The California East-West Divide: Renewable Energy or Environmental Preservation?

by Jared Kelly


In Eagle Mountain, California, it is quiet. The Joshua Tree National Park surrounds the town on three sides; it is a three-hour drive to Phoenix, two and a half hours to Mexicali, and an hour and a half to Palm Springs. Before a private firm obtaining mining rights to the area, the town’s land formed part of the Joshua Tree National monument. After iron mining operations ceased in 1982, most residents left, making Eagle Mountain one of the newest and best-preserved ghost towns in the United States. The town now maintains a small security presence and is used infrequently for military training exercises and as a location for television shows and films.


But there is something else worth noting about Eagle Mountain: for generations, this small town has been at the forefront of the California East-West Divide. That divide is perhaps clearest when it comes to energy policy, where a debate over how to treat East California’s desert ecosystem –whether to preserve it or turn it into a source of renewable energy for the western half of the state – threatens to pit California against itself. And at the center of that debate is the town of Eagle Mountain.


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The eastern portions of California have often assumed a periphery-relationship to Western California. The West holds much of the state’s population; of California’s ten largest cities, seven are situated on the state’s western coast. Policies that emanate from Sacramento are geared toward helping these cities, often alienating much of the rest of the state. The East-West divide is so extreme that it has led to a secessionist movement in northeastern California: an area known as Jefferson tried to separate from the state and establish its own republic. That secessionist movement epitomizes much of Eastern California’s view of the West.


In part, the east-west divide is a question of resources. Eastern Californian land provides water for the more populous western region. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power owns vast swaths of land and water rights in Eastern California notably the Owens Valley. The Owens Valley resides at the base of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range, where most snowmelt and runoff from the ranges provides water to the west to hydrate Los Angeles. Aside from water, he sparsely-populated Eastern Californian land is useful for two other things as well: prison and trash. Most of California’s prisons lie east of the major cities, in the central valley and the desert communities of Southern California.

Photograph by Monice Wong

Eagle Mountain slots right into these typical East-West dynamics. The town had an active California Department of Corrections prison facility from 1991-2003 (operations in the town ceased in 2003 following a fatal riot in which two inmates died.) And because of its large abandoned open mining pits, Eagle Mountain was also slated to become the world’s largest landfill site – 4,654 acres of waste disposal.


The landfill plan took shape in 1992, when the Environmental Protection Agency approved an agreement between Kaiser Ventures and the Los Angeles Sanitation District (LASD). The plan would have led to the replacement of LASD’s Puente Hills Landfill site and would have sent up to 20,000 tons of refuse from Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside Counties daily to the new landfill site using the old Eagle Mountain Rail line (LA, Orange, and Riverside are the first, sixth, and tenth largest counties, respectively, in the United States).


In the end, the plan was stymied by local opposition from conservationists, who feared the landfill would impact the sensitive ecosystem of Joshua Tree National Park with gas flares, the emanation of around 150,000 tons of air pollution, and the potential leaching of millions of gallons of toxic liquid leaching into groundwater basins. LASD decided against the plan and instead bought land in Imperial County, where the Mesquite Regional Landfill now processes refuse primarily from Western California.


Today, there is another component of the East-West divide: Eastern California is now increasingly being an energy frontier, a region with the potential to capture and export energy westward to California’s major cities. Southeastern California has a wealth of readily-available renewable resources. Many of the lands of Eastern California lie in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, both of which have an ample supply of wind and photovoltaic power. That said, there are also abundant renewable resources in Western California – most notably a vast stretch of coastal lands ripe for offshore wind power and tidal power. The ocean can also be used to cool nuclear reactors, which can in turn provide ample carbon-free energy. But it is Eastern California that the state has primarily targeted for its transition to renewables. This regional bias within the state comes at a cost for the East: many individuals have had condemnation proceedings levied against them to obtain the title of their land to make way for renewable energy projects. The West, where most of the renewable energy will be consumed, has not born the brunt of these same measures.


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California has set ambitious goals for energy generation: the state has pledged to  generate 33% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. This is no easy feat, as the demand for energy is great — if California was an independent state, its economy would be the fifth largest in the world, and its population would be the thirty-sixth largest in the world.  


