Are some solar projects no longer ‘green’?

Conservationists worry that a plan for the Mojave desert will upset species’ habitats.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor / FILES
Workers install solar panels on the roof of an Austin, Texas, homeowner.
Ben Arnoldy / The Christian Science Monitor
John Hiatt, a conservationist, visits a proposed solar energy development site in Ivanpah Valley, Calif.

Solar companies proposing large power plants in the Mojave Desert are facing opposition from conservationists. They say a rush to build solar here threatens to tear up large tracts of desert habitat and open space.

The squabble is likely to intensify now that Congress this week moved forward on a long-term extension of the solar tax credit. Two other proposed bills would fast-track solar power projects looking to build on federal lands. State mandates on utilities to provide more renewable energy has created an enormous market for solar, an energy that requires two things the Mojave has in spades – acreage and sunshine. But the desert’s defenders argue that solar panels should be located on city rooftops rather than pristine lands.

“If there were just one [proposed plant], we could deal with that. But we are looking at essentially every valley that is not protected as a national monument or park as being a potential site for solar,” says John Hiatt, a Las Vegas-based environmental activist. “It will be the industrialization of the Mojave Desert.”

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has received some 200 applications to build solar plants on federal land in recent years. In California alone, there are 80 proposals involving 700,000 acres.

“It’s a land rush,” says Greg Miller, the renewable energy program manager in the BLM’s California office. “The 80 [California proposals] I’m mentioning are just those who are first in line. We’ve got another 40 or more on top of that [who]  are betting the company in front of them will lose out.”

No project has yet made it through the BLM’s permitting process. Overwhelmed, the agency tried this summer to put a moratorium on new applications.

“I don’t see us putting 80 solar projects on BLM land, there’s no way. I don’t see us putting 30,” says Mr. Miller, who notes the agency must manage the land for multiple uses. “And I hope the solar industry hears me on that.”

The BLM’s pace has displeased some in Congress. Rep. Jon Porter (R) of Nevada introduced a bill last week that would limit the BLM’s permit process to 180 days. And Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California is proposing doing away with environmental impact reviews. Mr. Rohrabacher says he is trying to “make sure that people who have something to offer other human beings [won’t] be stymied because the BLM thinks insects or reptiles are more important.”

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.

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.”

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