Boomtown, by Hillary Angelo

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January 2023 Issue [Letter from Nevada]

Boomtown

A solar land rush in the West

A solar farm in the Mojave Desert. All photographs from Nevada by Balazs Gardi, October and November 2022, for Harper’s Magazine © The artist

[Letter from Nevada]

Boomtown

A solar land rush in the West
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Beatty, an old gold rush town in Nye County, Nevada, looks like a Wild West stage set. Burros, legacies of the region’s mining past, wander the streets. A century ago, it was a bustling three-railroad town. Today, it’s home to 854 people. Beatty has two gas stations, one excellent barbecue restaurant, and no stoplights. At Happy Burro Chili & Beer, a meal costs less than ten dollars and you can still smoke inside.

West of town, a sign on State Route 374 reads welcome to beatty: gateway to death valley. The road winds through the Bullfrog Hills—prospectors thought its green rock resembled the skin of a bullfrog—before a wide valley comes into view, dizzyingly vast for anyone unaccustomed to the basin-and-range topography of the West. It’s so big you can see the weather: rain slashing the vaulted sky, the shadows of clouds moving across the mountains. The landscape creates a vacuum of sound, the wind sweeping all noise up into a cinematic void. It’s easy to see why this area may soon be home to one of the largest concentrations of solar power in the world.

On a fall day in 2021, I headed out into the desert in a dusty red SUV with Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich, the married co-founders of Basin and Range Watch, a non-profit focused on protecting the desert and opposing “energy sprawl.” Laura is an expatriated Berkeley-trained biologist, artist, and science writer. Her silver hair is short and utilitarian. That day, she wore a puffy blue jacket bleached by the sun and rubbed to a shine by headbutts from her horses. Kevin, a retired Death Valley park ranger, was dressed in an equally weathered parka. They moved to Beatty twenty years ago because they love this land, and it’s hard for me to imagine them existing outside of it. Though we’ve since met on several occasions, I’ve never seen either of them indoors, or without sunglasses.

To Kevin and Laura, Western deserts are some of the richest ecosystems remaining in the United States. To developers, they are prospective solar farms. Nye County, in particular, is a major target. It is the third-largest county in the continental United States, spanning eighteen thousand square miles—more than twice the size of New Jersey. Ninety-two percent of its area consists of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under a “multiple use” mandate, meaning that the land can be used for recreation, grazing, extraction, or energy production.

Nye County’s potential for renewable energy generation is difficult to overstate: if covered in solar panels, it could produce enough energy to power the entire planet. In the past two years, twenty thousand acres of solar farms have been proposed on the public land around Beatty. This is in addition to plans for other kinds of renewable energy development: geothermal plants, lithium mines, transmission lines. It’s still speculative—the environmental review process has barely begun—but if all of these projects pan out, they could dramatically transform Beatty’s ecology and way of life. Invoking the West’s boom-bust history and the frenzy of current development, the media frequently refers to the phenomenon as a “land rush” or a “solar boom.”

Before we reached the entrance to Death Valley, Laura pulled over. There are few fences on BLM land, so we were able to walk right out into the desert. While the area’s scrubby terrain lacks the iconic Joshua trees of the Mojave or the red rocks of the Colorado Plateau, Laura explained, the ground itself is alive. Cryptobiotic soils form a living crust that, once disturbed, takes five thousand years to regenerate. We picked our way through old-growth creosote bushes and blackbrush, taking care to avoid the burrows of kit foxes and Mojave desert tortoises. Laura was quick enough to grab a sun-drunk Western patch-nosed snake, and I photographed her holding it. She posted the image on social media: more ammunition for her crusade against the misconception of deserts as little more than empty space.

As we drove back toward town, Laura pointed out red ribbons that their friend Karl Olson had tied to mile markers to indicate the boundaries of one of the solar sites. Like Kevin and Laura, Karl is a member of the Beatty Solar Project Subcommittee, a group that was convened by the town board to keep track of applications for solar developments. Karl has been a peripatetic adventurer and history buff for most of his eighty years. His interests have taken him to the Arctic, the ocean, and, most recently, the desert. Since 2014, he has been mapping old rail lines and mining roads around Beatty for use by recreational off-highway vehicles (OHVs). He got involved in the fight against solar after learning that the proposed sites would intersect some of those routes. The red ribbons marked the boundaries of the proposed Beatty Energy Center Project, a 6,515-acre site whose projected size has since been reduced by more than half. Next to it was the unmarked site for the prospective 5,300-acre SB Solar Project. As we rolled along the highway, squinting out at the cathedral of natural and human history that Karl calls America’s Rome, Laura waved her hand out the window, conjuring the sweep of development, the scale of the potential devastation. “We’d still be driving by solar panels. Still!” she said. “Imagine it!”

