AMBOY, Calif. -- The morning heat hits triple digits as a whiptail lizard darts below a creosote bush near Route 66. Gazing across the desert valley, power company executives, environmentalists and federal land managers stand beneath a cloudless sky and argue over the landscape.
PG&E project manager Alice Harron says she is "comfortable" with the solar power plant her utility wants to build on government land here along 4 miles of the Mother Road that connected Chicago and Los Angeles long before the interstate system.
David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy is not. Renewable energy projects such as this one — which could power 224,000 homes — sound good in theory, he says, but if they tear up pristine vistas, they're not "green."
President Obama wants a "clean-energy economy" that relies on renewable sources such as solar and wind power instead of coal and oil. He wants to put these new utilities on federally owned lands like this stretch of the Mojave Desert, one of the sunniest places on Earth.
The administration wants to lead the way by taking advantage of its vast holdings, which account for 20% of all land in the USA, mostly in the West.
That idea is creating a rift among environmentalists, who favor renewable energy but are at odds over where to produce it. Some are willing to compromise with utility companies to build large power plants on remote federal lands to accelerate the transition to clean energy.
Purists are dead set against disturbing pristine landscapes.
Obama's goal is to meet 25% of the nation's energy needs from renewable resources by 2025. Today, the figure is 11.1%, according to the Department of Energy.
One purist is Myers, who worries that the government will industrialize the desert with acres of solar mirrors, trampling treasured landscapes. Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) counter that large, centralized projects are needed to speed the shift to non-polluting energy.
"It's hard, because many of us have fought to protect the very lands" that could be affected, says Johanna Wald of the NRDC.
Starting 'a new beginning'
In a wood-paneled Washington conference room, under the words "America the Beautiful," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says he runs "the real department of energy."
After decades of allowing private companies to lease public lands for coal and oil, "we have started a new beginning" to make room for solar mirrors and wind turbines, he says. As with the older leases, operators would pay to use the land.
Salazar has designated 24 tracts in six Western states as possible solar project sites. There is none on federal lands now.
The Interior Department will open offices to eliminate a five-year backlog of applications. There are 158 pending solar projects on 1.8 million acres of public land. If all went through, they could power 29 million homes.
Not all will be approved, Salazar says, because of environmental and other concerns. Still, the White House plans to streamline approval for at least 10 solar plants it hopes will create 50,000 jobs by 2011.
Nearly half the solar proposals are in the Mojave Desert, home to the threatened desert tortoise, Indian petroglyphs and an intact stretch of Route 66, the historic highway dotted with vintage diners and derelict gas stations.
Not far from the iconic Roy's Motel and Diner, PG&E consultant Scott Galati tells environmentalists that surveys reveal no rare plants or threatened species on a planned solar site. A nearby rail line and access road are proof, he says, the land is hardly pristine.
Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy says an abandoned farm farther from Route 66 would be a better choice. PG&E's Harron says it is privately owned and would be difficult to acquire.
The great advantage of government land, she says, is how much of it there is and the relative ease and cost-effectiveness of building projects on public property.
Too easy, says Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. In a letter to Salazar last month, she said she was "deeply concerned" about a "bias under which solar developers believe they are more likely to receive a permit to build their projects on pristine public lands than on previously disturbed private lands."
Myers fears taxpayers are subsidizing inappropriately large-scale projects. He'd prefer a focus on rooftop solar panels and other small-scale solutions in urban areas that would reduce the clout of big energy companies.
Wald, the NRDC lawyer, says the government is taking a balanced approach. She spent 35 years battling the oil and gas industry and now is working with them to find appropriate sites for wind and solar plants. She agrees that energy self-sufficiency is important but says Myers' approach would take too long. "Even if (some environmentalists) don't like it," she says, large-scale projects "are going to happen."
Feinstein wants to establish a national monument that would bar energy development on hundreds of thousands of acres of desert between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park. The area includes former railroad land the Wild-lands Conservancy donated to the government a decade ago.
If Congress establishes the monument, PG&E and 22 other companies would have to build someplace else.
Across the border in Nevada, Feinstein's Democratic colleague Harry Reid is taking a different approach. The Senate majority leader supports a proposed wind turbine farm on federal land near Searchlight, his hometown.
That has some of his neighbors livid. Many say they fled to the quiet desert town to get away from California's massive, densely packed wind farms.
They fear the same in Searchlight, where the tallest structure is the 150-foot flagpole at Terrible's Casino.
Duke Energy wants to put up 95 wind turbines with blades that reach 415 feet off the ground. Though few in number compared with older, less efficient wind farms — some with thousands of turbines — that's still too many for some people.
"It's going to ruin our way of life," says Verlie Doing, 85, a friend of Reid's late mother. Doing owns the Nugget Casino.
Twelve miles south in the Nevada town of Cal-Nev-Ari, retired energy company electrician Robert Carty supports the turbines. He sees "the global picture" of climate change and calls opponents "CAVE people — citizens against virtually everything."
Across the Mojave in Lucerne Valley, Calif., where neighbors are arguing over a proposed solar plant on 516 acres, county employee Andrew Silva sighs.
"Folks in the East," he says, "don't necessarily recognize how complex and beautiful and diverse the desert is."