On Thursday, September 17, BrightSource formally announced that they are abandoning efforts to build a solar farm 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 thermal plants using heliostats to focus the sun on 200-foot towers creating high-pressure steam to run electric turbines. A day earlier, the L.A. Department of Water and Power dropped plans for “Green Path North” a transmission line project facing opposition from desert residents.
BrightSource applied to build on a small tract within a 600,000 acre preserve of federal lands in the Mohave Desert. The Wildlands Conservancy raised $40 million to purchase the land (former railroad lands) and then donated the property to the Department of the Interior for conservation and protection from development. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (Bush era) relaxed restrictions for solar development.
Environmentalists described 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).
The California Energy Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management are tracking 27 utility-scale solar projects in the California Desert Conservation District totaling 10,000+ MW of solar power. BrightSource is associated with 10 of the 27 proposed projects, with completion dates stretching well into the next decade. Construction on their Ivanpah Valley project could begin early next year. Map.
How will those projects address the conservation, environmental, and sustainability issues that are sure to be raised as those projects progress through the application process?
Few have seen the construction process for a solar power plant, or any large-scale power facility for that matter. Whether coal-fired or solar, the construction process starts with site clearing and grading. In many cases, specification calls for removal of top soil to “mineral earth”. “Clear and grub”, as it is called, serves several purposes: it places the facility on solid ground and removes vegetation that might interfere with layout and construction activities. Often, native contours are shaped and drainage swales are enhanced.
In the solar (and coal) power plants I’ve visited, the top soil and vegetation are seldom replaced and very little of the local ecosystem remains. The bare site provides easy access for maintenance, prevents shadowing from 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 on other 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 solar power sites from the 1990s might be repurposed. And there are military bases in the area with large tracts of unused land that might be swapped 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 solar areas in the world..” and went on to say that BLM review of land use is one 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, John White, with the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, said that setting aside 1 million acres in the eastern Mojave 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 delay that would be created by designation as a national monument, Department of Energy stimulus grants for projects of this type will expire (at the end of 2010.)
Reframing the question, perhaps the argument posed as ‘solar development vs conservation’ is the wrong approach. Perhaps the real issue is sustainable development of both solar energy and desert lands.
There is a fascinating engineering document in the Brightsource application for another project near Ivanpah. A computer rendering (by CH2MHill) of the proposed solar power plant shows that the completed project would follow the topographic contours of the site and the native vegetation undisturbed or, most likely, restored.
If the computer rendering is a true indication of the project intent and specification, then both parties to this dispute may have their answer: sustainable development of a small fraction of BLM lands.