Energy & Environment

Interior moving forward with contentious desert solar projects

Patrick Donnelly-Shores

On February 19th, the Department of Interior announced that it had approved two utility-scale solar projects in the Mojave Desert: Silver State South Solar Project and Stateline Solar Farm Project. The two projects, which have already generated significant controversy, straddle the California/Nevada border in the remote Ivanpah Valley, and will combine to provide 550 MW of energy, enough to power 170,000 homes.

Aerial Views Of First Solar's Desert Sunlight Solar Farm

Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, located about 200 miles south of the Ivanpah Valley, is a similar project (employing photovoltaic technology) to the two proposed projects described here.

The Ivanpah Valley is no stranger to utility-scale solar, as it is home to the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Station. Ivanpah SEGS, the world’s largest solar plant, has been embroiled in an environmental scandal, due to significant impacts to the threatened desert tortoise associated with the plant’s construction. It has been at the epicenter of a “green vs. green” battle, with large, national environmental groups vocally supporting large-scale desert solar projects, while local, desert-based environmentalists have large concerns over impacts to wildlife and habitat.

The approval of Stateline and Silver State South is curious. The Bureau of Land Management, who manages the land these facilities are to be sited on, has a formal planning process for solar energy. This process was implemented through the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (PEIS). The PEIS is an enormous document, tens of thousands of pages long, analyzing the various environmental impacts which would be associated with solar development in several identified Solar Energy Zones (SEZs), where solar energy development would be prioritized.

The Ivanpah Valley was not one of these zones. While solar energy development is permitted outside the SEZs, it is curious that BLM would be seemingly prioritizing development in the Ivanpah Valley, without having examined the impacts of turning it into a de facto solar energy zone. As depicted on the map below, courtesy of Shawn Gonzalez at the Mojave Desert Blog, the Ivanpah Valley, a wide open stretch of desert about an hour south of Laz Vegas, is rapidly industrializing.

The Ivanpah Valley. The already operational Ivanpah SEGS can be seen on the left. The two recently approved plants, Stateline and Silver State South, are in the center and on the right respectively. Map courtesy of Shawn Gonzalez, mojavedesertblog.com

The Ivanpah Valley. The already operational Ivanpah SEGS can be seen on the left. The two recently approved plants, Stateline and Silver State South, are in the center and on the right respectively. Map courtesy of Shawn Gonzalez, mojavedesertblog.com

Environmentalists have already begun to fight the projects. Last November, the national environmental group Defenders of Wildlife filed a notice of intent to sue the government over Silver State South, citing viotlations of the Endangered Species Act, which the desert tortoise is protected under. Thousands of tortoises were displaced by the construction of the Ivanpah SEGS, and many died in translocation. The primary concern is that the Ivanpah Valley population of desert tortoises will lose habitat connectivity due to the projects, limiting genetic flow and thus species rigor for what is an already weakened population.

For their part, the project developer (First Solar) has already made substantial commitments to the tortoise, agreeing to a reduced project size from the initial proposal, 3:1 compensatory mitigation, and funding for a local Desert Tortoise Wildlife Management Area. These were all requirements for their permit to be approved, but environmentalists say that it’s not enough.

While litigation is pending against Silver State South, it would be unprecedented if it put a halt to the project. In the meantime, preliminary preparations for groundbreaking will begin, and the Mojave Desert will continue its radical transformation into an energy production zone.

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Comments to "Interior moving forward with contentious desert solar projects":
    • Nils Ohlson

      More support should be provided for installing solar panels on homes, offices, shading parking lots, and other already developed areas, before we further disrupt already severely threatened desert habitat. This includes allowing net-metering and tax subsidies for installation.

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    • sarah ali

      Yes, I agree with that The Ivanpah Valley was not one of these zones. While solar energy development is permitted outside the SEZs, it is curious that BLM would be seemingly prioritizing development in the Ivanpah Valley.

      [Report abuse]

    • sarah ali

      Ah yes, meanwhile, creating resource colonies to supply urban wants is destructive of wide swaths of virgin land and inimical to the concept of energy independence that urban areas should move toward. Each person who is supportive of these industrial solar nightmares should really have to dispatch a tortoise directly, and then see how they feel.

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    • Fiat Justitia

      Support of industrial-scale solar and wind sites typify the “Kill It to Save It” mentality of people who want limitless access to electrical energy and who try to downplay the inevitable effect on all types of desert species when the ground is excoriated, and sprayed with sealants and herbicides, as is done with solar PV installations. The habitat destruction is self-evident, but plenty of data has been presented in the lawsuits by organizations like Center for Biological Diversity.

      We rural dwellers who live in the glorious California deserts decry the desecration of these landscapes, especially to provide power for vapid and meaningless cell phone conversations and endless proliferation of devices that rely on electrical power. When will this culture wake up to the concept of limits? Self-control of consumption doesn’t seem to be on the radar screen of America.

      Meanwhile, creating resource colonies to supply urban wants is destructive of wide swaths of virgin land and inimical to the concept of energy independence that urban areas should move toward. Each person who is supportive of these industrial solar nightmares should really have to dispatch a tortoise directly, and then see how they feel.

      The rampant disconnect from nature leads to a dangerous hubris, and will be the thing that condemns other species, along with unhindered human population growth.

      [Report abuse]

    • Paul Starrs

      An interesting argument, but I do wonder about some of the details.

      First of all, “Laz Vegas” — REALLY, Patrick??? Second, the Mojave Desert Blog (which you cite) says the total area involved is 6.7 square miles, which adds up to 4000 acres, more or less. I am having an incredibly difficult time believing that, given all the published data on desert tortoise population density that I’ve encountered, there were “thousands of tortoises displaced … ” by the construction at Ivanpah.

      Concern is one thing, and like any reasonable person, I share your worry about the potential effects on habitat. But I worry about the data (and accuracy) of what you’re presenting; seems to me that we’re getting into the same territory where Mike Davis blundered in City of Quartz: “Truth isn’t required when the radical project is at work.” Maybe a few more numbers, and backup, would be worthwhile?

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