Oakland Invades the Desert 

Four East Bay companies are leading the rush to develop utility-scale solar power. But some environmentalists suggest there's a big price to pay.

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Ileene Anderson, biologist and public lands deserts director for the Center for Biological Diversity, feels similarly: "When we saw this wall of projects that were encroaching on public lands that were undisturbed, we asked the developers if they could move their projects onto disturbed private lands." What she heard in response, she said, was resounding silence.

The reason lies at the bottom line. "A lot of the siting is more dependent on economic factors," said the Bureau of Land Management's Pogacnik. And perhaps the most important economic factor is the proximity of suitable transmission lines, which are in relatively limited supply throughout the state and can be extremely expensive and time-consuming to build. Transmission-line costs can in fact outweigh the cost of the plant itself. That's why FirstSolar and BrightSource chose to build in the Ivanpah Valley, even if its habitat is relatively intact: Transmission lines literally loom over both sites. And that saves money. Granted, the financial motive works both ways: Environmental management and mitigation costs can make sensitive and unspoiled lands far more costly to develop. The result is a messy push-and-pull.

A massive document called the Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement was supposed to solve all this. The Bureau of Land Management and Department of Energy have been touting it since May 2008, and in June 2009 the former agency's Acting State Director Jim Abbott promised it to the House Natural Resources Committee by the end of the year. Nearly a year past his deadline, it still hasn't been released — though word is it will finally be available around December 15.

The document should provide developers and environmentalists a hefty 10,000 pages of guidance, including detailed maps showing where and where not to develop, plus preliminary site-specific environmental analyses. The report will ban development in some of the most environmentally sensitive areas while calling attention to degraded lands that are ideal for solar development. By the time it finally arrives, however, it'll be too late to alter the courses of the country's first generation of large-scale solar power plants.

The report also won't make up for the extensive gaps in our knowledge of desert ecosystems. "We never know if we've made the right decisions today based on what the environment's going to give us in the next thirty years," said Pogacnik. This applies to siting as much as to mitigation; populations move around, and the brief snapshots provided by environmental impact reports and pre-construction survey aren't necessarily accurate; they're just the best information available at the time. This is why, said Pogacnik, all mitigation efforts and environmental concerns such as wildlife populations and erosion at plant sites will be monitored on an ongoing basis. Yet mistakes made in a slow-moving ecosystem like the desert can have permanent effects.

It wasn't long ago that popular culture regarded the desert as an environmental wasteland, and our familiarity with many of its denizens remains relatively cursory. According to Anderson, four rare plants were identified at the BrightSource Ivanpah location that no one previously knew were there. On the site of a 664-megawatt Tessera project called Calico in the Mojave Desert, a survey turned up a greater density of desert tortoise than in designated conservation areas, plus a new plant species undescribed by science. At another proposed Tessera project site, a new population of endangered bighorn sheep was discovered.

Then there was the Solar Millennium site called Ridgecrest that was known to provide valuable habitat to the state-listed Mojave ground squirrel, found only in the western part of the desert. Solar Millennium had proposed half of its site on a Mojave ground squirrel conservation area, and instead of doing preliminary studies, was prepared to heavily mitigate its impacts on the squirrel. However, when surveys were finally conducted, a large, healthy, and "biologically picture-perfect" population of desert tortoise was discovered, Anderson said. For these reasons, the California Energy Commission denied the company's application; it's currently on hiatus, but not cancelled.

Anderson's colleague Kieran Suckling, meanwhile, has set his sights on another Solar Millennium project: Blythe, the 7,000-acre leviathan planned for Riverside County. Its siting is even worse than BrightSource's Ivanpah project, Suckling said, and environmental discoveries made there could be even more game-changing. "Blythe is a real problem," he said. "It's gonna run into a juggernaut of opposition."

From the perspective of environmentalists, the current outlook offers little in the way of practical solutions. For now, they've placed their hope in the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to provide developers strict guidelines on where to develop and where to avoid — what Sall called "solar goal areas" and "solar exclusionary areas."

In its absence, however, a coalition of ten environmental groups has drafted its own siting criteria and a detailed map identifying proposed new solar energy study areas. The map includes a total of 103 square miles on public land and another 211 privately owned. According to Sall, the Wildlands Conservancy has submitted the map to the Bureau of Land Management for consideration and discussed it individually with all of the major solar companies. However, the Bureau of Land Management has yet to adopt any official siting criteria, and none of the companies has adopted their recommendations, Sall said.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a longtime champion of the desert who helped establish Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Mojave National Preserve with her 1994 Desert Protection Act, has also gotten involved. She recently authored the California Desert Protection Act of 2010, which would set aside more than one million additional acres for conservation as well as streamline the process for evaluating solar energy proposals by fast-tracking only those sited on private land or disturbed public land, effectively leaving those proposed for pristine public lands out in the cold.

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