In the Zone

Photo: B. Frank

Old man Harrison knew the apple business, and he had a vision. He liked to walk the orchard with his fastest pickers before the harvest, telling us how much we’d make on the first day, thanks to his judicious pruning, thinning and the measured applications of water, fertilizer and pesticides. When we agreed with his appraisal, he showed his pride by picking a still-green apple from a tree. He’d open his pocketknife as we walked and cut slices to hand around, so everyone could taste how much sugar was coming up in the fruit.

“I’d say just a few days now, these trees’ll be ready to pick,” he predicted. As we walked on, the old man described how he’d seen the future while on a driving vacation through California with his wife a few months back. “Why, those dry valleys are nothing but sun-blasted brush now, but they could be filled with orchards, just like this–,” he interrupted himself to wave at the trees, “–with water, you could grow all the fruit you wanted.” He looked around at us, “And I saw plenty of water, behind that Hoover Dam.”

The old man grew the best-damned apples I’d ever picked, with irrigation water impounded by one of the projects extolled in the local paper’s masthead, “Apple Capital of the World, and the Buckle of the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.” Although I was several years shy of my 21st year on the planet, I knew enough to listen to him.

The orchard was next to the once-mighty Columbia River, now tamed by an assortment of dams begun in the 1930s. Private electric companies had opposed the competition from public funding, while irrigation promoters loved the promise of cheap water and flood control. Bonneville and Grand Coulee became “New Deal” names rolling off the tongues of left-leaning politicians hooking for votes from an electorate recently humbled by economic collapse, while right-wingers thundered that it was all part of a “Socialist boondoggle” leading the country to ruin. To help combat this charge, by 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration had retained an “information consultant” named Woody Guthrie to write songs for a film promoting its projects. From Woody’s “Grand Coulee Dam” comes this:

“Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ’33

For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me.

He said, ‘Roll along Columbia. You can ramble to the sea,

But river while you’re ramblin’ you can do some work for me’.”

While the Northwest’s self-named Inland Empire digested its doses of backbiting and branding, Hoover Dam had already jump-started the Desert Southwest’s multi-decade fling with cheap hydro. To transmit the electricity produced, transmission grids that eventually became part of the Western Interconnection soon crisscrossed public lands, and enough impounded water was pumped from the canyons of the Columbia and Colorado rivers to feed dreams of human industry.

I’ve been dreaming old man Harrison’s industrious vision tonight, after a long day spent driving a rented HEV (hybrid electric vehicle), looking at BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) proposed SEZs (Solar Energy Zones) in the Mojave Desert (no acronym, sorry) of southern California (SoCo). Several decades beyond my fruit tramp years and in a new century defined by fears of impending collapses, the idea of orchards in these dry valleys seems far-fetched, as abandoned lettuce fields in the Imperial Valley 100 miles from here grow dust-clouds so the over-booked Colorado River can continue sprouting housing developments on the California coast.

I’ve seen four SEZs in the last few days, will drive by three more tomorrow, and can close my eyes and visualize the landscape surrounding about a dozen more from rambles similar to this one in decades past — seemingly, aimless travel on a budget is a side benefit of living a life of outdoor leisure interrupted by short (usually) periods of industrious labor for (sometimes) lucrative manna, with which to finance my hedonistic pursuits in “undeveloped” places managed by the alphabet soup of public lands agencies.

After dark, I turned off the highway onto a dirt road that led toward the dark side of Joshua Tree National Park, hoping it would lead to a dead-end set of ruts, and maybe a bit of shelter from a tailwind that had raised the hybrid’s digital efficiency graph to periodically claim 75 MPG (yup, another one — miles per gallon, this time. Get used to it, there’re more of ’em coming.). The road ended in a bulldozed patch of dirt by a chain-link fence. The wind kept howling, and I unrolled my sleeping bag on the lee side of the low-slung car. Not as good as hoped, but not bad.

Now the only light is from a half-moon that rose while I slept. It shines directly in my eyes. Ah well, probably what ended the dream for me, but at least the wind has died. The only sound is a gentle burbling from the other side of the fence. It is the sound of water flowing. No more sleep for a while now. A short walk to the fence confirms that I’ve managed to camp right by the Colorado River Aqueduct as it carries old man Harrison’s vision through the still-dry-as-dust Mojave. To the west, there are no orchards, no green fields. Beyond the aqueduct, the moon lights the Coxcomb Mountains inside the national park. Northeast, the proposed Iron Mountain SEZ site is hidden in shadows cast by its namesake mountain range. South, toward Interstate 10, is more crosshatching on the BLM map that marks yet another SEZ.

It’s time for a bit of exploration here. The SEZ process seems to be another effort to establish long-term land-management plans during my own home-state-produced, honest-to-gawd cowboy-hat-and-boot-wearing Secretary of Interior’s tenure. Though it’s hard to paint the honorable Mr. Secretary as an environmentalist’s wet dream, overall it’s been a refreshing change from the “Drill, Baby, Drill” sloganeering of the now-busted boom time. He reminds me of an old-time steward-of-the-land-type rancher preaching grazing rotation and summer/winter pasture gospel, though, as usual, “the devil is in the details,” as me own aphorism-spouting, FDR-hating great-grandmother would’ve phrased it.