The Biden Administration has made renewables a key part of its decarbonization strategy, a shift that involves not only rethinking where our energy comes from, but also imagining new physical and political geographies. Meeting energy needs with solar panels or wind turbines will require much more surface land than coal mines or oil rigs. Choosing where to install solar farms or route transmission lines thus requires difficult decisions about how renewables should be spatially and economically organized. Large-scale or small? Public or private? Centralized or decentralized? These questions—answered through apparently mundane decisions about land use—will determine the shape of our collective future.

At her nomination hearing in 2021, Secretary of the Interior Debra Haaland announced that “America’s public lands can and should be engines for clean energy production.” Early in 2022, the administration set a goal of producing twenty-five gigawatts of renewable energy on public land by 2025, in addition to thirty gigawatts from offshore wind by 2030, which they have pursued by offering utilities and energy developers cheap leases so projects can be built quickly and at a large scale. The recent Inflation Reduction Act extends this approach by streamlining the permitting process and expanding tax credits. This strategy reflects a progressive view of public land as a source of green jobs and of locations for large-scale wind, solar, and geothermal projects, part of what advocacy groups have come to call a “just transition.”

The agenda has found bipartisan support in Nevada, where 85 percent of land is publicly owned. The state has not only plenty of the sunlight and flat land that solar panels require, but also ample wind and natural hot springs, as well as the metals, like lithium and gold, that are needed for batteries. Carl Zichella, a former senior policy advocate at the National Resources Defense Council, calls Nevada “the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy.” In 2019, the governor Steve Sisolak announced that half the state’s energy portfolio would be renewable by 2030, generating an estimated $539 million in wages and $1.5 billion in economic activity. The plan is to produce energy both for in-state consumption and for export—to households in Los Angeles and tech companies in Silicon Valley. Meeting this goal will require not only the construction of solar farms, but new transmission lines and upgrades to existing ones.

This model of centralized energy generation and long-distance transmission is popular with a wide range of constituencies. For utilities and some urban social and environmental justice organizations, it is one way to supply affordable renewable energy to renters and low-income homeowners who can’t afford pricey rooftop panels. For unions, it guarantees construction contracts and well-paying jobs. And for large environmental organizations, it provides a way of indirectly addressing species and habitat loss by mitigating the effects of climate change.

But in Beatty, the just transition does not feel just enough. Across the region, a handful of tribes, environmental organizations, and activists like Laura and Kevin have been arguing for a decade that utility-scale solar is a regressive use of public land at odds with commitments to deeper social and environmental transformation. They see the destruction of habitat and sacred sites as a dismissal of the ecological value of arid lands and the communities that live in them on the part of coastal policymakers and energy consumers. They argue that the political economy of this approach to renewable energy development—driven by private developers and for-profit utilities, and concentrated on “undisturbed” public land rather than on private farmland, brownfields, or rooftops—sidesteps questions about energy conservation and the possibility of perpetual growth.

From this perspective, the climate crisis appears to be offering a new warrant for an old paradigm: the government-sanctioned sacrifice of public land for private profit. While renewables may be an opportunity to do things differently, the argument goes, the solar rush all too closely resembles the injustices of prior public land rushes: gold and gas, grazing and logging, railroads and electric utilities. Locally, there is panicked recognition that it’s happening again—the moment of speculation, the lack of coordination, the distribution of costs and benefits, the inevitable bust, profits accumulating in a few distant pockets while local communities are stripped of resources.

On a windy Saturday afternoon last April, a crowd assembled in Beatty’s town hall, a modest building surrounded by the senior center and a thrift store run out of a metal storage shed in a parking lot. The hall typically hosts run-of-the-mill community meetings, with discussions of spelling bees and car washes. That afternoon, however, sixty of us had gathered to hear a presentation from representatives of NextEra Energy, the largest renewable energy developer in the United States.

