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Can Affordable Housing Be Energy Efficient? These Developers Say Yes. Momentum solar indeed

Can Affordable Housing Be Energy Efficient? These Developers Say Yes. Momentum solar indeed

    Can Affordable Housing Be Energy Efficient? These Developers Say Yes

    A 5.5 million affordable housing development in Northfield, Minnesota, challenges the notion that sustainability and affordability are mutually exclusive.


    Brian Nowak developed an affordable housing project in Northfield, Minnesota, that incorporates energy efficiency measures and is designed to blend in. (Photo by Ken Paulman / Energy News Network)

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    This story was originally published by Energy News Network.

    Sustainability has long been promoted as a luxury amenity, with energy efficiency features marketed as a selling point for upscale residential and retail development — along with elegance, beauty and tranquility, and amenities such as private rooftop gardens.

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    For example, just south of St. Petersburg, Florida, Hunters Point Pearl Homes Marina features high-end single-family homes, all solar-powered and LEED certified, designed in collaboration with the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida.

    Each home design also carries a seven-figure asking price.

    Meanwhile, Hillcrest Village, an affordable housing development in Northfield, Minnesota, is virtually indistinguishable from market-rate housing. Yet it touts an 84-kilowatt solar array and net-zero energy usage through all-electric heating, cooling and appliances, along with other energy efficiency features — while maintaining rents far below the median for the area.

    The Northfield development challenges the notion that sustainability and affordability are mutually exclusive — if the definition of each is expanded to accommodate the greater public good of making the necessary upfront investment. The 5.5 million project was funded by both private investment and public funds. It serves as an example of a growing recognition on both the municipal and federal levels that subsidies are both necessary and a legitimate means of squaring the numbers for affordable and sustainable housing.

    Those benefits include long-term cost savings, because better-built buildings will last longer and require fewer repairs, as well as a healthier environment for occupants and aesthetics that integrate better into existing neighborhoods. And lower energy costs, including lower utility bills resulting from energy-efficient HVAC and appliances, help renters on tight budgets stretch their dollars further.

    Stable, high-quality affordable housing also provides a benefit to the surrounding community, according to Brian Nowak, principal at Sweetgrass Design Studio, who developed the Northfield project on behalf of Community Action Center.

    “It’s an investment over time, to build resilient, energy-efficient housing,” he said. “That should be everyone’s goal. And if we don’t, for example, it affects our school system. It affects the employers at Northfield having people that are readily available to come in and fill the jobs that are needed.”

    Rethinking affordability

    The notion that affordable housing requires shoddy construction and materials — never mind omitting any consideration of energy efficiency — has increasingly come under challenge by practitioners like Ben Bentley. Bentley is the executive director and CEO of Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation in Tennessee, which oversees a number of affordable housing properties.

    “I think housing needs to be built to a high standard regardless of whether it’s affordable or market rate,” Bentley said. “To me, it’s really important that it’s rather indistinguishable.”

    Bentley said that poorly built public housing in the past “created sort of a stigmatization of certain areas.”

    “As we’re building new things moving forward, and as we’re partnering on innovative technologies like that with [the Department of Energy], we’re really considering how we build to a standard where someone that drives by this neighborhood is not going to say, ‘Well, that’s where low-income families live,’” Bentley said. “They’re going to think, ‘Wow, that’s just a great place to live. That’s a great neighborhood.’ That’s what we’re trying to do.”

    Likewise, in Northfield, both sustainability and aesthetic appeal were integral. Making the units as indistinguishable from market-rate housing as possible was an essential consideration, according to Nowak.

    “The houses on the outside are pretty traditional, or they’re traditional looking. And that was the intent,” Nowak said. “They have a certain percentage [of] workforce housing; another percentage is transitional in emergency housing. And they didn’t want the people that were in transition in their lives or in crisis to feel like they were walking into a home that was a science experiment or an art project. … They wanted them to feel like homes that these people would go anywhere in Northfield and live in. That was a primary concern.”

    Making the numbers work

    Especially when using public funds, there is always pressure to do things as cheaply as possible, which often necessitates difficult tradeoffs with architectural design and building construction. But these tradeoffs do not necessarily or inevitably equate with poor workmanship or bland design. Rather, intentionality in making choices and compromises is key, said Danielle Tillman, managing principal at bKL Architecture in Chicago.

    “Every project has budget and cost constraints,” Tillman said. “I think there can be an education on materials and figuring out the details that can potentially make less expensive materials still feel nicer than whatever. I think there can be opportunities to create good design, large or small.”

    Incorporating sustainability and energy-saving metrics can actually ultimately translate into increased affordability, and by extension, play a significant role in allowing developers to generate reasonable returns on their investments. Likewise, taking a long-term approach to ownership is necessary in squaring the numbers.

    That’s the calculation employed for making the upfront sustainability investments needed to achieve net-zero energy usage for the Northfield development — while maintaining low rents, around 800 a month, for residents, Nowak said.

    “That’s a significant long-term benefit of a project like this. And that is not just your monthly rents on the building; it’s the cost of the utilities as well. When those utilities include your electricity and your heating and cooling that’s a really big deal,” Nowak said.

