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How Much Has The Dialog Changed on Desert Solar? Here's How Much

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Desert Solar: no longer cool? | Photo: Alan Cordova/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The way environmentally concerned people think about large industrial desert solar plants has changed over the last few years. In 2009, when the first few large projects started working their way off the drawing board and into the environmental review process, hearing criticism of those projects' environmental effects was rare.

Some expressed reservations from the beginning. A few groups like Basin and Range Watch and The Wildlands Conservancywent on record early with concerns about the big projects' effects on wildlife, hydrology, and air quality. But many of the bigger groups were reluctant to oppose desert solar projects, aside from quibbling about a detail here and there, lest they be seen as not doing everything they could to support renewable energy development.

Since 2009, though, with increasing data on those large developments' effect on wildlife and the increasing viability of rooftop solar as a cheaper, more efficient alternative, green groups seem to have far less trouble speaking out against ill-sited projects. Want some evidence of how far the swing has swung? An article this week in the Palm Springs Desert Sun offers a good example: it casts green group support of a desert solar project as a surprising twist.

The article, written by Sammy Roth and appearing in the Desert Sun on Sunday, August 10, acknowledges that green opposition to desert solar might seem counterintuitive, but then says

Groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the Center for Biological Diversity have argued that massive solar projects can kill birds, disrupt species and damage other environmental resources.

And Roth's second paragraph starts with the plot twist:

But those groups have come out in support of the Blythe Mesa project, a 485-megawatt solar plant that would be built on private land in eastern Riverside County.

In other words, the big news here is that environmental groups support a desert solar project.

That news is a little overstated. Seven groups -- the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Audubon California, the California Native Plant Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Defenders of Wildlife -- did sign a letter in support of the plant, which was submitted as public comment on the project's draft Environmental Assessment/Environmental Impact Review (EA/EIR).

The name of the document is confusing enough to make your eyes glaze over, so let's take a minute to explain. The federal government and the state of California have similar procedures for evaluating a project's environmental impact, mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Projects that require both state and federal environmental review are often assessed in one process that meets the requirements of both laws. An Environmental Assessment is a preliminary document mandated under NEPA that can either precede a full-fledged Environmental Impact Statement, or serve as the only environmental review if a project isn't thought to pose a risk of significant environmental impact.

There's less wiggle room in CEQA: instead of getting by with a NEPA-style Environmental Assessment that may underplay the effects of a project, agencies following CEQA either have to prepare a full-fledged Environmental Impact Review or come out and state that a project won't have an impact on the environment. If they decide a project won't hurt the environment, they have to back up their call with a document called a Negative Declaration, which is then subject to the same public review as an EIR would be.

Blythe Mesa occupies private land in Riverside County, so the county is required under CEQA to head up the state's environmental review. But a transmission line spur to connect the project to the grid would cross public land, which obligates the Bureau of Land Management to assess the project under NEPA. Hence the joint EA/EIR.

In any event, support for Blythe Mesa is by no means uniform across the environmentalist board. Despite the implication of support in the Desert Sun piece, the Center for Biological Diversity is actually calling for a full federal Environmental Impact Statement, saying the EA doesn't sufficiently address potential effects on a variety of birds including the Endangered Yuma clapper rail, along with fringe-toed lizards, badgers, and desert kit foxes.

The 3,600-acre Blythe Mesa plant would be built on private land, some of which has been disturbed for agriculture, so it's not displacing old-growth desert habitat like some other projects. That fact was lauded in the seven groups' comment letter.

Whether the project was planned for desert wilderness or a gigantic parking lot, however, having 3,000-plus acres of photovoltaic panels along a major migration corridor is likely to cause more of the water bird deaths ReWire has reported on in the last year.

Blythe Mesa is also nearly certain to have a significant impact on local Native cultural sites, according to nearby tribes and other Native groups, who steadfastly oppose the project. Local native people are likely to raise an eyebrow at the seven groups' comment letter, which states baldly that "We are pleased that the Project is planned for those Blythe Mesa Alternative lands due to their previously disturbed condition and absence of significant biological and cultural resources."

Desert Sun reporter Roth goes into some detail on the cultural issues in his piece, and he also mentions that project proponent Renewables Resources Group is yet to find a buyer for any of the 485 megawatts the plant's photovoltaic panels would produce at peak output.

But what really jumps out about his piece is the framing: "Green groups are supporting a big desert solar project, and that's unusual." That would have been unthinkable just four years ago, when the few groups speaking out against environmentally destructive desert solar projects struggled to get any press attention at all.

In reality, there hasn't been that much of a sea change in the environmentalist landscape over Blythe Mesa. Groups that have been taking a hard line on desert solar projects aren't being overly friendly to Blythe Mesa, and some of the groups that have signed the letter have been supportive of all but the most controversial projects. Nonetheless, public perception of the relationship between green groups and utility-scale desert solar seems to have shifted 180 degrees in the past five years. In 2009, greens raised eyebrows when they had reservations about a project. Now it's news when they don't.

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