For a sense of how complicated it is to combat climate change without collateral damage, consider the $56 million spent so far to rescue and relocate desert tortoises from the upheaval caused by the construction of a Mojave Desert solar plant. When completed next year, the $2.2 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System will use 173,500 computer-controlled mirrors to aim rays at boilers mounted atop three 459-foot towers, turning water into enough steam-generated electricity to power 140,000 homes. Its developer, BrightSource Energy, sees it as a solar equivalent of the Hoover Dam, a Depression-era hydroelectric project that was the green power marvel of its day. The Obama administration awarded Ivanpah a $1.6 billion stimulus loan guarantee, and Google (GOOG) chipped in $168 million. Early on, the project gained green cred from the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council.
That was before its 45-story towers began rising from a 3,500-acre dry lake bed in California, uprooting scores of desert tortoises from their burrows, far more than federal wildlife officials had estimated. The site is prime habitat for gopherus agassizii, the state reptile of California and Nevada. There were once millions of them, but now no more than 100,000 live in their native habitat in the U.S. and Mexico. Both Ivanpah and the tortoise ought to qualify as green icons. The problem is that they can’t coexist.
This inconvenient truth led the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, a public lands watchdog, to go to court last year to stop Ivanpah. It’s now one of a slew of pending lawsuits filed by conservation and Native American groups to halt a half-dozen industrial-scale solar plants planned for public lands in the Mojave. It’s become an unseemly squabble between national environmental groups, which see Big Solar as one in a basket of solutions necessary to fight global warming, and desert conservation advocates who think Big Green is getting solar wrong. “Of course we need to do solar, but it should go on rooftops or in appropriate places, not the pristine desert,” says April Sall, director of the Wildlands Conservancy in Oak Glen, Calif., operator of the state’s largest network of nonprofit nature preserves. “We need to tackle warming, but not forget that there are other things at stake.”
For the 1.4 million-member Sierra Club, giving Ivanpah a green pass was a tough call. The organization did lobby for tortoise-friendly modifications to the project. Ultimately, however, warming concerns trumped wildlife objections. “We need to jump-start renewables to combat climate change, and large-scale solar has to play a big role in that,” says Barbara Boyle, a Sierra Club green energy specialist.
The Obama administration agrees. The U.S. Department of Interior has fast-tracked approval of 26 large-scale solar plants on public lands since 2009, including Ivanpah and nine that it cleared in August. Dozens more could rise across the American desert under a just-released Interior plan that allocates 285,000 public acres to 17 solar zones. An additional 19 million acres, an area almost the size of West Virginia, could be thrown open for solar if Interior decides it’s necessary. The goal is to produce 23,700 megawatts, enough to power 7 million homes, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Janine Blaeloch, director of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, another public lands watchdog, has no problem with those goals—just the approach. She notes that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year identified 80,000 to 250,000 abandoned mine sites, millions of already degraded acres, that could be used for solar and other renewable energy projects. “Why isn’t Interior considering these sites first instead of condoning the ritual privatization of the public desert?” she asks.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the agency’s solar plans have winnowed public lands down to those where there are a “minimum of resource conflicts.” Advocates of the tortoise point to the Ivanpah experience and wonder if that’s true. The Bureau of Land Management had projected that 38 tortoises would lose their homes as a result of the project, yet 144 have been found, 67 of them vulnerable juveniles. All but 19 of the adults have been successfully relocated. The tab for transplanting and building new burrows for this threatened species, which has a poor track record of being moved, is $56 million and counting. The juveniles are enrolled in what BrightSource calls a tortoise “head start” program and will be pampered for five years before being put back in the wild. “We’re doing the right thing,” says spokesman Joseph Desmond. “But it’s expensive.”