    Additionally, cross-referencing construction costs with energy efficiency goals generates savings that can significantly reduce or offset higher upfront expenses, according to AJ Patton, founder and CEO of 548 Enterprises in Chicago.

    “People just assume that sustainable is more expensive without even doing the research or talking to the construction community,” Patton told the Energy News Network in January. “It may just be different, not more expensive. For example, we have buildings that we’re installing solar on that will create 40,000 a year in savings [in electricity costs]. If I could save you 40,000 a year, I have your attention, right?

    “And then you extrapolate that out over several years, you’re going to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by that commitment of renewable energy. If you paired that with efficient HVAC and lighting systems, high-efficiency Windows — now we’re getting closer and closer to almost six figures a year in energy savings — real savings, real dollars. If everything else kind of historically pays for itself somewhere between six and six and a half years, if I plan on holding this property for any significant period of time, I’m in the black real quickly.”

    Nonetheless, upfront costs of sustainability and energy efficiency present a significant obstacle, even for designers and developers with a sincere intention and desire to incorporate them.

    Subsidies and other financial support, including DOE and IRS tax credits, provide a needed incentive for developers, both public and private, to construct, upgrade and properly maintain affordable housing. For example, subsidies and tax credits were applied to incorporate new appliances, energy-efficient LED lighting and other improvements in Western Heights, Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation’s largest affordable housing development, originally constructed in 1939, Bentley said.

    “If I have a property that’s producing 2 million in revenue and I have 600,000 in net operating income, rather than continuing to let my asset depreciate and not reinvest in it, which historically has been what has been forced to happen because of some of the rules and regulations in public housing, I can now [incorporate needed maintenance and upgrades] through tax credits,” Bentley said.

    Unintended consequences

    Another major challenge is ensuring existing residents aren’t displaced by the gentrification that often follows when the building stock is renovated in a disinvested community. Intentionality in minimizing displacement while integrating economic resources and other amenities in disinvested communities is a necessity, Bentley said.

    “Chicago and some of the big cities tend to be a little further ahead of it, but mixed-income housing is important for a number of reasons,” Bentley said. “I think it’s important to tear down some of those historic patterns of segregation by race and by income. It’s important that we are investing in neighborhoods that have a wide range of incomes.

    “And let me be very clear when we do that, we have to protect first and foremost the people, whether they’re low, moderate income or whoever it is, the folks that already live in the neighborhood. But then we have to look beyond that and say, how do we bring in new amenities and new people and get a vitality and a diversity of incomes in the same place?”

    Indeed, the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation has largely entailed replacing outdated public housing projects with economically diverse neighborhoods, consisting of new construction boasting energy-efficiency features, along with making extensive energy-conscious renovations to existing developments that were left standing.

    However, to date, the plan has also resulted in a sizable net reduction of available public housing units in both new construction and rehabilitated developments, even as former residents displaced by demolished units languish on waiting lists, and market rate developments are green-lighted on former public housing sites.

    This fact, along with the integration of affluent — and often White — market-rate renters and homeowners in newly designated mixed-income developments, has resulted in the displacement of large numbers of Black and Brown public housing residents, creating skepticism and resistance to renovation plans.

    This was the case for Andre Brumfield, principal and design director for Gensler in Chicago.

    As a young architect working at the time with Chicago architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Brumfield encountered significant skepticism when he signed on to execute the transition of a notorious Chicago Housing Authority project, Stateway Gardens, into a mixed-income community.

    The assignment often involved hearing out residents’ grievances as much as discussing the actual design. Pressing issues that had not been addressed by the housing authority or city council members, such as non-working elevators and rampant gang and drug activity, initially dominated the meetings.

    The discussions were often challenging for Brumfield, who had never lived in public housing — let alone high-rise subsidized structures.

    “Here I am, talking about working with the housing authority, who hasn’t addressed the concerns these families have for decades, about how this plan is going to not only change their lives, but how they can actually have a voice in this process,” Brumfield said. “Convincing them that this change is going to happen and explaining how they can actually be a part of this change is an important conversation to start with.”

    However, the content and nature of the discussions shifted over time.

    “It went from these meetings where we were talking about the day-to-day issues, which, in some cases, we were already starting to address, to having a conversation about density and dynamism in their neighborhood,” Brumfield said. “They start thinking about their views overlooking the lakefront and White Sox park and can start to feel inspired about the building’s future.

    “Eventually, the discussion started to be talking about the future — their future. There was already a community there. How do we keep that sense of community? How do we stay here, and then beyond that, how do we keep that sense of community even though our built environment is changing around us?”

    Needed policy changes

    Political will and a continued recognition that investment on the front end is a worthwhile use of resources — including municipal, county, state and federal funding — is necessary to address and resolve the return-on-investment dilemma of sustainability in affordable housing development, Bentley said.

    “I want to give credit where it’s due. I think HUD has recognized this and the congressional folks have recognized it, through [the rental assistance demonstration] program. … They’ve come a long way over the last 10 years in recognizing the challenge to the existing [public and affordable housing] inventory and trying to make it better,” Bentley said.

