News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Enviros Split on Interior Solar Plan

Ivanpah Valley solar project under construction | Photo: Don Barret/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The mammoth Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar development on public lands in six southwestern states was released July 24, and environmentalist response has been, like the PEIS's proposed Solar Energy Zones, all over the map.

That's no surprise: the environmental community has been split for a number of years on the utility-scale desert solar issue, with some arguing that the climate crisis requires we sacrifice some intact deserts, and others saying that there are better options that don't harm wildlife and wildlands.

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The PEIS, two years in preparation, designates 285,000 acres in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico as Solar Energy Zones where solar facility permitting will be streamlined, and an additional 19 million acres of "variance" zones that are also open to solar development across the southwestern states.

Reaction to the PEIS is so far split among pretty much the same fault line that has defined reaction to utility-scale desert solar. Within minutes of the release, a group of large national environmental organizations that had collaborated with the Interior and Energy Departments on developing the PEIS released a statement lauding those departments, and calling the PEIS "a historic milestone in our nation's effort to accelerate environmentally responsible renewable energy generation that will create jobs, reduce greenhouse gases, and contribute to national energy security."

Among the green groups that signed the statement were the Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society. They were joined in signing the release by solar developers, trade associations, and utility companies.

The large groups have been generally supportive of utility-scale solar and the PEIS. The opposition is generally more "grass-roots," smaller groups or even individual citizen-activists. [Full disclosure: I've done quite a bit of work with such groups.] The Mojave Desert Blog, long a source for thoughtful commentary on its eponymous desert, was almost as quick as the big green groups with a less favorable response, describing the PEIS as "putting on paper what is already Interior's de facto policy of allowing solar companies to bulldoze wherever they please."

Among his criticisms of the document, Mojave Desert Blog's author "Shaun G." had harsh words for the treatment of desert tortoise exclusion areas in the PEIS:

A proposal to exclude solar energy development from critical desert tortoise connectivity areas was added late last year, but the proposal appears to have been significantly weakened by industry lobbying, and now only amounts to words of discouragement from the US Fish and Wildlife Service that developers can ignore.

The federally threatened desert tortoise has loomed large in discussion of utility-scale solar in the desert, most notoriously with regard to BrightSource's Ivanpah solar project, where workers found hundreds more of the reptiles than were expected. The Nevada-based group Basin and Range Watch, which has been watchdogging renewable energy development throughout the southwest and has intervened in several California proposals with the California Energy Commission, offered this reaction to the tortoise connectivity issue:

We believe the final document is actually weaker in many ways than the earlier versions, especially in protection for the Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). Although some if Ivanpah Valley is excluded from solar development, other areas to the north are open in a variance process where developers may submit project applications as in the status quo, again not providing protection for important genetic flow corridors across the tortoise populations and between Recovery Units. Instead of outright excluding these tortoise connectivity areas as recommended by US Fish and Wildlife Service, the present document merely "discourages" solar development in these areas.

Applicants would have to meet with Bureau of Land Management and plan how their proposed project could be minimized to lessen disturbance of tortoise habitat and genetic flow. But again, this type of piecemeal development only eats away at prime tortoise populations. No guidance on the width of a tortoise connectivity corridor was stated.

The NRDC didn't limit their public support of PEIS to the press release sent out with the other groups. In a July 24 post on the group's website, Deputy Director of NRDC's Western Renewable Energy Project Helen O'Shea wrote:

[NRDC's] decision to support solar development on public lands has been questioned by some, but we believe it is imperative that the nation transition quickly to a clean energy economy and this requires all the tools in our toolkit -- from energy efficiency and rooftop solar to utility-scale solar projects. We believe this is the only way we have any hope of slowing the mounting damage from climate change, which poses one of the greatest threats to the same wildlife, wild lands and other resources the final PEIS must also strive to preserve.

"Questioned by some" indeed: O'Shea's post attracted 16 comments, all but one fiercely critical of NRDC's stance -- and the one favorable comment was written by O'Shea's husband in an admirable act of filial loyalty.

The National Parks Conservation Association had likely the most nuanced reaction to the PEIS of any of the large groups. In a July 25 press release, NPCA's California Desert Program Manager, David Lamfrom thanked the Obama administration for excluding a number of sensitive areas in the Californai desert from future solar development, then added:

We encourage the administration to further refine their improved preferred alternative, to further remove sensitive variance lands from the 19 million acres currently proposed, including those surrounding Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and Mojave National Preserve. We also urge smart decision making when it comes to siting current and future applications on lands with sensitive natural and cultural resources and those rich in historic values.This process has been modified due to the recognition that there are right and wrong places for renewable energy development. We encourage continued refinements and incentives for siting projects in designated zones.... This process and future decisions must protect our most sensitive resources and most beautiful places for our generation, our children, and grandchildren. We have entrusted these decisions to the Bureau of Land Management, and require that they act in our shared interest."

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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David Lamfrom and the NPCA are true champions of the California desert. The other orgs mentioned in your article have colluded with industry and have been absent in the fight to preserve our deserts, while Lamfrom and NPCA have fought tirelessly to keep utility scale solar development off of our public lands and to protect the wildlife within. Thanks, Chris, for your continued reporting on these topics.