Shortcuts in solar siting decisions take a toll on the environment

There has been a rush in recent years to develop utility-scale solar power in the Mojave Desert in southeast California.  Spurred on by cash grants from the Department of Energy, and by the energy-minded Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has been flooded with applications to develop new solar power plants in the desert.  These projects have been under intense scrutiny from the very beginning, with groups like Solar Done Right and the Desert Protective Council (amongst many others), sounding the alarm about significant environmental concerns associated with these developments.

Only recently have a few of these projects begun construction, and some of the environmental community’s concerns have proven justified.  In January, Chris Clarke of KCET broke a story (caution: link contains pictures of cute, dead animals) about the mysterious death of a number of desert kit foxes (Vulpes macrotis ssp. arsipus) near the construction site of the Genesis Solar Energy Project in the Chuckwalla Valley, located on BLM land halfway between Palm Springs and the Arizona border.

The Department of Fish & Game is investigating, but apparently the foxes were dying of “distemper,” a disease which had never before been observed in desert kit foxes.  The kit fox is an important top-level predator in desert ecosystems and is perhaps the most visible sign of the distress that desert ecosystems will come under during the transformation of a formerly wild area to an energy production facility.  The result of these findings has been the halting of construction on a significant portion of the facility while the investigation continues.

The desert kit fox story is troubling, but far more significant is the plight of the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizi).  Listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as “threatened,” the tortoise has experienced declining population numbers throughout the 20th century, and has been the most high-profile species in the desert for decades.  Two weeks ago, the LA Times published an article detailing the extreme costs and regulatory issues surrounding BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Generating Station and the tortoises that live there.

BrightSource has already spent $56 million on tortoise relocation and protection, and even that has not been enough to prevent the $2.2 billion project from being put on hold while its environmental review is re-done.  According to the Times, there are far more tortoises on site than initially claimed, and they have been variously crushed under vehicle tires, attacked in relocation pens by army ants, even carried away by eagles because they were forced out of their dens by construction.

This isn’t to say that utility-scale solar energy is unequivocally bad for the environment.  There have been recent plans floated to direct siting of projects onto abandoned agricultural lands or land which is otherwise already degraded (see my post from last week for more on this).  Ethan Elkind, the Bank of America Climate Policy Associate at UC Berkeley Law, wrote a white paper called “Harvesting Clean Energy,” detailing the policy mechanisms and actions needed to promote such policies in California.

Thoughtful policies such as these are an alternative to the current BLM policy.  Projects which were rushed through the environmental review process in an attempt to collect stimulus money have had significant negative environmental effects, which ultimately have resulted in slower outcomes.  The case of Wyoming, where mule deer populations have fallen by over 50% in oil drilling areas should show us that sacrificing a landscape in the name of expedient energy production can have dire consequences.  If the US wants to make utility-scale solar a viable method of energy production, the projects need to be sited in the right places and evaluated in a thorough and comprehensive fashion.

(Next week, we’ll examine some of the issues with Native American groups and solar energy in the desert)