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

The Mojave Desert turned a stupefying green in June. After a cold, wet spring, a miniature forest of algae and moss sprouted out of the desert's "cryptobiotic" crust--literally, the "soil of hidden life." Little leaves on the mesquite and creosote pulsed with color, and the thick Joshua tree forest that grows out of the limestone formation at Cima Dome, a botanical marvel on the northern edge of the Mojave National Preserve, shimmered like an emerald city. The evening mist that settled each day into the pockets among the tall granite mountains made the Mojave look like nothing so much as Ireland.

In other years, when the rain comes just right and the cold subsides earlier, the Mojave goes manic with color. Pale violet asters blanket slopes, while yellow marigolds and white pincushions drench the bajadas. Dark pink blooms explode from barrel cactuses, deep orange flowers emerge from beavertail tips, and white-blossomed stems shoot up from the yucca. In such flower-filled springs, endangered desert tortoises wander among the plants, stuffing their jaws with color. Even in less fruitful years, bighorn sheep and bobcats eke out a living here, and oases like Harper Dry Lake Marsh, located at the edge of one of the largest dry lakebeds in the Mojave, serve as important resting sites for thousands of migrating birds, including black-necked stilts and American avocets.

Yet because visitors don't see much plant life--some seeds may lay dormant for a century or more before germinating--and little wildlife emerges in the heat of the day, there's a common misconception that the desert is a biodiversity wasteland. "Fifty to 80 percent of the [plant] species composition is only observable maybe 20 percent of the years," explains botanist Jim Andre, director of the University of California's Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, located in the Mojave National Preserve. Certain areas in the Mojave have "a plant species diversity comparable to what you'd find in the primeval redwood forest," says Andre, adding that "if we were 600 feet tall, that primeval redwood forest would look barren to us, too."

In the seemingly empty desert Southwest, from the Mojave south to the Colorado Desert, a subset of the larger Sonoran Desert that extends down to Mexico, civilized society locates what it doesn't want in suburban neighborhoods--from a U.S. Air Force base that remote-controls unmanned predator drones to the proposed nuclear waste storage site in Yucca Mountain. Now a solar energy boom is driving developers to these deserts, where tens of thousands of acres are slated for industrial-scale solar development. The flurry of activity began in 2005, when the federal Energy Policy Act called for 10,000 megawatts of non-hydropower renewable energy on public lands within a decade--almost enough to displace all the power plants that supply electricity to New York City. Then came California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's executive order that required utilities to obtain one-third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, which the state legislature made law this year.

Increasingly, environmentalists, government agencies, and solar companies are working together to protect and conserve critical desert ecosystems while allowing for appropriate solar energy projects on degraded lands. No one convincingly makes the case that we can do without these utility-scale plants altogether. Covering home rooftops with solar panels could never completely offset carbon-huffing fossil fuels, and such small batches of power complicate efforts to maintain a steady flow of electricity. Meanwhile, computers and, soon, electric cars will relentlessly strain an already sagging grid.

Continuing to rely on fossil fuels to fulfill our growing energy needs will only accelerate climate change and spur the destruction of habitat to get at untapped reserves. The solution, stakeholders say, is a balancing act. To cut greenhouse-gas emissions and protect critical habitat on the ground, we must "do conservation planning at the same time that you do development planning for renewable energy," says Garry George, Audubon California's renewable energy project director. "Because the two really have the same goal: To help species survive."


During the solar rush's first few years, developers focused on finding the best spots for solar radiation, not on how scraping clean thousands of acres of desert floor in a particular area might affect vulnerable flora and fauna. Global climate change was their chief environmental concern. "The mantra back then was, 'Let's build it as fast as we can because that's the right thing to do,' " says Dan Taylor, director of public policy for Audubon California.

Three projects that were planned back then are currently under way. All were permitted in a hurry--receiving the green light from California in its haste to hit its 2020 renewable energy targets, as well as from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which fast-tracked projects likely to meet a December 2010 deadline to qualify for stimulus funds. The developments include Solar Millennium's Blythe Solar Power Project, an 11-square-mile concentrating solar thermal plant near the California-Arizona border. It will employ troughs of mirrors to focus solar heat on a liquid until it flashes into gas and spins turbines. A similar plant, NextEra Energy's Genesis Project, will occupy 2.8 square miles about 20 miles west of the Blythe plant. And Oakland-based BrightSource Energy has begun construction on its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which will cover 5.6 square miles of the Mojave near California's border with Nevada. Its concentrating solar thermal technology relies on a vast field of mirrors called "heliostats" to focus sunlight on a water-filled tower.

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."

The DRECP group has its sights set beyond the public land parcels that solar developers have mostly focused on so far. Lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management cost less for solar developers--yearly rents range from $65 to $300 per acre--but are more likely to abut wilderness areas, national parks, or preserves. Developers complain that it's hard to find a contiguous and affordable parcel big enough to accommodate a utility-scale solar plant unless you stake your claim on public land. So the working group is looking to pre-negotiate deals between federal agencies and private landholders in order to knit together pieces of territory for developers. "It's the most complicated and the largest such plan ever conceived, let alone developed," says the Sierra Club's Boyle. "It's going to take longer than people think it will. But it's the best we've got."

The BLM has launched a similar initiative in Arizona, called the Restoration Design Energy Project, to identify segments of chewed-up land--federal, local, and privately held--for renewable energy development. The agency has also teamed up with the Department of Energy to draw maps designating solar energy zones entirely on public lands in six western states--California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado--where developers might obtain streamlined permitting.

