BrightSource Debacle in the Desert: Can Solar Power, Conservation, and Sustainability Co-Exist?

On Thursday, September 17, BrightSourceformally announced that they are abandoning efforts to build a solarfarm on 5,000 acres of public land in the Mohave desert near Ludlow,California.  Though the announcement ended months of contentious – and at times, bitter – conflict between a well funded and well managed solar venture and a committed and respected conservation non-profit, the underlying issues are far from resolved.

The Mohave project was the first of three 200 MW solar thermalplants using heliostats to focus the sun on 200-foot towers creatinghigh-pressure steam to run electric turbines.  Aday earlier, the L.A. Department of Water and Power dropped plans for“Green Path North” a transmission line project facing opposition fromdesert residents.

BrightSource applied to build on a small tract within a 600,000 acrepreserve of federal lands in the Mohave Desert.  The WildlandsConservancy raised $40 million to purchase the land (former railroadlands) and then donated the property to the Department of the Interiorfor conservation and protection from development.  The Energy PolicyAct of 2005 (Bush era) relaxed restrictions for solar development.

Environmentalistsdescribed the area as “…one of the most beautiful vistas in the desert”and home to a large herd of about 200 bighorn sheep (Classified as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act). 

TheCalifornia Energy Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management aretracking 27 utility-scale solar projects in the California DesertConservation District totaling 10,000+ MW of solar power. BrightSource is associated with 10 of the 27 proposed projects, withcompletion dates stretching well into the next decade.  Construction ontheir Ivanpah Valley project could begin early next year.  Map. 

How will those projectsaddress the conservation, environmental, and sustainability issues thatare sure to be raised as those projects progress through theapplication process?

Few have seen the construction process for a solar power plant, orany large-scale power facility for that matter.  Whether coal-fired orsolar, the construction process starts with site clearing and grading. In many cases, specification calls for removal of top soil to “mineralearth”.  “Clear and grub”,as it is called, serves several purposes: it places the facility onsolid ground and removes vegetation that might interfere with layoutand construction activities.  Often, native contours are shaped anddrainage swales are enhanced.

In the solar (and coal)power plants I’ve visited, the top soil and vegetation are seldomreplaced and very little of the local ecosystem remains. The bare site provides easy access for maintenance, prevents shadowingfrom re-growth, and protection from wildfires so common to California.( In some wind conditions, 2? stubble can produce 15? flame lengths.)

Utility-scale solar will either address these issues voluntarily or be forced to into costly mitigation measures. 

eSolar has been praised by many,including David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy,for their use of “previously disturbed” lands – primarily farmland. Google-backed eSolar has spend $30 million to acquire such land. Still, some suggest that eSolar will eventually meet opposition onother environmental issues. 

Solar developers could consider other options.  Across the West, there are other disturbed and damaged tracts including abandoned mines, ore smelters, and even abandoned company towns.  Some still have high capacity transmission lines. Google’s server farm on the Columbia River was once the site of an aluminum smelter and chosen for its transmission capacity (and nearby hydroelectric). 

Several abandoned solarpower sites from the 1990s might be repurposed.  And there are militarybases in the area with large tracts of unused land that might beswapped for the Mohave area in dispute. 

But the solar industry is especially interested in the general area around the Ludlow site, especially the former railway land currently owned by Cattellus Development.   Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a stakeholder in BrightSource,told the New York Times: “This area is probably one of the best solarareas in the world..” and went on to say that BLM review of land use isone of the most transparent and thorough in the nation. 

US Senator Diane Feinstein opposes development of any kind in the area and is drafting a bill to designate 100,000 acres in question to be part of a new National Monument connecting Joshua Tree National Park to Mojave National Preserve.  The bill is said to set aside other sites for solar energy, but in that NYTimes piece, JohnWhite, with the Center for Energy Efficiency and RenewableTechnologies, said that setting aside 1 million acres in the easternMojave would mean “less land for solar than for off-road vehicles … in the very best land that has the highest solar radiation.”

During the policy delaythat would be created by designation as a national monument, Departmentof Energy stimulus grants for projects of this type will expire (at theend of 2010.)

Reframing the question,perhaps the argument posed as ’solar development vs conservation’ isthe wrong approach.  Perhaps the real issue is sustainable developmentof both solar energy and desert lands. 

There is a fascinating engineering document in the Brightsource application for another project near Ivanpah.  Acomputer rendering (by CH2MHill) of the proposed solar power plantshows that the completed project would follow the topographic contoursof the site and the native vegetation undisturbed or, most likely,restored. 

If the computer renderingis a true indication of the project intent and specification, then bothparties to this dispute may have their answer: sustainable developmentof a small fraction of BLM lands.



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