Solar Trust of America -- the front company for German firm Solar Millennium -- initially proposed the Ridgecrest solar power project in 2009, but the CEC staff assessment in March 2010 recommended against certifying the project because of its impacts on biological resources, including over 40 desert tortoises, Western burrowing owls, Mohave ground squirrel, and kit fox. After some flip-flopping, Solar Millennium decided it wanted to make some marginal modifications and pretend that a redesigned project would not be as harmful. The firm, which received approval for other solar projects in California and Nevada, also decided to switch from solar thermal technology to photovoltaic (PV) panels -- the same panels used more wisely on rooftop installations in cities. PV panels are much cheaper than the solar thermal technology.
The CEC's founding legislation, however, is widely interpreted as not giving it authority to license PV projects, only thermal energy. This put Solar Millennium in a bind. It's projects already approved by the CEC as solar thermal projects would need to be submitted for additional review if they changed the technology to PV. California's State legislature made this easy by passing a law that said any solar thermal projects approved by late 2011 that later wanted to convert to PV could stick with the CEC process.
|Desert wildflowers in bloom on the site of the proposed Ridgecrest solar power project.|
Folks have a reason to be nervous about this solar project proposal, which Solar Millennium sold to German firm Solarhybrid along with its other projects. The CEC staff stuck to their guns throughout the earlier review, noting the irreparable harm that industrial-scale development of these lands could do to Mojave Desert wildlife. But solar companies have proven persistent and stubborn in attempts to get their way with public lands. What these solar companies do not understand is that they have stumbled clumsily onto ecologically intact habitat that are vital to the health of our desert lands and provide enjoyment to citizens who prefer solar panels be installed on rooftops instead of on beautiful landscapes.
The hard-nosed and blind persistence by for-profit companies is what worries me about the CEC's proposed decision to let companies "opt-in" to CEC review. Ridgecrest is one of the only large solar projects that the CEC has opposed, but several others were approved following a faulty environmental review process that underestimated presence of threatened species and ignored cumulative impacts. Hopefully the CEC will follow a policy of "no-regrets" and stay true to its duty to protect our natural resources from unnecessary harm in the case of the Ridgecrest project. By allowing PV projects to opt-in to CEC review, a dynamic may arise where companies seek to avoid local government regulations that may be more representative of local concerns and value placed on natural resources. The CEC cannot ignore recent history -- it has earned a reputation for fast-tracking unnecessary destruction of public lands, using "override" designations to ignore significant impacts on threatened species and cultural resources. Even if it has opposed Ridgecrest, it has taken several other steps in the wrong direction by approving Ivanpah, Imperial Valley and Blythe solar power projects.