The Land Politics of Solar Energy (2/2)

August 26, 2019

In part 2 of his interview on his new book, Dustin Mulvaney examines the complicated environmental impact—and political economy—of U.S. solar projects, and explains his hopes for the industry's future

In part 2 of his interview on his new book, Dustin Mulvaney examines the complicated environmental impact—and political economy—of U.S. solar projects, and explains his hopes for the industry's future



The Land Politics of Solar Energy (2/2)

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’ve been speaking with Dustin Mulvaney about his new book on the complexities of solar power, a form of energy that’s rightfully been billed as green, but poses some questions about environmental justice and equity. In part one, we talked a lot about the mining processes that you need to obtain the compounds you need to create solar energy, but you also obviously need land. You need somewhere to put those panels and that of course comes with a whole other set of issues.

So once again, Dustin Mulvaney is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies department at San Jose University and his new book is Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability and Environmental Justice. Thanks so much for being here again.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: You’re welcome.

DHARNA NOOR: So a major debate over solar in the US has been the fight over utility-scale solar, particularly on public lands in the southwest. After the 2008 recession, huge swathes of public land were used to construct solar farms. I think something like 10% of all public lands. And your book points out that environmental justice advocates and Indigenous groups actually demanded that other lands were considered instead— abandoned farmland, industrial brownfields. But instead, of course, there was this huge seizing of public lands. Talk about how that happened. You actually say that it turned into what you call a Green Civil War between some of the bigger green organizations and some smaller climate justice groups.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Yeah. The origin for this conflict really goes back to 2001 with the Bush-Cheney Energy Taskforce. And one of the major recommendations to come from that taskforce was to expedite energy development on public lands. Of course, they probably were not talking about solar, wind and geothermal. They were mainly talking about oil, coal and natural gas.

Yet, that policy was applied to the solar industry when public lands came under pressure for development, as you said, around 2008 through 2012 or so, was really the big push for a lot of this. The origins for that are a bit complicated, but one of the reasons I believe that public lands were targeted in this initial wave of solar development was that these are just big parcels of land. The Bureau of Land Management is the nation’s largest landlord with over 250 million acres of land that they manage. And to some extent the renewables industry had always been jealous of the fossil fuel industries because they get access to public lands and their lobbyists basically said, “Well, you should give us public lands too.”

So the BLM in the 2005 Energy Policy Act was mandated, and I would put that in air quotes— “mandated”— because it actually doesn’t say that in the legislation. But it was interpreted as a mandate, that they would develop 10 gigawatts of solar on public lands, and that was expanded actually to 20 gigawatts under the Obama administration. So the BLM, it became part of their mission to actually dispossess their lands and virtually privatize them for industry essentially. I call it virtual privatization because it wasn’t that these solar companies were buying the land. It’s that they just got to occupy it, fence it in, bulldoze it, and basically treat it as their own, but eventually it’s supposed to be returned to the federal government.

Now, the other reason for public lands is, and this is a similar argument, but the large parcel sizes mean that they only have to deal with one landowner. So if you want to build a really large solar farm, let’s say eight square miles, and there are some that are that big. If you want to build an eight square mile solar farm, imagine trying to do that in a rural community where you’ve got to deal with 15 to 30 different landowners and you’ve got to negotiate prices and such. The BLM became a lot easier to deal with, so a lot of the solar companies would rather have dealt directly with BLM and that was the major impetus.

