Group knocks fast-track for desert solar projects

A conservation group says the rush to develop large solar projects in the desert Southwest has endangered wildlife habitat and landscapes due to faulty reviews by state and federal agencies.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) released a report Sept. 18 calling for greater collaboration between state and federal officials, and other stakeholders.

The Obama administration has fast-tracked renewable energy development on public lands in the Southwest, which the NPCA says created shortcuts to thorough reviews and incomplete consideration of the projects’ impacts on habitat and landscapes around the national parks.

“We need to be vigilant about where we site industrial solar facilities, particularly where our national parks and fragile desert lands are involved,” said Guy DiDonato, Natural Resources Program Manager for NPCA’s Center for Park Research.

The new report, Solar Energy, National Parks, and Landscape Protection in the Desert Southwest, explores impacts to plants, wildlife, water sources, and scenic vistas for three currently approved solar facilities.

The federal government has thus far approved 11 solar projects on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in California, Arizona and Nevada. Applications for 77 other projects have been submitted for consideration in those states and New Mexico, according to the NPCA.

The U.S. Department of the Interior released its programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) over the summer to outline proposed final review process.  The PEIS is a good start, the NPCA says, but it does not go far enough to protect habitat, including its proposal to allow 19 million acres near national parks as developable solar energy zones.

The report is critical of three solar projects already under construction that underwent the fast-track review: Amargosa Farm Road Solar Energy plant near Death Valley National Park, now owned by solarhybrid; Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station close to Mojave National Preservation Area, developed by BrightSource Energy; and Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, beinfg developed by First Solar, practically abutting Joshua Tree National Park.

The 392-MW Ivanpah project near the Mojave National Preserve will destroy a large chunk of desert tortoise habitat, the NPCA said. The project’s footprint was reduced during environmental reviews to preserve some habitat, but not enough the group says.

Incidentally, former President Bill Clinton praised Ivanpah as an example of innovative technology and collaborative policies during his keynote speech at the recent Solar Power International conference in Orlando.

“The decision on this PEIS will impact the character of the southwestern landscape for decades to come, and the current rush to develop must be replaced by a measured and cautious approach if we are going to minimize the impact to the desert landscape and protect resources held in public trust,” the NPCA said.

The report includes several recommendations:

• Solar right-of-way applicants should consider all appropriate technology to minimize project footprint and impacts on water consumption.

• Regional land management agencies like NPS and FWS must be considered equal participants in the solar project approval process. In addition, BLM should routinely consult with other partners (State, Local, as well as NGOs, citizens groups, and other relevant stakeholders), because the resources at stake are shared resources.

• Information is the key to effective site decisions, so BLM should invest significant resources in thorough inventories to identify important natural and cultural resources that could be affected by siting decisions.

• To proceed cautiously in approving solar projects, projects should be confined to designated solar energy zones, and the lands currently considered as variance lands should be taken off the table for immediate solar energy development.

• The Department of the Interior should consider degraded lands (such as industrial brownfields) as potential sites for solar facilities and should bring other significant federal landholders, including the Department of Defense, to the table when considering the future of solar energy production in the Southwest.

• Special status species, including federally listed, state listed and other rare plants and animals, should continue to be a focus because much of the land in question harbors endemic species or species with a restricted geographic range.