A poll last fall by the Gotham Research Group, commissioned by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), found that 75 percent of Americans in various regions, demographics and political parties approve of utility-scale solar plants on public lands. So why are solar thermal developers in California having so much trouble getting projects approved?
“It’s green-on-green violence,” said Ted Sullivan, an analyst at Lux Research in New York. “Do you want reduced carbon emissions or do you want to save an endangered species?”
Solar Millenium’s Ridgecrest Solar Power Project, is a good example of the trouble solar thermal developers in California are experiencing. Ridgecrest is a 250 megawatt (MW) project, located on the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administered land five miles west of the town of Ridgecrest in Kern County, CA on about 1,448 acres in the high northern Mojave Desert.
In June 2009, Southern California Edison announced it signed a contract to purchase energy from Ridgecrest. However, in January of this year, Solar Millenium announced it canceled the project. The company’s CEO Josef Eichhammer stated in a letter to the California Energy Commission and the BLM that the project is “unlikely to be open to a recommendation of approval.”
Ridgecrest came under heavy criticism from conservationist groups and local citizens for its potential impact on Mojave Desert tortoises (listed as an endangered species) and ground squirrels, the amount of water it would use, and Valley Fever spores it might stir up. Valley Fever is a respiratory disease native to the Mojave Desert, the San Joaquin Valley of California, and parts of Arizona.
The canceled Ridgecrest project highlights the complexity of California’s environmental problems. It is a project that would have helped meet the current 20 percent renewable portfolio standard (RPS). The California State Senate passed a bill last week that requires utilities to generate 33 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2020. The legislation is a proverbial “done-deal” where Democrats have a majority in the Assembly, where it is headed. Governor Jerry Brown is sure to sign it into law.
Development on public lands is a good idea as long as the development does not impact the environment. As a co-authored editorial by the Sierra Club, National Resources Defense Committee (NRDC), and the Wilderness Society noted, “there are many good locations.” The “good locations” the editorial mentions include, “former industrial sites, brownfields and abandoned agricultural lands.” All places which would “have the least impacts on wildlife and natural resources.”
Perhaps a better location for solar power plants, both solar thermal and photovoltaic panels, is the San Joaquin Valley which has a number of areas of abandoned agricultural lands and many sunny days. For instance, a region in the Central San Joaquin Valley called the Westside (in Fresno and Kings counties), has areas of fallow farm land in part due to salt buildup in irrigation water. The website for the Westlands Solar Park, a proposed solar power project on the Westside, describes it as a “public-private effort to master plan renewable development for large scale solar projects in California’s Central Valley.” It is studying 30,000 acres of “disturbed land” it hopes to develop in stages. Passing by abandoned farmland almost every Sunday afternoon on the way to my sister’s house in Lemoore, a town on the Westside, I think the area is ripe for projects like the Westlands Solar Park. An added bonus is that there is not much wildlife left in the area to be impacted after generations of farming.