Measuring First Solar's Ecological Impact

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has completed initial biological surveys of First Solar Inc's proposed "Stateline" solar power project.   The surveys are part of the "Plan of Development," an initial step in the Department of the Interior's process for evaluating and approving projects proposed for public land.

 A review of the biological resources survey completed for First Solar's Stateline solar power project reveals a rich ecology on the site consistent with surveys of other nearby project sites, and suggests the public's land in the Ivanpah Valley should be conserved rather than bulldozed. If approved, the Stateline project would destroy 3.4 square miles of pristine Mojave Desert habitat.  The company is also proposing another project next to Joshua Tree National Park, and may invest in other destructive sites.

Haven for Desert Icon
Although studies of the endangered desert tortoise conducted across the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts suggest the species is far from recovery, the tortoise population in the vicinity of First Solar's Stateline solar power project suggest a relatively healthy and abundant population.  If the Stateline project is approved, construction could corner and destroy this genetically significant pocket of tortoises that are crucial to the recovery of the entire species.

A map from the Bureau of Land Management's biological survey results depicts live tortoises (green stars), and tortoise burrows (red and green triangles) observed in the vicinity of First Solar's proposed Stateline solar power project.
During biological surveys, 27 live tortoises and 34 active burrows were observed in the project study area.  Using the survey results, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates that First Solar's Stateline project area is home to 67 desert tortoises.  The calculation is imperfect but necessary since surveys are unable to identify every tortoise present on the site.   The USFWS used similar surveys and calculations for a neighboring project, but the result was a gross under-estimation of the tortoise population.  The USFWS  expected no more than 32 tortoises on BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project site, but construction crews have already displaced approximately 50 tortoises in the initial phase of the project.

The initial bulldozing (pictured above) for nearby BrightSource Energy's project has already displaced over 50 tortoises in the Ivanpah Valley.  Dozens more are likely to be encountered in future phases of construction, contributing to the decline of an otherwise healthy tortoise population.
Special Status Plants in Abundance
Much like the neighboring BrightSource Energy site, First Solar's Stateline project will also crush clusters of rare desert plants and wildflowers, including 12 observed Rusby's Desert Mallow plants, 27 occurrences of Mojave Milkweed, and 26 Parish's club cholla cactus.  The Pink Funnel Lily (androstephium breviflorum) was probably the most abundant special status plant species surveyed on the site, with over 140 occurrences, according to the BLM report.

Pink Funnel Lily, which is particularly abundant on First Solar's proposed site.  Photo: Mr. James Andre.
Air Power and the Food Chain
Identification of active Golden Eagle nests in nearby mountains suggests that the proposed Stateline project site currently serves as a foraging area for the majestic birds.  The abundance of other wildlife reveals an active food chain in which the eagles probably participate.  Approximately 145 black-tailed jackrabbits, 2 cottontail rabbits, and 3 coyotes were counted in the Stateline project study area.  A prairie falcon was spotted over the site, and sign of pallid bats roosting in a nearby rock outcropping was also recorded. Biologists assess that the site is likely home to American badger, and burrowing owls, as well.

Bleak Future
Despite the healthy ecosystem that appears to be functioning in the Ivanpah Valley, First Solar Inc hopes to begin construction on its proposed Stateline site by May 2012, assuming the Department of the Interior approves the project.  The tortoise population on the site will likely already be under added stress by that time, since tortoises will likely move to the site after being displaced by the nieghboring BrightSource Energy project.  This shift could increase competition for food sources and ideal burrow sites.  The neighboring project could also introduce new predators (such as an increased raven population initially attracted by the human development), and invasive plant species that are a less nutritious food source for the desert tortoise.

If the impacts from BrightSource Energy's project were not enough, First Solar is also planning to construct another solar facility--the Silver State project--on the other side of the Ivanpah Valley in Nevada.  The Silver State project would be larger than Stateline, but so far the Department of the Interior has only approved the smaller North phase of the Silver State project (approximately one square mile), in part because of the potential impacts to the tortoise.

The Department of the Interior's goal for the Ivanpah Valley following the construction of the BrightSource project should be stabilization and conservation, not the approval of another massive industrial facility.  This is particularly important since biologists continue to study ways to rescue the dwindling numbers of desert tortoise and the Ivanpah population is basically a gene pool that the species cannot afford to lose.  Desert plant and wildlife in the Ivanpah Valley should not be sacrificed for "clean" energy that could easily be built in our cities or on lesser quality habitat.

First Solar plans to bulldoze the site and install photovoltaic solar panels, like the ones pictured above.  The same panels can be installed on rooftops, over parking lots, or on already disturbed-land.  Photo from BLM Plan of Development


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