Too good to check: Environmentalists upset at the rush to build solar projects

You thought I was against taxpayer subsidies to companies like BrightSource and NextEra because I have a principled objection to energy subsidies in general? No, no, no: I don’t like subsidies to BrightSource and NextEra because they’re hurting the environment.

Desert activists vigorously oppose the BrightSource Energy project in the east Mojave’s Ivanpah Valley and NextEra’s Genesis solar plant 20 miles west of Blythe. National groups have not mounted a strong challenge to either project.

When BrightSource was planning the Ivanpah installation, the big environmental players urged the firm to move the bulk of the project closer to Interstate 5 to avoid prime habitat for the desert tortoise, a protected species. The company responded by reducing its total footprint by 12%, which didn’t solve the problem.

After construction began, large numbers of desert tortoises were discovered. According to federal biologists, BrightSource is now responsible for relocating and caring for 95% of all the tortoises expected to be found on all solar project sites in the Mojave.

Some rank-and-file Sierra Club members had wanted to sue to stop the project altogether, but the group’s national board of directors vetoed that proposal in favor of a more neutral approach. …

On the Genesis project, the Sierra Club and others met with NextEra executives and urged the company to abandon its plans for the site out of concern that it is too close to a wilderness area. In addition, local groups warned the developer that the site contained sensitive cultural resources.

The project went ahead, only to become embroiled in controversy over the discovery of Native American cultural artifacts that halted construction on one-fifth of the site.

The in-fighting between local and national environmentalists, between those whose priority is protecting a desert close to home and those whose priority is fostering solar development across the country, is instructive. The local environmentalists tell us all we need to know about major environmentalist groups. Appropriately, locals call the national groups “Gang Green” — and they do seem to bully littler environmentalists around. Gang Green says it’s willing to “sacrifice the desert to save the world” — i.e. preserving the desert should take a back seat to halting the effects of climate change — but it also just so happens that grants for projects focusing on climate change and energy have become the top-two funded issues in environmental philanthropy. Major groups like the Sierra Club flat-out can’t afford to care about the desert. They have to remain inviting to major foundations.

In all seriousness, that’s fine by me: Even organizations like the Sierra Club have to keep an eye on the bottom line or they’ll be out of existence in short order. It’s the hypocrisy — and the forced subsidization of projects that do as much harm as good to both the economy and the environment — that grows old.