Are some solar projects no longer ‘green’?
Conservationists worry that a plan for the Mojave desert will upset species’ habitats.
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Currently, all eyes are on the Ivanpah Valley, where BrightSource Energy, Inc. has proposed a concentrated solar facility that is furthest along with the BLM. BrightSource wants to build 400 megawatts of solar generation using hundreds of thousands of mirrors across 3,400 acres.Skip to next paragraph
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Walking in Ivanpah Valley, Mr. Hiatt points out the nearby Mojave National Preserve as well as various developments within view. These include a natural-gas power plant, a golf course, and the Nevada town of Primm. The dry lake at the bottom of the valley could become the home of a second major airport for Las Vegas, prompting Mr. Hiatt to question whether the mirrors will blind pilots.
BrightSource’s application says all vegetation within the fields of mirrors “will be cut to the soil surface to reduce the risk of fire.” Hiatt says that will cause long-term soil damage.
With the removal of vegetation goes habitat for some rare species, including the golden eagle, American badger, and the desert tortoise. The desert tortoise is protected under both federal and state endangered species acts. BrightSource’s application outlines a 20-point proposal for mitigating impacts on tortoises, including relocating them from burrows. The company also plans to offset the loss of habitat by paying to set aside an equal amount of land elsewhere.
“Our concern is there may not be any habitat available,” says Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Los Angeles. “With Ivanpah, so much area [nearby] is public land, it’s going to be very hard to find land [to purchase] for permanent habitat.”
She and other conservationists are meeting with solar industry representatives and public lands managers in California. The process aims to balance the competing interests, says Ms. Anderson.
BrightSource has written in official filings that the location minimizes impacts because of its proximity to power lines and pipelines. Though tortoises were found on-site, the land is not officially designated critical habitat. BrightSource also discounts concerns about widespread desert development. The company cites a 2006 report from the Western Governors’ Association that forecasts 2 gigawatts of large-scale solar power in California by 2015. That would require no more than 16,000 acres of land, BrightSource says, which represents a tiny fraction of the 25-million-acre California Desert Conservation Area.
Massive acreage also exists in the built environment. Some 2 billion square feet of rooftops lie in solar-friendly regions, enough for 15 gigawatts of power, according to Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco-based solar power developer. But Arno Harris, Recurrent’s CEO, says rooftops and large solar plants are needed. “I think it’s a mistake to characterize it as a mutually-exclusive thing.”