WASHINGTON – Rivaling the Sahara Desert in solar intensity, California’s Mojave Desert is again attracting plans for industrial-scale solar and wind projects on pristine public land near Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, two of the largest parks in the Lower 48 states.
The proposals are drawing fire from area residents and a prominent conservation group. Two of the projects would lie outside areas known as “solar zones” that were set up last fall by the Obama administration to keep undisturbed land out of bounds for sprawling solar energy plants.
Both are billed by their developers as aligned with President Obama’s plan to slow climate change by boosting renewable energy.
One of them calls for a 15,000-acre wind and solar plant that would cover a significant portion of the Silurian Valley south of Death Valley. Another would build a 3,000-acre solar plant a quarter mile from the Mojave National Preserve.
‘It’s just inappropriate’
The Silurian Valley is “essentially an unspoiled place,” said Brian Brown, owner of a date farm, whose family moved there in 1903. “It’s big and remote. There are literally no structures anywhere in it, and it has a completely unobstructed 360-degree view all the way around.”
Brown said plans by Iberdrola Renewables, a Spanish wind developer, would install giant wind turbines with 500-fot blades, served by a checkerboard of new dirt roads, on 7,000 acres. The solar plant would cover 8,000 acres.
“It’s just inappropriate to plunk down this giant industrial zone at that location,” Brown said. “If it were a forest, people wouldn’t consider turning over 15,000 acres of public lands to a private company for use for profit. If it were a seashore, I’m quite sure that wouldn’t happen either.
“But since it’s the desert … there’s still an attitude that it’s just a big empty place, a big wasteland – so let’s do whatever needs doing,” Brown said.
Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman cited Obama’s plan as reason to move ahead in the Silurian Valley. In an e-mail, he said two year’s of environmental studies show the area “largely free of the environmental challenges that perhaps other areas of The Mojave pose.”
“Those who sincerely care about the fate of birds and wildlife know that climate change is the greatest threat,” Copleman said, “and if you wan to mitigate climate change while keeping the lights on, responsibly sited wind and solar power is your best answer.”
Close to preserve
The second proposal coming under fire is Bechtel’s Soda Mountain project, about a quarter mile from the Mojave National Preserve.
Its location is a “horrible place” for a solar plant and would destroy views and hamper efforts to restore a bighorn sheep migration corridor severed by Interstate 15, said David Lamfrom, California Desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, an environmental group based in Washington.
Bechtel said the project is “sited within a federal transmission corridor which also contains a freeway, roads, mines, pipelines, a cell tower and telephone lines, and which has been permitted for a proposed high-speed rail line.” The site “has a low incidence of sensitive wildlife species,” the company added.
Politicians are not rushing into the debate over the proposed energy developments.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. who blocked some solar plants in the Mojave several years ago, is not including the proposed sites in her legislation to expand protected areas in the California Desert Protection Act of 1994 by more than 1 million acres.
As part of his climate-change plan, Obama announced last month a goal of doubling by 2020 the amount of renewable energy on federal land. The administration touted its approval of 25 “utility-scale solar energy projects on public lands.”
These include the 3,500-acre Ivanpah solar plant by Oakland’s BrightSource energy in the Ivanpah Valley off Interstate 10 near the Nevada border. Expected to switch on its power soon, the plant raised alarm when more endangered desert tortoises were found on the site than were expected.
Last week, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the Ivanpah plant to highlight how solar energy is “paving the way for the future.”
Solar plants also essentially pave the land they are built on, scraping the ground all but bare under miles of photovoltaic panels. Some solar industry executives have acknowledged that mistakes were made in the “solar gold rush” that followed Obama’s 2009 stimulus program that subsidized renewables.
Dozens of applications were submitted to build plants on undeveloped desert land, and some, like Ivanpah, were built. “It was basically a runaway train,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with Center for Biological Diversity, a San Francisco environmental group.
Several national environmental groups supported the Ivanpah plant and have steered clear of conflicts between desert conservation and renewable energy in the focus on climate change.
“Climate change is going to require us to move to much larger percentages of renewable energy,” said Barbara Boyle, a senior campaign representative at the Sierra Club, which is organizing a “My Generation” campaign in California to promote rooftop solar panels on homes and businesses.
Boyle said utility-scale solar plants are needed, but should be located on degraded farmland in the Central Valley and Imperial County, which is raising hackles among farming groups. “The large-scale projects must be sited very, very carefully,” she said.
Feinstein pressured the White House to create a zoning system, completed in October, that would nudge renewable energy to disturbed lands. She forced solar developers out of a large stretch of land south of the Mojave National Preserve by introducing a new Mojave Trails National Monument as part of her proposed expansion of the California Desert Protection Act.
The zoning plan streamlines environmental review for plants inside the 17 zones covering 285,000 acres in the West, mostly in California.
The state has two zones, with the largest spanning 147,910 acres in eastern Riverside County near Palm Springs, and another near El Centro (Imperial County) that covers 5,717 acres near the Mexican border.
The plan ruled out some areas as “completely inappropriate,” said Bureau of Land Management spokesman David Quick. But other places outside the zones, like the Silurian Valley, remain open to development, albeit with a lengthier environmental review.
“It’s just a fact that in the Mojave desert, the places that are undisturbed, that have uncluttered landscapes, are going away,” desert date farmer Brown said. “There just aren’t that many of them left.”
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