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Vegetation Clearing Starts at Desert Solar Project

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Sonoran Desert creosote scrub to be cleared on the site of the Blythe Solar Power Project | Photo: Chris Clarke

The state of California has given the go-ahead to a solar power developer to start clearing desert vegetation in Riverside County   on a site where the company plans to build a solar power facility.

NextEra Energy Resources' 485-megawatt Blythe Solar Power Project, approved by the California Energy Commission in January, will occupy about 4,000 acres of desert plain west of Blythe when it's completed. Though the Commission hasn't yet given full approval to NextEra's construction plan, the agency is allowing NextEra to mow vegetation and transplant cacti before the nesting season starts for the area's breeding bird population.

According to Commission staff, the site holds "relatively intact native habitat" whose conversion to an industrial solar facility can potentially harm nesting birds, especially if that vegetation is cleared while birds are actively nesting in the shrubs and cacti.

The commission also approved grading of ten acres or less for trailers and crew parking, as well as beginning construction on the "gen-tie" line that will connect the solar project to nearby transmission lines. NextEra has also been given the go-ahead to install fencing around two of the plant's four units.

According to the project's environmental assessment, written in 2012 by California Energy Commission staff, the Blythe Solar Power Project will convert Sonoran Desert creosote scrub, ephemeral wash woodland, and sand dune habitat into fenced-off, graded industrial facility. The project has the potential to affect the flow of water in the region's washes, especially when its effect is combined with those of other plants planned for the area such as Next Era's McCoy Solar Project.

Bird species expected to be affected by the habitat loss include common locally nesting species such as verdins and cactus wrens, as well as species of concern such as burrowing owls, peregrine and prairie falcons, bald and golden eagles, and the federally Endangered Yuma clapper rail.

The Commission allowed NextEra to begin clearing burrowing owls and desert tortoises from the footprint of the project's Unit 1 in October.

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