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Feds Commit $1.37 Billion for Controversial Desert Solar Power Project

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A dune within Mojava National Preserve | Photo by RightIndex via Flickr

A dune within Mojava National Preserve | Photo by RightIndex via Flickr
If a 4,000-acre solar power project in San Bernardino County makes it through all of its approvals, over $1 billion is waiting in the wings, courtesy of the federal government. BrightSource Energy is working towards just that in the Ivanpah Valley and if successful, it will be the first solar power plant in California's desert in 20 years. It would create an estimated 1,000 union construction jobs (86 permanent ones) bringing in $400 million in state and local tax revenues and eventually powering some 140,000 homes.

Only if solar power was that easy, right?

"We do have concerns," says Mike Cipra of the National Parks Conservation Association. "In particular, we have concerns about impacts to Mojave National Preserve." The 1.6 million acre National Park unit sits near the proposed project and is home to endangered desert tortoise populations, which could be affected in terms of movement and migration by the plant's footprint. Although BrightSource last week turned in plans that reduces the plant's size by 12%, environmentalists are still not thrilled.

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“Looking at this new proposal, it will not do anything to protect the desert tortoise and they won’t be able to generate as many megawatts,” said Gloria D. Smith, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club in San Francisco, to the New York Times. “We still support this project but just want it to have a more beneficial footprint.”

Beyond issues over the tortoises, Cipra is worried about the accumulated impacts to the valley. "There is a major international airport proposed as well as the maglev train and a high speed trail from Victorville to Las Vegas and a powerline project," he said, noting that environmental studies haven't taken the valley's future as a whole into account. "Are we planning these projects independently or is there a coordinated effort to look at what these accumulated impacts will be?"

Ivanpah would be a solar thermal plant, which focuses mirrors around a tower that becomes super heated. That produces steam, which turns turbines, thus creating energy. Questions that haven't been answered yet are what happens when you super heat the air in this type of environment or send a thermal plume 1,300 feet up, possibly into a future flight path, asks Cipra.

The NCPA suggests the project move to already disturbed land in areas closer to towns and existing transmission lines. Such land could be found in over million acres of public California desert land that has already been applied for by solar power companies.

To reach the state's goal of 33% renewable power by 2020, only 65,000 to 128,000 acres of public land would be needed, according to California Energy Commission estimates. And those figures do not include solar power on private land (desert or otherwise) or roofs within cities. Nor does it include other forms of energy like wind and geothermal. Additionally, the Bureau of Land Management is studying 351,000 California desert acres for possible solar development.

“If this becomes a stumbling block it’s not good for the whole industry,” said BrightSource CEO John Woolard of the wildlife issues surrounding the Ivanpah Project.

On the other side of the issue, a power plant on sensitive land could be a stumbling block for conservation. "If we turn our national parks into islands, they basically become like zoos. Their long term health is compromised," said Cipra, noting that Mojave sits between Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks.

"The desert is not a wasteland," Cipra continued. "There's a very diverse plant and animal life out here. We have to balance our renewable energy development with some of the values we really care about. We only get one chance to do this right."

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