• desert catus and wildflowers

      Joshua Tree (Photo – ColoradoBlvd.net)

      California is supposed to be a model for the world on how an advanced economy can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

      By Ethan Elkind

      But the state is not on pace to meet its legislated 2030 climate goals, and part of the problem is that state leaders are falling behind on deploying renewable energy. A recent controversy in the Mojave Desert over the iconic Joshua Tree is emblematic of the state’s challenges building the clean technology necessary to limit catastrophic climate change.

      The goals are aggressive

      The state requires its electricity grid to be completely carbon-free by 2045, including an interim target of 60% of grid power from renewable sources by 2030. This goal requires tripling the current annual build rate of solar and wind facilities. While state policy makers and industry leaders envision siting these clean energy projects all over the state, including offshore wind turbines and smaller-scale distributed solar resources in existing urbanized areas and brownfields, a substantial portion of that solar energy will need to come from utility-scale installations in the state’s vast, sun-soaked desert region. But the legal obstacles there could soon become formidable.

      Specifically, the Center of Biological Diversity petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission in 2019 to list the iconic western Joshua Tree as a “threatened” species under the state’s Endangered Species Act. If state leaders were to affirm that petition, it would have the potential to undermine the state’s ability to meet its climate goals by effectively placing much of the Mojave Desert off limits to clean energy.

      Abundant and widespread

      In its review of the Center’s petition, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife assessed the science last month and recommended not listing the species. It found that the trees are “currently abundant and widespread” with up to five million of them currently growing on a combined total estimated range of 3.4 million acres, in both their northern and southern desert areas. As with virtually all species, the department expects climate change to impact Joshua Tree habitat (though the species is still expected to persist in high numbers) through the end of this century. But as the temperature increases and rainfall patterns change (assuming it becomes more dry), lands to the north and at higher elevations could provide a refuge, with future climatic conditions similar to their present-day ones.

      The commission was supposed to make a final determination in June but ultimately deadlocked on the decision and will revisit in October. But if the commission ends up overruling the department’s recommendation and lists the Joshua Tree as threatened, the consequences for California’s clean energy goals could be dire. Developers will either be prevented from building solar power in much of the Mojave Desert or will face costly mitigation measures to do so, which would diminish this needed deployment in one of the prime solar-generating areas of the state. Globally, it would hinder the state’s ability to show the world that a renewable build out in an advanced economy is feasible.

      To be sure, these desert ecosystems are fragile, host unique species, and are iconic in their majestic scenery – as is the Joshua Tree itself. No one (I would hope) enjoys seeing Joshua Trees cut down, even if it’s for a critical cause like climate change. But how much desert land are we talking about? The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the state’s grid operator, currently has 19,000 megawatts of potential solar power and energy storage facilities in its queue that are located in the Joshua Tree’s southern range. Even if all these facilities were built (and some will almost certainly fall out), they would occupy only a tiny fraction of the range of the species. It’s a relatively small footprint for a technology that California desperately needs to deploy to benefit us all.

      To put this desert deployment in context, a state energy agency report last year found that in tripling its annual build rate of clean energy, California will need to go from a 2019 deployment of 12.5 gigawatts of utility-scale solar to 69.4 gigawatts by 2045 – an almost 6-fold increase. Those 19 gigawatts of desert solar power and storage would therefore greatly help the state meet the long-term deployment needed to completely decarbonize the grid.

      All of us — humans, plants and animals — are threatened by the emergency of climate change, unless we take the necessary steps like deploying more wind and solar energy to combat it. The technology exists to stop climate change from worsening. What we lack is the political will to get it done. The Fish and Game Commission now faces that same test, whether to follow the department’s scientific findings or place yet another obstacle in the path of clean energy.

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      1. Gary Green says:

        Large commercial solar installations in the deserts of California seem like a simple piece in the renewable energy puzzle. However, these large facilities present serious environmental issues including danger to wildlife. They also do not solve the problem of long electric supply lines that present other dangers including igniting wildfires.

        There needs to be more action on installing roof-top solar. We also see many institutions installing solar panels over parking lots which has the added advantage of providing shade. These local installations also provide shorter spans between the generation of electricity and the place where it is needed.

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