In the California Energy Commission's (CEC) Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project, the CEC recommended against the project, citing the potential damage to biological resources could not be mitigated. Solar Millenium proposed building a 250MW dry-cooled solar energy plant on a 3,995 acre right-of-way just west of Ridgecrest -- approximately 2,000 acres would be disturbed for the site construction and operation. Overall, the CEC Staff's recommendation is a very positive sign that the certification process can account for the need to preserve wilderness and biological treasures in the Mojave Desert. Despite the Staff's assessment, the final decision will not be made until after the CEC holds evidentiary hearings and the presiding member makes a final decision. The staff assessment is not a final verdict.
As mentioned in an earlier post examining preliminary biological surveys of the site, the Ridgecrest project would displace at least 40 desert tortoises located on the site. The desert tortoises on the site belong to the most threatened segment of the Mojave population--the Kramer-Fremont unit. This genetic unit of the desert tortoise exists in the far western Mojave, which is some of the most fractured and trampled Mojave habitat. Thus, the existence of 40 desert tortoise belonging to this unit on the proposed site is quite significant, as noted in the Environmental Impact Statement.
In addition to jeopardizing desert tortoises, the site would also infringe upon habitat for the endangered Mojave ground squirrel, and the Western burrowing owl. Desert kit fox were also spotted on the site during the survey. CEC Staff particularly noted that the site could interrupt a key wildlife corridor of importance to maintaining a healthy Mojave ground squirrel population.
CEC staff concluded that the Ridgecrest Solar Power project would incur damages to the Mojave Desert that could not be recovered or compensated through mitigation. Nonetheless, the CEC staff proposed conditions for certification in the even that the CEC presiding member ultimately approves of the project. If the project were to be approved, and the CEC proposed conditions accepted, Solar Millenium would have to fund the purchase of at least 10,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat for conservation and off-set. This is a 5:1 "mitigation" ratio (mitigation is in quotes because the CEC staff concluded the sufficient mitigation would not be possible for this site). In comparison, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the eastern Mojave could be subjected to a 3:1 mitigation ratio. The land acquisition condition would be in addition to an array of other conditions, such as biologist monitoring of construction, and a raven monitoring and control plan.
I'll keep you all posted on any further developments in the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project. If anyone has any photos of the site are and wildlife there, feel free to forward them along to me and I'll post them on the site with proper attribution.