Southern California Edison announced this month a plan to buy solar power from First Solar Inc.'s proposed Silver State South solar project. The "power purchase agreement" gives the solar energy company more confidence that its project would be economically viable. However, the Silver State South project is proposed for an ecologically important area of the Mojave Desert known as the Ivanpah Valley, which is home to an abundant and thriving desert tortoise population, according to biological surveys of the area, even though the species is declining in the rest of its range. Biologists have also discovered a new plant species in the area.
First Solar has not received Federal approval to build the Silver State South project, which would destroy over 12 square miles of pristine desert. The Department of Interior approved the smaller Silver State North project--approximately 500 acres--but declined to give the green light to the South project, citing concerns over impacts on the endangered desert tortoise. First Solar is also considering building the "Stateline" solar power project, also proposed for the Ivanpah Valley, although this has not yet progressed beyond initial planning.
First Solar is likely to encounter significant hurdles in its attempts to build in the Ivanpah Valley given the significant environmental concerns. It's not clear why First Solar chose sites here, and the company could have pursued projects on already-disturbed land or invested in more distributed generation projects. The Ivanpah Valley projects would necessitate a costly upgrade to the transmission lines in the area, causing even more ecological damage.
In January, Western Watersheds Project filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior for approving BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, which would share the same valley with First Solar's projects. The legal challenge points to numerous shortcomings in the environmental review process, approving the project without adequate understanding of mitigation measures, and not reviewing the transmission line upgrade that would be necessary for the solar facility to be fully functional. Biologists have already displaced 50 desert tortoises during initial clearing of the BrightSource Energy site, despite only estimating a maximum of 38 for the entire project.