"It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment" Ansel Adams
If you’ve followed my photographs and words long enough, you’ve seen and heard me speak about the California desert and renewable or “green” energy, and perhaps not necessarily in the friendliest of fashions. Wouldn’t it seem at odds for a land- and animal-loving environmentalist to oppose renewable energy?
Humans are but a small blip on the evolutionary and geologic timeline of Planet Earth and humanity sits squarely at the middle of the sixth mass extinction. As a direct result of human activities, the rapid loss of species we are witnessing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate.
This article begins with the premise that you care about things beyond humanity. If you believe that humans are number one and that everything on earth has been strategically placed here for our taking and profit, without consequence, you should probably exit now.
Renewable or sustainable energies are those that provide energy without the carbon and climate impacts of traditional fossil fuels or the ecological impacts of damming rivers or building other industrial structures. Renewable implies that there would be no cost to man, climate, or environment. This can be true of wind and sun but not in the way these energy systems are currently being developed and implemented.
Let me get this out of the way: There is nothing sustainable nor “green” about large-scale industrial solar and wind projects that are sited on pristine or little-disturbed lands. These are projects that require many thousands of acres of industrial development and are located many miles away (sometimes hundreds) from where the energy will ultimately be used. This model inherently makes zero sense, but it is how we’ve been doing it for decades. Americans hate it when things change. If the human model is one of continuous population and economic growth – and it is – then continuous expansion and building of solar and wind farms will be necessary. Our current energy systems in the American West are still largely based on hydrology (water/dams) and fossil fuels (coal or natural gas).
In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama called for a goal: "By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources." It was a very ambitious and audacious goal. 2011 was also the first year that I began to do assignment work (for several national environmental organizations) in the effort to prevent poorly-sited California energy projects that would result in ecological destruction and the deaths and displacement of thousands, if not millions, of vertebrate and invertebrate animals. As of 2019, the California Energy Commission estimated that 36 percent of the state’s retail electricity sales were provided by renewable sources.
Industrial-scale renewable energy developments sited on undisturbed desert are incredibly violent, destructive, and heartbreaking. Thousands of acres of previously wild public lands and old-growth carbon-sequestering plants and animals are munched, mulched, and bladed into oblivion. Fences are permanently erected around the projects to prevent native wildlife and the public from accessing their lands. This is public land, your land. Are you okay with this? Like most U.S. mining ventures, little to no royalties are paid to government. The land lessee and energy operator – sometimes a foreign entity – is able to develop these projects with subsidies and loan guarantees from our federal government (capitalism or socialism?). Public utilities then transmit the energy to metropolitan municipalities – often hundreds of miles away - where it is sold to ratepayers at a premium. Once bladed, the desert is effectively dead – especially while drought and rising temperatures plague the American West.
Let me be clear: I am an “environmentalist.” I am 100% in favor of renewable energy, as quickly as we can get it. But done the right way. The smart way. So let’s be honest: when we talk about saving "the planet" we are talking about saving "the humans.” We now clearly recognize and see the climate threats to humanity and our things. The change is unfolding. Quickly. It is estimated that there may be up to one BILLION environmental migrants worldwide by 2050. Planet Earth will do just fine. Humans? Not as much. And if you believe that it is necessary to destroy the planet to “save the planet” (or humans, for that matter), I have a very dystopian future to sell you.
What are the alternatives? I’m a fundamentalist. I look for root causes and obvious, basic solutions.
- There are too many humans on the planet, there are too many humans in the American West. Population is the #1 issue affecting all other issues. Our population has passed the sustainability point, at least the way we like to consume things. There are many articles and organizations promoting sustainable human numbers, should you care to investigate them. Every caring human must consider their own contribution to population growth. If you really care.
- Reduction/Conservation. Most states in the American West have no energy use limits. We pretend that all energy is free and infinite, just like water. Why do empty buildings and quiet cities stay illuminated at night? Do we really need so many rechargeable electronic devices, plugged in all the time? These are just a couple of important questions we can ask and address. If we really care.
- Rooftop Solar mandates on all new buildings and houses. All new housing and warehousing should and must be built this way, but only California requires that new house construction be equipped with rooftop solar. Adjacent states still pretend that energy is infinite; that our hydrologic energy reservoirs are not disappearing (namely, Reservoirs Powell and Mead); and that maybe if we just pray harder we can make it rain. Why wouldn’t rooftop solar be mandated in all sunny places? Because of our wonderful lobbyists and current do-nothing legislators. Public Utility monopolies won’t give up this fight easily. If one can generate and store their own energy, public utilities would no longer be needed and desert-destroying industrial-scale energy boondoggles would end. Most Americans cannot afford to install rooftop solar. In order for this to happen, we have to fight our government to defer legislation, subsidies, and loans away from industry and toward the people (your vote matters; see below).