And yet by 2017, the state had far surpassed its renewable energy goal. Emissions were lower than 1990 levels and 48% of electricity generation came from renewable resources (56% carbon-free energy production). In 2018, then-Governor Jerry Brown approved a plan to make 100% of California’s electricity generation carbon-free by 2045. However, this new mandate is looking increasingly difficult to accomplish. Indeed, California has recently gone in the other direction: it has actively eliminated some of the most productive carbon-free electricity generation facilities in the state.


"California has recently gone in the other direction: it has actively eliminated some of the most productive carbon-free electricity generation facilities in the state."

Part of the problem is nuclear, an energy source toward which California has always remained wary. 2013 saw the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). SONGS generated an average of 16 million megawatt hours of electricity annually, serving as a major power source for three of the six largest counties in the United States by population (Los Angeles, San Diego, and Orange Counties). The gap in energy production that resulted  from the closure of SONGS has led to an increase in fossil fuels to make up for the resultant shortfall. In particular, the usage of natural gas has grown leading to an additional 9 million tons of Carbon Dioxide being released into the atmosphere per year. In 2016 Lieutenant Governor and Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom rejected a plan to extend the Diablo Canyon Power Plant (another nuclear facility) operational lease beyond 2018-2019. The plant will be decommissioned and will begin its closure in 2025. The Diablo Canyon Power Plant was the last nuclear generation station active in the state of California. It provided the state with 8-9% of California’s total annual electricity needs.


The state legislature has also imposed a moratorium on the future development of nuclear power stations in the state. This prevents the development of safer and cleaner nuclear technology (such as that of liquid fluoride thorium reactors). Such actions come with a significant cost. Nuclear power is a high-density energy source that produces the greatest amount of carbon-free energy capacity per acreage; that energy will now have to be found elsewhere, and through different renewable resources. The state’s abandonment of nuclear energy signals a greater shift of outsourcing of energy production from Western California toward Eastern California.


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While California has decreased its reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation, the state has increased its importation of fossil fuels to meet the demand for automobile consumption. California has attempted to shift away from fossil fuel dependent vehicles, instead encouraging the uptake electric vehicles (EVs) through incentives such as subsidies, and clean air carpool privileges. California has seen the greatest uptake of EVs out of all states in the United States. However, as more demands are placed on California’s fragile grid system, a problem will emerge given California’s vast reliance on renewable energy. Most renewable power sources are intermittent. Power sources such as wind turbines, tidal power, and photovoltaic cells cannot be manipulated at will to meet consumer demand as they are subject to the vagaries of weather. These sources are therefore unpredictable. Some weeks can see vast amounts of energy generated; others, very little.


As it stands, there are no major storage mechanisms to stockpile the energy generated from intermittent sources when the supply is greater than the demand. Many of California’s renewable energy sources – notably wind – have peak production hours that do not correspond to peak demand hours. Most of California’s wind power is produced during the night when demand is low. Public and private strides are attempting to address this problem. The United States Department of Energy ARPA-E (Advanced Research Agency-Energy) has an ongoing project to create efficient large batteries. Private individuals such as Elon Musk have developed large battery infrastructure to store renewable energy. A pilot project was completed on Tu’a, the largest island in American Samoa, which is now completely powered by renewable energy. Musk is planning larger scale battery projects in South Australia and in the United States. However, no major infrastructure exists to store energy in times of surplus and sell the energy back to the grid in periods of scarcity. Any plan to develop the necessary infrastructure would take years to come into fruition, and the problem still needs to be addressed in the interim. California is thus looking to develop such storage projects in Eastern California.


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Eagle Mountain is geographically privileged.  It contains large open mines and lies between two major renewable power plants — the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm and the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm. The open mines have led to a proposal by the Eagle Crest Energy Company to develop a $2.5 Billion hydroelectric pumped storage system there. The system functions as a large battery and would consist of two lakes at different elevations. Underground turbines would pump water to the higher elevation lake in times of excess energy production and pump water to the lower lake powering the turbines during deficits to meet consumer grid demand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the support and opposition for the project has followed East-West divisions.