The previous summer, the town board had written a series of letters to the BLM and Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission opposing several of NextEra’s proposed solar projects. The company had come to convince them that Beatty stood to profit. It was a big production. Clad in matching blue polos emblazoned with the company’s logo, the presenters set up easels with large maps of their proposed sites. I wandered around the room with the other attendees for half an hour looking at the maps, then we all took our seats. The solar representatives and the town board members faced one another from two long tables at the front of the room, as if competing in an awkward game of Family Feud.

The room was tense. Karl, who described himself as having a “get the fuck outta here” philosophy, was upset that Beatty had agreed to meet with the developers at all. Angry citizens had recently run developers out of a similar meeting in the nearby town of Pahrump, and it was rumored that they might do the same here. When Beatty residents convened that morning to look at proposed development sites, Erika Gerling, the chair of the town board, had asked residents to remain “civil, because this is who we are!” But no one was quite sure what would happen. I wondered whether a few solar supporters might come out of the woodwork.

The meeting did, in fact, remain civil. And the developers made what I thought was a compelling pitch. NextEra, they explained, is a well-established company that generates more wind and solar energy than any other renewables developer in the world. They build, own, and manage their own facilities. They hire veterans. They had some ideas for how to encourage local ecotourism: A solar-powered visitors’ center. Sponsorship for more and bigger OHV races. A new RV park. Job training. Support for local community organizations. I was a bit surprised when they mentioned a new filing—6,500 acres for the Tarantula Canyon Energy Project, eleven miles southeast of town—but they reminded us that only a portion of the proposed acreage would ultimately be developed. “We love the spirit of this town,” they said, and I found myself believing them.

Then the floor opened for questions, and the NextEra reps were met with hot emotion. The matriarch of a ranching family cried as she listed the ways transmission lines could harm her property, health, and loved ones. The former owner of a local racetrack was hoarse with anger: “With this solar, the view of the West is gone. It renders my land worthless.” A business owner, her voice breaking, described Beatty’s hotel and RV revenue, which had grown from $1.4 million in 2007 to $4.2 million in 2019. “The biggest gift you can give us,” she concluded, “is to find another location.”

She spoke for a broad contingent of the dissenters. After the Barrick gold mine closed in the Nineties, Beatty began to make a living off its public land through tourists attracted to the region’s ecology, history, and recreational opportunities. Solar farms could destroy that economy by closing off access to public lands and converting them to a single, industrial use. David Spicer, a rancher who has pivoted from running cattle to building mountain bike trails and irrigation ponds for threatened toads on his property, argued that solar development is antithetical to the extensive work he’s done to protect land and water resources in the area. He pointed out the irony of incompatible projects being funded by the same public agency on the same land. Karl asked about the toxic, blinding dust storms that are kicked up from construction. He was also worried about the future of the weekend OHV events that bring hundreds of people to town. “It’s a three hundred and fifty day per year tourist economy now,” Erika told me. “There are always people here. The hotels, restaurants, and bars are full. ATVs all over the place. We worked ten years to get here. How are we going to say, ‘Come visit our solar farms?’ ”

In a 1947 article for this magazine, the essayist and historian Bernard DeVoto warned of the “forever-recurrent lust to liquidate the West.” “Almost invariably the first phase was a ‘rush,’ ” he wrote. “Those who participated were practically all Easterners whose sole desire was to wash out of Western soil as much wealth as they could and take it home.” For DeVoto, the New Deal offered a chance for more sustainable and locally beneficial uses of Western resources, but, in the end, Eastern capital was “able to direct much of this development in the old pattern.”

When outsiders try to describe the solar rush, they reach for historical analogies: the 1889 Oklahoma land rush; the early-twentieth-century eucalyptus boom that tore up the desert; housing speculation and development in the Aughts. But in Beatty such boom-and-bust cycles—the sort they’ve been trying to break out of for the past ten years—are part of the everyday landscape. In the desert, the past is close to the surface. There’s not much soil to bury things. Footprints and petroglyphs, railroad grades and telegraph lines, mine shafts and tin cans, whiskey and beer bottles—all of it just sits there in the sun, alternately baking and freezing. This makes it easy to situate the solar rush in the long history of government-facilitated expropriation of and extraction from public land.

