The largest solar plant in the world, a 392 MW concentrated solar power tower in California’s Mojave Desert, began generating electricity from all three of its power towers the day before Valentine’s Day. The timing seems fitting, because the project is [almost] guaranteed to touch your heart, one way or another. For some, the Ivanpah plant has made hearts flutter in excitement. After all, the construction of the plant is a huge step forward in our nation’s effort to increase technology options for supplies of pollution-free electricity. The plant has the generation capacity of a mid-sized natural gas plant, and will make enough electricity to power 140,000 homes.
For others, the size of Ivanpah’s footprint on the desert landscape and the potential for impacts to area wildlife has been a source of heartache. In Ivanpah’s case, for example, one big concern has been desert tortoises.
There is no question that building utility-scale generation facilities — renewable or otherwise — will impact the surrounding land and all that lives there. But global warming is a game changer for plants, humans, and other critters.
Nationwide, electricity generation is responsible for the largest share of heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change. Coal and natural gas plants also emit air pollution that is harmful to human health. Reducing these climate and air quality impacts by using less electricity and generating what we need from renewables instead of fossil fuels is absolutely critical. While smaller scale renewable facilities can and should be installed on more developed areas like parking lots and rooftops, there’s no question we will need larger projects too if we are really to get serious about decarbonizing our electricity system.
UCS and other organizations have laid out key principles for balancing renewable energy development and land conservation. It’s important to build these projects with as little environmental impact as possible, and groups focused on habitat conservation are doing valuable work to make sure that project assessments address direct and cumulative impacts of large-scale renewable energy development, and protect land and wildlife from other threats like commercial developments, golf courses, and off-road vehicle use.
The work continues. But for now, let’s take a moment to recognize Ivanpah’s contribution to our clean energy fight, and the culmination of years of negotiation and construction that made it possible for a single project to make such a meaningful dent in our fossil fuel consumption.