Arteries of Power: How Solar Energy Could Reshape the West

By Jon Christensen

Solar power's impact on the American west will be larger than the mere footprints of the plants in the Mojave.

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As the railroads shaped the American West in the 19th century and the national highway system shaped the region in the 20th century, a new electrical generating and transmission system for the 21st century will leave a lasting mark on the desert, for better and worse. Much of the real significance of railroads and highways is not in their direct physical impact on the landscape, but in the ways that they affect the surrounding landscape and communities. The same is true of big solar and wind generating plants and the power lines that will be laid down to move electricity around.

energy_bug_1.pngLook at any map of the West that shows land ownership patterns and you will see what I mean about the railroads. Instead of just a thin pair of tracks, the railroads have left a wide swath of "checkerboard lands" through the territory. For 20 miles on each side of the railroad, companies were granted alternating square sections of land. In much of the West, the other squares have remained public land. Some of the railroad sections were developed, others remain undeveloped, and in both cases the crazy quilt of landownership has presented daunting challenges for land management to this day. Poke around towns along the interstate highway system in the West and you'll find old abandoned town centers that lost their lifeblood as the railroad station was displaced as the heart of the town by a new highway. Later that strip was abandoned when an interstate exit became the key connection to the arteries of the region. More than a few towns lost their souls in the process.

Big solar and wind generating plants and their power lines will also have effects far beyond their direct footprint in the West. This is not an argument against building them. We need alternative energy sources badly, and to really take advantage of them we need to be able to move electricity around far more readily than we can now. The western power grid is a fragmented hodgepodge. It needs to be much better integrated. And that is going to require major power lines across the West.

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Trade-offs will have to be made. Some landscapes will be sacrificed. Some species will be forced to move, or will be carefully relocated to special accommodations, like the desert tortoises outside Las Vegas in their million dollar burrows. Deals will be struck to mitigate immediate impacts -- as they must. Not everyone will be happy with these deals. Some people will sue to stop them. That's already happening. In that sense, the process is working. Sufficient attention is being paid to the immediate trade-offs.

The lasting, wider effects of these trade-offs are another matter. The 21st century development of the American Southwest as a Mecca for alternative energy is going to throw off a lot of power and money in the region. There are opportunities for that power and money to do a lot of good. But it is just as likely that these resources will be squandered badly and will leave a lasting negative legacy behind, just as the railroads and the highways, which did good, in some measure, but left new problems in their wakes.

Mitigation money -- and the institutions that control it -- will be key. Right now there are pitched political battles taking place largely outside of the public eye to define and control the funds that are set aside in negotiated trade-offs and legal settlements over power plants and transmission lines. The key questions are who controls those funds and how are they used? Are they used in the immediate vicinity of power plants and transmission lines or far beyond where the needs may, in fact, be greater? Are they used to better human communities, the environment, or both? Are they used to address concerns created by power generation and transmission or something entirely different? In one case, funds in a legal settlement over a gas pipeline are being used to buy out the grazing permits of ranchers on public lands in the West. The connection is tenuous at best, pernicious at worst. The effect may be to hollow out rural communities far away from the gas pipeline itself.

Mitigation funds will shape the institutions that control them -- whether state agencies, county commissions, or nongovernmental organizations. Those institutions will in turn shape the communities in which they work, from state governments to small towns in the rural West. And they will shape the West far beyond the immediate footprint of power plants and transmission lines. So let's remember the effects of the railroads and the highways as we construct these new arteries of power in the West.

Map: David Rumsey Map Collection.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/03/arteries-of-power-how-solar-energy-could-reshape-the-west/73218/