Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider announced April 5 the approval of the Soda Mountain Solar Project on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in California.
The Record of Decision signed by Schneider approves a revised project design that BLM developed through extensive outreach and consultation, rigorous science-based analysis and substantial mitigation to address issues raised by stakeholders, partner agencies, the developer and the public. When fully built, the revised project would support 287 MW of renewable energy. The original project was 358 MW in size.
The smaller project would still help meet President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan goal of 20,000 MW of power derived from renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020.
Under the BLM’s approved alternate design, the project proposed by Soda Mountain Solar LLC (a subsidiary of Bechtel Development) would be located on 1,767 acres of BLM-managed lands about six miles southwest of Baker, California. Reduced from an originally proposed 2,222 acres, the revised project will be located in an area of disturbed lands that include Interstate Highway 15 and an active utility corridor for oil and gas pipelines, electricity transmission and communication lines and facilities. The site is adjacent to an approved, but not yet built, high speed rail route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and will be near the Rasor Off Highway Vehicle Area.
Since 2009, the Department has permitted 58 utility-scale renewable energy projects on the nation’s public lands, including 35 solar, 11 wind and 12 geothermal utility-scale renewable energy projects and associated transmission infrastructure. Together, these 58 projects could support nearly 15,500 MW of renewable energy capacity.
“Soda Mountain is another step forward toward diversifying our nation’s energy portfolio and meeting the State of California’s growing demand for renewable energy,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze. “The project is consistent with the BLM’s landscape approach for the California desert, which supports careful development of renewable energy where it makes sense while protecting the resources and places that make the desert special.”
The BLM’s approved design removes an array of solar panels originally proposed for north of the interstate highway, eliminating virtually all visual impacts from the project within neighboring Mojave National Preserve. The project would not be seen from most parts of the preserve, including from any highway or established route of travel within the preserve.
In response to issues raised by partner agencies and other stakeholders, the BLM’s environmental review incorporated additional analysis and mitigation, including:
- A groundwater study independently verified by the U.S. Geological Survey that shows the project’s water use would “not measurably affect” nearby springs depended upon by the endangered Mohave tui chub (a rare desert fish);
- Additional mitigation to reduce the project’s night lighting and dust emissions and compensate for lost habitat;
- Developed a bighorn sheep adaptive management strategy to maintain existing foraging, movement and feeding opportunities, improve opportunities to restore sheep movement and connectivity, and provide funding for long term genetic connectivity;
- Additional mitigation to reduce impacts to visual resources, groundwater, air quality and other resources.
The BLM consulted with various tribes regarding properties of cultural significance that may be affected by the proposed action. Other federal agencies involved in the project’s review process included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service.
The Soda Mountain project is consistent with the conservation design and management actions proposed in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), an extensive cooperative planning partnership among the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of California. Lands in the project area are proposed as unallocated lands in the DRECP and are not proposed for conservation because of existing and planned development in the area.