Desert Issues

Desert Survivors Issues Report, May 19, 2009

(with thoughts on Shelley and his poetry)

This small solar thermal facility at Kramer Junction has been operating since 1987. It is actually five separate generating units, each with its own steam boiler, providing 150 megawatts total. It is owned by the Kramer Junction Company, self-described as an independent corporation. The sun’s rays are focused by parabolic mirrors toward a central pipe in each mirror that contains a viscous fluid. This hot fluid is then directed through a piping system into a boiler where it heats steam which turns turbines to produce electricity.

This type of facility is planned for many square miles of desert in California, Arizona and other states. As can be seen, it occupies a wide area (one square mile). This is to be expected, since the sun’s rays are not powerful enough to boil water all by themselves without a massive apparatus to concentrate them, unless you’re on Venus or Mercury, or the sunny side of the Moon. Incidentally, solar collectors are also planned for the latter, where vegetation will not have to be removed.

These photos, taken by Craig Deutsche from the perimeter fence and a nearby railroad track, will show members, perhaps for the first time, what is planned for our pristine desert lands. This kind of industrial facility would hardly be missed in the industrial parts of Los Angeles or along the Las Vegas Strip, or even on the outskirts of Barstow, where there are already two operated by the same company (and two other pilot plants, now decommissioned, built with Federal money).

The Kramer facility is on a private parcel near a major intersection. Why is it necessary to build these out in untouched desert? Cheap ground! And through your connections, your corporation will be able to get free cooling water from public lands — for cleaning the mirrors, and for the gas-fired “peaker plants” that you need to keep things running when the sun isn’t shining. The fluid in the collectors cannot be allowed to cool down below a certain optimum flow temperature at night.

Judging from published figures for the decade 1992-2002, a plant this size is estimated to generate about 1% of the nation’s INCREASE in electricity usage in each year. In other words, one hundred plants this size would have to be constructed EACH YEAR just to keep up with the increased energy usage in the United States in that year. That’s a lot of desert.

As I looked upon the destruction to desert life wrought by this single square mile of solar power, I was reminded of old high school teachings of the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, His character stood below an obelisk as he gazed out over the vast desert that was once a major civilization. The plinth below the obelisk had an inscription:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

The works were gone, thank goodness. But in our deserts today, power companies want to work the game in reverse. The “colossal wreck” Shelley referred to is the solar power array itself, multiplied by 100,000. That’s a lot of Simpson’s reruns.

A wide view of the solar power plant at Kramer Junction on U.S. Route 58 in San Bernardino County. Width of view is about one-half mile. The facility occupies one square mile of desert. Steam rising is groundwater used to cool the boiler. This water is mined from below the desert floor and only part of it will ever be replaced through runoff from the process. Once brought up from below and released as steam, it is gone (at least in our current climate regime). Imagine hundreds of these facilities across the desert.

Parabolic mirrors at the Kramer Junction solar plant. Note that all vegetation has been removed from below the collectors. The area has been scraped clean and is kept that way. Why this is so is not clear (to keep down dust?). Solar development is not a matter of simply erecting collectors over native desert vegetation for three decades and then removing them, leaving the living desert underneath undisturbed. Each patch of pristine desert utilized for solar will have all of its vegetation removed and its living soil permanently disrupted. Perhaps this is what is meant by “clean energy”.

Another view of the parabolic mirrors at Kramer Junction. Note the drainage ditch on the left, just in case there is any rainfall. Water must be drained off the site as quickly as possible, ensuring that no plants will grow to interfere with the process. The scraping of the soil underneath creates a dead zone, much like a strip mine, a tank warfare base, or an off-road “open area”. The effects of cattle-grazing, by contrast, would be small potatoes compared with this form of “green energy”.

A settling pond for cooling water from the steam boiler (solar and gas-fired). This water is also used to wash the collectors, since any dust may interfere with the sun’s rays. This is ground water mined from hundreds of feet below. It will evaporate, as does the steam in a previous picture. Once pulled from below, it will not be replaced. Any other springs or wells nearby may be impacted as powerful pumps suck all water from the surrounding valley fill. Water use alone marks this technology as “resource intensive”.

Text and captions by Steve Tabor. Photos by Craig Deutsche.