The first act of plunder, of course, involved the wrenching dislocations of Native peoples of which the very idea of “public land” is a residue. This valley is part of the ancestral territory of the Timbisha Shoshone, today a federally recognized tribe that resides on some 7,500 acres of reservation land, three hundred of which are located inside Death Valley National Park. In addition to public meetings such as the one with NextEra, representatives of the tribe have separate, government-to-government consultations with the BLM. When I spoke to Barbara Durham, the tribal historic preservation officer, she made it clear that the Timbisha Shoshone support Beatty’s resistance to solar projects in the region. The tribe has concerns about how the farms might affect cultural resources, as well as water and wildlife, even though the sites fall outside official reservation boundaries.

The second act of plunder was the gold rush. Mining for silver and gold began in the Bullfrog district in 1904 and continued through 1920. This produced the boomtown of Rhyolite, which at its peak boasted concrete sidewalks, an opera house, and a population of ten thousand. As the region was blanketed in mining claims, Beatty grew as a transportation and supply center, equipping nearby towns and mining camps. But in less than twenty years the newspapers folded, the railroads stopped running, the electricity was shut off, and the people disappeared. The train tracks and railroad ties were torn up for scrap metal and wood. Of all the regional settlements, Beatty was the only one to survive.

Then came the Cold War transformation of much of the region into what the historian Valerie Kuletz has described as “the most bombed place on earth, the most fully realized sacrifice zone in the United States.” Between 1951 and 1992, almost a thousand nuclear tests were conducted at the Nevada Test Site, only twenty miles from Beatty. Old-timers remember seeing the glowing mushroom clouds as children. The town was spared the worst of the effects— so-called downwinders east of the site suffer cancers and birth defects from radiation. But nuclear tests polluted an estimated 1.6 trillion gallons of groundwater long before the West’s current drought. Beatty is in no immediate danger, but Kevin and Laura’s groundwater is tested every year for radioactive residue, just in case.

And most recently, there was the modern mining boom, which in Beatty began in the early Eighties and lasted about fifteen years. In addition to providing jobs, the old Barrick Gold mine invested in the town. An employee at the local museum recalled the mine making donations to help start the museum, contributing to local civic organizations, and supporting the schools. They fixed the roof on the train depot and built a playground. The epilogue of one of Barrick’s annual reports from the mid-Nineties states optimistically that “the new Bullfrog Mine was built to withstand the natural and economic storms which brought the District’s first mining era to a close.” But the price of gold and silver dropped shortly thereafter, and the mine closed in 1996. Beatty’s population dropped from more than one thousand to around eight hundred. The butcher and the grocery store went out of business. Drug use rose. School enrollment halved, dropping from three hundred to one hundred and fifty. “Barrick wasn’t the first,” Erika told me. “We’d been through this cycle before. We knew what would happen when they left.”

Beatty made its pivot to tourism soon after. At first, the transition was, in Erika’s words, “a subtle shift,” one that capitalized on the town’s proximity to Death Valley National Park. Now Beatty boasts numerous restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds, as well as growing networks of OHV and mountain bike trails. Beatty still has a ways to go before it becomes “the next Moab,” an arguably questionable aspiration I heard several residents voice. And the revival of gold mining in the area—which Beatty has welcomed, even though it’s more destructive than solar—may still undermine these plans. But the idea that tourism can get Beatty out of the boom-and-bust cycle through what David Spicer describes as a “demonstration of the long-term, thriving use of public lands” has been persuasive to residents, who have benefited from the additional jobs and income.

Before the town hall meeting, one NextEra employee had told me the people of Beatty were “different.” They had “an extractive history,” he said. “They understand that some use is necessary.” But to me, their relationship to the land seemed more complicated. While DeVoto believed that Westerners were complicit in their land’s “rape” by Eastern interests, Beatty’s embrace of tourism suggested a break from these old patterns. Everyone emphasized what a big shift the gateway to death valley sign represented, marking the transformation of a mining town that might have ignored or disparaged the national park on its doorstep into one that actively courts its visitors. Tourism represents a more sustainable future for the town and its land, one more in line with progressive commitments to deep change. As one resident told me, “Solar is like mines. They think in fifteen-to-twenty-year cycles. They plan on a finite timeline. But people’s desire to get out and commune with nature is transcendent. It’s a better long-term investment.” And avoiding short-term abuses is exactly what residents are trying to do when they protest solar today.

