Million Dollar Tortoises a Symbol of Environmental Schizophrenia

This may not be a very popular post with some readers, but I feel it is my duty to present the other side of an issue, and maybe help Greens understand why business people and even average Joes sometimes think they’re completely crazy.

The Mojave Desert Tortoise is a threatened species that lives in the Mojave Desert. Brightsource Energy is a solar thermal power company that wants to provide clean, renewable energy to California. Brightsource, tortoise. Tortoise, Brightsource.

Both tortoise and solar company are “green,” in the sense that one is a cute, threatened animal, and the other because it is helping to mitigate global warming.

Yet in order to build its proposed 392 megawatt “Ivanpah” solar plant in the Mojave, Brightsource will have to spend, by the most recent complete figures available, about $20 million to relocate about 20 desert tortoises.

That’s $1 million a tortoise.

The money will be spent to buy 12,000 acres of desert land to accommodate the tortoises, plus a trust fund to care for them in perpetuity. The tortoises currently live on only 4,000 acres, but apparently a tract of land can only support 33 percent more wildlife than already exists there, so when they’re moved to a new neighborhood they’ll have to be dispersed over three times the area.

(Brightsource recently announced the affected tortoises may only number 17, but gave no revised figure for cost)

Brightsource’s plant, which uses concentrated sunlight to run a steam turbine and generate electricity, has a $1.5 billion price tag so $25 million might seem like chump change. But the fact is, that’s $25 million that’s not being spent on other things, like the next solar power plant — or other green jobs.

The company is being a good sport, telling the San Bernardino Sun it “wants to set a good environmental precedent for future solar power plants.”

If there are any.

Brightsource clearly takes its environmental obligations seriously and without complaint. So I’ll complain for them.

The problem is the obstacles to building solar plants on federal lands are having a dispiriting effect on the industry. It is not just the money, but the myriad bureaucratic hurdles and permissions necessary to get the land which delay projects and scare away investors.

Last year, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in Congress that would create two new federal monuments in the Mojave, effectively banning solar development there. Before it could even become law, the legislation killed a dozen projects already in the works.

On March 17th, the staff of the California Energy Commission recommended that the Ivanpah plant go forward, after Brightsource shrunk the size of the power station to protect more tortoises.

Environmentalists continue to object.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

6 responses

  1. Classic. This is not only dumb, but it's the reason environmentalists get a bad name – even though this is about bureaucrats, not environmentalists.

    Still, I'm not sure I want to see the entire desert covered in solar panels – I'd rather see that happen to LA rooftops, so even though this particular story is insane, it's part of a bigger picture.

  2. I do believe that the tortoises should be relocated, but there is no reason why it should cost that amount. I could probably fit 20 of them in the bed of my pick-up….and would accept LESS than 20 million to transport them :P

  3. BC- I see your point. However, the assertion that BrightSource is paying 1 million dollars per tortoise translocated misses the intricacies of the issue. First of all, the company is not translocating the tortoises. It is relocating them very close to the project site. I understand that many of them are going to an area that was slated for construction for part of the Ivanpah 3 plant before BrightSource redesigned Ivanpah 3 to avoid this area due to high occurrence of rare plant species on these 433 acres. You make it sound as though they are buying far-off land and spending a lot of $$ to move the tortoises. (Hence the confusion of your commentors.) Not so.

    The requirement to purchase land is complex and has to do with overall environmental mitigation of the site, not just the impacts to the tortoise. The National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act require environmental mitigation and remediation for development projects on public lands. Many of these solar projects require a complete blade and grade of the site (4,000 + acres) and have biological resource issues beyond just the tortoise, as well as efficiency issues, air quality issues, carbon mitigation over the life cycle issues etc. (Though it should be noted that BrightSource in particular is trying to avoid as much blading and pouring of cement as possible!) Concentrating solar power plants also result in multiple-use BLM sites being turned into single-use solar facilities for the 30-year life span of the plant and beyond. A huge part of this debate, is determining what measures should be taken to mitigate these environmental impacts– the standard option is purchasing lands elsewhere equivalent to the lands used by the development project, but other measures, like tortoise education, are being discussed as alternatives.

    The BrightSource project and other projects are being held to the same standards as any other development project on federal lands; the environmental impacts are expected to be mitigated. We would expect silicon mines that provide silicon for solar PV panels to undertake mitigation and remediation measures. Or perhaps you wouldn't, but if your opposition is to environmental mitigation for renewable energy development on public lands, then you should couch your argument in these terms. The $1 million/ per tortoise argument doesn't allow people to discuss and debate the extremely important issues at stake relating to renewable energy development in the desert.

    You might want to read the environmental impact statements at….

  4. One of the few reasonable articles on the subject. We should not jeopardize the planet in order to save a few tortoises. Solar Thermal is clearly our best option for clean energy to the masses but environmentalists want to kill it because of a few tortoises, thus leaving up coal fired plants, which do exponentially more damage to the environment.

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