Friday, February 12, 2010

To Build or Not to Build? What's With the Stalled Solar Project in Ivanpah?

While we in Nevada are moving to snatch more solar power projects and have them built in our state, something interesting is occurring just across the state line from Primm. Why is the Ivanpah solar power project suddenly in jeopardy?

San Bernardino County’s Board of Supervisors filed a formal objection Thursday to the Ivanpah Solar project planned for 4,000 acres of federal land about 5 miles south of the Primm Golf Course. Officials complained the solar plant would financially harm the county, reduce the quality of life and not provide enough jobs for San Bernardino residents.

Because California gives tax breaks to solar developers, the county won’t get much revenue from the project. The land and mirrors that the plant would use are exempt. At best, the county could get some revenue from the tower used to generate steam for electricity and outbuildings, says Andy Silva, spokesman for county Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, an outspoken opponent of the project.

Although the plant is expected to create about 1,000 short-term construction jobs and about 85 long-term jobs, most of the workers are expected to come from Las Vegas and Primm, so most of the $250 million in wages would be spent in Nevada. The California town closest to the site is Baker. It’s about the same distance from the site as Las Vegas is, but with Baker’s population of about 1,000, it’s unlikely many would fit the bill for jobs at the plant.

San Bernardino County also would lose property tax revenue because of mitigation requirements.

The plant’s developer, BrightSource Energy, has agreed to purchase 12,000 acres in the county and turn them over to the federal government to offset the loss of desert habitat caused by its development. This would cause the county to lose the land’s tax revenue. Economic growth would be limited because the land would be off-limits to development.

The county is still trying to put a number on its projected net loss, Silva says.

OK, so San Bernardino County doesn't want to lose out on tax revenue and job creation. They just can't let us in Southern Nevada catch a break.

But wait, is there something more to it? Yes, there must be. There has to be. So what is it?

A tortoise? Really?

BrightSource Energy on Thursday plans to submit a new design to regulators that shrinks the size of the 4,000-acre Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Station by 12 percent, reducing the number of desert tortoises that must be relocated and avoiding an area of rare plants.

The portion of the project that would most affect wildlife will be cut by 23 percent. The power plant’s electricity generation would fall from 440 megawatts to 392 megawatts. [...]

“I want to make clear to everybody that this is an extremely important project,” Jeffrey Byron, a member of the California Energy Commission, said at a Jan. 11 hearing on the Ivanpah solar farm. “This represents the first of what we hope will be many renewable projects that will come before the energy commission.”

Environmental groups said BrightSource’s proposal was a step in the right direction but did not resolve their concerns.

“Looking at this new proposal, it will not do anything to protect the desert tortoise and they won’t be able to generate as many megawatts,” said Gloria D. Smith, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club in San Francisco. “We still support this project but just want it to have a more beneficial footprint.”

The Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife have proposed that the power plant be relocated to land less suitable as desert tortoise habitat.

“This reconfiguration is pretty minimal from what we’ve seen, and it hasn’t really addressed the core issues on the impact on desert tortoise and rare plants,” said Joshua Basofin, the California representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

The Mojave Desert Tortoise is a threatened species who has struggled with all the recent suburban and exurban expansion of Greater Las Vegas, as well as growth in California's Mojave communities. Disease, invasive plant species, and human vandalism have also been major threats to these tortoises that have otherwise been able to survive the extreme weather of The Mojave quite well (by digging underground burrows to escape the intense summer heat and winter cold). But now, The Mojave Desert Tortoise faces a new threat to its habitat and its very existence: California's, Nevada's, and Arizona's rush to cash in on "The Green Revolution" and "Solar Madness".

Ironically, the movement to build more solar plants and clean energy infrastructure to save the planet from the climate crisis hasn't been too careful lately in stomping its way into The Mojave's fragile ecosystem.

Environmental reporter Tedd Woody recently wrote for Yale University's Environment 360 about the Ivanpah controversy and the larger question of how to develop massive solar energy projects in The Mojave.

The Mojave has become a metaphor for an existential crisis in the environmental movement as it tries to balance the development of renewable energy with its traditional mission to protect ecosystems. In For some, the desert is untouchable; for others, it’s a resource to be tapped. recent years, the movement’s focus on wildlife, habitat preservation, and pollution has been eclipsed by the climate change imperative. National groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club have joined with the more forward-looking members of the Fortune 500 to push cap-and-trade legislation and other climate-change initiatives and to promote alternative energy.

These disparate interests also have worked together to identify suitable areas to build large-scale solar farms. Over the past few years, Goldman Sachs, utility giants Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and FLP Group, and a slew of Silicon Valley-backed startups have filed applications to build solar power plants on hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land in California’s Mojave Desert and across the desert Southwest.

Indeed, environmental groups like Sierra Club have recently been working with these developers and the State of California to build more solar plants. In the very comments of the story I just linked to, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope suggests that perhaps we don't have to choose either more solar power or an intact Mojave ecosystem. Perhaps if we pursue the right balance of conservation and development, we can have both.

This is a transition period. Many people are responding with anxiety because there are many uncertainties about how this move to site large scale renewables will develop, and the rules of the game are being written while it’s already in play. It's understandable that project developers who were encouraged by government agencies to apply for particular sites resent discovering that those sites were not, as promised, environmentally appropriate. It's equally understandable that citizens who have dedicated their lives to protecting a pristine landscape are upset when inappropriately located solar projects are proposed in their midst, without a proper public involvement or planning process. But our response, along with numerous other environmental groups in California, is to work with solar generators, and with federal and state agencies, to analyze all current solar projects in the Mojave desert and encourage changes wherever possible to minimize environmental impacts. We are also engaged with all these players in developing a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which will identify zones appropriate for energy development as well as those that must be preserved for their habitat value to guide siting decisions moving forward.

America and California didn't get this instantly right. We need to get it right. But getting it right is not a matter of one side winning or losing, or even having to accept dubious compromises. It's about doing thoughtful planning, careful review, and state of the art design. It's about mitigating the impacts that can't be avoided -- because all energy sources have environmental impacts. And above all it’s about realizing that moving rapidly to reduce our dependence on coal and oil is helped, not hindered, by doing renewable development carefully -- sloppiness only helps the dirty energy sources of the past maintain their monopoly. And limiting or hampering the ambition of our renewable energy vision harms, rather than protects, our fragile landscapes -- because coal and oil development do far more damage than solar or wind, and their damage is much harder, or impossible, to avoid.

So ultimately, Carl Pope is correct. When President Bush first pushed legislation in 2005 to open pretty much the entire Desert Southwest to all sorts of new energy developments, he obviously didn't really think it through. And when California, Nevada, and Arizona started passing their own legislation to build more solar plants, they weren't really thinking about how best to do so while still preserving the awesome beauty of The Great Mojave.

However, we now have this chance. California is learning as it goes along, and we in Nevada should pay attention and learn these lessons as well. After all, we just saw the recent controversy over water use at the proposed Solar Millennium project in Amargosa Valley. And even now that Solar Millennium will use "dry cooling" technology in its plant, Basin and Range Watch is still casting a critical eye on the project.

We have to find a way for solar and wind power to co-exist in our desert with "the natives". There are farmers concerned about the water. There are threatened and endangered plant and animal species worth saving. There are desert explorers that still want to travel to these enchanted lands. Our state and federal governments need to keep the lines of communication open to all the players involved (energy companies, environmentalists, and locals), and we need a comprehensive plan that opens up Nevada to "The Clean Energy Revolution" while still protecting the desert that we so love.

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