One example of what they fear is only an hour up U.S. Route 95: the Crescent Dunes Solar Thermal Power Plant.* Dogged by mechanical problems since its opening in 2015, the developer declared bankruptcy in 2020. When I saw it a year later, it looked like the abandoned remains of an alien civilization. The 640-foot central power tower stood quiet; the mirrored panels were dimmed by dust and blankly faced the sky. It is now operating again at a reduced capacity, but the technology is largely obsolete.

Some of Beatty’s objections are easily dismissed as NIMBYism. But the town’s resistance also raises a profound question: In a world replete with wasted landscapes, why steer solar toward remote and undeveloped territory? So-called disturbed lands—unreclaimed brownfields, defunct mining sites, and fallowed agricultural fields, or even canals, parking lots, and highway medians—are all places where solar panels, substations, and transmission lines could be built. But the sheer existence of cheap and plentiful public land facilitates the construction of a new energy system in the old model—in which the federal government lowers barriers to private development, centralized energy generation, and long-distance transmission.

The use of public land to encourage expansion and investment in the private sector is a well-worn strategy in the United States. To help railroads cross the continent in the nineteenth century, the federal government provided companies with millions of acres and assistance securing rights-of-way. To promote renewable energy development today, it offers cheap leases for public lands and tax credits to make investments less risky. This means that investor-owned utilities and solar companies have little incentive to build on private property, which is more expensive, requires time-consuming negotiations with owners, and can often be acquired only in small parcels. Conservationists argue that the easy availability of public land has caused a creep toward ever-larger projects and diminished our imagination for solar’s versatility.

To some critics, the BLM is part of the problem. The agency, which is often derisively referred to as the Bureau of Logging and Mining, isn’t the kind of forward-thinking public agency you’d imagine driving the energy transition. Despite new, progressive political appointments at the top, district-level agency culture skews conservative, and has long been more responsive to industry needs and local political pressure than to conservation efforts or the public trust. The agency is still recovering from the chaos of the Trump Administration, during which its headquarters moved to Grand Junction, Colorado, and the bureau saw a wave of retirements and a huge loss of knowledge and expertise. The remaining staff members are ill-equipped to handle the volume of filings they receive. Agency efforts to push developers toward locations less likely to generate controversy have largely failed. While the BLM responded to complaints from Beatty residents by assigning the most offensive of the proposed sites “low priority” status, developers are still setting the agenda.

The BLM’s existing legal and bureaucratic structures aren’t well-suited to the comprehensive thinking that designing a new energy system would require. The agency’s approval process is determined by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law that is over fifty years old and which requires federal agencies to carry out environmental reviews. NEPA is often criticized by developers as red tape. But for advocates of smarter land-use planning, the problem is that the permitting process is designed to evaluate individual projects rather than to examine the effects of routing transmission lines, siting substations, and developing solar farms in the aggregate. This also means that opponents of solar energy, such as those in Beatty, can only publicly comment on projects one at a time. Lawsuits must be filed the same way, in a losing game of whack-a-mole.

Acutely aware of these problems, advocates have proposed a variety of ways to avoid energy sprawl and to “spare the land,” in the words of Dustin Mulvaney, a solar expert and professor at San José State University. Zichella, the retired energy transmission expert, outlined the ideal scenario for the country’s transition to renewables: orderly construction along designated transmission corridors, the use of both rooftop and utility-scale sources, and the prioritization of disturbed lands. But in reality, activists and policymakers have had to work hard to steer energy production away from developers’ bottom lines. One instructive example can be found in southern California. Local protests there resulted in the 2016 Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. While far from perfect—especially in the eyes of people like Kevin and Laura—the plan conserved portions of the desert and effectively zoned others for renewable energy development. Other local and national efforts have tried to guide development toward disturbed lands. The EPA’s RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative has created a database of contaminated lands that could be used for renewable energy, and the Nature Conservancy’s Mining the Sun Initiative encourages solar on former mine lands, offering an economic alternative to prison construction in old fossil-fuel-producing regions, such as the mountains of Appalachia.

