May 29, 2009 Features & Images » Feature Story

High Noon 

As the climate warms, environmentalists square off over Big Solar’s claim to the Mojave Desert

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Harvey had no record as an activist until about three years ago, when he helped bring San Bernardino water officials to task for violating public meeting laws. But living in the embattled desert has changed him. In the late summer of 2007, Harvey started going to meetings about a 500-kilovolt transmission corridor for renewable energy that would cut through the Johnson Valley on its way to Los Angeles, and started to see a pattern: it wasn't simply one energy corridor he was fighting, but a whole movement to turn the open Mojave into an industrialized renewable energy zone.

"It all started with the Energy Policy Act of 2005," he says. "The goal of that bill was to add 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2015." Add to that several states' laws requiring utilities to get more electricity from carbon-free sources; California, for instance, ordered investor-owned utilities to draw 20 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010, and 33 per cent by 2020. "The land grab was on," Harvey says. "These big energy companies got busy making us think they were doing something for the environment. But they're liars."

In the spring of 2008, Harvey jumped on one of his Harleys and rode through the Mojave National Preserve to check out the Ivanpah Valley, where the Oakland-based BrightSource Energy company wants to clear close to 7,000 acres of public land to generate 400 megawatts of solar power. Harvey had heard BrightSource spokespeople describe the land as disturbed by cattle grazing and off-highway vehicle use, but what he found instead was a "lush creosote forest -- some of the most beautiful desert land in the world." Within a week, he announced the startup of the National Alliance for Sensible Energy Policy, "a nonpartisan group adamantly opposed to BLM giving our lands to energy corporations."

One year later, the group has become the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy, and Harvey has become an authority among people with long histories of desert activism, people who have spent their lives fighting garbage dumps, development and expanding military bases. "I gave them a voice," he says. "I let them know that it was all right to pound on the table and say, 'No!' to the national leaders of their organizations."

He now travels around the region to Sierra Club meetings and high schools, armed with statistics about how photovoltaic technology can displace coal-fired electricity and save us from catastrophic climate change. He explains the arcane details of a new California law that promises low-interest loans for solar installations. He discusses how "thin-film" technology will drop in price as it penetrates the market. He describes how the city of Gainesville, Fla., jumpstarted rooftop solar by purchasing renewable energy from small suppliers, an effort modeled after Germany's Stromeinspeisungsgesetz, a term that translates awkwardly into English as "feed-in tariff."

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