“As citizens, we need to call on our leaders to make thoughtful choices about where to site industrial-scale development and renewable energy projects, and to create a legacy for our national parks and to public lands everywhere.” – Mark Butler, “Saving the Mojave from the Solar Threat,” Los Angeles Times , March 25, 2014. “‘Soft’ energy sources are horribly land intensive…. The greenest possible strategy is to mine and to bury, to fly and to tunnel, to search high and low, where the life mostly isn’t, and to leave the edge, the space in the middle, living and green.” – Peter Huber, Hard Green; Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists (New York: Basic Books, 1999), pp. 107–108.
Hard-green energies (fossil fuels, uranium) have a major ecological advantage over politically-correct soft energy (wind, solar): less infrastructure requirement, including land. This was recognized by the father of energy economics, William Stanley Jevons, in his 1865 tome, The Coal Question. Mainstream environmentalists are waking up to the problems of central-station solar now that they can physically see it and have operational results. California’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) is “the world’s largest gas-fired power plant (largest in physical size, not gas consumption),” said one eco-critic. And now Mark Butler in the Los Angeles Times has blown the whistle on the national showcase of Big Solar (full op-ed below). Energy Postmodernism Behind the big wind and solar energy bets is a flawed philosophy. Postmodernism, or the shared narrative, can be summarized as want it, think it, be it. Such is a gross perversity of Julian Simon’s concept of human ingenuity. Simon’s insight applies to real opportunities for improvement, not political correct notions of what is in the common good. Neglecting the difference between real and imagined problems, and imagining solutions as in the movie ‘Field of Dreams’, has now put environmentalism at war with itself. Consider the book Power Surge, published in 1994 by Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen in the Worldwatch Institute’s Environmental Alert Series. (Flavin was Ken Lay’s favorite energy-environmental analyst, a story told elsewhere.) The opening essay, Power Shift, begins with this quotation by Alan Kay, a pioneer in personal computers: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” (p. 17). But energy physics is important. The history of previous efforts to harness and commercialize dilute energies is illustrative. Government’s track record in picking losers is fair warming. But Flavin and Lenssen, like so many other romantic, idealistic writers on “green energy,” don’t analyze but cheerlead for a solution to a problem that they assume rather than debate. This analytical failure-on-failure has resulted in the unnecessary environment destruction now being decried by environmentalists. Dense Energy, Less Footprint The full exposition of Peter Huber in Hard Green; Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists is worth quoting. “We are feeding off the fat of the coal, the oil, and the uranium,” he states (p. 105), continuing:
“What we mine from the depths of the Earth now substitutes directly for what we would otherwise have to reap, harvest, gather, scrape, and flood from a vast area on the surface. Coal and oil deposits contain a lot of energy because they represent thousands of years of captures solar energy. Coal is dead trees, fossilized biomass, solar energy refined first by nature, then by geological process…. The greenest fuels are the ones that contain the most energy per pound of material that must be mined, trucked, pumped, piped, and burnt . . . . Extracting comparable amounts of energy from the surface would entail truly monstrous environmental disruption . . . . ‘Soft’ energy sources [in comparison] are horribly land intensive…. The greenest possible strategy is to mine and to bury, to fly and to tunnel, to search high and low, where the life mostly isn’t, and to leave the edge, the space in the middle, living and green.” (107-108)
Huber’s insightful book, as well as Jevons early analysis, are needed to understand the civil war within the environmental movement as government policy pushed dilute, intermittent energy where hard-green energy succeeds. Appendix: Mark Butler, “Saving the Mojave from the Solar Threat”:
California’s storied desert … is now threatened by large-scale renewable energy projects, including one proposed at Soda Mountain. The 4,000-acre Soda Mountain Solar project is under environmental review, and if approved would be located a mere quarter of a mile away from the boundary of the remarkable Mojave National Preserve. The project threatens bighorn sheep migration corridors, desert tortoise habitat and the integrity of the Soda Mountains Wilderness Study Area. Project pumping could also drain and harm the quality of MC Spring in Mojave National Preserve, home of the federally endangered tui chub, a unique and rare desert fish. The solar project would also interrupt the sweeping scenic vistas of Mojave National Preserve. That would be a violation of both the spirit and intent of the recently passed San Bernardino County Renewable Energy Ordinance, which calls for solar developments not to impair views from hiking and backcountry camping areas within the preserve. Humans have a deep desire, perhaps even a need, to spend time in wild places. In my time at Joshua Tree, I learned that most people come to the desert for its expansive and unobstructed views, and for that feeling that they are in some profound sense “away” from the confines of the modern world. In fact, more than 90% of Joshua Tree National Park’s 1.4 million annual visitors say on surveys that they come to experience “views without development.” To intrude on those views would be wrong. America’s need for renewable energy is real, and the desert is a logical place to put solar panels. But California has more than 1 million acres of non-pristine lands that could be used for such a proposal. That is why I have joined with four former California desert National Park Service superintendents to write a letter opposing the Soda Mountain Solar project. When I joined the National Park Service nearly 40 years ago, I made a covenant with the American people to maintain the public trust and to dedicate my life to the stewardship and protection of our national treasures for future generations. That promise demands that I now sound the alarm about Soda Mountain. The National Park Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2016, and that seems like a good reason for America to renew its commitment to protecting parks and preserves. As citizens, we need to call on our leaders to make thoughtful choices about where to site industrial-scale development and renewable energy projects, and to create a legacy for our national parks and to public lands everywhere.