Massive Calif. solar proposal faces species, water issues

A 1,000-megawatt solar power plant planned for Riverside County, Calif., could strain local groundwater supplies and infringe on habitat for endangered desert tortoises and rare plants. But state and federal regulators say they are confident the project can be built as long as proper mitigation measures are taken.

In a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) issued last week, the Bureau of Land Management and California Energy Commission said the Blythe Solar Power Project, which would occupy 9,400 acres of federal land, would, among other things, destroy 7,040 acres of habitat for the federally protected tortoises, which occupy a broad swath of the Southern California desert.

For the project to proceed, its developers -- Chevron Energy Solutions and Solar Millennium LLC -- would have to offset the lost tortoise habitat by purchasing an equal-sized tract of land and relocate an undetermined number of animals to the new site. But similar relocation efforts, including at the Army's Fort Irwin, have had mixed success.

In addition, more than 6,400 acres of Sonoran creosote bush scrub, used for foraging by golden eagles and other species, would be graded to make room for solar arrays, according to the draft EIS. Regulators say such habitat is notoriously difficult to restore and could take as long as 3,000 years to completely recover from a project of Blythe's scope.

Other impacts, while not included in the draft EIS, could become evident as regulators review additional information being submitted by the project's developers, said Michele Demetras, a spokeswoman for the California Energy Commission.

The draft EIS will be open to public comment for 90 days, according to BLM, with a final document expected by July.

While supportive of renewable energy in general, environmentalists have grown increasingly concerned that large solar projects in the Southwest will alter the highly complex and fragile ecosystems there. Advocacy groups are giving a special level of scrutiny to nine commercial-scale solar projects selected by the Interior Department for "fast-track" permitting. Those projects, which include Blythe, must receive permits by the end of 2010 to be eligible for grants made available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Joshua Basofin, California representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Sacramento, said he was concerned about the fast-tracking of projects like Blythe, especially when regulators lack all of the facts about what impacts a large solar project may have on natural resources.

"That's a very troubling thing we're now seeing because that's contradictory to the purpose of an EIS, which is full disclosure of environmental impacts," said Basofin. "The nature of fast-tracking is sort of rushing these environmental documents and putting the cart before the horse."

But Alice Harron, senior director of development for Berkeley, Calif.-based Solar Millennium, said the plant, which would be built in four 250-megawatt phases, would meet all conditions set out by BLM and California regulators. "We are building and we will operate this plant in the most environmentally responsible way possible," she said.


A full build-out of the 1,000-megawatt plant would take about six years, ultimately generating enough electricity to power 350,000 homes. Proponents say the Blythe project, and others like it, will also be key to meeting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) executive order requiring that 33 percent of the state's electricity come from renewable energy sources by 2020.

Fast-tracked projects

The Blythe project is the fourth and largest of nine fast-tracked solar projects to reach the draft EIS stage. If all of the plants were built, they would generate an estimated 4,580 megawatts -- enough to power about 1.6 million homes, according to federal estimates.

Last month, regulators released draft EIS's for Stirling Energy Systems Inc.'s 750-megawatt Solar Two project in the Imperial Valley 14 miles east of El Centro, and the 45-megawatt Lucerne Valley Solar Project in San Bernardino County, also sought by Chevron Energy Solutions (Land Letter, Feb. 18).

And in November, BLM and the California Energy Commission issued a draft EIS for BrightSource Energy Inc.'s Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Station in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County (Land Letter, Nov. 12, 2009).

As with Blythe, the Ivanpah project raised concerns about impacts to desert tortoises and rare plants, prompting Oakland-based BrightSource to scale back its original proposal from 440 megawatts to 392 megawatts, including cutting the project's footprint by 12 percent (Greenwire, Feb. 22).

The California Energy Commission yesterday issued a final assessment addendum for Ivanpah stating that BrightSource had done enough to reduce the project's major impacts to "less than significant levels." But CEC said impacts to "visual resources" in the Ivanpah Valley and Clark Mountains remain "unmitigable," and that the cumulative effect on land use and transportation would also be significant.

Lastly, the commission noted that its recommendation to build Ivanpah should not be viewed as "a blanket endorsement" of solar projects or associated transmission infrastructure (ClimateWire, March 18).

For Blythe and the remaining fast-tracked projects to meet their own ambitious deadlines, developers will have to move quickly to resolve questions raised by regulators, who themselves are under political pressure from advocacy groups and some members of Congress to maintain a high level of safeguards for fragile natural resources.

"That's why we're moving at breakneck speed," said Demetras of the CEC.

But resolving some issues, like desert tortoise mitigation, may prove both time-consuming and costly for developers.

Under Blythe's permit conditions, Solar Millennium will have to both purchase a 7,000-acre desert tract and establish an endowment for long-term management of the site for tortoises, all of which is projected to cost about $16 million. Harron said the company is on track to finalize such a land purchase.

Developers will also have to install "exclusionary fencing" to keep the tortoises from burrowing onto the project site, develop a plan to manage an expected increase of ravens -- a predator of the tortoise -- and provide "environmental awareness training programs" to site workers to reduce accidental harm to tortoises and other sensitive wildlife.

"They do take all of this very seriously, and that's a good thing," Demetras said. "That should keep the environmentalists happy."

Larry LaPre, a wildlife biologist for the BLM's desert district, estimated that no more than 10 tortoises would need to be relocated from the Blythe project site. "With a very low number such as less than 10, it's not so bad," LaPre said.

But species advocates, such as Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity, cautioned that tortoise relocation is risky, and that regulators must "consider the potential failure of translocation as a mitigation strategy."

The largest tortoise relocation project to date, at the Army's Fort Irwin near Barstow, Calif., involved moving 770 tortoises from training grounds on the base to adjacent federal land managed by BLM. But the program was temporarily halted after 90 of 556 relocated tortoises died, mostly due to coyote predation. Others were hit by vehicles while trying to return to their original range on the Army base.

"It really doesn't bode well for the tortoise," Anderson said of the relocation efforts.

Water issues

Another concern is the project's projected groundwater withdrawals.

According to the draft EIS, the plant would require an average of 195 million gallons of groundwater per year to wash solar panels, cool generating equipment and meet other needs.

That level of groundwater use, while modest compared to what is consumed by some agricultural operations, remains a key issue for regulators who noted that such supplies are "the only available source of water" in the region, known as the Palo Verde Mesa Groundwater Basin.

Further complicating matters is that the Palo Verde Mesa basin is considered a tributary to the Colorado River, one of the most tightly regulated waters in the West and a vital freshwater source for millions of people. To mitigate expected Colorado River impacts, the Blythe plant's developers must purchase water rights or pay offsets for the use of the groundwater, according to the draft EIS.

Proponents note that the Blythe plant will use an advanced dry-cooling method for its equipment that is expected to cut water demand by more than 50 million gallons over conventional cooling technologies.

Nevertheless, the draft EIS notes that "calculations and assumptions used to evaluate potential groundwater level impacts are imprecise and have limitations and uncertainties associated with them."

To guard against water overconsumption, regulators are requiring developers to "develop a monitoring, mitigation and reporting program and identify what changes are occurring in basin water levels."

"We're very well aware of the sensitive water issues," Harron said. "We've designed our project to avoid and minimize impacts."

Click here to read the draft EIS.

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

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