November 12, 2013

Multiple solar energy projects can be too much for one region to handle

On the blistering hot, sun-drenched surface, deserts seem like an ideal place for solar energy development. The climate in such regions makes them inhospitable to humans and the arid land is largely unusable for agricultural endeavors.

Mojave Desert

The fragile habitat of the Mojave Desert.

But if one looks close enough to see beyond immediately perceptible utilitarian purposes, it becomes quite readily apparent that desert landscapes have much more to offer than simply sun, sand and cracked land. The Mojave, for example, located in southern California and southern Nevada, harbors some of the country’s greatest biodiversity. Until the relatively new increase and expansion of renewable energy projects, the Mojave region has remained in largely natural condition. In fact, in a recent study, The Nature Conservancy found that 87 percent of the lands in the Mojave Desert have high conservation value, making them among the least disturbed ecoregions in the U.S.

As these study results suggest, despite human intolerance of the climate in the region, many species of wildlife thrive in the extreme temperatures and geographical features that characterize the Mojave. The desert tortoise, horned lizard, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, golden eagle, Mojave ground squirrel, bighorn sheep and several riparian birds are just a few of the species (many of them threatened or endangered) that call the Mojave home.

Within the Mojave, the Ivanpah Valley has been identified as a critical link between conservation areas for one of the region’s most endangered inhabitants, the desert tortoise. At the same time, the Ivanpah Valley is also under mounting pressure from development of many kinds, including such land use impacts as multiple high-acreage renewable energy projects, electricity and gas transmission lines, a wastewater treatment project, airport and a high-speed rail line.

Desert tortoise, © Jeff Aardahl/Defenders

Some of the best places for the threatened desert tortoise habitat are also prime for solar energy.

The uniqueness of the Mojave and all sensitive desert landscapes comes from a fragile ecosystem balance, a balance that is easily disturbed and hard to recover. So, not surprisingly, all of these current and potential impacts are beginning to add up in Ivanpah, and are causing some real disturbance to the region and its wildlife, especially the desert tortoise. Just last month, the Brightsource Ivanpah Solar Project – the first and largest utility-scale solar project on public lands approved by the Obama Administration – began its first system tests to deliver power to the grid. The project, which covers some 3,500 acres of public land (more than 2,650 football fields-worth), is projected to cut 13.5 million tons of carbon emissions over 30 years.

However, the ultimate cost of the nearly unfathomably large facility, with its 170,000 individual mirrors lassoing the rays of the desert sun into submission, is yet to be determined. Already, The Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion has concluded that up to 1136 tortoises (eggs, hatchlings, juveniles, sub-adults, adults) are or have been impacted on the site (including several deaths). Of these, 173 were found and removed and translocated off-site (a stressful process for the tortoise), including 110 juveniles to holding pens because they were too small to release in the wild.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is currently reviewing right-of-way applications for two additional large-scale solar energy projects in the Ivanpah Valley: the Silver State South Project in Nevada and the Stateline Solar Farm in California. These projects will impact approximately 2,500 and 1,700 more acres of federal land, respectively, as well as up to 2,115 tortoises, combined. Defenders is protesting the approval of the Silver State South project because it is in a location that supports a significant population of threatened desert tortoises, encompasses high quality habitat, and, most importantly, compromises the most important remaining habitat linkage for the desert tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley.

While renewable energy development is key to the future of our country’s fossil-fuel free energy independence, it must not and need not come at the expense of the continued existence of wildlife and the integrity of our public lands. Proper siting of large-scale projects is critical.

In addition to our letter to the BLM protesting the Silver State South project, we have also sent a letter to the Department of the Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notifying them of our intent to pursue legal action against the agencies for violating the Endangered Species Act by approving both of these projects in the Ivanpah Valley. Based on the best available science and statements made by the FWS, these two large-scale solar projects will fundamentally undermine that recovery and threaten the very survival of the desert tortoise population.

At-risk wildlife and habitats in the Ivanpah Valley have already been lost by decades of land development and human use, and significant threats to what remains are imminent. Thus it is essential that before making decisions about new projects like Silver State and Stateline, the BLM needs to first prepare and implement a landscape-level ecosystem conservation plan for the greater Ivanpah Valley. Such an approach should prioritize ecosystem and species conservation over continued land development, and perhaps give the desert tortoise and other sensitive wildlife in Ivanpah Valley a fighting chance to survive long into the future.

Courtney Sexton is a Communications Associate for Defenders of Wildlife

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