Better Living: Science, Technology and the Environment

February 18, 2012

In the world of alternative energy sources, the spotlight is on solar. With greenhouse gas emissions limited to whatever is produced in the process of transport and installation of solar panels, solar helps to combat global warming while harnessing a source of hitherto unused energy. Unfortunately, presenting a low global warming risk does not make solar an innocuous option for alternative energy generation.

The Mojave Desert, which spans parts of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and southern California and receives some of the best insolation in the U.S., is at the center of American solar power development. The Ivanpah solar project, which uses BrightSource Energy’s solar technology, has been on its way towards installing massive fields of solar panels in the Mojave since late 2010. The project, according to BrightSource, is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 400,000 tons per year.

Proposed design for the Ivanpah project; BrightSource Energy

This is a step in the right direction towards reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, and positive news for the fight against global warming. However, many environmentalists are conflicted about the choice between promoting alternative energy development and protecting sensitive habitats. A 2011 report by the Endangered Species Coalition found that California’s deserts were one of its most vulnerable ecosystems. This Ivanpah project has faced criticism for endangering the local tortoise population, but has proceeded without serious opposition. As an article in the LA Times put it, “In the fight against climate change, the Mojave Desert is about to take one for the team.”

The issue of solar power development in the Mojave hearkens back to a debate that has existed since the beginning of the environmental movement: that of conservation versus preservation. Is it our duty to preserve natural spaces, or to develop them responsibly? If your natural response is the former, you might be a preservationist. But would this answer change when the development in question is also key to the long-term preservation of our species?

Cases like this, in which we are compelled to advance our own preservation at the expense of the environment, are likely to increase along with alternative energy development. This situation calls to calls to mind the question of whether we are a part of the environment, or are inherently separate…a question that will take a lot longer than one blog post to figure out!

In the meantime, the energy community will be watching the Mojave. If the Ivanpah project, and others like it, can overcome the ecological and economic barriers that solar energy faces, we may be one step further down the path towards a green future.

Sharon Hartzell

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