Are Mega-Solar Farms Viable?

I was looking at the Palen Solar Power Project Environmental Impact Statement, and the California Energy Commission (CEC) Staff included some maps of other major energy projects proposed for the Northeastern Colorado Desert.  Some of the projects that have been proposed by have not begun CEC review are massive, and dwarf sites that have already been deemed to be harmful to desert wilderness in California.  As the mega-sites--some of which are several times larger than LAX--begin the biological surveys we are bound to learn of potential consequences for the desert that are far greater in magnitude than we have seen with other projects covered on this blog.

Some of the solar sites well into the CEC/BLM review process that have been featured on this blog are large in their own right.  Ivanpah--located in the Eastern Mojave--will have a site footprint of approximately 3,200 acres.  The Palen project--in the Colorado Desert--will have a footprint of approximately 2,970 acres.   Ridgecrest would have a footprint of 1,440 acres.  Keep in mind that the "right of way" for each site would include thousands of additional acres.   So far the CEC has concluded that each of these sites would have significant environmental impacts that require substantial mitigation or a reduced footprint.  In the case of the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project, the CEC Staff outright recommended against construction (although this is not final verdict) because of the damage it would do to endangered species.  

Now consider how much environmental impact some of the proposed mega solar projects would have.  Among them are sites that would amount to tens of thousands of acres.  For example, First Solar proposed a 14,500 acres site near Desert Center, and a 15,000 acre site near Twentynine Palms.   Chevron Energy is proposing a 10,000 acre site near Blythe.   NextEra Energy is proposing at least two massive sites-- 18,000 and 20,000 acres--near Blythe.    And we're not done yet.  Leopold Companies is proposing a 35,466 acre site in the Ward Valley.   For scale, consider that Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) occupies 3,500 acres. 

The screenshot below is taken from the CEC Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Palen Solar Power Project (CEC website) and depicts the projects proposed for the Colorado Desert.  The black and green patchwork in the bottom-center is the Palen project site.  The blue outlines throughout the rest of the map represent other projects, and you can clearly see that many are much larger than Palen:

The next screenshot, below, shows projects slated for the Western Mojave Desert, taken from the CEC Staff assessment for the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project.  The Ridgecrest site--which threatened desert tortoise and Mojave Ground squirrel populations, is a small red and black patch in the left/center of the map.  Again, a relatively small site compared to other proposed projects, outlined in blue.

It would seem that wise businesses responsible for some of these mega proposals would take stock of the results thus far encountered by projects already going through CEC and BLM review, such as Ivanpah, Ridgecrest, Calico, and Palen solar projects.  The companies responsible for these projects already under review have confronted the reality of biologically sensitive land in already dwindling desert wilderness.    The realities confronted by these smaller projects raises the question as to whether or not a 10,000 or 30,000 acre solar site on BLM land in the desert is actually feasible?  These sites are proposed for public land that is bound to host endangered species.  And if there are not many endangered species on the site (unlikely),  I'm sure bulldozing 30,000 acres will push species into an endangered status. 

Is the cost-benefit ratio really worth it?  Will the public derive that much benefit by replacing peaceful American wilderness with vast industrial landscapes when there are better siting options?  We have not yet fully explored rooftop solar options.  Fallow agricultural land in the Central Valley remains available for development and would have less biological impact.  And there remains plenty more land to be developed closer to Los Angeles and San Bernardino County population centers.


  1. The Calico Solar Project east of Barstow would be LARGER than the city of Berkeley!



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