Seeking to preserve 600,000 acres of pristine desert land in Southern California for public use, the Wildlands Conservancy raised $40million to buy the land and transfer it to federal stewardship.
The effort, between 1999 and 2002, included a huge swath through the Ivanpah area in northeast San Bernardino County to protect it from development.
Now the Oak Glen-based conservancy is watching as developers line up to turn an area that has never seen a bulldozer’sblade into immense wind and solar farms.
The land is now administered by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, and if the conservancy knew then what it knows now, things definitely would have been done differently, said one conservancy official.
About 130 applications for solar and wind energy developments in the nation are being reviewed by the BLM.
The public comment period for a special environmental report called the Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement has been extended until May 2.
The document assesses “the environmental, social and economic impacts associated with solar energy developments on lands managed by the BLM in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah,” a bureau spokesman said. No public meetings will be held during the extended public comment period.
A bureau spokesman said information on filing a comment can be found at http://solareis.anl.gov.
While environmentalists are all for renewable energy, they aren’t thrilled about the potential toll the industry could take on land they hoped would remain pristine desert.
“There are going to be lots of lawsuits,” predicted April Sall, conservation director for the Wildlife Conservancy.
But she said the conservancy has no such plans.
“First of all,” Sall said, “we are very supportive of renewal of energy.”
According to BLM statistics, three solar projects have been approved in San Bernardino County and five are pending.
BrightSource Solar Energy’s 3,600-acre three-phase Ivanpah project, one of the approved projects, is furthest along.
BrightSource said it has finalized $1.6billion in loans guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Energy. The company also has said Google will join NRG Solar LLC and BrightSource as an equity investor in the project by making a $168million investment.
Access roads and other work has been completed and the foundation for the first tower for power generation is being constructed.
When completed, BrightSource said, the project will double solar energy production in the nation. The garage-door-sized mirrors for the project will be built at the site and mounted on steel posts.
Sall is disappointed at the BLM’s approach to such projects.
“This is a really big issue,” Sall said. “The energy sources should be closer to population centers and transmission lines.”
She deplored access roads and long transmission lines across pristine land. She prefers to see sites closer to desert cities like Barstow where power consumers are.
Sall said about half of the 600,000 acres her organization obtained from Catellus, a company formed from the real estate arm of the former Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroads, would be protected from development. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar voiced the Obama administration’s desire for job creation and new energy sources.
In a statement, he said “Renewable energy is a key part of keeping America competitive, creating jobs and winning the future for our children.”
“…We have a responsibility to ensure that solar, wind and geothermal projects are built in the right way and in the right places so they protect our natural and cultural resources and balance the needs of our wildlife.”
But Sall and other environmentalists criticized Washington for seeking large-scale, or “utility-sized,” projects.
Solar and wind projects can be small enough to power a single home or medium-sized to power a factory or a large commercial business. Utility-size is on the scale of coal, gas or nuclear generating power plants that can light a whole city.
“This (the desert) is a very fragile ecosystem,” Sall said. “It takes hundreds of years to recover from what they will have to go through.”
“Washington needs to step back and come up with a new program. There is a solution, a kind of win-win, but it’s not in their plans.”
She called it mid-scale vs. utility scale, something the BLM, so far, has been unwilling to consider. In her words, mid-scale would be 500- to 2,500-acre sites that have already been disturbed for other purposes. The animals on those spots have already suffered or been driven away.
Sall said 200,000 acres of such land has already been found, that the owners are willing sellers “and it’s right on the transmission lines.”
Alternative energy developers don’t see themselves as the villains in this scenario.
Developers “don’t want to pave the desert,” said Shannon Eddy, a spokeswoman for the Large-Scale Solar Association, a solar energy trade group.
“These guys are risk-averse. They want the same consideration as everyone else. We have shared goals (with environmentalists).”
Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, another trade group, pointed to the need for renewable energy sources.
“We have to have nearly a third of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 in a way that is affordable,” she said, “and we are not going to meet those goals from rooftop solar.
“There’s a lot of land (in the Southern California desert) where there would be relatively low impact (from wind farms),” Rader said. “We’ve spent millions on environmental studies.”
Ileene Anderson, public lands deserts director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said her organization supports renewable energy programs.
“It’s important and we need it and there are suitable places,” she said.
She too would like to see solar and wind farms on disturbed land.
“We would also see the benefits of taxes for local governments,” Anderson said.
When developers build on private land, they pay taxes on that land, the transmission lines and the generating equipment just as any other property owner would on land and improvements, whether commercial or individual, she said. On federal lands, any fees paid by the developer go to the U.S. Treasury.
Sall wants the federal government to switch gears on its approach to solar and wind energy projects.
“We need to get on a new path,” she said.”We need direction and it needs to come from Washington. They set the bar from the consumers standpoint, the environmental standpoint and the industry standpoint.”
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