Solar energy has been a boon to farmers and other rural property owners who can earn a steady income stream by leasing out their land for new solar installations. It’s a different story for livestock farmers who graze their cattle on property they lease from the government. When the lease comes up for renewal, they could face competition from solar developers who are willing to pay more for the same land, and that is shining a new spotlight on land policy and habitat conservation.
Solar Energy Vs. Cattle Grazing On Public Lands
The issue of cattle grazing versus solar energy crossed the CleanTechnica radar last week, when local news station ABC-15 in Arizona took a quick look at the topic.
“An expanding solar industry is putting strain on traditional Arizona rangelands, and ranchers are seeking ways to be compensated for their future losses,” observed ABC reporter Melissa Blasius, who noted that the cattle ranchers in the state depend primarily on land leased from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.
Expanding just about sums it up. Arizona has been a showcase for ambitious solar projects since the Obama administration, and it currently ranks fifth among the 50 states for installed solar capacity at 6,330 megawatts. The Solar Energy Industries Association anticipates the state will more than double its solar power profile over the next five years with the addition of another 7,269 megawatts.
“Arizona is one of the sunniest states and has huge potential for its solar market,” SEIA enthuses.
More Solar Power For Arizona, With Green Hydrogen
Blasius cites the new Ten West Link transmission line connecting Arizona to California as one new pressure point. Plans are also being laid to link renewable energy resources between Arizona and New Mexico through the proposed Sunzia project, which appears to be moving forward.
The green hydrogen market is another new factor. In 2021, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it auctioned solar leases in each of three newly designated development zones totaling up to 825 megawatts. That includes a sprawling facility near the border with California. Under the umbrella of the concentrating solar energy firm Heliogen, the new solar facility includes a green hydrogen feature aimed at distribution to the Port of Los Angeles as well as Phoenix.
The use of water for producing green hydrogen could also become another point of contention. On March 12, Blasius covered the Heliogen plans for ABC-15 and took note of concerns over the potential stress on water resources.
Community concerns aside, the proximity to transportation markets in California is a tempting prize for renewable energy stakeholders in Arizona. The company Air Products, for example, also cites California in its decision to build a new green hydrogen facility in Casa Grande, Arizona.
What About The Land?
The switchover from cattle grazing to solar development has some interesting implications for the emerging fight between the advocates for rural solar energy development and its opponents.
Despite the benefits for farmers and their communities, rumblings against rural solar development began to surface by 2018. Last year a fresh wave of opposition surged up, partly encouraged by social media posts that deploy messaging from the climate disinformation playbook.
Some solar opponents have argued that solar development is an inappropriate use of farmland because it introduces an industrial activity to a rural environment. In terms of environmental conservation, that argument is a bit disingenuous. Modern farming is an energy intensive, machine-driven operation that replaces natural habitats with chemically treated monoculture crops. Farmland is already commercialized, if not industrialized.
The anti-industrial argument also falls apart as applied to livestock operations. In 2021 Arizona Republic reporter Lindsey Botts took a deep dive into the impact of livestock operations on natural habitats in Arizona. He cited reports that describe “hundreds of miles or waterways within the 5.2 million acres of critical habitat in Arizona where cattle have trampled and overgrazed the landscape, including especially fragile riparian areas.”
“The battle between ranching and conservation has become one of the latest sticking points for advocates who argue that cattle have no place in the Southwest, an arid climate not always suited for large, water-guzzling bovines,” Botts wrote. “In the past two years, biologists and citizen scientists who have surveyed critical habitat have found many areas rendered unsuitable for the species they’re meant to save.”
Botts also takes note of recent lawsuits against the Bureau of Land Management, aimed at forcing the agency to step up its efforts to monitor sensitive areas, ensure that fencing is in good repair, and remove cattle from areas designated as critical habitats for endangered species.
Over and above habitat damage related to legal grazing is the problem of “trespass grazing,” which can be almost impossible to enforce considering the large, remote areas involved.
Aside from bad actors who let their cattle graze illegally, Botts describes the elaborate measures undertaken by responsible ranchers to prevent their cattle from drifting into protected areas. However, the problem can still occur.
“…trespass grazing is illegal and, where found, federal agencies should remove cattle from the area. But this can be hard to do and is costly,” Botts observes. “The agency must first find the cattle, then figure out where they need to go, and then it has to hire a team to retrieve the wayward animals.”
It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again
If this is beginning to sound eerily familiar, you may be thinking of the notorious 2014 armed standoff that occurred when BLM agents attempted to drive trespass cattle from federal land in Nevada. The cattle were owned by the cattle rancher and melon farmer Cliven Bundy, who had risen to notoriety by refusing to pay grazing fees on the land roamed by his cattle.
Bundy and his armed cohorts forced the BLM agents to back off. That set the stage for an equally notorious armed standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016, in which Bundy’s son Ammon participated. Faced with another armed gang at Malheur, federal agents chose to wait out the situation for weeks.
In retrospect, these shows of force by armed extremists were preparation for the insurrection of January 6, 2021, a point made by Western conservationists and journalists who have been following the more recent activities of Ammon Bundy and other extremists.
The Center for Western Priorities has been tracking the connection between abuse of public lands and armed extremism since 2015. On January 7, 2021, the organization issued a statement from executive director Jennifer Rokala, who said:
“You can draw a straight line from the Bundy Ranch standoff and Malheur takeover to the Trump insurrection in Washington. President-elect Biden, the new Congress, and all Americans must take this threat seriously. After Trump leaves office, the threats to our public lands will be greater than ever. Law enforcement must stop appeasing the criminals who take over America’s public land, whether in Washington or the West, and start sending them to prison.”
Given this context, it is possible that solar energy stakeholders will have their hands full if and when they outbid ranchers for leases on federal lands. Then again, that depends on the ranchers.
Follow me on Trainwreck Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Find me on Spoutible: @TinaMCasey or LinkedIn @TinaMCasey or Mastodon @Casey or Post: @tinamcasey
Image: Arizona has been home to some of the most ambitious solar energy projects in the US, such as the Solana concentrating solar plant in Gila Bend (courtesy of US Department of Energy).
I don’t like paywalls. You don’t like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it! We just don’t like paywalls, and so we’ve decided to ditch ours. Unfortunately, the media business is still a tough, cut-throat business with tiny margins. It’s a never-ending Olympic challenge to stay above water or even perhaps — gasp — grow. So …
Source: Clean Technica