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Oakland Invades the Desert

Four East Bay companies are leading the rush to develop utility-scale solar power. But some environmentalists suggest there's a big price to pay.



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The pains the company took with the translocation weren't lost on environmentalists. When the Army's Fort Irwin expanded two years ago in the Mojave Desert seventy miles east of Ivanpah Valley, personnel airlifted 556 tortoises to public land a few miles away. Of the 158 outfitted with tracking devices, nearly half died, mostly from coyote attacks. Ivanpah project spokesman Eventov uses the Army's carelessness as an example of how not to handle desert tortoises. BrightSource is permitted to kill three a year for three years without receiving any fines, he said, but hopes not to kill a single one.

Yet all the good PR from the carefully orchestrated tortoise roundup took a hit on the project's groundbreaking day in October, three weeks after it received its final permits, when reporters who had been invited by the company discovered a tortoise with a broken shell in the middle of the site. It had been run over by an off-road vehicle, not BrightSource's crew, but the finding didn't bode well: The tortoise problem just wouldn't go away.

Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, says she's most worried about cumulative impacts on the desert tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley. Together with FirstSolar's 8.5-square-mile StateLine plant, BrightSource's project represents the loss of valuable high-elevation desert tortoise habitat, which is of special importance given the anticipated impacts of climate change. If it's not currently a prime spot, it will be soon, said Delfino, as tortoises seek cooler temperatures at higher elevations. But by then there may be little habitat left in the valley.

When it comes to finding land for solar projects, developers look for three things: sunlight, level terrain, and access to the power grid via transmission lines. Conservationists recognize that without these three components, utility-scale solar power plants won't get built, but many argue that the condition of the land itself is even more critical. They want the Bureau of Land Management to limit utility-scale solar plants to previously degraded lands. Thus far, however, the agency has made it clear that it's willing to listen to almost any proposal.

Both sides agree that current siting standards are minimal, at least on the front end. When looking at Bureau of Land Management land, developers need only steer clear of a small number of designated conservation areas. Beyond that, the field is wide open. Even "Desert Wildlife Management Areas," which provide critical habitat for desert tortoises, are on the table — though surface disturbance is limited to 1 percent of the total area, and development of those areas is likely to prove difficult and costly.

Making matters worse, conservationists say, developers are allowed to lead the permitting process. The Bureau of Land Management offers little in the way of direction. The bureau and the Department of Energy have identified four "solar energy study areas" throughout the California desert comprising more than 350,000 acres, or 547 square miles, but companies are by no means compelled to stay within them. Furthermore, the designated areas include plenty of high-quality habitat, and some unprotected Bureau of Land Management lands are just as pristine as those within the Mojave National Preserve, said April Sall, conservation director for Wildlands Conservancy and chair of the California Desert Coalition.

When a company has identified a plot of land it likes, it invests time and money in studying the site: surveying the land, assessing the environment, and measuring sunlight — all without the benefit of any comprehensive plan pertaining to desert resources. If the plot checks out from the business standpoint, the company will try to find a buyer for the power — usually a large utility company like PG&E — and draw up plans and a draft environmental impact statement in hopes of obtaining a permit. The proposal will then be evaluated by both the Bureau of Land Management and the California Energy Commission, pass through two public comment periods plus California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Policy Act reviews, and finally seek the Department of the Interior's stamp of approval. This requires at least eighteen months of round-the-clock work, even for fast-tracked projects.

Developers insist it's a rigorous process designed to reduce environmental impacts, thoroughly vet the best projects, and weed out the worst ones. Yet in the Bureau of Land Management's rush to qualify major projects for federal grants and loans, environmentalists see a fatal flaw. "The tail is wagging the dog," said the Center for Biological Diversity's Kieran Suckling, "and they're just running around following the developers."

Suckling joins Sall in calling for a system based on avoidance rather than mitigation. That means siting projects on low-quality lands such as old agricultural plots, strips adjacent to highways, and otherwise trashed and non-restorable sites. "There are hundreds of thousands of acres of disturbed lands that are already available for solar," Sall said. "If this was truly about saving the environment and responsible renewable energy development, then companies should be interested in developing more appropriate sites." As far as she's concerned, however, not a single large-scale solar project has yet been proposed on suitably degraded public lands.

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