(Reuters) – When Mike Peterson jumped into a colleague’s single turboprop Pilatus and flew over the remote central California valley that he now hopes to turn into a solar plant, he saw sunshine, flat land that would require little grading and two big transmission lines to tap into. “Wow,” he remembers thinking at the time. “God made this to be a solar farm.”
But when Kim Williams looks out at that same land from her lowslung ranch house, she sees an area rich with wildlife that is helping support her grass-fed chicken farm, her neighbor’s cattle operations and her peaceful way of life. She supports solar energy on a small scale — the electric fence around her chicken coop is powered by solar — but says when she learned about the solar plant she felt shock and disbelief. Now, she’s suing to block it.
The push to create an alternative to carbon-based fuel has hit an unlikely snag: environmentalists.
The split between Peterson and Williams illustrates this awkward state of affairs. To a growing number of environmental advocates, the dozens of large solar plants that are springing up in vast areas of the western wilderness are more scourge than savior.
The upshot is that those who on paper seem to be perfect allies for solar are turning into its biggest enemies.
That includes the Sierra Club, which last week filed what senior attorney Gloria Smith says is its first suit against a solar plant, a giant 664-megawatt project called Calico that is slated to go up in the desert near Barstow, California. It would lie smack in the middle of habitat for rare plants and animals, in an area Smith calls “a very unfortunate site.”
The legal brawl comes as the U.S. is racing to adopt renewables. In the United States, renewable energy, including solar, makes up just 8 percent or so of electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That figure was expected to jump to 13 percent by 2035 — but that was before the Green vs. Green feud.
Even though Williams and her cohorts support the broad goal of reducing dependence on fossil fuels, they say it comes at too high a cost if it means building on undeveloped land. Helping their case: the proposed plants are often slated for areas with threatened or endangered animals, including kit foxes, kangaroo rats, rare lizards, and others.
Now, the groups have gone from complaining to litigating. That means solar companies must take funds and management time that would have been spent on developing their plants and spend them instead on fighting lawsuits. For some companies, the likely result is that plants won’t be built.
LET THE SUN SHINE
For the solar industry overall, the situation marks a fundamental shift in attitude. Where previously almost any bare patch of desert seemed like a prospective solar plant, now the reality is that much of the nation’s most fertile ground for alternative power and energy independence may well remain undeveloped.
And the backlash is likely to slow down the number of big plants developers will try to get through. Some 142 U.S. solar plants are under development, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association, up from just 28 two years ago. Many of these are well over 500 megawatts; a handful are over 1,000 megawatts, meaning they would cover hundreds of acres of land and power at least 300,000 homes each.
The big plants give the U.S. a chance to gain ground in the solar power industry, where it lags countries like Spain, which has around 30 large-scale solar plants in the construction phase. China, which dominates the solar panel business, is also racing ahead, with an aggressive renewable-energy policy and big loans to companies.
Solar energy is among the strategic industries in which China is considering investing up to $1.5 trillion over five years to cement its position as a provider of high-value technologies.
In one major project, China’s Shandong Penglai Electric Power Equipment Manufacturing Co. is working with Burbank, California-based eSolar to build a series of plants totaling 2,000 megawatts of electricity in the deserts of Northern China. Some 60 miles away, Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar is working on the first stage of its own China plan, a 2,000-megawatt project.