For more than ten years I have used my photographs and voice to speak out against these projects. The California desert conservation coalition is composed of an amazing group of activists who have stopped some really bad projects, but we’ve also lost some really bad ones. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System near the California/Nevada border was a tremendous heartbreak; you’ve possibly flown over or near it on arrival or departure from Las Vegas. Thousands of acres of virtually pristine desert were forever converted, and hundreds of desert tortoises were killed and and displaced. Ivanpah also marked a turning point in how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM. I have since coined them the Bureau of Lumber, Mining, Cattle, and Energy Development) responded to public comment and criticism during open public meetings: they didn’t. During the final public meeting for Ivanpah, participants were silenced and the Sheriff was on hand to ensure that defenders sat quietly and only listened to what the developers had in store for their public lands (democracy or autocracy?). This practice continues today. We are often given very little time between official project notice and end of public comment period. Some of us rightfully contend that BLM works for industry, not the land nor average Americans. The BLM will today rubber stamp any project that is not fiercely contested by conservationists.
What are the answers? Renewable energy is a complex topic that has eluded easy solutions. I am not an expert in renewable energies nor public policy but I have watched western deserts transform radically and quickly over the last decade as we have rushed toward the illusion of “green energy." Let’s cut the crap: The “green energy” roll out is a sham. It only replaces one ecologically destructive energy form for another.
Electric vehicles sound great on paper and in premise. They eliminate carbon output - that’s it. But they also require rare earth elements, like lithium, which has now entered the controversial fray. To get more lithium (we need a LOT more), we need to destroy even more desert (commonly found in dry lake beds). At this point in time, a car plugged into an outlet is still drawing energy from a dam, from coal, or from an ecologically destructive industrial scale renewable energy project, like Ivanpah – there will never be any free lunches. Call them EV or Electric or Hybrid, but please refrain from calling “green” those cars and this form of energy – they are anything but.
No rooftop, parking garage, brownfield, Superfund site, or military base should be left uncovered! These things should be plastered in photovoltaic panels, not our wildlands. The dirty and destructive business of humans must stay inside the cities.
Conservationists are fighting for DISTRIBUTED/DECENTRALIZED energy, also known as SMALL/MICROGRID energy. That is, energy that is developed AND managed on-site. It’s so obviously sensible that its lack of implementation in the U.S. is nearly laughable. It’s what many individuals, small communities, schools, healthcare institutions and others already do. Public utilities can no longer be trusted to handle our energy generation. California utilities have helped to burn down our state with improper line maintenance and mitigation measures while other states, like Texas, have experienced recent massive grid failures. And now our energy is being hacked by foreign enemies. It’s time to evolve.
YOUR VOTE MATTERS. Don't vote for the political party who attempts to subvert U.S. democracy. Don't vote for the political party that favors business and industry over average Americans. Stop electing politicians who collect money from industry lobbyists and PACs. Stop electing local politicians who sign off on destroying your public lands. If you live in a western state, get your legislators on board with distributed rooftop solar. Use less energy. Unplug and turn off all the things you are not using. Turn up the thermostat. Don’t use conditioned air at all. Close the doors and window shades. In short, do all the obvious stuff you can think of in order to reduce the amount of energy you use. You can probably come up with a long list on your own.
We are all to blame for the amount of energy we all use. Our ancestors managed without and they survived. In this thing, we are truly all together. Nothing will change unless our thinking changes - critically and quickly.
Postscript: I’ve been overdue in writing this piece. It was produced quickly in a flight of fancy with thoughts and ideas that have been stewing for a while. I will continue to update this article and add relevant links in the weeks ahead. I appreciate your reading and understanding and welcome your comments and feedback. Thank you.
** PLEASE SUPPORT BASIN & RANGE WATCH, a 501(c)(3) organization, all contributions are fully tax-deductible. They are the only organization doing what they do: working to conserve the deserts of Nevada and California and to educate the public about the diversity of life, cultures, and history of the desert, as well as sustainable local renewable energy alternatives. Their goal is to identify the problems of energy sprawl and find solutions that will preserve our natural ecosystems and open spaces. They specialize in ground-truthing proposed project sites and reporting their findings to the public so that everyone is well-informed about how to comment during agency review periods. They pioneered citizen science monitoring of energy projects in the desert and support energy efficiency, better rooftop solar policy, and distributed generation/storage alternatives, as well as planning for wise energy and land use following the principles of science and conservation biology. PLEASE DONATE TODAY.