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How Important Are Renewables? Feinstein Blocks Desert Solar

Some of the earliest big solar projects will have to find a new home. Senator Dianne Feinstein has formalized her opposition to renewables in the Mojave Desert with the introduction of a bill to protect a million acres of land from any incursion.

It's another step toward the end for a certain bright-eyed naivety within the renewable energy industry, in which visionaries dreamed of finding unused or unwanted land to cover with solar or wind generators, piping the power to cities. The naive part was the belief that such land exists, especially in a developed country like the United States. Even parched wastelands have fans and interest groups.

Feinstein's bill nixes 13 projects by startups like Brightsource Energy, whose solar thermal arrays reflect light onto piped water until it boils. There's a fair objection to generating electricity this way. Because of the low energy density of sunlight (and wind, for that matter) plants have to be huge.

It's hard to understand how much land is needed until you see a plant being built -- something I learned firsthand when I visited a 10MW solar panel plant, which could have contained a small town. Some solar projects on the drawing board aim to generate 100 times as much power as that "small" plant.

There's also a back story to the Mojave objections. The land was granted to the Federal government in the expectation that it would remain undeveloped forever. Feinstein has argued that promises are promises, so the government shouldn't go back on its agreement even if it has the power to do so.

But the issue is larger than just the Mojave. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is fighting Feinstein's attempt to remove the land from use, arguing that it's a great solar resource. The irony is that he's the same man who has fought tooth and nail against the Cape Wind project on the Nantucket Sound, where his family has always held property. And yes, the Nantucket has a great wind resource.

Kennedy has argued that Cape Wind will hurt fishermen and disrupt tourism and enjoyment of the vistas (Grist has good coverage). The first of those is likely not true, the second debatable. But the real heart of the issue is that Kennedy is a high-powered individual, just as is Feinstein. One values the ocean; the other values desert.

And pretty much any area could turn out to have similarly staunch defenders. For renewable energy developers, this means huge swathes of the country are off-limits -- it's simply not worth the cost and effort of getting politically entangled over a particular area.

The only way this situation will change is if concern over climate change rises to new heights. But for the moment, there's no sign of that happening.

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