"Oakland Invades the Desert," Feature, 12/8
Castles in the Sand
Good article on desert solar and the environment, but the economics were not explained. The sun is dilute requiring the 5.6 square-mile "footprint" described, but there's a further limitation: Solar panels get no light at night. They are effective only when the sun is most direct, about 6-8 hours a day. Thus the 370-megawatt output alleged for Ivanpah is misleading. Power averaged over the year comes to something like 100 megawatts. Company statistics for all plants quoted are actually 65-75 percent lower.
By contrast the gas plant across the valley is rated at 500 megawatts. Gas plants are run around the clock, produce power 24/7. Over a year they'll typically run 80 percent of the time, giving an effective megawattage of 400, four times that of BrightSource's facility. And no other plant will have to be kept running in parallel to give electricity at night. The gas plant sits on one-tenth the area of the solar plant. Megawatt for megawatt, you're damaging only one-fortieth of the area, and you get to surf the web at night after work as well!
Promotion of solar goes back to the 1970s, but even now provides only 1 percent of our electricity. The dilute quality of the sun's rays requires a huge expense. When Ivanpah was approved earlier this year, BrightSource had put up only $160 million of its own money. The Obama administration put up the rest in the form of $1.34 billion loan guarantee out of stimulus funds (the bailout). That's a 90 percent subsidy on construction. Add to that the 30 percent subsidy on operations and the 33 percent guaranteed market (by law), plus state subsidies. Now you can see why there is such interest in solar contraptions in the desert. It's the taxpayers, Stoopid!
And the ratepayers. When ratepayers find out that they're expected to pay three to five times more for solar-generated electricity than they would for real power from a real power plant, it will be the Tea Party all over again. Unfortunately, we will find ourselves with 1000 square miles of wrecked desert that cannot repair itself. That is the Obama's stated plan for solar build-out.
Castles in the sand, indeed. Impeachment, anybody?
Steve Tabor, Oakland
The Lesser of Two Evils
Thanks for your article about building solar power plants in deserts. We environmentalists have been arguing about this for several years. It basically comes down to the usual Democrats v. Greens debate (do you support the lesser of evils or advocate for what you really believe?) plus whether you are the type of environmentalist who believes in technological solutions or the type who realizes that we must lower our consumption while also using the least harmful technology available.
Overconsumption and overpopulation are the roots of all environmental problems. As your article clearly shows, there will be no magical technological solution to the environmental and ecological problems caused by consumption of too much energy. The proper solutions to residential electricity overconsumption are to put solar panels and wind generators on every roof, and to build these solar and wind plants in the cities and other areas where the electricity is being consumed. Power lines in otherwise natural areas are not only ugly, they're also environmentally destructive.
Because of the ecological and environmental harms outlined in your article and because of the aesthetic and ecological harms caused by power lines, I strongly oppose the supposed "clean energy" solar plants, which are actually very dirty in environmental and ecological terms.
Jeff Hoffman, San Francisco
Reduce Power Demand
The arrival at the newsstands of the Express with the "Oakland [Solar] Invades the Desert" article and the arrival in the Bay Area of the new electric plug-in hybrid from Nissan called the Leaf all brings up the techno-fix vs. city design issue that is at the base of solving our long-term environmental problems.
Solar electric generation in the desert does take up a fair amount of land but car-dependent "sprawl" development takes up many times more. As the Express article points out, both sides of the pro- and anti-desert solar electric power plants are trying to solve environmental problems, problems that ecological city design would solve in an even more fundamental and much larger way.
The electric car requires energy from some place, and, along with the arrival of the Leaf, PG&E gave us a hint of things to come on the demand side, demand that would be caused by trying to put our car-based transportation system on electricity. PG&E warns us that they will have to track neighborhoods where the Leaf ends up because these cars will add greatly to the demand for electricity, demanding up-grades and more generation from somewhere — desert solar, oil, nukes, hydro? — requiring higher capacity wires, transformers, new generation capacity, etc.
Basically, electric cars are not only far more energy, not to speak land, inefficient than public transit systems and bicycle access that can be provided by compact apartment in-town living, but electric cars have to cart around an extra few hundred pounds of batteries per person that simply does not exist when electricity is delivered by wire to streetcars, electric trolleys, and BART, and of course bicyclists don't carry around multi-hundred-pound batteries in their baskets. The electric car hybrid or pure is an energy- and land-squandering disaster — get used to it! It is an integral part of a destructive city layout and design that perpetuates one of humanity's worst mistakes: building cities for cars instead of people.