Yesterday morning, NPR had a segment discussing the controversy over protecting certain portions of the Mojave Desert from solar energy development. It describes how one project developer was planning to grade and level 5500 acres of land and then cover that cleared area with a quarter of a million truckloads of gravel to form the foundation for the panels they wanted to install.
Though some might assume that my dislike of industrial solar energy development comes from my strong preference for nuclear energy, I prefer to attribute it to a deep and abiding respect for places that are often described as empty wastelands. I have not had the opportunity to spend much time in deserts, but I have visited on occasion and been fascinated by what I found. The maps and wide area photos may look empty, but the close in reality is often quite different.
Last spring, my wife and I joined a couple of good friends for a trip to Utah to see some terrain that is not terribly different from the Mojave and that is also sometimes seen as a good location for solar energy collection systems.
My view is that we should tread lightly in places like this. Solar energy is so diffuse that it requires enormous collectors in order to add up to enough power to make it worthwhile to transmit. Those large collectors will inherently be idle or way below their full capacity for about 80% of the time. Not only is that a waste of valuable monetary capital, it is a waste of valuable natural capital in the form of no longer open spaces.