Here Comes the Sun

Here Comes the Sun

Our southwest's deserts offer promise for solar power development. They also boast incredible biodiversity. New initiatives are looking to tap into the vast energy potential without threatening the wildlife and plants that depend on this fragile landscape.

By Judith Lewis Mernit/Photography by Michael P. Berman
Published: September-October 2011

All three projects are under threat of litigation from Native American tribes and environmental groups that insist the hasty permitting process glossed over potential damage to cultural resources and the environment. Legal challenges have brought other projects down: German developer Solar Millennium canceled a western Mojave project when biologists discovered it would destroy habitat for the threatened Mojave ground squirrel. Meanwhile, Tessera Solar had planned an 850-megawatt solar plant near Barstow, California, but was delayed by fighting the Sierra Club in court over rare plants and tortoise habitat. In the process, Tessera lost its lucrative power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison, and another developer, K Road Power Holdings, has since purchased the rights. "That project remains of great concern to us," says Barbara Boyle, the Sierra Club's solar projects director. "It has overlapping issues--good habitat for a population of desert tortoises that's important for species viability, a bighorn sheep movement area, and a significant collection of rare plants."

BrightSource officials stress the importance of including solar in the energy mix. The Ivanpah plant will produce up to 392 megawatts of electricity, enough to power some 140,000 homes, displacing power from several dirty gas "peaker" plants that fire up when air conditioners overload the grid. "The energy system is like an ecosystem," says Arthur Haubenstock, vice president of regulatory affairs for BrightSource. "Every piece of it affects everything else. We need a number of things on the grid, but [utility-scale solar] is the closest solar energy gets to a swap-out with conventional power."

When the plans for Ivanpah were first drawn up in 2006, it seemed to many in the renewable energy industry like an unassailable idea. Located just 4.5 miles from the casino town of Primm, Nevada, the 4,000-acre project site abuts a transmission corridor that would need only upgrading to plug in the solar-generated watts. The entire parcel sits within a century-old grazing allotment. On a map it looked like degraded land. But documents and site visits revealed little evidence that cows had done much damage. Instead, the lush bajada, or broad slope, coming out of the Clark Mountains into Ivanpah Dry Lake has remained some of the richest habitat for the threatened desert tortoise, whose numbers have declined by as much as 90 percent as humans and the predatory ravens that follow them moved in over the past century. Once areas of the Mojave and Sonoran supported thousands of tortoises per square mile. Now in those same areas fewer than a dozen per square mile may remain.

On April 15, 2011, the Bureau of Land Management temporarily stopped construction on parts of the Ivanpah site when biologists relocating the resident tortoise came upon many more individuals than originally predicted. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had set a limit of 38 tortoises that could be "harassed or captured" over the project's 40-year lifespan. Biologists found the 39th in February, and three tortoises have died in the early stages of the plant's construction. One was hit by a vehicle that may have been associated with construction activities, but two died as a direct result of the fencing constructed to keep the relocated animals out of the construction site. "Typically when you put up a tortoise fence, tortoises will pace back and forth trying to get where they want to go," says Brian Croft, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.   "One of the tortoises was out doing that and overheated."

Ivanpah was the product "of incomplete and ineffective analysis," says Taylor. "I am optimistic that we can do better."


Taylor and George are helping to design an improved planning process, one less fraught with legal troubles and habitat destruction, called California's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). The working group includes environmentalists; federal, state, and local representatives; utilities; and renewable energy developers--wind, solar, and geothermal--who collaborate on ways to build renewable energy projects with maximum efficiency and minimum conflict. "I've had it with green-on-green stories," says George, mindful that he used to be at the forefront of those stories--while at Los Angeles Audubon he went to court in 2005 to stop the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power from building its Pine Tree wind farm in a songbird migration corridor in Tehachapi, California. (Audubon lost and the project went ahead; a recent monitoring report found it now kills more songbirds than almost any other wind farm in the United States.)

Governor Schwarzenegger wrote the DRECP into the same November 2008 executive order in which he raised California's renewable energy standard, perhaps anticipating that these land battles would ensue. The group has been tasked with helping to create a statewide Natural Communities Conservation Plan for California's deserts, setting aside conservation areas and identifying degraded parcels close to transmission lines. Developers who build in designated areas will see their permits streamlined and their startup costs drop. "Getting a permit for a project that has conflicts with desert tortoises will be quicker and easier, as the conservation of the tortoises will be set out in the DRECP," George says. "A developer won't have to wait years and years to get a permit, and the conservation of the tortoise will be planned for the entire region rather than piecemeal, on a project-by-project basis."

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Thank you for bringing light to the pitfalls of utility-scale renewable energy generation. However, I think this article is a bit dismissive of the potential of distributed generation. Other countries have been quite successful in cutting reliance on GHG-emitting energy sources through rooftop solar and other local renewable energy facilities. Energy conservation could also put a huge dent in our energy consumption, and thus our dependence on fossil fuels.

Also, the article suggests that German firm Solar Millennium cancelled its plans to develop a solar facility in the western Mojave Desert because of impacts on the ecosystem. This is incorrect. The company has since petitioned the California Energy Commission to renew its application for this facility, which would disrupt a corridor for the rare Mohave Ground Squirrel and the desert tortoise.

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