    Nowak says a holistic approach is needed, along with a willingness to move forward, even with the recognition that the process often presents significant challenges.

    Future developers “must take the leap and do it,” Nowak said. “They just have to, first, do a resilient design, and then they have to implement that resilient design, and then figure out how to fund it. So those three parts are a challenge. It’s not a walk in the park.”

    Architects and design practitioners also have a practical role in shaping human experience, along with exercising creativity in their work in designing developments — including affordable housing, Tillman said.

    “I think that it is lofty to think that architecture can save the world, but it is a social science. It is the built environment and the neighborhood. And your experience as you walk through neighborhoods is important to your day-to-day life, how you experience outside and inside. And what that feels like is important to everyday life,” Tillman said. “Everyone deserves to have a pleasant experience, and design should definitely be considered as development happens throughout neighborhoods and cities.”

    This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.

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    Audrey F. Henderson is a Chicagoland-based freelance writer and researcher specializing in sustainable development in the built environment, culture and arts related to social policy, socially responsible travel, and personal finance. Her work has been featured in Transitions Abroad webzine and Chicago Architect magazine, along with numerous consumer, professional and trade publications worldwide.

    Catholicism in France Could Soon Become a Minority but a Traditional One, Experts Claim

    In the country known as the ‘Eldest Daughter of the Church,’ Islam and evangelical Protestantism could reach hegemonic positions over the next few decades, while Catholicism would become anchored with a more orthodox momentum.

    Today’s announcement of the resignations of two French bishops suffering from episcopal burnout, and the impending release of a potentially devastating report about sexual abuse allegations at France’s Community of St. John, have directed renewed attention towards the fragile state of the Church in France. Is Catholicism now on the verge of extinction in France, “Eldest Daughter of the Church” and homeland of St. Louis and St. Joan of Arc?

    Studies of the evolution of the country’s religious landscape have already suggested so over the past months. The most recent of these shows that Catholicism is the religion with the steepest decline and the lowest rate of intra-family transmission.

    These findings have led historian and sociology of religion expert Guillaume Cuchet to suggest that, in a few decades’ time, Catholicism could be in the minority, overtaken by Islam, evangelical Protestantism and, above all, by people with no religion at all. At the same time, this trend is likely to be accompanied by a more traditional and observant approach among minority Catholics.

    If these predictions prove true, the face of France, whose 1,500-year history began with the baptism of King Clovis by St. Remigius, will be profoundly altered, as will that of Catholic practice itself.

    The Collapse of Family Transmission

    This decline of Catholicism, which Cuchet has often warned against in recent years, has accelerated dramatically since 2008, as shown by the “Trajectoires et Origines 2” (TEO2) survey commissioned by INSEE (the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies). The survey’s findings were made public in April 2023.

    In fact, only 25% of French people aged 18-59 declared themselves to be Catholic in 2020, compared with 43% in 2008 according to the Trajectoires et Origines 1 survey. While those with no religion rose from 45% to 53%, Islam increased by 37% over the same period, and another study indicated Muslims now comprise an estimated 10% of France’s total population

    Commenting on the study in an interview with La Vie magazine, Cuchet also highlighted the “spectacular rise” of evangelical Protestants over the past decade, who account for a growing share of the 9% of the French population who are non-Catholic Christians.

    Such data led the sociologist to the theory that Catholicism could become, “one not-too-distant day,” the country’s second or even third religion.

    For historian Yann Raison du Cleuziou, and expert in contemporary Catholicism and author of Qui sont les Cathos aujourd’hui? (Who Are the Catholics Today?), this theory is almost mathematically self-evident.

    Based on the 2018 European Values Study, which found that 15% of 18-29-year-olds were self-identified Catholics, compared with 13% of young Muslims, he notes that there is already a crossover occurring in the relative numbers of the younger Catholic and Muslim generations.

    In an interview with the Register, he said that, although TEO2 merely confirmed long-established trends, it had the benefit of demonstrating that family culture was the essential matrix for the perpetuation of religion — an area in which Catholics are the least successful among major French religious groups. Indeed, the generational reproduction rate for Islam is 91%, 84% for Jews and 67% only for Catholics.

    “In Western societies, the belief has spread that a religion’s values alone determine its social success. However, from a societal point of view, religion is above all an inherited culture designed to embody the general population,” Raison du Cleuziou said.

    From Vatican II to the Abuse Crisis

    At the same time, this changing faith landscape is undoubtedly amplified by the steady increase in migration to France over the last few decades (10.3% of the population was foreign-born in 2021, compared with 6.5% in 1968), which has fostered the rise of Islam and evangelical movements. However, most experts agree that the decline in Catholic religious practice and its transmission within the family dates back to the mid-1960s.

    In his 2018 book, Comment le monde a cessé d’être chrétien (How Our World Ceased Being Christian), Cuchet outlined the upheaval that occurred in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, positing that “the end of the pastoral insistence on the obligatory nature of religious practice that came along with the Council played, on a collective level, a fundamental role in the rupture” led to the spectacular fall in religious practice from 1966 onwards.

    This phenomenon continued and worsened relentlessly until the COVID-19 crisis and the 2021 “Sauvé Report” on sexual abuse within the Church further accelerated the existing trend of decline, according to Raison du Cleuziou.

    “Every new crisis, all the more so on divisive issues such as sexual morality, encourages mass departures; only the most resilient remain,” he said.

    Minority Reinforcement

    The strongest resilience, according to the historian, is often to be found among more observant Catholics today, precisely because they have built up a relatively critical stance towards the ecclesial institution and its decisions in post-conciliar pastoral care, from the 1970s.

    This theory echoes a recent study by the La Croix newspaper, which showed that these observant and rather conservative families, unlike the rest of the faithful, “successfully” ensured their spiritual transmission, carefully prioritizing the religious socialization of their children.

    Raison du Cleuziou explains this as a consequence of the minority functioning of these conservative religious communities which, like other groups such as Jewish communities, are more aware of their precariousness and possible disappearance.

    “When a group is a minority, it tends to be demanding about the level of conviction of its members to ensure its perpetuation, which depends not just on free adherence but on a transmission that maintains the rules and rituality as much as possible,” he said.

    “That’s why observant Catholics are the ones who best perpetuate themselves in France, because they have maintained codes, prohibitions and clear boundaries between what belongs to the religious domain and what is extraneous to it,” he added.

    Such a trend, in his view, runs completely counter to that promoted by the French Church since the 1700s, through a posture that is quite typical of a weakened majority: focused on openness and welcoming, and undemanding in the socio-cultural norms and codes that mark its identity.

    In this respect, he is convinced that a profound transformation is about to take place in the country’s Catholic landscape, which he predicts will be anchored, at least for a time, in a strong reaffirmation of dogma’s importance in religious experience.

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    Traditionalism, Future of the French Church?

    This opinion is shared by “Père Danziec” — a well-known pseudonymous commentator in the French Catholic media — who also warns of the imminent collapse of the hierarchy of the Church of France. For this priest of the traditional Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, the recent sex scandals that have rocked the Church have particularly hastened its decline.

    “To face up to the challenges of today’s society, you really need to be strong in every respect, and the French clergy seems to have been completely stunned since the publication of the Sauvé Report,” he told the Register, drawing a parallel with the atmosphere that preceded the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

    However, the general disaffection with Catholicism, the desertion of churches and the wave of seminary closures in France, is accompanied at the same time by a strong attachment to traditionalist movements, especially among young people, as evidenced by another recent study that lends additional credence to the hypotheses of a gradual refocusing and tightening of religious practice.

    In May, for the first time in 40 years, the organizers of the annual Christendom Pilgrimage of Chartres — which brings together Catholics attached to the Traditional Latin Mass — had to close registration some ten days before the event, due to their 16,000-person ceiling being exceeded.

    The pilgrimage’s director, Jean de Tauriers, said in an interview with the Register that an increase of around 10% was recorded each year, and that more than half of participants were under 21.

    “Many of them are what we call ‘recommencers,’ who are returning to religious practice or in any case are asking themselves questions, driven by a thirst for spirituality and religious anchoring,” he said at the end of the 2023 pilgrimage on May 29. “Alongside this, I also see a search for exacting standards among these participants, insofar as our three-day pilgrimage is also marked by both physical and spiritual constraint.” He also pointed out that participation by diocesan priests is on the rise.

    These facts lead Père Danziec to believe that, while Cuchet and Raison du Cleuziou’s predictions regarding the continuing decline of the Church in France are highly probable, the trend could also be rapidly reversed by a subsequent resurgence of traditional faith.

    “ and more people are attracted by the triptych of coherence, transcendence and exigency, in the conviction that, if you’re going to be a Christian, you might as well be one in every aspect of your life.”

    Why Half a Million Germans Left the Catholic Church in 2022 — And What It Means

    ANALYSIS: The record number of departures means a loss of hundreds of millions of euros in revenue, but much deeper implications.

    ‘Sound of Freedom’ Actor Jim Caviezel and Real-Life Character Tim Ballard: ‘God’s Children Are Not for Sale’

    New movie releasing July 4 sheds light on terror of human trafficking and real heroes that are bringing light to this darkness.

    Pending Sale of Chicago Church to ‘Temple House’ Developer Raises Concerns Among Local Catholics and Canonists

    An entrepreneur who previously turned a Miami synagogue into a venue that hosts ‘same-sex weddings’ and other scandalous events is.

    Utility-scale solar farms spreading rapidly across the desert Southwest are stressing the region’s already overtaxed groundwater and communities are beginning to push back.

    Amid Continuing Drought, Arizona Is Coming up With New Sources of Water—if Cities Can Afford Them

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    DESERT CENTER, Calif.—Solar farms stretch out mile after mile along Interstate 10 around Palm Springs, creating one of the densest areas of solar development in North America in the heart of California’s Colorado Desert. But the area’s success in meeting the state and the nation’s renewable energy goals is running up against the Southwest’s biggest climate challenge: Having enough water.

    Local wells in the area have gone dry since the construction of multiple utility-scale solar projects near Desert Center—threatening the only water source for hundreds of people and a handful of local businesses. Solar farms typically don’t use much water when operating, but during construction, the law requires developers to mitigate dust—which can spread health problems like Valley Fever. That requires water.

    The projects are being built on public land overseen by the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. The federal agency knew the construction of the solar projects could impact local wells and may even be over-drafting the aquifer beneath them, according to former BLM staff, studies on the basin and public documents from the agency’s environmental assessments of the projects.

    While the communities around Desert Center are small, the sunshine is nearly endless and it has all the infrastructure a solar project would need: transmission lines to distribute the power, roads for workers to get to the projects and a major highway nearby that allows the easy transportation of construction materials. When the nation began looking to transition away from the fossil fuels driving climate change, no place was better suited for solar energy development.

    Under the 2012 Western Solar Plan created by the BLM, 298,321 acres of public lands were divided up and labeled as “solar energy zones”—areas perfect for developing the resource. Nearly half of them are in the Riverside East zone, where Desert Center lies. That plan to “help accelerate and continue momentum for the clean energy economy,” is now being reviewed by the BLM, according to the agency, and has the potential to open up areas for solar development in five more states and across even more public land in states that are already being developed.

    Seven utility-scale solar projects stretching out across nearly 19,000 acres of mostly public land have been approved by the BLM near Desert Center, with more projects under consideration. Together they would provide close to 3,000 megawatts of electricity—enough for around 2 million homes.

    If solar companies’ use of groundwater dries up local wells, the BLM requires them to reduce their pumping until the aquifer returns to levels that allow wells to resume operations and cover the expenses for replacing equipment and wells. But local well owners say they have received no help so far.

    Limited data exists about the aquifer—the Chuckwalla Valley Groundwater Basin—but studies over the past decade showed what was being pumped out likely exceeded what was going back in. Bringing in water from elsewhere would be too costly, so developers rely on groundwater during construction.

    Demands on a Scarce Resource

    Across the drought-stricken Southwest, the importance of groundwater is coming to the surface. The resource has propped up development and agriculture in parts of the region lacking a diverse portfolio of water resources, leading to overuse of groundwater that has led the land beneath homes to sink and wells to run dry.

    In Desert Center and similar California communities, underground aquifers are the only source of drinking water. Across the border, Arizona announced this month that the Phoenix area would no longer be allowed to grow on groundwater alone. New developments will have to rely on other sources approved by the Arizona Department of Water Resources.

    But, unlike a lake or river in which the water is visible, monitoring groundwater levels is challenging. “It’s all happening beneath your feet,” said Jason Melady, a principal hydrogeologist at Summit Water Resources, a water resource management consulting company contacted by a local resident. Having data is key to assessing how a development will impact the resource, said Melday and other groundwater experts, but it can be hard to come by.

    The BLM reported there was enough groundwater for the most recently approved projects from Intersect Power and Clearway Energy Group in its environmental assessments of the proposed developments, but also found data was limited and the basin could already be overdrawn. Even if it wasn’t being overused, the project “may adversely affect operation of nearby wells,” the assessment stated.

    A different proposed solar project from Intersect Power would require another 1,000 acre-feet of water during two years of construction, and yet another proposed development would need a water supply, likely from the aquifer, but how much has not yet been determined. One acre-foot typically provides enough water for two households in a year.

    The water assessments for each recently approved project found the recharge of the aquifer from rain could range from 206 to just over 20,000 acre-feet a year.

    “That’s not a great information basis for your planning,” said Andrew Ayres, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center. In recent years, he said, other aquifers in the state have had to religiously document the recharge rate of their basins, how much water was being extracted and where it goes under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed in 2014.

    But none of that has been done for the Chuckwalla Valley Groundwater Basin. While the law requires basins in overdraft to form agencies that regulate the groundwater and restrict water use to avoid long-term issues, Chuckwalla Valley is designated as a low-priority basin that doesn’t have to do any of that. The law also doesn’t apply to federal lands, which is where most of the solar projects are being built.

    The main complication of water issues in these projects is the disconnect between state and federal policies, said Dustin Mulvaney, a professor in environmental studies at San Jose State University whose research focuses on sustainable and just transitions to solar power.

    “It’s a consequence of a public lands project,” he said, noting that California doesn’t regulate or monitor water pumped on federal public lands, even though it comes from the same aquifer the state oversees. “This is a gap in the state’s plan, not just regulation or oversight, but just tracking. This is a huge gap for them.”

    Without oversight now, Riverside County, where the basin is located, “could get pulled into a situation in which you basically sleepwalk your way into more stringent regulation,” Ayres said, “and that can be really demanding and really costly.”

    The basin could already be overdrawn, or have too many wells competing with one another in an area, Ayres and Melady said. The only way to know, they said, is to invest resources into finding out more about the basin.

    Preventing further decline of the aquifer and getting help for those already impacted by shortages is top of mind for people who live here.

