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Are some solar projects no longer ‘green’?

Conservationists worry that a plan for the Mojave desert will upset species’ habitats.

Workers install solar panels on the roof of an Austin, Texas, homeowner.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor / FILES

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Solar companies proposing large power plants in the Mojave Desert are facing opposition from conservationists. They say a rush to build solar here threatens to tear up large tracts of desert habitat and open space.

The squabble is likely to intensify now that Congress this week moved forward on a long-term extension of the solar tax credit. Two other proposed bills would fast-track solar power projects looking to build on federal lands. State mandates on utilities to provide more renewable energy has created an enormous market for solar, an energy that requires two things the Mojave has in spades – acreage and sunshine. But the desert’s defenders argue that solar panels should be located on city rooftops rather than pristine lands.

“If there were just one [proposed plant], we could deal with that. But we are looking at essentially every valley that is not protected as a national monument or park as being a potential site for solar,” says John Hiatt, a Las Vegas-based environmental activist. “It will be the industrialization of the Mojave Desert.”

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has received some 200 applications to build solar plants on federal land in recent years. In California alone, there are 80 proposals involving 700,000 acres.

“It’s a land rush,” says Greg Miller, the renewable energy program manager in the BLM’s California office. “The 80 [California proposals] I’m mentioning are just those who are first in line. We’ve got another 40 or more on top of that [who]  are betting the company in front of them will lose out.”

No project has yet made it through the BLM’s permitting process. Overwhelmed, the agency tried this summer to put a moratorium on new applications.


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