President Joe Biden is awarding thousands of acres of public land to a solar energy company whose top executive helped him raise millions of dollars—even as environmentalists and local residents say the company's project harms their desert community.
Biden's Interior Department last year greenlit Intersect Power's plan for a desert solar farm that will occupy 2,600 acres of public land in Southern California. The move marked a rare occurrence in which the Biden administration ignored the pleas of environmental activists, who argue the project will destroy rare desert habitats and wildlife. Intersect's ability to overcome that opposition likely validated executives' decision to bankroll Biden's campaign. Intersect CEO Sheldon Kimber gave the president's campaign $180,000 and helped Biden raise at least $3.2 million through two fundraising groups. All told, Intersect's executives donated a combined $413,000 to Biden in 2020.
This is not the first time the Biden administration has boosted a green energy company connected to a top campaign fundraiser. Leaders of Clean Energy for Biden—a political group made up of "clean energy business and policy leaders" that bundled donations for the Democrat—saw Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg publicly promote their companies just months after Biden took office. Kimber was also part of the influential fundraising group, which is now working to "advocate for just, equitable, and rapid decarbonization" under the name "Clean Energy for America."
The Interior Department did not return a request for comment. Intersect Power spokesman Ryan Nickel, a veteran Democratic aide who last year lobbied for the Hopewell Fund, a liberal dark money group, said Intersect "has a long track record of developing renewable energy projects in both the Trump and Biden administrations on public lands."
Nickel did not comment on Kimber's fundraising work for the Biden campaign or whether Kimber discussed the company's Biden administration-approved solar project with the White House, other than to note that it "is located in an area that was identified for solar development in 2010, 10 years before Joe Biden was elected president."
Climate groups like Clean Energy for Biden helped the president appeal to the environmental left, a voting bloc that has since successfully pressured Biden to cancel public land projects over environmental concerns. When it comes to Intersect's solar project, however, Biden's Interior Department brushed aside concerns from environmental groups, who warned the agency that the solar farm would have major repercussions on southern California's fragile desert ecosystem.
Months before the Biden administration approved the project, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and California Wilderness Coalition, accused Intersect of sidestepping federal and state regulations that aim to protect "valuable desert ecosystems." The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) followed suit, writing in a September 2021 letter that the project would "result in significant degradation of desert species, communities, and ecosystems."
"While MDLT … recognizes the importance of meeting renewable energy goals," the group said, "this cannot, nor does it need to, be done at the expense of our irreplaceable desert species and ecosystems."
Now, as Intersect works to construct the project in Desert Center—a small California community located halfway between Los Angeles and Phoenix—local residents are speaking out. Teresa Pierce, who lives in a Desert Center RV park, said Intersect's construction has brought widespread dust pollution and a dwindling water supply, issues that have led Pierce and her neighbors to publicly oppose the project.
"They have just raped the desert," Pierce told the Washington Free Beacon. "That's the most descriptive word I can use. They have scraped away all the ironwood [and] displaced tortoises and other critters."
While Pierce and other residents are banding together to fight Intersect and other solar companies, the desert energy farms are only expected to multiply in the coming years. That's because Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in December 2022 announced a plan to expedite solar farm construction across tens of thousands of acres of untouched public land in nearly a dozen Western states.
"It's armageddon for those of us who live out here," a Nevada conservationist told the Free Beacon last month, citing the increased heat, blinding glares, and habitat disruptions that come with solar farms. One Mojave Desert solar project, for example, incinerates 6,000 birds per year.
Solar energy expansion is nothing new for California, which already draws roughly a third of its power from renewable sources. But the Golden State's renewables push has led to price hikes and reliability issues. Electricity prices are up nearly 70 percent since 2010, and California saw rolling blackouts last summer for the first time in 20 years.