An Overview of Controversial Solar Energy Projects in California's Deserts

Desert Tortoise in Kern County | Creative Commons photo by Mike Jones

California Governor Jerry Brown advocated, at a solar energy conference in Los Angeles last week, for "crushing the opposition" to industrial solar projects in the California Desert and elsewhere. As Debra Kahn reported on Greenwire;

"When local communities try to block installation of solar like they did in San Luis Obispo, we act to overcome the opposition," Brown (D) said, referring to the city where environmental groups have been protesting two large-scale solar plants over environmental and endangered species concerns.

"In Oakland I learned that some kind of opposition you have to crush," the former Oakland mayor said. "You can talk, but you have to move forward."

I hasten to point out that I don't pretend to be an objective observer on the issue of solar development in the desert. For the last few years I've been an outspoken opponent of some of the larger desert solar projects, both in my work with the Desert Protective Council and as a co-founder of Solar Done Right, and in my own private capacity. (You might reasonably ask how I could possibly oppose renewable energy projects given the climate crisis; rather than take up space here I'll just suggest you read this.)

Story continues below

My own admitted biases aside, truth be told, most industrial solar projects proposed for the California deserts have faced only insubstantial opposition. There are lawsuits pending, to be sure. Ivanpah and Blythe, the two projects now undergoing actual construction, are among them. Both projects are facing lawsuits by the cultural group La Cuna De Aztlan over alleged violations of Native consultation rights over cultural issues attached to the landscape. Four other projects -- Imperial and Calico, about which more in a moment; Chevron's Lucerne Valley, a smaller photovoltaic (PV) project on Joshua tree woodland; and a second project near Blythe -- are included in La Cuna's suit as well. Ivanpah is facing an additional lawsuit by Western Watersheds over that project's already-substantial impact on the Federally threatened desert tortoise. The Quechan Nation, a San Diego and Imperial county-based tribe, filed suit over the Imperial Solar project, and the Sierra Club -- after persistent cajoling from desert protection activists among its membership -- sued over Calico, as has the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway Company.

Calico and Imperial went back to the drawing board when their original developer, Tessera Solar, went out of business. The Quechan suit was a proximate cause of the company's troubles, in the same sense that that final straw is the proximate cause of the dromedary's broken back, but what really spiked Tessera's projects was Tessera itself. The company staked its future on its so-called "SunCatchers," a Rube Goldberg technology in which tracking mirrors focus sunlight on a Stirling engine, a noisy contraption the size of a Volvo motor that would generate electricity turbine-style. Here are some SunCatchers in operation at a Tessera testing ground in Arizona:

Even the most diehard promoter of desert solar might have trouble arguing that SunCatchers, with their godawful noise and hundreds of unreliable moving parts, were a realistic competitor with photovoltaic panels, the kind you see on rooftops, which can generate electricity with neither moving parts nor noise.

The Calico and Imperial projects were sold to the firm K-Road, which is proposing a mix of photovoltaic and SunCatchers for the sites. The lawsuit over Imperial will likely continue. Having walked parts of the site and seen its remarkable archaeological and cultural features for myself, bulldozing the site for power production seems about as sensible as knocking down the rocks at Stonehenge to be replaced with wind turbines. K-Road did not prevail in its attempt to coast on the projects' previous approvals: the California Energy Commission decided that the radical redesigns of the project to mostly PV require new state and federal environmental assessments.

For La Cuna's part, procedural issues have dogged its lawsuit; even supportive observers doubt La Cuna will prevail handily. The Sierra Club's Calico suit, which alleged insufficient review of the project's effect on the site's diverse desert wildlife, was dismissed summarily by the California Supreme Court. The one legal challenge widely considered to have a snowball's chance in the Mojave of prevailing is Western Watersheds' Ivanpah suit, and in that particular case it doesn't hurt that biologists inadvertently came up with a tortoise count for the site that turned out to be off by a factor of about 300. New estimates have it that as many as a thousand tortoises may be injured or killed by Ivanpah construction, the bulk of them juveniles, likely to be crushed in their burrows with no one ever knowing they're there. The viability of Western Watersheds' suit is underscored by the Brown administration's decision to file a brief asking that it be thrown out, a move it has not seen fit to take with other desert solar projects.

Six projects have faced opposition in the courtroom, to recap, and an additional one -- Ridgecrest -- would have done such damage to the endangered Mohave ground squirrel that the developer withdrew the project for the time being. That's out of more than twenty public lands solar projects proposed for the California Desert Conservation Area, far more than twenty if you include those projects languishing in the shadow of Dianne Feinstein's proposed Mojave Trails National Monument. That's just public lands proposals. There are more, such as Abengoa Harper Lake and the Antelope Valley Solar Ranch, on private lands where any opposition is decentralized and local. (The AV Solar Ranch has gotten its neighbors upset in recent weeks, but it would seem few of those neighbors are opposed to the project itself.)

Meanwhile, some desert solar projects make everyone happy, especially people whose parking spaces get some shade. Parking lot in Las Vegas | Creative Commons photo by Ron McDonald

All of this must be considered in the context of the Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, an imposingly named document whose 11,000 pages, released for public review earlier this year, would manage industrial solar development on up to twenty million acres of public lands across six western states, including but not limited to 24 designated Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) in which solar projects would theoretically be encouraged. California was home to four of those proposed SEZs, though the rumor mill has it that one, the 106,522-acre Iron Mountain SEZ near Rice, has been dropped after significant opposition from green groups. At 11,000 pages of significantly technical and occasionally opaque jargon, with a public comment period measured in weeks rather than months, even experts have found the prospect of analyzing the PEIS document daunting. The intimidating PEIS itself was a response to a flood of applications for public lands solar projects in previous years, the sheer bureaucratic weight of which had the Bureau of Land Management reallocating resources from education and law enforcement to handling the proposals' paperwork.

The general mood among environmentalists regarding desert solar over the last couple of years has been even if it wasn't considered politically unwise to challenge even the most destructive renewable energy projects, so many are being proposed that we're going to have to let some proposals go unopposed just because we can't be everywhere at once. Some environmental groups have met with developers at negotiating tables and hammered out deals they can live with; others have simply failed to oppose projects. The California Energy Commission has approved projects over the objections of its staff biologists, and the Department of Interior is widely reported to have directed all its California Desert staff in the BLM, the Park Service, and in other agencies to approve projects at all costs regardless of conflicts with other agendas.

In other words, even before Governor Brown intervened in the Ivanpah lawsuit, opposition to industrial solar development on public lands in the California Desert had already been pretty much crushed -- like a juvenile tortoise in its burrow.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading