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Feds OK Huge, Controversial Solar Project Near Mojave Preserve

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Looking south across the Soda Mountain Solar Project site | Photo: Michael E. Gordon, all rights reserved

A solar project that has spurred intense controversy for its likely effect on the Mojave National Preserve's desert bighorn sheep has won approval from the federal government.

The Soda Mountain Solar Project, slated for more than four square miles of public lands along the north boundary of the Preserve, was formally approved Tuesday by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The project, owned by the engineering firm Bechtel, has been a flashpoint for opposition from environmental groups, who say the project would block a crucial bighorn migration route between the Preserve and the Soda Mountains to the north.

Unusually for a solar project on public lands, the Interior Department approved Soda Mountain without the project's having secured a willing buyer for the 350 megawatts of energy the plant would produce at its maximum output. The project site, a few miles southwest of Baker along Interstate 15, also lacks available transmission lines to connect the project with energy users in California's cities.

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The Interior Department's formal Record of Decision (ROD) approving the project was actually signed by Bureau of Land Management director Neil Kornze on March 25, but wasn't made public until Tuesday after a week of swirling rumors about its impending release.

The ROD is the next-to-last step in formal greenlighting of the project; all that remains is for the BLM to grant a formal Right of Way to Bechtel to begin building photovoltaic panels and ancillary infrastructure on more than 2,813 acres of the Mojave Desert, much of it on undisturbed, "old-growth" Mojave upland habitat. The ROD's approval of the project is based on the BLM's analysis of the project's environmental effects, which was published as Soda Mountain's Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in June 2015.

That Environmental Impact Statement assumed that Bechtel would be able to use existing transmission lines on the site to get power from Soda Mountain to Los Angeles. But those transmission lines belong to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which announced in June — the same week as the Soda Mountain EIS was released — that it wouldn't be buying power from the project. LADWP said that the project would be too environmentally destructive to justify their becoming a customer.

Some observers speculated at the time that that was a convenient bit of PR with the advantage of being plausible, and that LADWP's real reason for agreeing not to buy Soda Mountain's power was that it would just be too expensive. The Southern California Public Power Authority, a consortium of municipal utilities to which LADWP belongs, has also demurred from agreeing to buy power from Soda Mountain, saying that it would be too pricy.

Those demurrals make ;it highly unlikely that Soda Mountain will be able to use LADWP's transmission lines, and so the project would need to build new transmission to sell power to other California utilities. That new transmission corridor would affect a significant acreage of the California desert, but those effects aren't discussed in the EIS — an omission that's basically a classic invitation to a lawsuit.

And without that transmission, it's unlikely the project will ever obtain a contract with a utility to sell its power, a necessary precursor for most companies involved in building solar power plants. (It's hard to get loans to cover costs of a project with no projected income.)

The BLM hasn't just approved Soda Mountain: It's managed the broader desert solar planning process over most of the last decade to ensure that Soda Mountain survives as a project. The Soda Mountain site isn't recognized as suitable for solar either in the massive, labyrinthine Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) or in the even larger-scale Western Solar Plan. But the BLM has worked, since 2007 or so, to ensure that the project is grandfathered in to all larger-level solar planning documents. That's threatened to erode both agency and public support for those planning efforts: if the wildly inappropriate Soda Mountain Solar Project gets explicitly shoehorned into a renewable energy plan against the advice of scientists, why trust that the rest of the plan is based on sound science?

Not only is there no particular demand for Soda Mountain Solar's power, but the project has been met with opposition from elsewhere in the Interior Department.  Soda Mountain's southern boundary approaches within a third of a mile of the Mojave National Preserve. (That's far closer than the two-mile buffer around National Park lands mandated by San Bernardino County as it works to come up with its portion of the DRECP's planning matrix for private lands in the county.) As a result of the potential serious impact on the Preserve, the National Park Service has objected to the project as pointedly as Interior Department Policy Allows. It probably didn't help matters when early BLM public maps of the Soda Mountain Solar Project site omitted any reference to the Mojave Natonal Preserve. In formal comments on the Soda Mountains EIS, the National Park Service wrote:

Among the problems NPS has expressed with Soda Mountain is that — in the words of the above-mentioned comments — the project's footprint would "reduce essential desert bighorn sheep foraging areas and adversely impact lambing success in the South Soda Mountains, potentially increasing the local extinction risk of the Soda Mountain population.”

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The National Park Service said the Soda Mountain Solar Project would hurt the preserve's bighorn sheep. The BLM approved the project anyway. | Photo: Chris Clarke

You may be wondering why the BLM would approve a project so pointedly opposed on environmental grounds by the Park Service that — with neither a buyer for its power nor any way to get power to the buyers it lacks — wouldn't pass a Business Plan 101 class?

And all this effort has gone to support a project using technology, photovoltaic panels, that could far more easily be deployed to generate power closer to demand, in areas with existing transmission lines, or on residential and industrial rooftops.

So what gives with BLM bending the rules to prop up Soda Mountain, which seems to be an unjustifiable project in both the environmental and business-savvy senses? It's possible that the sole reason for BLM's support for the project is a set of shifting Obama Administration goals to approve record numbers of renewable energy facilities on public lands. As stated in the White House's 2013 Climate Action Plan,

The important word there is "permitting." Not "building," "completing," or "breaking ground on." "Permitting."  The Obama administration was ahead of schedule in meeting its 2012 goal of 10 gigawatts of projects approved, but as of late 2015, only 2.3 gigawatts of solar, wind, or geothermal power plants on public lands were actually up and running. If a project is approved it counts toward the administration's goals whether or not it's actually built.

That's not to say that Soda Mountain isn't a threat to the Preserve and its wildlife. The ROD now adds momentum to the project, increasing the possibility that some utility or other will deign to buy Soda Mountain's pricy power, either paying LADWP for the use of its power lines or dinging its ratepayers to build new transmission.

In any event, desert protection activists — many of whom worked to promote the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and other landscape-level plans for renewable energy development — are livid at BLM's approval of Soda Mountain. 

“The approval of Soda Mountain Solar is a stark contradiction by the Obama Administration,” said Theresa Pierno, President of the National Parks Conservation Association, which placed the Mojave Preserve on its most recent list of Parks in Peril due to the Soda Mountain proposal. “This decision inhibits national park wildlife from migrating and adapting to a changing climate, and fails to abide by the Interior Department’s pledge to balance energy development with the protection of special places. We will continue to fight this decision and work to protect this pristine, beautiful, wildlife-rich landscape.”

We need to get off fossil fuels and transition to renewable-energy generation, but it has to be done right,” said Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “There are other ways to implement this amount of renewable energy without hurting our precious wildlife and irreplaceable parks.”

One takeaway from all this: The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which famously sacrificed the environment of the Owens Valley for LA's benefit, thinks Soda Mountain will do too much damage to the environment. San Bernardino County, with massive chronic unemployment and a political climate that isn't so much business-friendly as business-obsequious, won't let solar companies build as close to National Parks on private land as the BLM will at Soda Mountain.

If LADWP and San Bernardino County are doing a better job at protecting the desert than your land management agency is, your land management agency really needs a time-out to think about what it did.

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.

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