Tortoises, Sunflowers, and Subsidies: Large-Scale Solar Energy Policy in California and Andaluca
Current Bio: Since graduation Patrick has been a front-lines enviornment activist in the desert Southwest. Now he is Nevada State Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. He works with a team of attorneys and scientists to defend the imperiled species, public lands, water and climate of Nevada from the resource pillagers in the Trump administration and their corporate cronies who are destroying the biodiversity that makes life on Earth possible to turn a quick buck.
Haas Scholars Project: Solar energy is often proclaimed a solution to climate change, and perhaps its most visible incarnation has been the worldwide development of large-scale solar energy facilities in arid lands. These projects entail significant environmental and social externalities: endangered species loss, such as the desert tortoise in the California desert, and land use transformation, as on the sunflower farms of Andaluca, Spain, being two examples. State-led energy policy facilitates the rise of this industry, though subsidies, expedited review processes, and legislation. This paper seeks to understand compare U.S. and Spanish policy in this arena, using analyses of policy, law, economic data, environmental impact statements, field interviews, and surveys. A critical evaluation of these policy regimes, and their outcomes on the ground, may suggest a more environmentally and socially sustainable way forward.
June 26, 2013
Im driving across the rolling plains of the Guadalquivir River Valley, the agricultural heartland of Andaluca, Spains enormous southernmost autonomous community (similar to states in the U.S.). Ive just left the Morn Thermosolar Power Station, outside of the small city of Morn de la Frontera. My goal in visiting the site is twofold: Im interested in assessing the level of landscape integration or disturbance caused by the solar plant, and Im also interested in ground-truthing the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which the developer wrote prior to construction. Did the Assessment provide a thorough and accurate inventory of the impacts that this plant causes on the local environment? How does the presence of this plant affect the landscape surrounding it?
EIA is extremely different in Spain than in the United States, and its taken me some time to understand and work through those differences. I considered myself an expert on EIA in the U.S. but in Spain, Im a rank novice. Extensive literature review and discussions with professors and environmental professionals has helped me better understand how to navigate the world of EIA in Spain. One of the chief differences is that the actual Assessment documents, which are in the public domain in the U.S., are private property in Spain, owned by the developers. This has made my task more difficult. But through a series of coincidences and connections, I managed to obtain a number of EIA documents, which has allowed me to conduct my research as described above.
After driving around the plant, photographing it, inventorying the local ecosystem, and assessing the impacts particularly to hydrology, Im exhausted. Its almost the weekend, so Im going to take some R&R in the Sierra de Grazalema, a local Parque Natural in the mountains of the Cdiz Province. I stop off in Zahara de la Sierra, a small village tucked into the craggy foothills of the Sierra de Grazalema. Towns like Zahara, known as pueblos blancos, or white villages, are ancient, heavily fortified, and absolutely stunning. They date back to the repeated wars that were fought between the Christian castellanos and the Islamic Moors during the 10th-14th centuries here.
Its as hot as blazes, around 40C (104F), but Im enchanted by this place and I scale the rugged trail up to the ancient castle, perched above the village. The old saying, of course, is that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, and its true: Im the only person out at this time. The siesta culture is still alive and well in Andaluca, particularly in rural areas such as this one, which makes sense: who wants to be out when its a hundred degrees? As I peer down from the top of the castles tower, I can see other white villages, tucked into craggy hills in the distance. And Zahara, with its clay tiled roofs and winding cobblestone streets (meant for horses and pedestrians only- car access is extremely restricted), seems ancient in a way that I've never experienced in the U.S.
Im struck by the juxtaposition of this culture: a culture which holds on to old traditions, which inhabits ancient places, and yet which has embraced the idea of utility-scale solar technology with such reckless abandon that, at times, very serious environmental and social externalities have been overlooked in the face of expedient development. And Im grateful for the opportunity to sit in the noonday sun, embracing my English ancestry as it were, to ponder such thoughts.
July 6, 2013
Heat waves ripple up from the stony black hamada. Its so hot I can barely think. The sweat that drips off my forehead stains my glasses, clouds my vision. Im staggering about the site of a proposed solar development in the Sahara Desert of central Morocco. It would be the first utility-scale solar plant in Africa, and at a whopping 500MW, would be one of the largest such installations in the world.
Sweat soaks through my shirt- Ive drunk over 2 gallons of water today, and its still not enough. This area regularly reaches todays astounding temperature of 48C (118F), and is largely considered a barren wasteland. The EIA documents, freely available from the various transnational institutions (the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the IMF, et al.) which are funding this project, glossed over the potential environmental impacts of this plant. And yet, Im finding abundant life here: a gazelle horn, lizard tracks in the sand, vibrant riparian ecosystems in the dry washes, and an extensive pasture-land utilized by local inhabitants for grazing their sheep and goats.