    Desert Center itself is little more than a “ghost town” where travelers between Los Angeles and Phoenix once stopped for food, gas and repairs. A few miles north lies Lake Tamarisk, a retirement community of around 200 where neighbors view each other as family and spend their days admiring the desert.

    But the views of the endless desert filled with sacred Indigenous sites, palo verde and ironwood trees, and endangered desert tortoises are now disappearing as solar panels spread around the local communities. The citizens of Desert Center and Lake Tamarisk, like others across the country, are beginning to push back. After being left out of conversations about previous solar development near their homes, they’re determined to be heard as two new solar projects are proposed in the area.

    “No one took into consideration a community lived out here,” said Teresa Pierce, a resident of Lake Tamarisk who has helped lead the community’s response to future solar development. While they aren’t entirely opposed to solar, she said, “we’re against it being so close to our community and stealing our water out from our aquifer.”

    ‘Dead Without Water’

    The first sign of trouble arrived this February, months after the most recently approved solar projects began construction, when John Beach got an email from his bank saying he hadn’t paid the electric bill for his property in Desert Center because it had exceeded his authorized limit. His land has no home on it, just two palm trees he’s been irrigating for 15 years, and his water pump was working overtime because it wasn’t getting any water.

    His electricity bill in January was 15. In February, it was 1,800.

    Later that month, a local RV park had its well go dry, too. The water table had dropped 50 feet, leaving about 70 residents, most of whom are construction workers for the solar projects, without water for a week. Fortunately, the well was deep enough that all that needed to be done was lower the water pump, which cost 16,000. But it can’t be lowered again should the water table continue to fall.

    “That park is dead without water,” said Nick Melendez, the property manager. “You can’t even get water trucked in out there.”

    Drilling a new well for either property would cost around 100,000.

    “I’m not hurt really. I just have palm trees that are gonna want water,” Beach said. “But if the Lake Tamarisk public water system goes out, you’ve got 200 people without water, and it doesn’t just get turned on again the next day. I mean that is a terrible thing to allow to happen.” Two commercial fish farming operations in the area also experienced reduced flows from their wells, he added.

    Intersect Power—the company behind Oberon and another proposed utility-scale solar project in the area—said in a statement to Inside Climate News it had been notified of the issue and was looking into it, but “the potential for the project to impact nearby wells was studied extensively by the agencies that authorized the project under State and Federal law. Science-based mitigation measures were imposed including ongoing monitoring of area wells. The project is in compliance with all mitigation measures.“

    Concerns over the impact of solar project development on the local aquifer have long existed.

    Three hours away from Desert Center, in Tempe, Arizona, two BLM staffers who had studied the hydrology of the Chuckwalla Valley Groundwater Basin and worked for the BLM’s Palm Springs office gave a presentation at the Arizona Hydrological Society in 2021. The topic: “Renewable Energy Impacts on Ground Water in a Desert Basin.”

    “That is ground zero for solar field developments in North America,” said Noel Ludwig, one of the presenters and now a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado. At the time, he said, all the studies on the basin agreed: Groundwater was being pumped out at near or above the rate at which the basin can replenish the supply.

    It’s “simple math,” Ludwig said. You can’t remove more water from an aquifer than is added by return flows into it without eventually running out. The Chuckwalla Valley Groundwater Basin is an ancient aquifer, primarily refilled by rain, and takes a long time to replenish.

    “It’s just something that’s a groundwater issue—not just in that basin but around the country and around the world,” he said. “They’ve been treating it like a bottomless bank account, without accounting for the long-term and certain implications on people’s wells.”

    affordable, housing, energy, efficient, these, developers

    Individual solar projects don’t use much water, but when added all together, they can start to make an impact, Ludwig and groundwater policy experts said.

    Ludwig and his colleague’s groundwater presentation in Tempe “was never accepted by the BLM” and is not reflective of the current mitigation measures for groundwater use, a spokesperson for the agency said.

    The BLM did not answer questions about what mitigation measures are in place, if it is looking into the current situation of wells going dry, if it has been monitoring the basin or how it is working with local communities.

    But in its environmental assessment for recently approved solar projects, the BLM found water used by solar project development could affect local wells.

    Under baseline conditions, it found the basin would have a surplus of 2,390 acre-feet. But the lack of data on the basin makes “performing a detailed analysis” challenging. And the water supply assessment found the aquifer could already be overdrawn by 6,685 acre-feet of water under lower precipitation and water inflow conditions.

    Communities See Few Benefits, All Consequences

    Teresa Pierce’s porch provides a “front row seat” to Joshua Tree National Park. The view of the desert is nearly endless—until the solar farms interrupt it.

    The Lake Tamarisk community got its start as housing for workers at a Kaiser Steel iron mine before morphing into a home for everyone from school-aged children to retirees. In addition to a man-made lake and single tamarisk tree the community’s name suggests, it has a library, post office and fire station.

    But just outside of town, near Desert Center, what were once vast stretches of desert filled with washes providing essential habitats for the local wildlife are now the most built-out area of solar development in the nation.

    Solar farms started here over a decade ago with multiple projects arriving after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, said Mulvaney, the San Jose State University professor who has researched solar projects on BLM lands in the Southwest.

