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.


Photograph by Allison O'Brien

In the East, residents and conservations have argued against the project due to disparate impacts on the surrounding ecosystem. Eagle Crest states its two reservoirs will require 32.6 billion gallons of water over 50 years – an amount equivalent to the needs of 4,000 average Coachella Valley homes in the same time period. The water would primarily draw from three Coachella Valley Aquifer wells, the same groundwater basin that supplies Joshua Tree National Park.


The project would require an initial 24,000-acre-feet of water in its first 3-4 years, which would cause the water table to drop over six feet within a mile radius of its wells. The Eagle Mountain area saw a significant drop in its water table following the construction of the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, a project that faced significant opposition from the National Parks Conservation Association due to its impacts on sensitive wildlife in its present location. The project required 1,500 acre-feet of water per year over the span of its 3.5-year construction period which lowered groundwater levels in the aquifer by a foot. The region of the proposed project is currently stressed for water, and the project would occur at a time when California is still recovering from one its worst droughts on record. Furthermore, the project would occur in an arid region where exposed bodies of water face significant evaporative losses. The lowering of groundwater levels from the hydroelectric storage project would have severe negative effects on the flora and fauna of the surrounding environment. There are several species considered threatened, endangered, or species of concern in the immediate area. The lowering of the groundwater would deplete the oases, springs, and groundwater these species depend on.


On the other hand, support for the project has come from the major cities of the West who see the project as a major step to reduce the state's reliance on fossil fuels; while simultaneously providing construction and maintenance jobs to the region. As it stands, the Eagle Crest project was approved in 2014, with a planned construction date of 2016 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Construction has been delayed as Eagle Crest and its partner NextEra have been unable to find buyers for its electricity. FERC approved a two-year extension for construction which expired in June 2018, with no construction occurring. However, the project received a lifeline as on October 23, 2018, with the passage of “America’s Water Infrastructure Act,” which allows FERC to extend construction deadlines for major water projects eight years past initial approval. With the new statue in place, FERC could extend Eagle Crest’s project timeline until 2024 to find a buyer and start construction.


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The Eagle Crest project may fall through, just as the Eagle Mountain landfill project did back in 2013. However, the project may instead succeed as the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm did, despite opposition from conservationists and large swaths of the local community. In the communities that surround Eagle Mountain, a movement has begun to return the nearly 30,000 acres of Eagle Mountain to Joshua Tree National Park, thus ensuring their complete protection and preservation.


Regardless of the fate of the Eagle Crest project, though, what remains true is this. The  issue of how to deal with Eastern renewable energy – and the challenges that poses to environmental conservation – has emerged from Western California’s rejection of carbon free energy production near its major cities.  

Photograph by Allison O'Brien

The demands of Western Californian cities will only continue to grow.  There will be significant justification for the necessity of projects in Eastern California to prevent energy poverty, even if it means forgoing environmental protection. Cases such as Eagle Mountain, where the environmental preservation of Eastern California habitats might succumb to the energy needs of Western California, may therefore become increasingly common.



Illustration by Abigail Hodges


Jared Kelly is an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley where he studies geography and political science. In 2018 he performed climate change research at the Institute for Research on Labor & Employment. He is an avid skin diver and hopes to see the preservation of biodiversity and the world’s resources and for future generations.



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