Heat, yes. But there are animals and people uniquely adapted to the desert. The Berber inhabitants of this area, with their full-length clothing, seem perfectly content with the high temperatures. They move about slowly in the heat, to be sure, but they maintain the daily processes of life just as people do all over the planet. They are an open, gregarious lot, which I found out as I regularly gave rides to people beckoning from the side of the road, trying to get to and fro town. I even gave a ride to somebody with a chicken in tow, which he was going to sell at the market! In doing so, I was able to glimpse into this culture, to glean some idea of the relationship that the people have to landscape. While some Spaniards bemoan the loss of agricultural landscapes to large-scale solar, people in Morocco take a more utilitarian approach: will it bring money into the area? Then fine. They want it. Just as their goats and sheep utilize the land, just as the vibrant palm-filled canyons are utilized for intensive agriculture, so the stony hamada can make money out of sunlight. A fascinating difference worth exploring in the future.
July 27, 2013
Home. What is home? The answer for me is so complicated that I can rarely give a cogent response to a simple inquiry of, Where are you from? And yet, when it comes down to it, the California desert is home. I spent much of my adult life before coming to Berkeley in the desert around the little town of Joshua Tree, working in the outdoors doing ecological restoration projects and outdoor education. To be able to come back here for my research is an honor and a privilege. I first got interested in this topic precisely because of proposals to build utility-scale solar plants in my backyard, so to speak, in the desert southeast of Joshua Tree.
Out on the desert highway, a hundred miles from the nearest town, I keep my eyes peeled for a promising looking dirt road. Just a small break in the creosote scrub, the more rutted and gnarly looking the better, as itll keep away unwanted visitors. Its an hour before dusk, and the sun is hanging low over the faint-on-the-horizon silhouette of Mt. San Gorgonio to the west. This is the hottest part of the day, really, as the bone dry air here just heats and heats and heats throughout the day until the sun disappears, at which point the temperature drops about 20 degrees in a matter of minutes. When a suitable candidate appears, I veer off the highway, throw the truck into four-wheel-drive, and get to bumping along. Im searching for some shade, frankly, which is hard to come by in these parts. The best tactic is to head for the deepest wash you can find, and hope that enough water trickles down it each winter, and enough has pooled in subterranean aquifers, to support a scrubby but shade-providing Cats Claw Acacia or Desert Willow, or if Im extremely lucky a Desert Ironwood, whose toxic but relatively large leaves (ok, only about x, but large by desert standards) afford lush, delectable shade.
After some poking around, a few dead-end turns and one or two spin-outs in the sand, I find what Im looking for: a proud, gnarled, probably thousand-year-old ironwood, whose twenty foot tall branches make it the tallest thing in any direction up to the base of the crumbling mesoquartz mountains on either horizon. Just as I pull up under its overhanging branches, the sun goes down and the shade becomes moot. Nonetheless, Ill be grateful I found it tomorrow when the furnace starts heating up again. And I think of the many ironwoods that Ive camped under over the past decade; the many desert dirt roads Ive clunked along in myriad trucks, jeeps, cars, bicycles, and best, on foot; the many places that Ive called home, if only for a night or two.
I acknowledge the many ways that Ive changed, but the desert too is changing. Because filling half of my field of view is an immense construction project, truly dwarfing any of the previous ways that humanity has sought to alter the desert to meet its needs. Thousands of acres of mirrors, covering the desert floor, which has been retooled into a perfectly flat, completely barren surface; all of the creosote scrub and ironwood ripped up, all of the desert tortoises and kit foxes and coyotes and hummingbirds evicted; the pervasive quiet of the desert replaced with a consistent faint hum from the cooling towers for the steam engines, as big rig trucks roll in with yet more mirrors; and the emptiness of the desert, with only distant headlights on the far-off interstate to interrupt it, replaced with floodlights, security guards, and paved access roads. And perhaps if this was just the one, it would be different. But on my 200 mile drive from Joshua Tree, I passed three such facilities, as well as the proposed sites for another half dozen.
At this point, visiting the plants has become a bit of a rote exercise: the impacts tend to be very similar between plants of similar technologies, and Ive seen literally two dozen of them so far this summer. Instead, Im focusing on landscape integration: what are the effects of putting a 4,000 acre solar facility in the middle of a desert valley. Will the bighorn still make their traditional migratory routes between mountainside watering holes? Will aquatic birds mistake the glistening solar panels for an inviting looking pond? What of the effects on these lands which are traditionally sacred to local Indian tribes?
And so I sit here under an ironwood tree, in my home. And I contemplate how the desert is changing, and how Im changing. And how the people and places Ive encountered this summer have changed me, have challenged my beliefs and what I think is important. And Im simply content to know that in the year ahead of me, Ill have some space in which I can wrestle with these ideas, and put together my data, and hopefully put together a thesis which will positively influence the future of utility-scale solar development.