I finally got around to reading the transcripts from the 11-12 January California Energy Commission (CEC) hearings regarding the impact of the proposed Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) on biological resources. The January hearings underscore the reluctance of Brightsource Energy--the company intending to build the nearly 4,000-acre facility in the East Mojave--to pay for the CEC's request that 8,000 acres be purchased and set aside in perpetuity for the protection of sensitive species, to include the Desert Tortoise and the Rusby's Desert Mallow. In addition to the acquisition of 8000 acres, Brightsource would also have to pay funds to help manage existing sensitive habitat on BLM land.
Brightsource would be expected to pay approximately $20 million dollars for the "BIO-17" (which is the designation of CEC's proposed mitigation plan) efforts to offset the loss of important desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley. During the hearing, scientists and experts defended the need for such an expensive mitigation effort by noting a number of characteristics that make the Ivanpah site unique from a biological stand point. These characteristics include:
--The 25 or so desert tortoises living on the BLM property sought after by Brightsource belong to an "evolutionary significant unit" (ESU) of tortoises, whose gene pool is important to maintaining genetic diversity among all tortoises in the Mojave. Genetic diversity is key to any species' survival.
--Botanists consulted on the project site also concluded that the site is significant for its plant life because of a diverse array of species and variations in the habitat, to include Mojave, Yuba and Nevada ephemeral scrub. In addition to the Rusby's Desert Mallow, the site hosts Mojave Milkweed, Parish Club Cholla, and Desert Pincushion.
--Of all of the rare plants, botanists testified that the Mojave Milkweed's occurence on the Ivanpah site caused the most concern, since there are only 22 known occurrences of the plant and most of them are on the Ivanpah site.
--Bighorn sheep are believed to migrate through nearby mountains, and construction on the site could impact grazing and migration.
Because Ivanpah is one of the first large utility-scale solar applications to contend for biologically significant land, the process has illuminated a number of key challenges that will likely only be compounded by the multitude of other applications for energy construction on Mojave Desert land. Some of the issues that arose during the hearing include:
--The CEC staff and California Department of Fish and Game experts conceded that the identification of available and biologically suitable land for acquisition as part of the desert tortoise mitigation proposal will be difficult for future solar projects. The Ivanpah mitigation plan would require 8000 acres of suitable land to set aside and offset the loss of tortoise habitat for this project. If other proposed solar projects come online, nearly 120 square miles of mitigation land would need to be acquired from private sources, which would be difficult. State and Federal authorities are looking to establish a mechanism through the Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT) that would consolidate mitigation efforts, which will be the subject of a future post on this blog.
--Biologists testified that the Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan has not been sufficiently funded, which is one reason the efforts to save this endangered species have not been as successful as desired. Energy development at Ivanpah and other sites would thus compound the problems faced by the species, and squeeze their population and territory when recovery efforts implemented years ago have not yet allowed the species to establish a stable foothold. For this reason the BLM would likely use their portion of the Ivanpah mitigation funds to manage existing tortoise recovery efforts.
--The proposed desert tortoise relocation has been criticized since similar relocation efforts at Fort Irwin have resulted in additional hardships on the relocated tortoises.
--The Ivanpah plan would be one of the first attempts to implement and monitor plant avoidance and rare species protection efforts on such a large scale in the Mojave Desert. Projects in other types of habitat have shown that plant avoidance and protection is in a relatively developmental phase, and at least one botanist familiar with Mojave plants is concerned that the proposed avoidance and mitigation efforts will preserve the rare plants on the site.
View Ivanpah Valley in a larger map
Unfortunately, Brightsource appeared to be focused on its bottom-line, and their representatives at the hearing aimed to question the viability of CEC's proposed biological mitigation efforts as unprecedented and unrealistic. Brightsource pointed out that acquiring 8000 acres of mitigation land would be difficult, and since future energy projects would have an even more difficult time finding suitable mitigation land, Brightsource conveyed that it was unfair that the CEC expected it to acquire the land. Brightsource's questions also tried to point out that there were other threats to the desert tortoise that were not required to purchase mitigation land in an attempt to undermine the CEC's proposal. Panel experts, however, noted the Luz energy project that involved a 5:1 mitigation condition, which is an even larger ratio than the condition imposed on Brightsource. Brightsource's mitigation condition would be 3:1, which is composed of a requirement to acquire mitigation land at a 2:1 ratio for its planned 4,000 acre project, thus requiring the company to find 8000 acres. The remaining 1:1 would consist of funds paid by Brightsource that would fund tortoise management efforts.
As I've noted in previous posts regarding the Ivanpah project, solar energy is a necessary step toward reducing dependency on fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions. However, there is a smart way to build solar energy capacity, and companies need to learn that not every location in the Mojave Desert is suitable for such vast fields of solar panels. Other companies have managed to locate and acquire more ideal sites, such as former agricultural lands, and lands already disturbed by nearby population centers. Unfortunately, Brightsource chose what has been characterized as a biologically significant site, and if the project is allowed to go forward it should not be without costs. Brightsource is applying to use public land, managed by the BLM. There are other uses and different types of value accorded to the land on which Brightsource intends to build. Brightsource's proposed use does not outweigh the value placed on that land as the January hearings clearly show, so the company should have to come to terms with its poor siting decision and appropriately off-set the damage its choice will impose on the Mojave Desert, if it's even allowed to move forward at all.