    Those projects, while still in view, are miles away from Desert Center. But the area is now seeing another wave of solar development as space on nearby transmission lines opens up, Mulvaney said. Those projects are slowly surrounding Lake Tamarisk, which would be encircled by solar farms on three sides, with the latest project’s panels being 750 feet away and its fences and other infrastructure even closer.

    Members of the community say they have long been left out of the decision-making process going back to when the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone was established. Community members said they were never notified directly about Oberon, the most recently approved project, near Lake Tamarisk and Desert Center. When the same company, Intersect Power, proposed another project, only one person received a direct notice about it, and he then informed his neighbors.

    When two of the projects in the area were approved for construction last summer, BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a press release that “Renewable energy development on BLM-managed public lands will continue to help communities across the country be part of the climate solution, while creating jobs and boosting local economies.”

    But most people here say they see few of those benefits but endure all the consequences of that development—dust storms that threaten their health, construction noise, intense glare and heat from nearby panels, disruption of delicate ecosystems and the removal of plants that make desert life livable for other species, a drop in home values and the lack of water.

    They hope to have their concerns remedied with berms put up around the solar farms, financial compensation for negative impacts like wells going dry, help with air conditioning bills if the development increases the temperature in the area during the summer, and larger buffer zones between the projects and their homes.

    “They’re willing to spend millions to schmooze communities but they don’t want to spend money on the project to protect the community,” said Mark Carrington, who once worked as a biologist for the BLM. He discovered the community while roaming the desert during the pandemic and has helped lead its response to solar developments.

    While renewable energy projects break ground at record pace, rural communities and vital ecosystems important for biodiversity are getting left behind, said Kevin Emmerich, a cofounder of the environmental group Basin and Range Watch who previously worked for the National Park Service. Emmerich said the projects in the area are being approved despite impacts to the nearby Desert Dry Wash Woodlands, desert tortoise habitat, and the killing of ironwood trees and other vegetation that help hold together a vital ecosystem.

    Ripped-out ironwood trees pepper the vistas at many of the solar sites, and trash fills boxes meant to provide homes for desert tortoises.

    The country may have a mandate to develop more renewable energy sources and companies may have made investments in future projects around Desert Center—Intersect Power’s substation to allow for more development, for example—but people in the communities should come first, Emmerich said. “You (the BLM) don’t work for these companies—you work for us,” he said.

    As the water here begins to disappear, residents worry the Lake Tamarisk wells are next. The community is entirely reliant on groundwater. If their wells run dry, all they could do is drill deeper or hope the drawdown of the aquifer is just a short-term impact of the nearby construction and not a sign of overdraft for the entire region.

    “I have not seen anybody mitigate, or even kind of highlight (water) as a major concern” for any solar projects in the Southwest, Mulvaney said. “I think, in general, people aren’t aware of this issue across the U.S. because most solar farms don’t require groundwater wells. This is a Western phenomenon to even use groundwater wells for these things.”

    affordable, housing, energy, efficient, these, developers

    But the development is unlikely to end anytime soon. So far around 20,000 acres of land has been developed in the solar energy zone the community falls within. Another 120,000 acres are available for solar development.

    And there’s another renewable electricity-generating elephant in the room that would demand even more of the aquifer’s water—the Eagle Crest Pump Storage Project.

    That project would generate 1,300 megawatts of power by pumping water uphill from one former mining pit to another and then releasing it back downhill to spin turbines that would generate electricity during periods of high demand. It would use 4,456 acre feet of water a year during construction and then 2,050 acre feet during operation, “more than ten times the operational groundwater of all other cumulative projects combined,” according to a water assessment of the basin for the Oberon solar project from the BLM.

    The Chuckwalla Valley’s aquifer below the BLM’s land has just over 2,000 acre feet of water left before the basin begins to be over-pumped, according to the recent water assessments. One of the proposed solar projects would use half of that if approved. Even under the BLM’s baseline assumptions of how much water there is, further build out of renewable energy projects could quickly sip away what is left.

    Not far from the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone, above a different aquifer, lies the town of Blythe. The Colorado River runs by it, and agricultural operations dot the landscape. Those farming operations use far more water than any solar development, and as California looks to use both less groundwater and Colorado River water, replacing those fields with solar is being viewed as a viable alternative, said Mulvaney and Ayre, with the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center.

    As long as the federal government’s policy is to encourage utility-scale solar development on federal lands, places like Desert Center and Lake Tamarisk will continue to see projects nearby, Mulvaney said. And as long as that development is occurring, residents like Teresa Pierce and Mark Carrington will be pushing back.

    Flipping through her old college papers, Pierce realized her fight against the solar development wasn’t the first time conservation issues had caught her attention. In 1984, her first college English paper—for which she got an A—was on the importance of conserving the nation’s national parks and wilderness areas.

    “We should stop and reflect for a moment on the reasons why we need parks and wilderness areas,” she wrote. “If indeed the reasons are to achieve oneness with our world and our universe then we better do the best we can to hold onto what we have.”

    Her goal now is to hold on to what she found at Lake Tamarisk—the beauty of the desert.

