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

7 Square Mile Solar Project Next to Mojave National Preserve Advances

Crucifixion thorn at the Soda Mountains | Photo: © Duncan Bell

The Bureau of Land Management is now looking for public comment on a proposed 4,397-acre solar facility between the Mojave National Preserve and the Soda Mountains Wilderness Study Area, in an area that one environmental group has defined as "core" undeveloped Mojave Desert habitat.

Soda Mountain Solar wants to build 358 megawatts' worth of photovoltaic panel arrays flanking a six-mile stretch of Interstate 15 in the Mojave Desert southwest of Baker, adjacent to some of the best desert bighorn sheep habitat in the Mojave National Preserve, on undeveloped land that is home to the federally Threatened desert tortoise and the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, along with burrowing owls and desert kit foxes.

Soda Mountain Solar, a subsidiary of the construction firm Bechtel, plans to place about 1.5 million solar panels on the site. The company has not announced a power purchase agreement with any of the utilities the project would be intended to serve.

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Three short seasonal surveys of the project site have turned up two plant species of concern: Emory's crucifixion-thorn (Castela emoryi) and Utah milkvine (Funastrum utahense). Neither plant species is listed under state or federal endangered species laws. Still, the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) includes both on their list of rare native plants, describing the crucifixion thorn as "threatened by solar development."

Crucifixion thorn at the Soda Mountains | Photo © Duncan Bell

According the the draft Environmental Impact Statement, the project as proposed would consume between 1,275 and
1,371 acre-feet of water a year for operations such as cleaning and maintenance, taking the water from an aquifer that supports the last non-transplanted population of the Endangered Mohave tui chub.

Aside from the Mojave National Preserve and the nearby Rasor Road off-road area, the project would also butt up against the Soda Mountains Wilderness Study Area (WSA), part of which was slated to be designated wilderness by Senator Diane Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act of 2011. That bill is likely to be reintroduced in 2014, though its language regarding the Soda Mountains is far from certain. Approval of a massive industrial solar project on its boundaries could prevent the WSA from being designated as wilderness.

Not that the BLM would likely mind that much: in 1990, the agency dismissed the wilderness potential of the Soda Mountains WSA, saying:

Known and potential mineral values, the need to keep the land available for full development of a designated utility corridor, and opportunities for motorized recreation, when coupled with the lack of outstanding or unique natural features in the WSA are of greater importance than the area's value as wilderness. Designation of the area as wilderness would not contribute any additional unique or distinct features to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Nonetheless, the area including the project footprint has been classified by the Nature Conservancy as "core habitat" for the Mojave desert as a whole, and was described in at least one early draft of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan as a "High Biological Sensitivity" area from which solar developers should be diverted if possible.

According to the project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which the BLM made available for public examination Wednesday, the project won't need a so-called "gen-tie" line to connect it to transmission as two transmission corridors already cross the site. As ReWire reported last year, however, one of those lines is at capacity. The other, LADWP's Marketplace-Adelanto line a.k.a. Path 64, supplies power to municipal utilities in Southern California.

Under both federal and state environmental law, a project's environmental assessment must consider a range of alternatives for the project. The BLM has been subject to increasing criticism of late for its apparent reluctance to include alternatives to utility-scale public lands solar projects that involve either distributed generation or development of "brownfields" and other land with lower habitat value.

The DEIS for the Soda Mountains Solar proposal does indeed address the possibility of a disturbed land alternative, noting that the EPA has identified around 11,000 brownfields, landfills, and other such sites in California that may be suitable for renewable energy development.

But the DEIS then dismisses such a possibility, stating that no suitable alternative sites exist in the vicinity of the project area -- despite the fact that Soda Mountains Solar would need to sell its power to utilities well outside the project area anyway.

Public comment is now being solicited on the project's DEIS, with a deadline of March 3, 2014.


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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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