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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Silliman chooses his words meticulously: "It does seem to be true that the people who settled on the Ivanpah site perhaps didn't look at it as fully as they should have," he says. He has recommended that BrightSource consider moving the project to private land, to a site near the California-Nevada border in Daggett, Calif. But even if it stays in the Ivanpah Valley, Silliman says, "the project would contribute to renewable energy standards in the state. And that's important to us."

The Sierra Club's fence-sitting rankles Harvey, who cannot see in it any kind of strategy, only a bald capitulation by "envirocrats" to energy companies. He has many allies. In early April, as spring wildflowers delivered on their annual promise to the desert tortoise - the reptiles could be spotted prowling the land with bunches of yellow and orange flowers in their jaws -- Kevin Emmerich and Laura Cunningham of the group Basin and Range Watch went out to Ivanpah to document the bloom. They posted Emmerich's images on a Web site, and sent them to Carl Zichella.

Zichella declined to comment for this article, deferring to Silliman to explain the club's nuanced position. But in a widely circulated response to Emmerich and Cunningham's photos, he made an attempt to put the Sierra Club's position in the larger context of global environmental catastrophe. "Friends," he wrote. "Beautiful photos; thanks for sending them. A quick Q: with scientists saying a one-degree increase in temperature could lead to a 20 percent decline in species in the desert southwest, how many springs like this year's do you think the desert has left?"

The Sierra Club has nothing against Germany, Zichella went on to say; in fact, the club supported state and federal legislation for feed-in tariff (California Assembly member Jared Huffman authored one; U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., wrote another). It's just that rooftop solar can't happen fast enough, or solve the problem alone. Without large-scale solar, "we will never do what needs to be done to save the places we have fought for and love."

Harvey says he understands the threat of climate change perfectly well. "This is simple," he says. "I'm trying to save intact desert ecosystems. Carl Zichella is not."

It's not hard to understand why the Ivanpah Valley is a solar engineer's dream. A southeast-facing alluvial plain at the base of the Clark Mountains, it gets 300 full days of sun every year, shining through clear dry air at an elevation of 3,000 feet. A 115-kilovolt transmission line cuts across the site, which means BrightSource could avoid the controversy of plowing under more habitat to build new transmission. If you want to build a solar electric plant on the least amount of land for the least amount of money and generate the most energy per square inch, this is the place to do it.

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