    Roy W. Howard investigative fellow

    Wyatt Myskow covers environmental news in the Western U.S. from Phoenix as the Roy W. Howard investigative fellow. Wyatt graduated from Arizona State University with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and has previously reported for The Arizona Republic, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The State Press. He has covered local government, development news, education issues and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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    The Nitty-Gritty Forces That Shape Planetary Surfaces

    Scientists are coming up with ingenious ways to compare terrestrial sand dunes, dust storms, and rain with their counterparts on Mars and Titan.

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    Amid creeping dunes, sage brush, and dry grass, a large metal framework spreads appendages over a sandy plain like an aluminum insect. On antenna-like poles, instruments twitch and spin as they sense the air.

    This scene, otherworldly yet altogether terrestrial, played out in June 2022 at Bruneau Dunes State Park in south central Idaho. As part of a NASA-supported workshop, a group of a few dozen planetary scientists, terrestrial geologists, and engineers experimented with the insect’s instruments and clambered over the dunes to investigate how to explore other worlds. The metal framework was a mock-up of a planetary lander concept under development by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the dune field provided a natural laboratory to study how best to observe surface-atmosphere interactions accurately on a world like Mars.

    Interactions between planetary surfaces and their atmospheres play crucial but underappreciated roles in shaping worlds across our solar system, and we can study these interactions by connecting terrestrial field experiments with extraterrestrial observations. After all, the same kinds of wind stresses that drive Bruneau’s dunes also sculpt the sand seas of Saturn’s moon Titan, carving the moon’s climatic history into its dunes. And dust-lofting processes similar to those on Earth likely also conjure dust storms on Mars, perhaps helping explain that planet’s extreme aridity.

    By studying terrestrial surface-atmosphere interactions, scientists hope to understand how the forces at work here also affect distant worlds, where their influences may be more profound but also more cryptic. Recent planetary missions, data sets, and experiments have provided insights, but key questions remain. Fortunately, new and upcoming instruments, data collection approaches, and planetary missions that will help answer these questions lie on the horizon.

    Surface-atmosphere interactions influence many worlds, but Earth, Mars, and Titan share compelling similarities and contrasts, so we FOCUS here on this trio of tantalizing terrenes.

    Dunes and Don’ts

    Unlike the mineral sands of Earth’s and Mars’s dunes, though, Titan’s dune sands are composed of hydrocarbons. Photochemical reactions in Titan’s methane-rich, nitrogen-dominated atmosphere produce a continual rain of macromolecular aerosols that are probably the source of the moon’s sands, but how micrometer-sized aerosols become 100-micrometer-diameter sand grains is unclear. One model suggests that the aerosols gather in polar lakes of liquid natural gas, where turbulence clumps them together. When these lakes dry up seasonally, the clumps are left behind to be distributed by wind around the rest of the moon. This same clumping process, called “flocculation,” forms sand in coastal lake beds in Morocco, for example. Seasons on Titan last 7 Earth years, but a longer 60,000-year cycle associated with Saturn’s orbital evolution (analogous to Milankovitch cycles on Earth) likely contributes to more extensive, long-term evaporation cycles.

    In fact, sand likely helps to mobilize dust. Because sand is easier to set in motion than dust is, as wind gusts pick up speed, sand moves first. As the sand saltates, each grain can accumulate substantial momentum, and when sand grains impact the surface, this momentum helps launch dust grains. This cascading effect likely reduces the threshold wind speed for mobilizing dust on Mars, probably to within observed wind speeds. The InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) mission on Mars even leveraged this effect to prolong its own life: InSight ladled sand onto its increasingly dusty solar panels, resulting in a power boost as the blown sand grains helped clean the panels.

    Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink

    Turbulent winds near planetary surfaces do more than move sand and dust—they also transport atmospheric gases that can evaporate, condense, and influence planets in dramatic and sometimes unexpected ways. From the deep mantle to the troposphere, Earth is sodden with water, which affects almost every aspect of our planet’s climatic, geological, and biological systems.

    On Mars, surface conditions preclude the presence of large amounts of liquid water, but Mars has water ice in abundance. In situ and orbital measurements of Mars have revealed an intricate water cycle akin to Earth’s. On Titan, where the surface temperature is about −180°C, water similarly exists only as ice, but methane and ethane fall as rain and fill large surface reservoirs. Although less well characterized than Earth’s or Mars’s, Titan’s “hydrologic” cycle (with methane and ethane playing the role of water) seems intimately woven into that world’s climate and geology.

    Missions, instrumentation, and techniques already available and in development may soon provide new capabilities to understand surface-atmosphere interactions that so profoundly shape worlds throughout the solar system. Which leads us back to Bruneau Dunes State Park here on Earth.

    Participants in NASA’s “Optimizing Planetary In Situ Surface-Atmosphere Interaction Investigations” workshop circled the lander mock-up as a fitful breeze drove sand streamers around their ankles. The aluminum framework was outfitted with wind sensors, temperature gauges, and other atmospheric instruments, and the group discussed which ones could best assess saltation in Bruneau’s arid environment.

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