Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Interior moving forward with contentious desert solar projects

By Patrick Donnelly-Shores

Aerial Views Of First Solar's Desert Sunlight Solar Farm

On February 19th, the Department of Interior announced that it had approved two utility-scale solar projects in the Mojave Desert: Silver State South Solar Project and Stateline Solar Farm Project. The two projects, which have already generated significant controversy, straddle the California/Nevada border in the remote Ivanpah Valley, and will combine to provide 550 MW of energy, enough to power 170,000 homes.

Aerial Views Of First Solar's Desert Sunlight Solar Farm

The Ivanpah Valley is no stranger to utility-scale solar, as it is home to the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Station . Ivanpah SEGS, the world’s largest solar plant, has been embroiled in an environmental scandal , due to significant impacts to the threatened desert tortoise associated with the plant’s construction. It has been at the epicenter of a “green vs. green” battle , with large, national environmental groups vocally supporting large-scale desert solar projects, while local, desert-based environmentalists have large concerns over impacts to wildlife and habitat.

The approval of Stateline and Silver State South is curious. The Bureau of Land Management, who manages the land these facilities are to be sited on, has a formal planning process for solar energy. This process was implemented through the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (PEIS). The PEIS is an enormous document, tens of thousands of pages long, analyzing the various environmental impacts which would be associated with solar development in several identified Solar Energy Zones (SEZs), where solar energy development would be prioritized.

The Ivanpah Valley was not one of these zones. While solar energy development is permitted outside the SEZs, it is curious that BLM would be seemingly prioritizing development in the Ivanpah Valley, without having examined the impacts of turning it into a de facto solar energy zone. As depicted on the map below, courtesy of Shawn Gonzalez at the Mojave Desert Blog , the Ivanpah Valley, a wide open stretch of desert about an hour south of Laz Vegas, is rapidly industrializing.

The Ivanpah Valley. The already operational Ivanpah SEGS can be seen on the left. The two recently approved plants, Stateline and Silver State South, are in the center and on the right respectively. Map courtesy of Shawn Gonzalez, mojavedesertblog.com

Environmentalists have already begun to fight the projects. Last November, the national environmental group Defenders of Wildlife filed a notice of intent to sue the government over Silver State South, citing viotlations of the Endangered Species Act, which the desert tortoise is protected under. Thousands of tortoises were displaced by the construction of the Ivanpah SEGS, and many died in translocation. The primary concern is that the Ivanpah Valley population of desert tortoises will lose habitat connectivity due to the projects, limiting genetic flow and thus species rigor for what is an already weakened population.

For their part, the project developer (First Solar) has already made substantial commitments to the tortoise, agreeing to a reduced project size from the initial proposal, 3:1 compensatory mitigation, and funding for a local Desert Tortoise Wildlife Management Area. These were all requirements for their permit to be approved, but environmentalists say that it's not enough.

While litigation is pending against Silver State South, it would be unprecedented if it put a halt to the project. In the meantime, preliminary preparations for groundbreaking will begin, and the Mojave Desert will continue its radical transformation into an energy production zone.