby. It’s also because of the misconception that deserts are wastelands – barren, lifeless places to be “rescued” from their aridity or, in this case, sacrificed to make way for utility-scale power plants.
But anyone who has spent the night in the desert knows it is teeming with life – tortoises and tarantulas, cacti and wildflowers, lizards and javelinas – and is no more a wasteland than a rainforest or mountain valley. And covering thousands of acres of that same desert with solar panels is hardly better than turning it into a coal mine or gas field. Unfortunately, these issues often become as polarized as American politics, and are presented as zero sum decisions: Either you destroy a chunk of desert to keep the climate crisis at bay, or you save a chunk of desert and “desertify” the rest of the globe. But is it really an either-or proposition? Or can there be a middle way?
Check back on Jan. 6 for part 2 in this series.
Jonathan Thompson is a fourth-generation Durangoan who runs the Land Desk, a thrice-weekly newsletter: visit www.landdesk.org. He is also the author of “River of Lost Souls,” “Behind the Slickrock Curtain” and “Sagebrush Empire.”