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Cruel irony: Do renewable power plants threaten their surrounding environment?

Do the potential benefits of plants that use renewable sources such as wind and solar to generate energy outweigh the environmental damage that could be caused to make way for them? Californians are grappling with that very question as the state moves ahead with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to have utility companies generate one-third of the state's energy from renewable sources by 2020; today renewables account for 12 percent of their output.

The facilities and infrastructure needed to meet the governor's goals, however, require the state to turn over acres of previously undeveloped land (to install fields of solar panels, for example), something residents near the Carrisa Plains region (about 170 miles northwest of Los Angeles) fear may destroy the area's natural beauty, not to mention habitats of endangered animals such as the San Joaquin kit fox, Time reports.

Three companies—OptiSolar, Inc., SunPower Corporation, and Carrizo Energy, LLC—are hoping to build solar plants on 16 square miles (41 square kilometers) in eastern San Luis Obispo County,  according to Time. The benefits could be substantial—OptiSolar claims on its Web site that its proposed 550-megawatt photovoltaic Topaz Solar Farm alone could power about 190,000 homes.

The Obama administration is encouraging California's move toward green energy. Part of the state's share of the federal economic stimulus package ($50 billion in spending and about $35 billion in tax relief) will help pay for 30 percent of solar projects that begin by the end of 2010, according to Time.

California's effort reflects the fed's own enthusiasm for green energy—the economic stimulus package is loaded with $59 billion in energy and in tax incentives designed to promote clean energy. In fact, President Obama announced during a White House press conference this week that his administration plans to spend $150 billion over 10 years to develop clean, efficient energy. "As we speak, my Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, is visiting Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, where recovery funds will speed construction of a laboratory that will help develop materials for new solar cells and other clean energy technologies," he said.

But some Californians see a darker side to building the solar power plants on previously pristine land, where Joshua trees grow although not many people live. Most prominent among them is Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is preparing legislation that would permanently protect hundreds of thousands of acres of desert land around the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. While only a small portion of the desert would be allocated to solar power farms (and the paperwork to build the facilities has not been approved) for the Carrisa Plains project, environmentalists are concerned that this would be just the beginning.

Feinstein supports development of renewable energy sources, but she opposes using these lands, which are not only tourist attractions (and as such bring in money to the state) but also are home to endangered wildlife, cactus gardens and other plant life. Nineteen of the 130 applications for solar and wind energy development in the California desert area currently being reviewed by the Bureau of Land Management request permission to build renewable energy plants in areas that Feinstein is attempting to preserve, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The senator noted her concerns in a March 3 letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who has said that development of renewable energy sources is one of his top priorities. The Times reports that Salazar told Feinstein that the projects would "carefully considered" before any decisions were made and that "every effort will be made to avoid the most environmentally sensitive and valuable areas."


With reporting by Rachel Olfson

Image of Joshua tree © Gooniesgrl4evr

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