Solar “Farms” Keep us in the Dark

solar farm

In this type of solar "farm," mirrors focus the sun on the tower to boil water. Lots of sun in the desert, but water? Photo by Bardot/Wikimedia

The relentless industrialization of renewable energy continues, now with the support of government at all levels. The case for solar “farms” and wind “farms” (note how the word “farm” summons bucolic images that have nothing to do with these immense factories), dripping with greenwash, obscures the fact that industrial renewables are no alternative for a petrochemical-addicted society, simply another industrial dead end. As an example, consider the solar “farm.”

In 2005, the US Congress got the memo that industrialists had figured out how to make millions from solar energy. As a consequence, Congress got religion on solar and passed, along with some minor individual tax credits for solar installations, a major assignment for the Interior Department: approve, within ten years, the construction on public land of projects that would generate 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy. (Industry didn’t care about the personal solar stuff, that represented chump change in comparison with the “farms.”)

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was overwhelmed by the hundreds of applications that immediately came in. Not until this fall — halfway through the ten-year time frame to get the job done — did they finally approve the first and second projects.

In October, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a 50 megawatt facility and associated infrastructure to be built 40 miles south of Las Vegas, Nevada by First Solar, Inc. Salazar also attended the groundbreaking for a 235-mile, 500 kilo-volt transmission line from north of Las Vegas to Burley, Idaho. The line will provide the transmission infrastructure needed to make proposed wind, solar and geothermal power generation projects throughout Nevada viable.

The second project, approved a few days ago, is also in Nevada (80 miles northwest of Las Vegas). Solar Millennium LLC’s 500 megawatt facility was touted as being capable of providing electricity to about 150,000 homes, creating 1,300 construction jobs and up to 200 permanent operation jobs.

From the industry point of view this is all win-win-win. Economies of scale abound: you want sun, you get the most per square inch in the desert, which means you get the most revenue per dollar of investment. All this with the approval not only of the government, but of tree huggers blinded by loud blandishment of the term “renewable.” The downside is nested in the corollary of “economy of scale” — every move to increase scale concentrates risk, usually deferred. To see this dark twin of the happy anthem of industrialization, let’s take another look at these projects.

Firstly, as with all industry, the product is made far from where it is used. So you can’t just make the product, you have to have a distribution network, hence the simultaneous announcement of the 235-mile transmission line. (A hundred years of this technology, someone has said, and the best you can do is strings on sticks?) All of this infrastructure — the “farms” and their associated transmission lines — is being built on the most fragile terraform on earth, the desert. The “disturbance area” of the second project, by itself, without transmission lines, is 4,350 acres, or about seven square miles. Not to worry, BLM regulators insist on “a natural color palette and minimum night lighting” to reduce the visual insult.

About those jobs. The 1,300 construction workers will need roads, shelter, and lots of water. The 200 permanent employees will need houses, offices, parking lots, and lots of water. Speaking of water, did we mention that the solar “farms” for the most part boil water to make steam to run the generators? Takes a LOT of water.

These is much more to come. In California alone, the BLM is at work on permitting 34 projects on 300,000 acres, with an expected yield of 24,000 megawatts. A month ago, the very busy Interior Secretary Salazar announced approval of the world’s largest such project, a $6 billion project on 7,000 acres of the Mojave Desert that, large as it is, is only the first of a quartet of “farms” planned by the aforementioned Solar Millennium, which is by the way a German company. Similar plans are under way for all the other desert states, something like 158 projects covering 1.8 million acres, according to a recent tally by the New York Times.

Opposition to this new bonanza for the industrialists has been based largely on the threat to endangered species, which fails to ignite much of a fire in the average American breast. But it’s even harder to get attention paid to the vast accumulating risks of these huge dinosaurs, which, when the oil runs out, will be as useless as oil refineries. (How you going to get food to the staff without 18-wheelers running constantly to them from industrial, petro-chemical-intensive farms?) If independence from oil is not the problem they are supposed to be solving, then what is?

Renewable’s not sustainable if it’s industrial. If enough of us put our solar panels and solar water heaters (and/or our wind or water generators) in our yards, learn to live with only the energy we can make, while we learn to make the food we need, and we will have a chance. Otherwise we are merely rearranging the cactus on the deck of the Titanic.

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4 Responses to Solar “Farms” Keep us in the Dark

  1. Dave says:

    Brilliant post.

    But, the only way we’re going to learn to do anything non-industrialized is for it to collapse. CSP and PV farms are great, but yes if they are miles from anywhere, staffing will become a problem (transmission will not, the theoretical limit for HVDC is about 4000 miles)

    Perhaps sustainable communities will spring up around these power stations post-collapse ? unfeasible yes, impossible no.

  2. John Wackman says:

    Are not the steam generators “closed system”?–re-using the same water again and again?

    • tomlewis says:

      Yes, some are. And some use a different fluid to absorb the heat and boil the water. But the problem of cooling remains. For example, according to their permit applications, the Genesis and Mojave solar projects in California expected to use 536 million gallons and 705 million gallons of water per year, respectively.

  3. Richard F McCarthy says:

    Very interesting observations