News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Group Calls For Strict Limits on Solar Power Near National Parks

A bad place for solar power? | Photo: nicvder1/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Referring to a handful of approved solar projects near California desert National Parks as "mistakes," a parks protection group is calling for changes in the federal government's public lands solar program to protect lands adjacent to National Parks throughout the southwest. In a report released today, the National Parks Conservation Association urges the U.S. Department of the Interior to keep industrial solar development out of so-called "variance zones," and to focus development on disturbed lands rather than on public lands with intact desert habitat.

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The report identifies three utility-scale desert solar power plants as projects that should not have been approved in their current locations. The three, BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, First Solar's Desert Sunlight Solar Farm near Desert Center, and the pending Amargosa Farm Road solar project proposed by the bankrupt firm Solar Millennium, are all sited within five miles of National Parks in the California Desert. Ivanpah sits a mile and a half from a northern boundary of the Mojave National Preserve, and Desert Sunlight about the same distance from the eastern portion of Joshua Tree National Park. Amargosa Farm Road, the only one of the three not yet under construction, is five miles from the eastern border of Death Valley National Park.

"The Amargosa Farm Road project teaches us a lesson about water," said David Lamfrom, NPCA's California Desert Senior Program Manager on a press phone conference this morning. "The valley there is hydrologically connected to Devil's Hole, home to an endangered species of pupfish. Drawing down that water could damage the only habitat that pupfish has left in the world."

Portions of the Amargosa Valley in Nevada were designated a Solar Energy Zone in the Interior and Energy Departments' Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (PEIS). The PEIS designates 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, as well as 19 million ares of "variance lands" in those states open to solar development with somewhat more stringent permitting procedures than in the SEZs.

Solar Millennium was in the process of redesigning the Amargosa Farm Road project when it went under, changing it from concentrating solar to PV, which would have reduced the project's water use dramatically. Still, development on the scale envisioned for SEZs, with up to 80% of available land likely to be built upon, carries what Lamfrom sees as unacceptable risks for the Amargosa Valley. "The Amargosa SEZ is not an appropriate place to put renewable energy. Each of these projects carries lessons we ought to learn before pushing ahead with solar on pristine desert lands, especially when there's so much disturbed land we could develop -- and rooftops as well. It's a question of whether we think this is an important enough issue to take the time to get it right," Lamfrom said.

The negative effects of the other two plants identified by the NPCA report include both damage to visual resources, and -- in the case of the Ivanpah plant -- with impacts on important desert species.

"Ivanpah was absolutely a mistake," said Lamfrom. "The Federal government has in essence recognized this by excluding future solar development from the Ivanpah Valley."

Also speaking at this morning's NPCA press conference were Guy DiDonato, Natural Resources Program Manager for the NPCA's Center for Park Research, and Dennis Schramm, retired Superintendent of Mojave National Preserve. Schramm offered a bit of perspective on the history of solar development in the desert, pointing out that when the first wave of development started in the mid-2000s the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve was "completely ringed by proposals."

"In a way, processes like the Federal PEIS and the state's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan are what we were crying out for five years ago," said Schramm. "A lot of the most problematic projects were proposed well before the PEIS was drafted."

At a minimum, said Lamfrom, the feds should eliminate from consideration for solar development lands that the National Park Service identified during the PEIS process as having high potential for resource conflicts near National Parks.

The full report can be downloaded here, and a shorter executive summary here.

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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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