Solar Executives Ask for More Taxpayer Land and Money As Protesters Gather

Protesters gathered this week outside the offices of Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, which is building the 5.6 square mile Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System on public land and using nearly 1.6 billion dollars in taxpayer-backed financing.  The project is now expected to kill hundreds of adult and juvenile tortoises, according to a revised biological assessment by the Department of Interior, which has temporarily halted the project until the US Fish and Wildlife Service makes a determination on how the project should proceed.  

The protesters outside of BrightSource's corporate offices drew attention to rooftop solar, a much wiser alternative to destructive utility-scale projects that enables homeowners and businesses to invest in their own property and cut utility bills.  Solar energy industry executives, however, are more interested in receiving handouts from Washington for their destructive projects in the desert, and are planning to request even more public land and money at a US House of Representatives hearing in June.

This photograph by Erin Whitfield shows preliminary grading taking place for initial phases of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.  The destruction shown here is only about a third of the total proposed project.
The Solar energy industry is likely to ask for a faster review process by the Department of Interior and continued stimulus funding, apparently unsatisfied with the "fast-track" process that resulted in several large projects being approved last year, despite serious environmental and cultural concerns.  One 9 square miles project in the Sonoran Desert was halted by a judge because the Department of Interior failed to conduct a proper review and consultation with Native American tribes, while the approval of other projects face pending legal hurdles.

Western Watersheds Projects filed a legal challenge against Department of Interior's approval of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah facility citing inadequate review of the environmental impacts, including on the desert tortoise.  Western Watershed's concerns were validated over recent months as Washington scrambles to deal with the reality of impacts on tortoises that are higher than they estimated during the environmental review last year.

The thriving tortoise population in the Ivanpah Valley is a testament to the pristine state of desert habitat there, given that the tortoise is in decline throughout its range, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.  Some estimates indicate that the tortoise population has dropped nearly 90 percent since the 1980s due to disease and habitat loss. The density of tortoises in the Ivanpah Valley, which is situated in the northeastern Mojave Desert, seems uncharacteristically high right now.  But that will change quickly with the construction of BrightSource Energy's facility.  Two other projects proposed by First Solar Inc--the Silver State and Stateline projects--would destroy an additional 15 square miles of pristine public land in the Ivanpah Valley.

A desert tortoise out foraging.
Many citizens are questioning the wisdom of massive solar projects that will only raise electric rates and destroy hundreds of square miles of pristine desert if the dozens of proposed projects are ultimately approved.  Most of the projects probably could not get off the ground without heavy subsidies from taxpayers, according to energy industry watchers.  

Meanwhile western states and Washington are slow to see a much greater opportunity that could create jobs while cutting down greenhouse gas emissions.  Instead of hearing the complaints of solar energy industry executives, the House Natural Resources Committee might want to look into policies that can expedite distributed generation.  For example, national legislation on property assessed clean energy (PACE), would pave the way for homeowners to invest in their own rooftop solar installation using locally issued financing paid back over time.   Instead of giving loans to large solar companies, funding should instead be directed toward community solar projects that can benefit local property values, create jobs, and save public land from needless destruction.

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