The other reason that the BLM lands were targeted was because they were able to be fast tracked, as I mentioned earlier. And the reason fast tracking became important here is because there was stimulus money available to these solar companies in the form of loan guarantees and cash grants, which sometimes could be used to pay off the loans. And if those projects didn’t break ground before a certain date, that money would be basically taken back by the next Congress. So that fast tracking really was driven by the need to get shovels in the ground. And if you remember from that conversation around the financial crisis in 2008, shovel-ready projects was the catchphrase that we were looking to invest in. We, meaning the United States, during the economic downturn. And fast-tracked solar projects on public lands were considered shovel-ready, and it’s not clear that they could’ve even built them as quick on private land, but we’ve seen a lot less projects built on public lands more recently.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. I think, actually – so another really interesting thing about the specific land grab in the southwest that my colleague Steve Horn who produced this segment and I both thought was a really important part of the boo, is that deserts are being targeted for massive solar installations too. And as you explain in the book, deserts are carbon sinks. They help the earth fight global warming. Talk a little bit about that contradiction. You say that it only came up in one environmental impact statement and then it was pushed to the side. The fact that if you just left this land alone, it might’ve been doing as much for preventing climate change.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Right. There’s a tendency in this solar energy space to really focus on making solar as cheap as possible, and that kind of runs counter to a lot of the things that we’ve talked about. I mean, I would argue that it’s our quest for cheapness in society in general that’ve gotten us into this mess in the first place.

DHARNA NOOR: Certainly.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: But if you were to look at a solar farm that’s cheap in the desert, and compare it to a more expensive one maybe that’s near some marginal farmland closer to an urban area, from a carbon perspective the reverse is actually true. So that solar project in the desert might look cheaper than the one close to the urban area that’s on farmland, but from a carbon perspective, the one that is in the desert is actually going to displace more carbon because you’ve got above ground carbon in plants, you’ve got below ground carbon in the roots of plants. And desert plants have huge roots because they’re going deep and looking for water. If you ever see one of these exposed, you could see that the root mass is actually a lot bigger often than the biomass above ground.

There are also inorganic carbonates and in fact deserts, they act to sequester carbon. There’s evidence of this. The rates are debated often about what rate they sequester carbon, but when you disturb landscapes in desert soil, you actually can release some of those carbonates. So these are inorganic. These are fixed, this is already fixed carbon that you’re releasing into the atmosphere. So I would argue that if we wanted to be siting more responsibly from a carbon perspective, we really shouldn’t be going for where projects are cheapest. They should be placed where we save the most carbon emissions. And by causing land use change, whether it’s in deserts, we’ve seen in it now in boreal forests even, really carbon-rich ecosystems, it just delays the time to when that actually starts saving us carbon emissions.

So we should be putting solar where we can actually have win-win scenarios. I mean I’m a big advocate for bringing solar closer to load, even if it’s not going to generate the same amount of power. Because if we’re worried about our cities overheating in the context of climate change, boy, we better be creating a lot more shade in our urban areas and maybe we can reduce some heat island effects, right? So if we want to be thinking more holistically about solar energy solutions, we should be putting this in places that reduce temperature, that can reduce land use change, that can save as much carbon. And in fact on this point about heat island effects, so the heat island effect is this idea that cities absorb all this heat in all their concrete and pavement and things during the daytime, and then rerelease this overnight in the form of long wave radiation. And that means that the next day, that these cities are a lot warmer than they were the day previously because that heat is still held in a lot of those parking lots, if you’ve ever walked into a parking lot at night.

And there’s been some studies that show if you put a solar farm in a rural area, it actually increases the heat island effect. And there’s other studies that show if you put a solar farm in an urban area, particularly if you’re covering pavement, you could actually reduce heat island effect. So I’m really seeking solutions here that are about how to optimize and maximize carbon savings and maximize benefits to communities, to cities as they try to become more climate smart.

DHARNA NOOR: And in choosing where to put these projects, there’s also the question of who’s profiting off of those sort of land grabs. You explained that the likes of Goldman Sachs profit off this utility scale solar land grab in the southwest, Chevron, Bobby Kennedy Jr. Could you talk a little bit about how they were involved, and what that ownership structure actually was?

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Yeah. So a lot of these companies that got a lot of the early fast tracking projects that we were talking about earlier, 2008 to 2012, a lot of these projects were actually owned by big banks. So I’m thinking of a couple of projects, the Ivan Paw Project for example, Morgan Stanley was a major backer of them. Another big project that I can think of was owned by Citibank. You mentioned Chevron Energy Solutions owned another one of these.

