Environmental Impacts Slow Big Solar Project

By Published On: June 12, 2009

The proposed 400 MW Ivanpah solar energy project cuts to the heart of how state and federal officials balance the shift to renewable energy with its impacts on the fragile desert environment in what is characterized by some as a new “California land rush.” Regulators’ goal for Ivanpah should be to balance the public interest by thoroughly reviewing all the studies related to the project, said California Energy Commission member Jeffrey Byron. The energy industry, its regulators and environmentalists believe that government decisions on Ivanpah may set the parameters on environmental analysis and mitigation for 67 other big solar projects proposed on federal land that would cover more than 930 square miles in California. The commission and the federal Bureau of Land Management both must approve the project, which would be built on federal land in the Mojave Desert along Interstate 15 on the California side of the Nevada state line. “The nature of this project is such that it is quite complicated; and because it is complicated, and because it is so big, the nature of the analysis that underlies the staff’s environmental assessment continues to change,” said CEC staff counsel Dick Ratliff. Moreover, he noted that the developer has filed “several revisions to significant aspects of the project.” Meanwhile, Ivanpah’s developer, Solar Partners LLC, wants quick action on the project. “Who decides enough is enough,” asked project attorney Jeffrey Harris last month in a filing with the California Energy Commission. The commission continues to pepper the company with questions and data requests more than a year-and-half after Solar Partners applied for a license to build the plant. But some environmentalists question whether the project should be built at all. “It’s enormous,” said Jim Harvey, Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy executive director in the high desert community of Joshua Tree. “They come in and level the area.” Ivanpah would occupy 6.4 square miles largely covered with mirrors aimed at three power towers as tall as 50 story skyscrapers on the desolate desert road to Vegas. Mirrors on the ground would reflect sunlight onto boilers in the towers to produce steam and spin electric turbines. BrightSource Energy--the driving force behind the project--is set to market the power produced by the plant. It entered an agreement last month to supply power from Ivanpah to Pacific Gas & Electric. Ivanpah would feed its power into the grid through a nearby substation operated by Southern California Edison. That utility also has an agreement with BrightSource to buy energy. Utilities seek to purchase solar and other forms of green power to meet the state’s 20 percent renewable portfolio standard. They also are under the gun to cut greenhouse gases under the state’s climate protection law, AB 32. State and federal officials are struggling to understand the environmental impacts of the project--from how water drainage could change in an area normally dry but prone to flash floods, to how endangered species like the desert tortoise could be affected. At the same time, facing a 2010 deadline for breaking ground in order to obtain federal economic stimulus money that could make or break the economics of the proposed plant, Solar Partners is pressing regulators for quick action. “The lengthy permitting delays faced by renewable projects increase the cost of renewable energy by adding tens of millions of dollars in unnecessary permitting costs,” Harris told the commission. This drives up construction costs due to inflation, delays the promise of green jobs, and prevents the state from reaching its renewable energy goals, he complained. The dispute over the permit schedule broke into the open last month after the company pressed the commission and BLM to split the period for filing public comments to the federal and state agency even though they are producing a joint environmental analysis document. In response, CEC associate public advisor Loreen McMahon warned April 28 that splitting the comment period for the two agencies could “impede public participation” by sowing confusion. That would cause the commission and the bureau “to look disingenuous in the eyes of the public,” she warned, “particularly when it would create two different schedules for comments on a single document.” The commission’s preliminary assessment of Ivanpah said that its tall power towers would create a visual impact that could not be mitigated. Grading the large land area would threaten a number of protected species of wildlife, including golden eagles, badgers, and plants. The company’s proposal to mitigate the loss of wildlife habitat by acquiring and enhancing 4,065 acres of desert land elsewhere “would be insufficient,” CEC’s staff concluded. It’s uncertain how the impacts can be mitigated when big solar projects are built on desert land, said Ileene Anderson, Center for Biological Diversity public lands director. The scale of the projects is so big that there may not be enough suitable private land available for developers to acquire to offset impacts, she said. That is why the center and some other environmental groups favor locating big solar projects on old farmland in the desert that already has been disturbed, rather than on pristine public land. However, the company told the commission in its initial application that alternative locations would not have ready access to transmission lines like the proposed location. Running lines would create additional impacts on the land, the developer maintained. It would raise the cost too.

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