Where the burgeoning renewable energy industry sees empty spaces and piles of sand, environmentalists see scenic vistas and fragile habitat for rare flora and fauna. These different views of California's vast deserts are leading to a clash over how to use lands owned by the federal government.

It's becoming clear that large-scale development of renewable energy sources is not without environmental consequences. Solar thermal projects convert vast tracts of land to industrial purposes and need a lot of water. Windmills chop up birds, including species protected by numerous federal and state laws. Geothermal impacts vary locally. All of it requires new power lines to get the juice to urban areas. But with the development of solar, wind and geothermal energy sources becoming a national imperative, the conflicts are only going to grow more intense.

California has mandated that utility companies get 20% of their energy from renewable energy sources by the end of next year. That means they need to expand their renewable portfolios by roughly 25% to 40% in less than two years. Consequently, there's a huge rush to build new plants and transmission lines, as we reported recently. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is encouraging renewable energy development through the stimulus package, which provides about $6 billion in tax credits for solar projects that begin construction by the end of 2010.

The industry is eyeing California's expanse of deserts. The Bureau of Land Management has received about 130 applications for development of solar and wind energy projects on hundreds of thousands of acres of federally owned desert lands. This isn't surprising. The sun shines brightly and the wind blows frequently in the desert.

While evolving public policy would appear to favor the industry, environmentalists got a boost in March when Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced her intention to carry legislation that protects at least 800,000 acres in the Mojave Desert east of Joshua Tree National Park. The federal government acquired most of the lands from Catellus (Union Pacific Railroad's real estate branch) during the last decade thanks to $40 million from The Wildlands Conservancy, federal appropriations of $18 million and a $5 million discount provided by Catellus.

"The former Catellus lands between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park were purchased by or donated to the federal government so they would be protected forever. I feel very strongly that the federal government must honor that commitment," Feinstein said in a written statement. She urged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to suspend BLM review of renewable energy projects proposed for the lands.

Do we have a no-win situation developing?

Not necessarily. In fact, large areas may be suitable for renewable energy development. Those areas appear on a new maps of 13 Western states produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society and Google. The maps identify areas that are legally restricted and areas that provide sensitive habitats. Remove those lands, and you still have a ton of acreage available for power generation and transmission. Really.

Have a look for yourself on the Google Earth website or the NRDC website.

Maps like these are not going to end the debate, but they at least shed some light on a subject that is becoming hotter and hotter.

– Paul Shigley