Save Sea Turtles; Kill Desert Tortoises

The California Energy Commission (CEC) made two decisions this past week that will contribute significantly to the decline of the ecological health of the Mojave Desert.   In the first decision, the CEC gave final approval to BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.  In the second, the CEC issued a proposed decision to approve the Calico Solar power project, subject to a 30 day public comment period.  Unless the CEC is persuaded to rethink its position during the comment period, the Calico project will be approved.

The CEC Presiding Members determined that despite the significant ecological damage these large solar sites would impart on the Mojave Desert, Californians thirst for "green" energy is more important.  The CEC brushed aside pleas that solar panels can be deployed on roof tops, or that these large solar plants would be better off if they were put on already disturbed agricultural land.  Instead, bulldozers will begin cutting into ancient desert plants and endangered animals by the end of this year.

This is the irony of so-called "green" energy.  Most large-scale solar sites are being proposed for vast swaths of public land, and will be financed with taxpayer's money because Sacramento and Washington are in such a rush to get solar energy online that they are ignoring shortfalls in technology (See Chris Clarke's blog about "Suncatcher" technology), flaunting arguments that there are better locations for the projects (disturbed land or roof-tops), and burying the future of desert wilderness.

Many observers saw the BP Gulf Oil spill earlier this year as a reason to expedite renewable energy.  Images of dead sea birds and sea turtles coated in oil were plastered all over mailings and e-mails urging people to donate to the Sierra Club, and other mainstream environmental organizations that have pushed the solar gold rush into California's deserts.   We're trading sea turtles for desert tortoises unnecessarily.  
Screenshot from BLM Environmental Impact Statement for Calico Solar Project
America had an opportunity to take a smarter path in its siting of renewable energy.  Instead, we rushed foolishly into funding and approving solar projects proposed for some of the best habitat available in America's public wilderness.

The Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System will displace or kill at least two dozen endangered tortoises, but more importantly, it will erode and block a significant desert tortoise gene pool.  The less genetic diversity a species has, the less likely it is to survive over time, and the tortoise is already struggling due to habitat fragmentation and loss.  By the time Ivanpah shuts down in 20 or 30 years, the desert tortoise population in the area could be reduced to specimens in a zoo or photographs in a textbook.

The Calico Solar project is also likely to jeopardize a wildlife corridor, and even though the CEC asked Tessera Solar LLC to reduce the site layout, the site is likely to have residual negative impact on what is currently a thriving desert tortoise population.  Fences, tractors, roads, increased noise levels, and increased predation by ravens perching on Calico Solar structures will likely lead to deaths and decline in the tortoise population, as well.

But it's not just about the tortoise.  As we all learned in high school biology, all species in an ecosystem are interconnected.  Each depends on another.  These sites could also push several special status plant species toward extinction -- plants that other desert critters depend upon for survival.  The larger the solar projects are, and the more of them that are built, the more the Mojave Desert will turn into a fragmented industrial landscape.  If the Mojave Desert were a heart, America (Sacramento and Washington) is pumping cholesterol and fats into it, speeding up its death.

It's time to think more wisely about where we place renewable energy.  Why should we tolerate the deaths of endangered species and centuries-old plants in the Mojave when there is a better way?  Solar Done Right is arguing for more responsible siting and for "distributed solar" (which is basically solar on your own rooftop).  You can also have your voice heard in the CEC certification process.

If you wish to send public comments regarding the Calico Solar power project, you can follow the following instructions:

Send an e-mail AND hard copy to the CEC.  The email and letter have to include the Docket number (Docket No. 08-AFC-13).  The email address is The mailing address is: Energy Commission’s Docket Unit, 1516 Ninth Street, MS-4, Sacramento, CA 95814.  For more information, see the CEC public notice on the CEC Calico website.

If you need help or would like advice on how to craft more effective public comments, email me at


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