There are a couple of reasons that probably they were sought out as owners for these projects because they were – they had a lot of cash actually during the financial crisis. We didn’t have a lot of cash, but the banks had a lot of cash and they were looking for places to park it. And that was probably one of the reasons that we saw more of these companies owning the financial – or reaping the financial rewards from these projects.

Now, the challenging part for me is even though we just talked about how banks, in some cases the petroleum industries, were awash in petrodollars and with lots of financial – lots of finance in their pockets to spend on these projects, it turns out a lot of them took out federal loans and then they applied for cash grants to actually pay off large portions of these federal loans. So in fact, even though the private profits were being taken away, the risk was put on the public for these.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, absolutely.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: And there were some projects that went bankrupt or ended up going over cost, and those are costs and risks that were put on the public. And so in my book I talk about that as kind of a socializing of risk and a privatizing of profit from these solar projects, and I’m not sure that that’s the model that will lead to the best successes. In fact, if you look at those projects that were built in that time period, those are the most ecologically damaging projects. So again, by the ownership structure being banks and more distance from ecological concerns, you probably saw a little less thought put into where you put these projects in a sustainable way. And I think land grab is a really good way to characterize what happened in that time period.

DHARNA NOOR: And as you said, there’s been less of that kind of seizing of public lands lately. But more recently, as you wrote, President Trump has moved to get rid of some safeguards won by grassroots groups under the banner of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. Could you talk a little bit about the importance of that plan and why it matters that Trump has moved to undo parts of it?

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Yeah. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan was passed at the same time that in California – was passed in the same time in California that the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard was. So that Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard is basically a requirement that electric utilities buy an increasing amount of renewable energy over time. Now, the legislature in California was thoughtful. They knew, partly because they’ve seen these pressures come and go in different contexts before, they knew that there would be a lot of pressure on the deserts for both wind and solar power. So the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan was an effort to examine all of the lands, the desert lands in California, particularly the public lands, and try to identify where the lowest conflict was from cultural resources, Indigenous communities, ecological concerns, and obviously they have to be flat and sunny. You can’t have trees and stuff like that if you want to put solar on it.

And what happened was you ended up with a bunch of small what we call development focus areas, or solar energy zones is another term that’s used, and they keep changing these terms so they might not be the most current ones. But the idea was that you, instead of looking across and just letting people go first come, first served and pick whatever landscapes they want, which is basically the way it had been since 2005 with the Energy Policy Act, they basically incentivized siting in those zones basically. So if you sited in the zones you got sort of fast track treatment. If you went outside of the zone, you went through the full environmental review.

Now, the solar industry was never happy about that, right? If you imagine, private companies don’t like any of their potential places to sell product to disappear. So they went along, I would argue, kicking and screaming with the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. They were never really happy with it and I think when the Trump Administration came into office, they just decided that this was their opportunity. And Trump had a big announcement, I think it was Zinke still at the time, that he was going to undo the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. They had a whole bunch of public meetings throughout the West and we haven’t heard a peep in about a year now about that, or maybe it’s even been more than a year.

So not quite clear what the whole purpose of that was. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan has not been undone, but it’s in this kind of amorphous place where it’s not clear what the next steps are going to be. So that’s been a major challenge and a major disappointment because I do think that the policy in general is the right idea.

The idea is let’s plan a little bit, let’s think before we do this. Because I think the big challenge with that 2008 to 2012 period was no one was thinking. People just said, “Okay, here’s all the land in the West. Park you place wherever you want.” And as you mentioned, there was a land grab. Goldman Sachs had permits applied for almost one-third of all the land that was being applied for by solar companies, even though they didn’t even have a solar company. So there were people trying to speculate on these lands and that was really problematic. So having a process where you actually identify and plan for where the best places to put solar, I think, is the ideal way to move forward on this.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, so the EPA has this initiative that viewers might’ve heard of called RE-Powering Land, which encourages renewable energy development like solar on sites that were environmentally unjust in some way— like current and former contaminated sites, landfills, that kind of thing. What do you make of that program? Is that sort of a good framework or a good way to start to find new lands to create these projects?

