Job and Climate Concerns Driving Support for Large-Scale Solar

For the five desert counties polled, the economy is the top concern, “solar” leads energy choices

Courtesy BrightSource Energy

When it

Here’s the fine print up front: this survey, conducted during December and January, was underwritten by BrightSource Energy, the company that’s building one of California’s largest solar projects at Ivanpah, northwest of Needles in the Mojave Desert. Private capital for Ivanpah came from Google and from CalSTRS, the state’s teachers’ retirement system. It’s an enterprise that’s been lauded by Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown, by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and President Obama.

But just this week, Ivanpah came under fire in a Los Angeles Times story boldly titled “Sacrificing the Desert to Save the Earth.” BrightSource took to its own website to refute the charge that their utility-scale solar effort is responsible for “razing the desert” and pointed to their “low impact design,” a native plant nursery on site and a “Head Start” program for juvenile desert tortoises.

All that said, the phone survey conducted by Probolsky Research, LLC and released today by Vote Solar, a non-profit advocacy group, shows jobs and the economy leading the list of concerns among 52.3 percent of those polled, horse lengths ahead of a host of other woes which only garnered single-digit responses, including “environmental issues.” Only 5.5 percent put that at the top of the list.

“What we’ve been seeing and hearing is that ‘business-as-usual’ will do far more damage than large-scale solar,” says Jim Baak, one of Vote Solar’s policy directors. “California deserts are fragile ecosystems but the single greatest threat to deserts is climate change.”

Two noteworthy items from the five counties (Inyo, Kern, San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial): a robust 56.6 percent said they were “concerned” about “global warming, otherwise known as climate change,” with a healthy minority of 42.2 percent saying they were “unconcerned.” When surveyors asked which kind of energy they’d rather have in their community — they could choose as many as they liked — renewables won the first spot with 60 percent picking “solar fields” and another 46.5 percent choosing windmills. Oil exploration and natural gas “fracking” were a distant third and fourth, with half and a third as many votes respectively.

These answers come as a bit of a surprise because according to the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce, if Kern County were a state, it would come in fourth in oil production for the nation, just behind Texas and Alaska and the state of California itself. These are not historically the places one would think would embrace alt-energy at the wholehearted rates in this survey.

Finally, more than three-fourths agreed that “parts of the California desert” should go to renewable energy projects, and three-fourths support building large-scale solar generating projects there. Did the survey pose a specific question about environmental concerns with “big solar?” No. But Vote Solar’s Jim Baak is taking a comparative and larger view.

“What we’ve been seeing and hearing is that ‘business-as-usual’ will do far more damage than large-scale solar,” said Jim Baak, one of Vote Solar’s policy directors. “California deserts are fragile ecosystems but the single greatest threat to deserts is climate change.”