Desert Solar Bumps Against Limits

By Published On: May 8, 2009

Only a fraction of the dozens of large solar energy proposals slated for the California desert are expected to be built, according to government representatives. Those that are constructed may not be able to mitigate the impact the development is expected to have on public lands. To date, the Bureau of Land Management has received 66 applications for large-scale solar projects on tens of thousands of acres it manages in the state. The projects, some which count towards California’s 20 percent renewable energy portfolio mandate, are coming up against limitations of the public agencies’ parameters. Renewable project developers hope to site their projects on public lands in the Mojave and Colorado deserts “This is a new and big thing for the BLM,” Ashley Conrad-Saydah, BLM renewable energy project manager agency, told Power Association of Northern California members May 4. The federal agency oversees public lands in the West but allows private development, ranging from mining--including uranium prospecting, grazing, recreational uses--to a few renewable energy projects to date. The largest alternative energy proposal in the queue is a 1,000 MW solar thermal project by Boulevard Associates that would affect 35,000 acres in the desert. The smallest solar project on public lands in California, a 40 MW photovoltaic project by Chevron Energy Solutions, would cover 367 acres. Other companies seeking permits for solar farms in the desert include FPL Energy, the French firm EnXco, Solel, the Spanish company Iberdrola, PG&E, Sempra Generation and Stirling Energy Systems (see story below). Several federal, state, and local agencies are involved in the permitting process. A major issue for public land and conservation managers is a predicted inability to mitigate these projects’ possible impacts on wildlife, habitat and other resources. This is due to the immense swaths of land at stake. Agency representatives were unable to provide specifics of potential impacts, be it environmental or cultural, because part of the land at issue is under-surveyed or not yet surveyed. Typically, compensatory lands are set aside for conservation to ameliorate a project’s impact. The amount of land set aside depends on whether the parcel designated for development is already disturbed or rich in resources. It can be one acre set aside for one acre disturbed, or up to five acres to one. “The better the resources, the higher the mitigation,” said BLM’s Conrad-Saydeh. All agree there is not sufficient public land to offset the environmental and other impacts of the solar projects. “The challenge is using old tools for new uses,” said Kevin Hunting, California Department of Fish & Game deputy director. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) proposed protecting part of the Mojave Desert with environmental legislation. Her measure would provide some mitigation, said Hunting. The senator, however, has yet to introduce legislation to create a National Monument in part of the Mojave that would prohibit development. Its geographic boundaries are not yet known. “I’m a strong supporter of renewable energy and clean technology--but it is critical that these projects are built on sustainable lands,” Feinstein stated (Circuit, March 27, 2009). BLM’s draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), released in May 2008 to help federal land managers get their arms around the unprecedented flood of applications for large-scale solar projects in the deserts in the Southwest, is expected to be modified. In place of its original focus on western states, it would concentrate on solar zones, according to Conrad-Saydah. The Solar EIS seeks to assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts associated with solar energy development on BLM-managed public land in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. An impact statement details a wide range of possible environmental impacts and project alternatives. Fish & Game is working on developing a conservation plan for the desert. The plan aims to identify conservation areas to protect dwindling species. It also expects to spot regions suitable for renewable energy and transmission projects. Solar power project permitting is expected to go forward while the federal EIS and state conservation plans are being developed.

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now