Initially neither developers nor environmentalists had much good to say about the BLM's plan, which has been in process since December 2008. Joint comments submitted on behalf of Audubon, the California Native Plant Society, the Sierra Club, and eight other environmental groups criticized the first draft of the plan for including in its zones crucial, well-known routes desert bighorn sheep use to access springs and seeps. The plan also left out degraded areas in the Sonoran Desert's Chocolate Mountains and the western Mojave near the towns of Palmdale and Lancaster. Linda Resseguie, who manages the BLM's solar zones effort, says the agency "doesn't necessarily disagree" with the criticism. "We took our best shot identifying the areas most appropriate for utility-scale solar," she says. "But that was two years ago, and we have a lot more information now about some of the sites."

In July the BLM began work on a supplement to the solar zones study, addressing key public comments and pledging to work in concert with state efforts like the DRECP. A final report on preferred development zones may be ready as early as next year; the DRECP, however, won't completely wrap up until 2013 at the earliest. Still, George is optimistic that the group's work will provide a roadmap for renewable energy development nationwide. "We're hoping it will serve as a model for the rest of the U.S., not just for solar development but also for wind," he says. "This kind of planning never happened with oil and it never happened with coal. But no one wants to spend millions of dollars developing a project that will only get canceled, and environmental groups don't want to be fighting against renewable energy. So now we're all getting together to say, 'Let's do environmentally responsible renewable energy development.' We all want that."


For the developer who doesn't want to wait for state or federal planners to finish drawing their maps but still wants a low-conflict development process, there's yet another option: Find your own five-square-mile tract, and buy it outright.

 Kate Maracas, vice president of operations in Arizona for the solar developer Abengoa, suspects that corporate history inspired the Spanish company's leadership to back her in 2008, when she proposed looking first into degraded private land for the site of the company's first U.S. project, the 280-megawatt Solana Solar Generating System. Abengoa had already pulled out of a project in Spain after construction uncovered archaeological ruins; it wants to avoid that kind of obstacle again. Solana will use parabolic troughs of mirrors to heat a fluid that passes through in tubes. It will also store some of the day's heat in molten salt to continue generating power through cloudy days and evenings.

Maracas concedes that private land costs more. "But even with government-designated renewable energy zones, it's still more time-consuming to go on public land. There are many more rules and many more queues."

Across her desk Maracas spreads a map showing the United States color-coded by incoming solar radiation, or "insolation." In the cold North and East, the map pales to a drab yellow; in the Southwest it turns to dark red. She runs a finger across a brick-colored area of Arizona southwest of Phoenix--a region of the Sonoran Desert where the sunshine rivals the mid-elevation Mojave. "We started here," she says. "After we'd homed in on four or five areas that looked like they met all the criteria"--great sun, close to transmission, and a reliable local workforce--"we retained a broker and said, 'What's for sale out here that's a large area of contiguous land?' Then we put on our cowboy boots, got in the truck, and drove miles and miles around in the desert."

They settled on a 4.7-square-mile site west of Gila Bend, Arizona. The area, part of what was once the 68,000-acre Paloma Ranch, is veined with irrigation canals dating from the 1920s. Snowy egrets and burrowing owls live here, and white-winged doves and vermilion flycatchers stop by on migration. Abengoa worked with the nonprofit rescue group Liberty Wildlife Foundation to protect the birds from construction operations.

Solana had to go through an environmental review process anyway, to qualify for a $1.45 billion guaranteed loan from the Department of Energy. That review didn't pronounce Solana perfect. Unlike the California and Nevada projects planned by BrightSource and Solar Millennium, it will use water as a coolant to return steam back to a liquid state. The BLM has all but forbidden such so-called wet cooling in desert systems, requiring developers to use dry desert air instead. But Solana sits atop the plentiful Paloma aquifer, which has served local agricultural operations for close to a century. The 3,000 acre-feet of water Solana needs every year is roughly one-tenth of the amount ranchers previously used to grow alfalfa. The project consequently has the support of just about every environmental group, from the Sonoran Institute to Defenders of Wildlife. (Audubon has not taken a position.) So far no one has sued.

Abengoa also has a California project in the works, a 250-megawatt concentrating solar thermal plant on fallow agricultural land on Harper Dry Lake. It met some resistance from the California Energy Commission, ever concerned about drought, for its proposed use of wet cooling, but eventually a conservation agreement was worked out. The approval process was still faster than it would have been had the plant been proposed for nearby public land.

And more such land exists. In addition to fallow agricultural fields, more of which become available as market conditions make crops like alfalfa and cotton less profitable, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified literally millions of acres of contaminated and degraded land that could be right for renewable energy development. In California alone, the agency has pinpointed 215 sites covering 1.7 million acres, including 90 sites larger than 200 acres. "I would not say Abengoa has a policy never to build anything on public land," Maracas says. "But if we ever do, we'll make sure we avoid any areas of contention. We just don't need it."


Back in the Mojave, construction on Ivanpah resumed on June 10, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a new biological opinion. It strengthened tortoise protection provisions and acknowledged that more animals are likely to be injured or killed than originally thought. The tortoise losses may seem small compared with the threat of catastrophic climate disruption, but Jim Andre doesn't believe the choice is so plain. "It's not a matter of global climate change versus bulldozing the pristine desert," he says. "How many acres are you willing to destroy of this pristine, highest-quality ecosystem, when there are degraded lands that could be used just as well? It's as simple as that."

Audubon's Taylor hopes it won't come down to that. By providing state and local leaders with clearly defined areas suitable for renewable energy development and areas that should be protected, "it appears that they'll consider that information and adopt the best practices." If that's the case, solar will indeed have a bright future.

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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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