Desert Expert: Find Another Site for Calico Solar

Mr James Andre, an expert in desert research who Tessera Solar sought to ban from the Calico Solar evidentiary hearings, submitted a written brief to the California Energy Commission (CEC) in which he recommends that State and Federal agencies provide incentives to Tessera Solar to find a less harmful location for the energy project.

One of the most poignant portions of the brief submitted to the CEC commissioners reminds them of their burden to avoid shortcuts, and think of policy solutions that can accommodate the competing demands of "clean" energy and a sustainable and healthy Mojave Desert ecosystm:

Mr. Andre wrote:
"As the decision-making body for this and subsequent utility-scale solar energy projects, the Commission becomes our representative to future generations."

Mr. Andre argues that the Calico Solar site is of high ecological value for several reasons that represent his expertise in botany:
  1. Tessera Solar's survey method for the White-margined beardtongue--a rare desert plant--likely failed to identify the true extent of the threatened species' existence on the Calico Solar site.
  2. The White-margined beardtongue could face extinction due to population fragmentation expedited by the rush of utility-scale energy projects in its range.
  3. The attempted avoidance of special status plants on site does not account for our scientific understanding of the species, has not been tested, and will further serve to fragment the remaining population.
  4.  The Calico Solar site is a rare example of pristine Central Mojave Desert ecosystem.  It represents one of the last sanctuaries in the Mojave for hundreds of floristic species unique to the Central Mojave.
Photo by Lara Hartley Photography.  Screenshot of White-Margined beardtongue from Sierra Club prehearing conference statement. 


Mr. Andre's testimony underscores the site's importance to the survival of plant species in the Mojave, but other testimony and the CEC staff assessment identify additional significant impacts to threatened species, such as the Mojave fringe-toed lizard and the desert tortoise.
  • The Supplemental Staff Assessment indicates that at least 176 desert tortoises would have been impacted by the original Calico Solar site layout. 
  • After Tessera Solar reduced the layout of the site, the CEC staff assessed that only 57 tortoises would be directly impacted.
  • While 57 is still a high number of tortoises that would likely die as a result of the project, a wildlife biologist who has visited the site determined that the revised layout is likely home to as many as 132 tortoises based on a review of the tortoise burrow locations, and the actual number of observed tortoises during protocol surveys.
Mr. Andre's testimony urges the CEC not to issue a Statement of Overriding Consideration.  Such a statement is essentially a policy tool that allows the CEC to disregard the significant ecological impact a project will have if the benefit of the project is deemed to exceed the harm.   As we know from examples like the Beacon and Abengoa Solar projects, there are better locations for utility-scale solar that are not as harmful to the dwindling desert wildlife, which should make overriding considerations unwarranted.  Despite this, the CEC has previously used the Overriding Consideration statement as a policy shortcut. 

Mr. Andre recognizes that Tessera Solar has invested considerable funds to survey the site and understand the biological impact, and urges the CEC to determine how much Tessera Solar spent on the project and apply that amount as a credit toward its use of less biologically sensitive land.  I am copying an excerpt of his testimony below:

"I endorse the concept of State and Federal governments making an example of this project by calculating the amount the applicant has expended on site planning thus far, and applying those funds as a joint state and federal credit to the applicant toward obtaining a right of way on public lands or the purchase of private lands elsewhere on ecologically low-impact lands. This would thereby provide the means and incentives to relocate the project to a less damaging location, while establishing the precedent for what types of lands are and are not suitable for utility-scale renewable energy generation. This type of solution honors the economic and political expenditures of the applicant and others involved in the certification process, while recognizing that the preservation of ecosystem is paramount to all discretionary actions. The Commissioners must consider and make sustainable management decisions that are firmly grounded on science-base ecological principles and that recognize the inherent value of the landscapes that contain the structures, composition and processes that support and enhance biodiversity, heterogeneity and complexity. As the decision-making body for this and subsequent utility-scale solar energy projects, the Commission becomes our representative to future generations.  If the decision is to build the project as proposed by relying on mitigation concepts with no scientific foundation, and on statements of overriding consideration, then we will have set a very low bar for how our generation chooses to transform how we generate energy while cohabiting the planet, and will have hastened the type of ecological destruction for which the Calico Solar project is meant to mitigate." [emphasis added]

Now I know why Tessera Solar's lawyers wanted him banned from speaking at the evidentiary hearings.

Photo of the Calico Solar project site in the Mojave Desert, taken from the PWA report on the Calico Site hydrology and geomorphic qualities, submitted to the CEC on June 18th.


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