With the advent of 2010 California stands only a decade away from 2020 when, according to plan, the state should be producing a full 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. That unrealistic goal will be tough to achieve by any standard but a new proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein could make it harder for California to deploy its own natural assets in the energy cause.
Feinstein’s proposal establishes two new “monuments” covering nearly a million acres in the Mojave desert, in an area the Bush administration had included for renewable energy projects. Backers of alternative energy were looking to the Mojave to provide a major part of California’s 33 percent goal.
High-profile environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. calls the Mojave area “arguably the best solar land in the world,” and he may well be right. Beyond the scorching temperatures, the Mojave is relatively close to Los Angeles, so transferring the power to a major population center is not a huge problem. Unlike other kinds of power, solar energy follows the power demands of air conditioning, which gets heavy mid-day use in most of southern California.
That is an ideal feature for the Golden State but some object to desert solar energy plants on aesthetic grounds, similar to the opposition to offshore windmills near Cap Cod. According to solar energy backers who met with Senator Feinstein, she was concerned about “the visual effect of huge solar farms on Route 66,” the highway that runs through the desert.
The senator’s proposal has already nixed some wind farms and solar plants in the Mojave region. Private firms and utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric expressed disappointment over the proposal. So did Patrick Kennedy, who told reporters that Sen. Feinstein “shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review.” Karen Douglas of the California Energy Commission is on record that “the very existence of the monument proposal has certainly chilled development within its boundaries.”
Marc D. Joseph of California Unions for Reliable Energy told reporters that the Feinstein proposal, “seems the wrong approach to where solar should go and where it shouldn’t go.” John White of the Sacramento-based Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies said “if you take a million acres off the table, what are you going to replace it with?”
Good question. Some observers think that the Feinstein proposal will spur the search for new sites. For her part, Sen. Feinstein is showing some flexibility and hinting at using military property for energy purposes, including some three million acres in the desert. Other Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sites will reportedly be available. While everything shakes out in the desert, it wouldn’t hurt to consider other energy sources.
According to news reports, the French company Areva and some California investors have signed a letter of intent to build one or two nuclear power plants near Fresno. This effort shows that demand for energy remains high, and that energy entrepreneurs are seeking ways to increase supply if allowed to do so. The Areva team is up against a law that bans new nuclear plants until the federal government resolves storage problems for nuclear waste.
In the meantime, politicians should set realistic goals and put California’s energy needs above global grandstanding. Politicians should not promote renewable energy then throw regulatory obstacles in its way. Renewable energy is of course worth pursuing, but as Tom Tanton points out in Top 10 Energy Myths, such sources are not close to replacing conventional energy sources. Those too could do with less regulation, not more.