The battle for climate change in the Mojave Desert

When some people look at the Mojave Desert, what they see is an endless world. But Shannon Salter saw ancient Mojave yucca and slender creosote bushes, shrewd kangaroos, and slender foxes, all living on hard rocks and lichen shells formed over thousands of years. superior.

“Some people think this is a wasteland,” Salt said. “No, this is a vibrant and amazing thing. We are using all our antics to turn it into a wasteland.”

In mid-October, Salt, a 37-year-old poet and writing teacher, moved into a campsite in Palang Valley, south of Nevada, east of the California border, to protest against what she and other activists believed would destroy the fragile desert by an irreversible solar project ecosystem.

A woman in a hat and blue shirt stands in front of a camper with a stove, pan and kitchen supplies

Shannon Salter, 37, camped near the Yellow Pine solar project site in Pahrump Valley, Nevada, to protest. She lives in a wooden campervan.

(Meg Bernhard/Times)

Yellow Pine is a 3,000-acre solar farm that will provide 500 MW of electricity to 100,000 households in California.

Scientists and policymakers gathered for the United Nations Climate Conference or COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland this week, and expressed the need for large-scale renewable energy projects to free the world from fossil fuels and avoid the worst impact on global warming.

But even clean energy, from wind energy to solar energy to hydropower, is not completely clean.

During the construction of Ponderosa pine, more than 100,000 yucca and other plants will be destroyed. This year, scientists relocated more than 100 federally protected desert tortoises from the site to prepare for construction, but about 30 of them have died and may be eaten by badgers.

“Is this really the way we want it?” Salter said. “Is this really green?”

Other environmentalists believe that more can be done to minimize the damage to solar farms, but accept some adverse effects as a price to reduce carbon emissions.

“We try to be truly pragmatic,” said Sheena Steingard, a policy analyst at the Wildlife Conservation Organization, a national conservation organization dedicated to protecting local flora and fauna. “We know that we must achieve our renewable energy goals, which will rely heavily on solar energy on a utility scale, and we need to develop in the desert.”

Solar developers have long regarded the Mojave Desert as Quality real estate Because it is sparsely populated, there is plenty of sunshine.Two thirds of Nevada – including yellow Pinewood Land-is public land regulated by the Federal Land Administration, providing one-stop procurement services for large tracts of land.

Construction of the Yellow Pine site is expected to begin in the next few months and be completed by the end of next year.It is part of a new generation facility that not only has photovoltaic solar panels, but also Lithium-ion battery storage This makes it possible to supply electricity at night.

Developer NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based renewable energy company, said the project will create 350 jobs during construction and $46 million in taxes for Clark County, Nevada, within 30 years.

“The company is working closely with state and federal agencies and has taken major measures in project site selection and design to minimize the overall environmental impact of the project,” the company spokesperson Bryan Garner wrote in a statement.

The plants will be pruned, but will not be completely flattened, hopefully they will grow back eventually.

US Geological Survey scientist Steven Gerrodsky said that more research is needed to understand the impact of solar development on desert ecosystems.

“We are in the midst of this rapid and necessary energy transition, but we have no clear path forward on how to make the transition sustainable,” he said.

In a study of the Ivanpa solar power facility in Neptune, California, Grodsky and other federal researchers found that biodiversity has declined.Cacti and yucca can no longer grow, the number of moths and other non-bee pollinators has decreased, and there are thousands of birds. die Collisions or self-immolations occur every year as they chase insects around the facility.

Some environmentalists advocate so-called distributed solar energy instead of building in the desert, but building smaller solar panels on rooftops and parking lots in urban areas where wildlife has been disturbed.

However, many experts said that, given the threat of climate change, this piecemeal approach is impractical and insufficient.Ministry of Energy recommends erection Solar panels in urban and rural areas.

Heidi Hartmann, an environmental scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, has worked with federal agencies. “They generally concluded that in order to meet the country’s renewable energy needs for the next 30 years, we need to do both at the same time. Two points.” Determine the best location for the solar farm.

Legislators across the country have announced ambitious renewable energy plans. In September, the Biden government released a plan to generate 45% of the country’s electricity from solar panels by 2050.

The Nevada legislature passed a bill in 2019 requiring half of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030—almost double Their current share.

According to a Bureau of Land Management spokesperson, nine solar installations are already operating on federal land in Nevada, and several are under construction. Throughout the summer, after residents of the Moapa Valley protested that it would harm tourism, the state’s largest solar power plant plan was cancelled.

Salter is not against the solar industry.She just didn’t want to be in the desert-a place she fell in love with soon after moving from Irvine I went to Nevada about ten years ago.

Her first environmental protest was against hydraulic fracturing. She also opposed the proposal to erect wind turbines near Joshua Tree Forest.

Now, she walks about a mile from the campsite to the Ponderosa pine construction area every morning.

“I just want to be able to see what is happening all the time,” she said. “I go there every day. I know this valley more and more.”

The barbed wire fence marks the boundary of the future solar field. On a recent morning, the developers were testing the stability of the soil to determine where they would start drilling.

Salter walked to a group of trucks and greeted the two workers. “What are those?” She asked, pointing to a square hole in the fence, underneath a plank.

“They are for birds,” replied a woman wearing a hard hat, who was there to ensure that developers comply with federal guidelines for protecting wildlife. “So they won’t get stuck on the fence.”

After returning to the camp, Salter met Ron Callison, a Pahrump resident she met a week ago. He gave her cookies made with legume flour and said that he would camp with her that night.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people in the country said that I have been to Nevada and there is nothing there,” Carlisson said. “Some people in Connecticut say that there are only a lot of dry bushes. They happen to be hundreds of years old.”

Saul Nodded.

She understood that killing the Ponderosa Project would almost certainly be a failed cause. There are occasional protests, usually no more than dozens of people. But it has been a year since the Bureau of Land Management rejected a petition from the Nevada Conservation Organization Basin and Mountain Observation Organization to block construction.

A woman in a hat, blue top and khaki pants stands by a table with solar panels

Shannon Salter installed a 100-watt solar panel on the folding table to generate electricity on her own to charge her laptop and mobile phone for online tutoring.

(Meg Bernhard/Times)

However, Salt said that as long as the construction continues, she plans to camp outdoors and change the campsite every few weeks to comply with the regulations about living on federal public land.

Her accommodation is very simple: a wooden campervan was dragged in by a friend in a truck, equipped with a mattress and a thick sleeping bag. In order to generate electricity by herself-she needs to charge her laptop and mobile phone for online tutoring work-she installed a 100-watt solar panel on the folding table.

To take a shower, she drove 30 miles in her Toyota to Tecopa, California, where there are natural hot springs, and she uses a propane stove for meals.

In her view, leaving is giving up, and the problem will not go away.

In Pahrump Valley, four other solar development projects are within a day’s walk of Salter camp and are awaiting approval from the federal government.

Bernhard is a special correspondent.

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