In California, quest for cleaner power hits tortoise-sized speed bumps
Golden State lawmakers ask which is more important: building the nation's largest solar-energy farm or protecting a fragile ecosystem?
On a strip of California's Mojave Desert, two dozen rare tortoises could stand in the way of a sprawling solar-energy complex in a case that highlights mounting tensions in the United States between wilderness conservation and the quest for cleaner power.Skip to next paragraph
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Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy has been pushing for more than two years for permission to erect 400,000 mirrors on the site to gather the sun's energy. It could become the first project of its kind on US Bureau of Land Management property, leaving a footprint for others to follow on vast stretches of public land across the West.
The construction would come with a cost: Government scientists have concluded that more than 6 square miles of habitat for the federally threatened desert tortoise would be permanently lost.
The Sierra Club and other environmentalists want the complex relocated to preserve what they call a near-pristine home for rare plants and wildlife, including the protected tortoise, the Western burrowing owl, and bighorn sheep.
The dispute is likely to echo for years as more companies seek to develop solar, wind, and geothermal plants on land treasured by environmentalists who also support the growth of alternative energy. In an area of stark beauty, the question will be what is worth preserving and at what cost as California pushes to generate one-third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
The Bureau of Land Management has received more than 150 applications for large-scale solar projects on 1.8 million acres of federal land in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. In California alone, such projects could claim an area the size of Rhode Island, transforming the state into the world's largest solar farm.
BrightSource Energy wants permission to construct three solar power plants on the site that together would generate enough power each year for 142,000 homes, potentially generating billions of dollars of revenue over time.
The sun's power is used to heat water and make steam, which in turn drives turbines to create electricity. Built in phases, the project would include seven, 459-foot metal towers, a natural gas pipeline, water tanks, steam turbine generators, boilers, and buildings for administration and maintenance. Each plant would be surrounded by 8-foot-high steel fencing.
The site has virtually unbroken sunshine most of the year, and is near transmission lines that can carry the power to consumers.
In November, federal and state biologists reviewing the plan proposed that the company catch and move the tortoises and preserve 12,000 acres elsewhere, a proposal that could cost BrightSource an estimated $25 million.
John Kessler, a project manager for the California Energy Commission, says there is disagreement with BrightSource over what the company would pay for long-term maintenance for the land that would be purchased, and the company also believes the cost of buying it should be less.