SEZ is an acronym dreamed up by the current occupants of the Interior (DOI) and Energy (DOE) departments, in the process of setting an overall policy for permitting utility-scale solar-energy projects on 22 million acres of BLM land in six states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah). The plan would remove another 77 million acres of BLM land from consideration for solar, while streamlining the permitting process in 24 zones (yup, the SEZs) chosen for proximity to power transmission corridors and roads. Current projections are that between now and the year 2030, developments will cover over 200,000 acres with solar arrays producing 24,000 megawatts of electricity (an output roughly equal to five Fukushimas).

As of now, the details are still being hashed out, and as a citizen of the benighted empire, I’ve taken the liberty of casting myself as a “stakeholder” while attending public meetings, reading virtual reams of official descriptions and media coverage courtesy the web, chatting with a few jargon-fluent Departmental suits, walking some proposed SEZs, driving past others, clicking panoramic photographs handily available on the solareis.als.gov website (I know, I know, enough acronyms/abbreviations already), and closing my eyes to visualize just what some of these zones would look like with brush, sand and rocks replaced by fields of solar collectors pumping electricity into the humming wires of the Western Interconnection.

According to every formula for effective “advocacy journalism” I’ve ever stolen from, this is where I should deftly preach my own gospel of a shining future: for the enviro-defensive demographic, the preservation of our beloved public-land jewels; for upwardly-green-and-mobile strivers, a 21st Century riff on ol’ Woody Guthrie’s paean to the Grand Coulee Dam. I know, I know — but one problem is, we’ve got some cross-over on this one, as defenders of extraction extol the virtues of open spaces (the preservation of which will incidentally improve their favorite oil/gas/coal/nuclear corporation’s bottom line), while more than a few self-proclaimed environmentalists offer to trade acres for peace of mind on the production front (quoting actual online comment here, “Ultimately, I think it’s worthwhile to displace some tortoises if we can get real meaningful energy change by developing solar plants.”).

Comments I’ve collected so far have some environmental organizations defending their favored stretches of “habitat,” farmers worried about competition for water and land, residents of housing developments jealous of their “viewshed,” accusations of a BIG GOVERNMENT SCHEME TO LOCK UP THE WEST IN A GREEN ENERGY SOCIALIST BOONDOGGLE, and/or (fill in a favorite fear or two here), while corporations hoping to crash the renewable energy production party let their actual endgames lie fallow, to let bureaucrats take the heat. We’ll hear more from them later, I’m guessing. Currently, the multi-agency group that drafted the plan is sifting through a mountain of opinions, accusations and actual relevant comments while finalizing an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), so tune in for the next round in coming months.

Here’s another problem — a point-of-view can be an amorphous thing, subject to having “skin in the game,” as the investment gurus say these days. After all, Guthrie’s celebratory lyrics promoted projects that took a formerly free-flowing stretch of public river and turned it into a daisy chain of industrial sites that provided a decent chunk of my early, very minor, part in boosting the empire’s GNP (gross national product [couldn’t resist this one, sorry]). I don’t recall being racked with guilt as I spent that apple-picking money. Depending on the stretch of country I see, I can feel both sides on this one, too. As a certain young brasileira sadly said to me as I left Rio long ago, “Is muito complicado.” Yes, I agreed, complicated indeed. So, what the hell, I’ll do as always and ramble on.

*SEZ DOI DOE BLM GNP*
So it’s the next day, and I’m poaching a hike on one of America’s jewels, leaving tracks in a shallow desert wash without benefit of a day pass. A line of signposts awhile back proclaimed the park boundary, and my view is a ragged skyline far from popular parts of Joshua Tree NP. Turning east, I can see the shape of my rented hybrid car by the flowing aqueduct, and far beyond the Iron Mountain SEZ, I can visualize other valleys in the Mojave that some corporate-board-types may be eyeing as I walk. Across the Interior West, the prospect is the same.

I rented my eco-consumer’s transitional dream car in a desperate bid to not change my pattern behaviors too much, now that gas prices are pushing past $4 bucks a sip again; and I’ve got to admit it feels good to be researching solar development sites without asking my old Chevy’s 350 CI (cubic inch) engine to suck at peak oil’s ever-ready teats. In my decades of rambling, when occasional bouts of social consciousness have interfered with my daily routines, I’ve rationalized that my unseemly gasoline consumption is more than offset by an equal number of years living with minimal drain on the electrical grid that keeps our cities and backyards secure from the terrors of darkness, but if enough of us switch to HEV or EV (electric) cars to make a serious dent in national oil consumption, we’ll need more electrical generation and transmission capacity than now exists.

