The Bureau of Land Management rejected a controversial solar project near Death Valley National Park on Thursday, giving hope to environmentalists that regulators will keep renewable energy development away from the most sensitive parts of the desert.
The 200-megawatt Silurian solar farm would have been built along Highway 127, which connects Death Valley National Park with the Mojave National Preserve. A separate proposal for a 200-megawatt wind farm in the same part of the Silurian Valley is still under consideration.
Environmental groups have staunchly opposed both projects, saying they would interrupt undisturbed desert landscapes and impact several threatened species, including desert tortoises and golden eagles. Barbara Boyle, a senior representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, cheered regulators’ decision to reject the proposed solar farm.
“This is a location that is right between two national parks. It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Boyle said. “It’s an incredible landscape that is very special, and it does have historical significance, and it’s important for wildlife.”
The decision to reject the project was made by Jim Kenna, director of the federal Bureau of Land Management’s California branch. Kenna told The Desert Sun the Silurian Valley’s biological, cultural, recreational and scenic values factored into his decision.
Kenna noted that a key segment of the Old Spanish Trail, a trade route that once connected present-day Santa Fe and Los Angeles, runs through the Silurian Valley. Tourists visiting the trail in that area, Kenna said, would have seen a large solar project rather than open desert.
“They’d be adversely affected,” he said. “Can you mitigate that? I’d say in a valley that’s that undisturbed, surrounded by wilderness areas and the park units – that’s hard to mitigate, and probably not realistic.”
Despite those remarks, Kenna said it was too early to predict how the Bureau of Land Management would rule on the proposed wind farm, which is still going through the application process. Both projects were proposed by a Spanish energy company, Iberdrola Renewables.
Iberdrola spokesman Art Sasse said in an email that the company is weighing whether to appeal Kenna’s decision, which “has clearly not taken into account the vast amount of site-specific information that we have submitted over multiple years of prudent development.”
The Silurian solar project is the first proposal to go through the Bureau of Land Management’s “variance” process, which allows developers to propose solar farms outside of federally designated “solar energy zones.” Regulators intended for those solar zones to encompass the areas most appropriate for large-scale development, but they left the door open for developers to propose projects elsewhere.
Boyle called the Silurian Valley “clearly not the kind of low-impact area that was in mind when they put this variance process together.”
“This is certainly a very positive signal that the (Bureau of Land Management) is taking into account the higher bar that needs to be set for variance applications, and that it’s committed to protecting the kind of special resources we have in areas like Silurian.”
The federal solar zones will soon be replaced by the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan as the overarching framework for siting solar plants – and other renewable energy projects – across 22.5 million acres of California desert. That plan, which is currently going through a public comment period, would encourage renewable energy development in some areas and designate others for conservation or recreation. It would also include several variance zones.
Some environmental advocates are optimistic that regulators’ decision to reject the Silurian solar project means they’re serious about protecting valuable landscapes from energy development. David Lamfrom – who works at the National Parks Conservation Association’s California Desert Program – said regulators “took a big step forward in re-establishing the trust associated with making the landscape-level decisions that they want to make.”
“I think they’ve sent the right message – that basically, projects don’t get a green light if they’re in a red-light location,” he said. “And that’s a really good sign.”
Kenna cautioned against reading too much into his decision, emphasizing that he was looking at a specific project and not “a general question about renewable energy, or a general question about conservation.”
“It was an important decision, and it was important to me that it be rigorous, fact-based, and about a particular place and particular project,” Kenna said.
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