BrightSource Energy Falling Short on Mitigation Measures

Biologists tried to warn BrightSource Energy not to build a massive solar project in the Ivanpah Valley -- an area with a particularly high number of the normally hard-to-find desert tortoise.  The company did not listen, and the company's costly plans to "mitigate" its environmental damage may not do much to improve the recovery of this threatened species.  Now that it has mowed and bulldozed nearly 5.6 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat, the company is now responsible for nearly 400 orphaned or displaced tortoises that have survived the bulldozer blades or were born to mothers that were put in cages during construction. Several tortoises died last year after being attacked by ants in their holding pens, or after they were left wandering the construction area now devoid of any life-saving shade and burrows.  In May, the company reported to the California Energy Commission (CEC) that 6 tortoises have been lost -- three of the tortoises were juveniles being held by BrightSource in cages on the project site, and it is not clear how they disappeared from the facility.

Construction of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project in the northeastern Mojave Desert. Less than 2/3 of the destruction is visible in this photo, taken in April, with ground disturbance and clearing still in progress.
To offset the loss of so much desert tortoise habitat needed to build the project, BrightSource Energy was expected to buy and preserve desert tortoise habitat "as close to the project site as possible," according to conditions set forth in the CEC's final approval for the project, with the aim of specifically aiding the tortoise population in the northeastern Mojave Desert.  The Ivanpah Solar project and two additional proposed solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley here in the northeastern Mojave are expected to take an enormous toll on the local tortoise population and impede on long-term tortoise health and recovery prospects by blocking a wildlife corridor.   Now it appears that BrightSource energy will not even preserve habitat in the northeastern Mojave, opting instead buy desert habitat for preservation in the western Mojave nearly 140 miles away from the solar project site, according to the Press-Enterprise 

To be certain, the western Mojave population of the desert tortoise also faces threats from expanding suburbs, illegal off-road activity, and wind and solar energy facilities, so habitat preservation in the western Mojave may be better than nothing.  But the purpose of the BrightSource Energy mitigation plan was intended to offset the local impacts of the project, as outlined by the CEC, so the deviation from the original plan is worrisome to conservationists that are watching many other large solar and wind projects move forward in what has been a rubber-stamp environmental review process, threatening to further fragment and destroy large swaths of tortoise habitat without much concern for maintaining the species' long-term recovery and survival.

A desert tortoise in its burrow in the Ivanpah Valley. This tortoise may have survived BrightSource Energy's destruction, but its burrow is now in the path of First Solar's proposed Stateline Solar power project.
Another bad sign for tortoises being translocated from the project site to nearby desert habitat is the growing raven population.  The raven is a key predator of the tortoise that is being subsidized by garbage and water left behind by BrightSource Energy's construction workers. At least 8 ravens have been spotted using the construction site on a daily basis, according to the company's monthly compliance report from May, eating food waste from uncovered dumpsters and drinking from pools of water left behind by construction activity.  The CEC imposed mitigation measures to prevent the influx of ravens to this part of the Ivanpah Valley, but it appears these measures are not working.  BrightSource Energy reported to the CEC that ten raven nests have been spotted in nearby desert habitat where the company is releasing some of the tortoises it captured during construction.

The shortcomings in BrightSource Energy's mitigation plans call into doubt the CEC's ability to offset the immense environmental damage caused by solar facilities built on pristine desert wildlands, even as the CEC is considering approval for two more massive BrightSource Energy projects in the desert. As BrightSource continues to plot the death of our desert ecosystems, Australia is likely to add 600 megawatts of rooftop solar this year, on top of 1,700 megawatts already installed, several times more energy than will be produced in Ivanpah, with none of the ecological destruction.

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