Most of the proposed Solar Energy Zones I visited are near highways and along existing power lines. It’s hard to make a case that putting a solar plant on most of these would scar the landscape more than current uses, but the idea of yet more industrial sites on public land offends my sense of balance. Noise and dust pollution, water use, loss of habitat and wildlife corridors will vary with each site and by type of power generation built. This makes a one-size-fits-all assessment impossible, but some zones are beyond roads and along corridors that have not yet had transmission lines installed. I’m eyeing the Colorado River Aqueduct, seeing shadows of old man Harrison’s vision of the future, and envisioning sacrifice zones.

Right now, choices are being made in corporate and government offices that will decide the mix of power generation in the rest of this century. King Coal wants to dig, Big Oil/Gas wants to drill, the Nuclear Renaissance wants to do both, and a budding Green Energy industry promises enough capacity to give extractive-industry-types nightmares. Common ground for all the above is the desire to dig, drill and/or build on public land, rather than deal with the headaches and hangovers of private land development (read: cheap land = higher profit). Also in agreement on a desire for more power transmission lines, corporate lobbyists of all stripes clamor for additions to the power grid, preferably near their clients’ investments. For proposed power lines on public land, count on finding a multi-year planning process already grinding its gears toward completion, so Solar Energy Zone planning is not the only game in town right now.

We need to decide how much undeveloped public land can be turned into bottom-line profit; put another way, “Just how many displaced tortoises does it take to power an empire?” The piecemeal approach to permit processing has led to rape-and-run Superfund sites, and to true-believers climbing trees, trashing equipment or crashing resource-leasing parties with fake bids in desperate, usually futile attempts to save this or that jewel from development. You know the stories by now, and I know these observations could be expanded into a visionary gospel, but I see too many incongruities anymore. As the old saying goes, “One man’s meat is another’s poison …” or something like that.

Before looking for a place to camp yesterday, I drove my HEV to the top of a hill overlooking an operational solar power plant. Rows of collectors concentrated the sun’s heat onto tubes full of fluid, superheating it enough to power turbines that fed energy into wires stretching across the desert. There was no plume of smoke, no smell of burned petroleum, no invisible cloud of radiation. To the east and west stretched strings of trucks and cars on the highway that replaced old Route 66, the Mother Road that carried Woody Guthrie to California a few years before he sang for the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. Beyond the shining rows of collectors, traffic and wires, I studied the Mojave’s mountains and tried to decide if the solar plant was a blight or blessing for the desert landscape.

As I drove back to the highway, I approached a roadside antique store’s back-lot. It was full of old signs: Standard, Texaco and other blasts from our passing fling with muscle cars and unlimited resources. As I drew closer, I saw a scantily clad mannequin leaning against a chain-link fence — and then she turned around and glanced my way. As the lovely leather-bikini-sporting model waited with her retinue of irritated photographer and bored assistant, I continued driving my oh-so-defensible dream of renewable mobility right through the background of someone else’s fantasy shot of unattainable pulchritude. See — incongruity rules. Ah well, so goes life on the mother, the road.

I realize I’ve started stripping off layers as the sun brings on another day’s heat. Turning back to the mountain, I climb toward a longer view. I don’t yet know how far I’ll go, but I’m going to leave you with a vision that came to me — of a no-longer-young man walking naked in the desert, picking a cautious path through a wilderness of thorny denizens and dilemmas. Now try to think of your envisioned character as a slightly confused uncle. Sam, let’s call him. He doesn’t know yet which way he’ll turn, and asks for some advice.

This Uncle Sam needs more from his citizenry than slogans, accusations and fear. Take a look at the public lands in your own stretch of country — then have a say in how to generate the power our visions and dreams will cost, where you’d like to see it developed, and maybe, just maybe, how much is enough.

More alphabet soup anyone?

Here are a few places that will aid entry to “renewable” energy’s weird wired world of grand plans and piecemeal permit applications.

Keeping in mind that all internet links are ephemeral, check these:

National Renewable Energy Laboratory; solar potential of a landscape near you.

Bureau of Land Management; solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and transmission grid projects.

So what’s transmission got to do with it? This year, rivers have been out-competing wind projects for space on the Western Interconnection’s transmission grid in the Northwest, pointing up the impending storm over too much generation capacity and too few wires. This’ll get you started:

Western Electricity Coordinating Council; Western Interconnection projects.

If high-tech methods fail or leave you cold, contact your oft-maligned Honorable Representatives of a government of by and for “we the people” — via old-fashioned mail, phone or the very direct action of walking into the local office of said minion. Good luck and let your reception guide your vote. Enough said.

Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” His blog, “The Ragged Edge,” can be found here. Frank splits his time between the Four Corners Country and the Borderlands.

One Comment

  • Look up solar solar power supplies, bartety charger and solar charger on the Internet.Lots of good information there.You will need to know how much current you will be drawing, the number of hours you will be using power, the rating of the power supply and the insolation ( this is spelled correctly) from insolation tables on the Internet.

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