Southern California is poised to become the world's solar power capital as the Obama administration continues to stamp its approval on large-scale renewable energy projects across the Mojave and Colorado deserts.
Since Aug. 1, the Bureau of Land Management has issued final environmental impact statements (EISs) for three commercial solar plants that, once built, will cover nearly 20,000 acres of BLM land in the desert regions and produce enough electricity to power nearly 1.6 million homes.
Final EISs were issued on Friday to Tessera Solar's 850-megawatt Calico Solar plant and BrightSource Energy Inc.'s 392-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. Both plants are to be built in sparsely populated eastern San Bernardino County, California's largest county.
The Calico and Ivanpah EISs follow the release of a final environmental impact statement for Tessera Solar's 709-megawatt Imperial Valley project in Imperial County, which borders Arizona and Mexico in the southeast corner of the state (Land Letter, Aug. 5).
While the issuance of a final EIS does not authorize construction, which is a state responsibility, it removes the last major regulatory hurdle in getting a large-scale energy project involving federal land off the ground.
Collectively, the Tessera and BrightSource projects would produce more than triple the amount of solar power currently produced in the United States. And they are just the first of more than a dozen plants nearing final approval on federal lands in Arizona, California and Nevada.
By the end of August, BLM plans to publish final EISs for three more commercial solar projects in the agency's California Desert District, said Linda Resseguie, BLM's solar program lead in Washington, D.C. And another three solar plants are expected to reach the final EIS stage by the end of the year, Resseguie said.
These nine California plants, if fully built, would cover 41,229 acres of BLM land and have the capacity to generate 4,580 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power 3.8 million businesses and homes, according to federal estimates.
"It's huge," Ken Zweibel, director of the George Washington University Solar Institute, said of the projects moving toward final approval. "These projects are going to change the very nature of solar energy in the world because there is nothing of this magnitude or scale that's going on."
Industry officials, too, are excited about the Obama administration's commitment to solar power after years of positive statements from federal agencies supporting the renewables sector, but with few new power plants to show for it.
"Our perspective is that finally the logjam seems to be loosening," said Monique Hanis, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association. "We're talking about gigawatts of electricity that can power tens of millions of homes."
A looming deadline
But concerns remain about the pace of permitting.
The nine solar projects in Southern California, along with one in Arizona and four in Nevada, have been placed by the Interior Department on a "fast-track" permitting schedule that should qualify developers to receive lucrative federal grants from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The projects, however, must be under construction by Dec. 31 to receive federal stimulus dollars.
"It's taken a while, and we are now getting near the end of the year," Hanis said.
And not all of the fast-tracked projects are on pace to meet that year-end deadline.
Examples include the proposed 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight Solar Farm project in Riverside County, Calif., and three Nevada projects totaling 610 megawatts, Resseguie said.
The Desert Sunlight project "will likely not be permitted by the end of 2010," said Alan Bernheimer, a spokesman for First Solar Inc., the project's Tempe, Ariz.-based developer.
First Solar officials said the project could still qualify for economic stimulus funding because the company has proposed by year's end to manufacture a significant number of the photovoltaic solar panels needed for the project -- thus qualifying as beginning construction by the deadline, Bernheimer said.
"While it's true that the permit is needed before construction can start, projects may also qualify if significant physical work begins offsite by the end of 2010, such as manufacturing components for the project," he said in an e-mail to Land Letter.
Resseguie acknowledged that permitting multiple large-scale solar power projects on such a tight schedule has placed the agency on a steep learning curve.
"It is definitely new for the BLM, the size and scope for these types of projects," she said. "It's new for the companies, too, because we just don't have this large development anywhere else. So there are definitely going to be issues that we have not encountered anywhere else."
Altering the landscape
But others say the federal government is moving too fast in approving the projects, particularly in Southern California.
The nine solar power projects, if built, would represent a major step forward in the Obama administration's efforts to dramatically expand the use of renewable energy from sources like solar, wind and geothermal power. It would also help state utilities meet Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) directive that they generate 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
But it will come at a cost. The solar projects would permanently alter the Mojave and Colorado desert regions' ecosystems, displacing rare plants and animals and straining already scarce water resources in one of the most arid landscapes in the country.
Responding to such concerns, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced legislation last year that would place nearly 1 million acres of the Mojave Desert off-limits to energy development. Feinstein's "California Desert Protection Act" also outlined steps to ensure renewable energy projects are sited in areas that pose minimal environmental risk (Land Letter, Jan. 7).
While introducing the bill last December, Feinstein said the federal government "has failed" to protect sensitive areas and criticized BLM for being "slow to direct development towards disturbed lands or to discourage proposals on lands acquired for the purpose of conservation."
None of the nine fast-tracked solar projects would fall within the 1 million acres of desert that Feinstein wants to preserve.
Still, some environmentalists remain unhappy that the government is driving so much renewable energy development toward public lands.
"We need to get out of this mindset of where we're looking only to federal land to site these projects, to one where we're looking for the best places to site the projects," said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation group. "That's not to say public land does not have a role to play, but it can't be the only source."
For its part, industry has made substantial efforts to avoid or minimize environmental impacts, including in some cases significantly revising project proposals.
Example: BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar plant in the Mojave Desert.
The original proposal called for the project occupying 4,073 acres of undisturbed land, "substantially affecting many sensitive plant and wildlife species and eliminating a broad expanse of relatively undisturbed Mojave Desert habitat," according to the BLM's draft EIS of the project.
But in February, BrightSource agreed to scale back the project to avoid habitat for federally protected desert tortoises. The new proposal reduced the project's overall footprint by 12 percent and its total electricity output to 392 megawatts from 440 megawatts (Greenwire, Feb. 22).
Another example is the Imperial Valley project, where Tessera Solar agreed to avoid building solar dishes on dry creek beds that are important for groundwater recharge and flood control. The result is that the company will build about 1,700 fewer dish systems, reducing overall electricity capacity at the plant to 709 megawatts from 750 megawatts.
But there are some unavoidable impacts.
Both the Ivanpah and Calico projects would impact desert tortoises. And the Imperial Valley project would fragment habitat for the flat-tailed horned lizard, which the Fish and Wildlife Service is currently studying for possible listing under the Endangered Species Act.
"All of these projects have significant concerns," said Ileene Anderson, a staff biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity in Los Angeles. "These are good projects in bad locations."
Scarce water resources
Solar's rise in California, in particular, could also pose significant harm to groundwater aquifers.
The Ivanpah, Calico and Imperial Valley plants would collectively consume an estimated 49.7 million gallons of groundwater a year, according to federal records.
Water consumption ranks alongside wildlife habitat impacts as the biggest obstacles to permitting large solar plants, which by their very definition must be sited in areas of intense sunlight and scarce rainfall.
That concern surfaced last year when National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, while serving as the agency's Pacific West regional director, warned BLM in a formal memorandum that federal approval of dozens of solar plants could dramatically impact water supplies across the southern Nevada and California region (Land Letter, April 23, 2009).
"This has been very much a concern for BLM as we started to get into and analyze these projects," Resseguie said.
But as with wildlife habitat impacts, Resseguie credited the industry with taking innovative steps to reduce water consumption.
Tessera Solar, for example, plans to eventually use treated wastewater to wash solar panels at its Imperial Valley plant. The proposal calls for building an 11.8-mile pipeline to the nearby city of Seeley to carry treated water to the desert facility. The company would pay for upgrades to the city's wastewater treatment plant to ensure the piped water meets federal quality standards.
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.