The U.S. Department of the Interior has granted final approval to two solar projects in the California desert and an unpopular Nevada wind project near the Mojave National Preserve. The approvals, announced today at a joint public event with California Governor Jerry Brown, likely represent the final big energy project unveiling for departing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
The McCoy Solar Energy Project will have the largest generating capacity of the three facilities approved today. Being developed by NextEra on 7,700 acres of public lands west of Blythe in Riverside County, the photovoltaic facility would generate up to 750 megawatts of power when operating at full capacity. Interior has lauded the McCoy project as "one of the largest solar facilities in the world," an embarrassing bit of hype given that the beleaguered Blythe Solar Project immediately adjacent to the McCoy site, currently a completely vacant piece of former desert, was slated to max out at 1,000 megawatts.
A bit farther west, the 150-megawatt Desert Harvest Solar Project, an EDF Renewable Energy operation, has been approved for about 1,200 acres of BLM lands north of Desert Center. Both projects are within the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone.
The third project approved today, Duke Energy's Searchlight Wind Energy Project, is by far the most expansive. All in all the project would encompass 18,949 acres of BLM land surrounding the town of Searchlight, Nevada, though Interior maintains the permanent damage to habitat will be limited to less than 160 acres. The project would generate up to 200 megawatts of power with 87 Siemens turbines, each one with a capacity of 2.3 megawatts.
McCoy and Searchlight have been the focus of opposition from desert tribes who object to the projects' impacts on local cultural values, especially including geoglyphs and viewsheds. Today's Records of Decision by Interior opens the way to legal challenges to those projects. Desert Harvest and Searchlight also share the characteristic of being within the viewshed of National Park units: Searchlight is about 20 miles east of the Mojave National Preserve, while Desert Harvest is in close proximity to the eastern part of Joshua Tree National Park.
Nonetheless, Interior Department spokespeople lauded today's announcement. "The President has called for America to continue taking bold steps on clean energy," BLM Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze said in a press release. "Our Smart-from-the-Start analysis has helped us do just that, paving the way for responsible development of utility-scale renewable energy projects in the right way and in the right places."
Interior also announced that 14 solar facilities, 6 wind farms, and 3 geothermal plants on BLM lands are up for review in the next couple of years.