But for now, Beatty’s public lands remain the Wild West. Multiple solar developers are filing applications at the same time, sometimes on top of one another, as they bet on future routes of transmission lines, while mining companies, lithium speculators, and geothermal developers all eye the same areas. This is happening without any real discussion and very little planning. During the New Deal, a federal agency was created to help manage and direct these kinds of large-scale changes in infrastructure and land use. Today, the BLM doesn’t have the resources to play that role. Current efforts to streamline NEPA and energy permitting processes accelerate these dynamics without addressing the fact that no deliberate decisions are being made about the use of public land, what kind of future we want, or what kind of system we’re building. As Patrick Donnelly of the Center for Biological Diversity told me, “there’s no one in the driver’s seat.”

On a sunny Saturday last February, Laura and Kevin drove me out to Sarcobatus Flat, another mind-boggingly vast and remote valley twenty miles north of Beatty. Sarcobatus Flat is located along the proposed route of Greenlink West, one leg of a new statewide triangle of transmission lines. The valley is also being prospected for lithium, a crucial element in electric-car batteries. To reach it, we crossed the headwaters of the Amargosa River, which runs south, often underground, into California. The Amargosa makes Beatty a rare riparian corridor in the desert, containing springs, wetlands, and the highest concentration of endemic species in the United States, such as the critically endangered Devils Hole pupfish, and the Amargosa toad, which Spicer and others in Beatty have been working to protect. Kevin and Laura told me about a pronghorn fawning ground they found nearby. After more than a century of absence, the antelopes had returned, perhaps as a result of the wildflower blooms that have followed recent summer storms. They described how the alkali surface of the playas—dried, prehistoric lake beds—flood when it rains, and shine under the full moon.

For their defense of these places, activists like Laura, Kevin, Karl, and Erika are dismissed not only by solar developers or utility companies, but by climate justice movements and large environmental organizations, which, in Laura’s words, “don’t want to be painted as being against climate change or critical of renewable energy.” She describes being ostracized and silenced at Sierra Club meetings and struggling to find lawyers willing to take on antisolar lawsuits. I don’t find this hard to imagine. We need renewable energy and we need it now. We need large-scale projects as well as small ones. We need wind and geothermal and (probably) nuclear. Even many desert activists now agree that we need renewables wherever we can get them, as fast as possible. And solar is far from the worst ongoing use of public land—oil and gas leasing, alfalfa growing, and ranching are all more harmful. But to dismiss Beatty’s protest is to ignore some key questions: How can we do things more responsibly this time around? Must we accept the old ways as the only path forward?

After we’d had our fill of lithium claims, we drove over to see the spectral remains of Rhyolite, the former boomtown. Today, it is once again thriving. When we arrived, it was hopping with tourists on their way to or from Death Valley. The grand old Spanish-style train station, normally locked up behind a gate and barbed-wire fence, was open to visitors. Kevin, Laura, and I stood in the shade of the crumbling wraparound porch, talking about possible futures. It was easy to picture the next extractive cycle: construction noise interrupting the astral silence of the daytime, security lights shattering the night’s dark skies, the valley flooded with lakes of shining solar panels. But with all the visitors milling about, it was just as easy to imagine Beatty’s tourist economy flourishing, wasted coal and agricultural communities revived through investment in renewables, and public land managed with a new ethos of sustainability and civic trust.

It felt ironic, contemplating the future while ghosts of the past lurked all around us. Kevin, Laura, and I looked out at the ruins of the old bank building, once three stories tall. Comparisons to ancient Rome were tempting: bleached stone, the folly of greed and power, the impermanence of it all. And as if the buildings didn’t do enough to bring the past to life, in 1984 the Polish-Belgian artist Albert Szukalski had re-created The Last Supper here by draping live models in wet sheets covered in plaster and letting them harden in the desert sun. For over thirty years now, these plaster ghosts have loomed over the valley—facing the very sites threatened by development.

I considered the challenges of doing things differently. How solar development on public land is fettered by a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure ill-suited for large-scale planning. How the power of utilities and energy developers is no match for a gutted public agency asked to handle massively consequential decisions. And how public understanding is hampered by the creation of a false dichotomy between ecosystems and renewable energy development that pits environmental protections against social and economic justice.

In Beatty, hopes for the future are tempered by visible lessons from the past. If we can’t find a way to listen to them, it’s not hard to imagine these plaster figures a few decades from now, overlooking a new ghost town as the solar panels below gather dust and eventually crack, decay, and blow away.

 is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a 2022–23 member of the Institute for Advanced Study.


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