DUSTIN MULVANEY: I think, absolutely. These are lands that really can’t necessarily be put to good use in other contexts often because they’re contaminated or they’re in an industrial area that you wouldn’t want to put housing or something like that. So I absolutely think that the EPA’s RE-powering America’s Land Program— and RE there stands for Renewable Energy— is a really good effort here. And just to give you a context, often you’ll hear people say, “Oh, you have to put solar power in the desert or you’re going to suffer from climate change.” That’s it. You either have to – the deserts are either for solving climate change, or they’re not. And I think that that’s a false choice.

I think we actually have a lot of places. This is the only technology we can live under, first of all. No one lives under natural gas power plants, no one lives under biomass, no one lives under other kinds of energy technology. So this one could be actually integrated into human infrastructure a lot better than most. We did a brief look at the lands available through that EPA program in California and there’s enough land in that program. And they did screen for solar. They looked for distance to transmission, they looked at the slope, they looked at how sunny it was, et cetera. And somewhere on the order of eight times more peak energy and peak power than is used in California, could be generated on these brownfields, industrial sites, abandoned mines and such.

DHARNA NOOR: Wow.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: So there’s plenty of place to put solar without disturbing habitat, without releasing lots of carbon, without causing damage to cultural resources. We just need to pay a little more for it. I’m guessing the reason that we’re not seeing as many people using those lands is because they’re slightly more expensive. And access to transmission, when we talk to developers, access to transmission is basically what determines where projects go. If you don’t have cheap access to transmission, it really can basically kill the project. So we need to make this a little easier for companies and maybe that’s raising the bar by saying, “You shouldn’t be building on any lands that have a lot of carbon or could cause carbon debts that need to be paid off.” Or some other kind of incentive to utilize these lands.

But the bottom line is we have plenty of space to put solar without harming or damaging ecosystems and cultural resources. And I think that that’s really what has to be prioritized as we move forward.

DHARNA NOOR: And there are plenty of people who have the money to invest. It doesn’t always have to go onto the backs of rate payers. Dustin, we’re almost out of time, so I just want to ask you, what are the main takeaways that you would want readers to take from your book? Just briefly, what are some of the ideals that you’re looking for in an arrangement of solar power? And what are some key ways that it can be made equitable and climate-friendly?

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Well, I think one is about worker health and safety and community benefits from where these extractive industries that contribute to the industry, but also the chemical industries that contribute to the supply chains, as well as the manufacturing facilities themselves. I think that that is really, really critical here. I guess we could have a decarbonized future that is based on the backs of exploitation, but that’s not a future that I want to be a part of.

DHARNA NOOR: Sure.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Two, I really think we have to be careful about where we put solar. Not only for the carbon reasons and wilderness reasons that we talked about and cultural resource reasons, but also because there could be backlash. You could start putting solar in bad spots and people start pointing it out and then the public doesn’t like solar anymore and then you just stop seeing commitments to solar in certain places because of the damage that it might be causing. So I think that is really, really also important.

And then finally, extended producer responsibility. This is something that we’re seeing in other industries. It basically says, “If you’re a manufacturer of a product, you are responsible for it’s safe and responsible disposal.” We’ve seen that in Europe work. The state of Washington, the state of New York now have extended producer responsibility for photovoltaics. If you want to sell a solar panel in the state of Washington after 2020, you’ve got to have a take back and recycling plan. Otherwise, you are not allowed to sell solar panels there anymore and I think that that’s a low cost. I think that that’s going to benefit the industry in the end. And when that comes to California and a couple more states, hopefully we’ll see that roll out nationally.

DHARNA NOOR: We have to leave it there, but thank you so much for talking us through your book. That’s called, again, Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability and Environmental Justice—  highly recommend. Dustin Mulvaney, an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies Department at San Jose University, thank you so much for being here today.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: It was quite a pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.