Are Environmental Groups Acquiescing to First Solar's Desert Sunlight Project?

The Department of Interior last month released the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for First Solar Inc's Desert Sunlight solar power project.  After a final public review of the EIS, the Department of Interior will decide whether or not to grant approval to the project.  According to the EIS, it appears that Washington will give the green light and even use taxpayers' money to finance First Solar's plans to destroy 4,176 acres (nearly 6.5 square miles) of desert habitat, including some desert tortoise critical habitat.  Although national environmental groups have been following these massive solar projects closely, they have been relatively silent about their impacts.  A First Solar representative claimed earlier this year that the company had the support of environmental organizations.  What role does such behind-the-scenes support play, and how does this impact Department of Interior's decision?

Desert Sunlight a Replay of Ivanpah?
Despite having the option to reject the project or prefer a reduced acreage alternative, the Department of Interior's "preferred alternative" is an ecologically destructive layout that will be built within 2 miles of Joshua Tree National Park.  According to the EIS, anywhere from 10-14 endangered desert tortoises are expected to be displaced or killed by the project.  Desert biologists are worried that this is a low estimate, and even the Bureau of Land Management admits that there are 22 active tortoise burrows on the site, calling into question their estimate of 14 live tortoises.

The Department of Interior underestimated the tortoise population on the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System site, which revised estimates now suggest will displace or kill as many as 160 adult tortoises, and kill at least 700 young tortoises, which are harder to spot and relocate during construction.  Western Watersheds Project is demanding an injunction against the Ivanpah Solar project, in part because of the faulty tortoise assessments and mitigation plans.  No other national environmental organizations have taken a stand against BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah project, which may be one of three disastrous energy projects in the pristine desert valley.

Green Silence in Support of a Destructive Project
Why are First Solar's plans to bulldoze pristine desert habitat near Joshua Tree National Park not running into opposition from national environmental groups?  According to a conversation I had with a First Solar Inc representative at a public hearing in February, multiple environmental organizations have privately expressed support for First Solar's Desert Sunlight project, including The Wilderness Society and the Center for Biological Diversity.  Such support would contradict these same organizations' public support for smarter siting of solar projects to avoid ecological impacts, and undermines their credibility as advocates for a smarter solar policy, including distributed generation (rooftop solar).

Why does it matter if a national environmental organization privately supports an ill-conceived solar project? Because it almost certainly factors into Department of Interior's decision-making as it considers where it can permit these projects.  According to documents provided by the Department of Interior via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, several environmental organizations informed the Bureau of Land Management's office in California that they no longer objected to Solar Millennium's Blythe Solar power project in the Sonoran Desert.  The Blythe solar project will destroy over 11 square miles of public land, receive nearly $2 billion in taxpayer financing, and threaten Native American cultural sites.  

The Blythe solar power project is one of several named in a lawsuit by a Native American group claiming that the Federal government rushed its environmental and historical review of solar projects last year.  The Department of Interior placed it on its "fast-track" list so that they could approve the project in time for Solar Millennium to meet a deadline for public money.  Considering the objections raised by stakeholders during review of a project is integral to the National Environmental Policy Act process that Interior must follow.  Acquiescence or support from major environmental organizations for a project is likely given considerable weight when Interior is making a final decision on whether or not to approve a project, prefer a different layout, or reject it altogether. 

One of the desert ironwood wash ecosystems that can be found on the 11 square mile Blythe Solar power project site. Photo by Basin and Range Watch.

The Sierra Club, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), the Wilderness Society, and Defenders of Wildlife letters noted each of the organizations' ambiguous "agreement" with Palo Verde Solar LLC (a subsidiary of Solar Millennium LLC) to withdrawal objections in return for conservation measures and compensatory habitat.  The status of these measures is unclear, but construction has already begun on the Blythe project site.  Desert experts question the availability of sufficient "compensatory" habitat agreements between environmental organizations and energy companies. that can be purchased and set aside for so many large solar projects, even though they are a feature of these misguided


The Center for Biological Diversity came to a similar agreement with BrightSource Energy regarding the Ivanpah project, which committed to unspecified conservation measures to protect desert tortoise habitat elsewhere in America's southwest.  It's not clear if Center for Biological Diversity will revise it's agreement now that the project's impacts on tortoises have increased greatly, but the Center ironically described the BrightSource Energy's plans in Ivanpah as one of several "poorly sited" solar projects in a press release just a year before its announced partnership with the energy company.
“Global warming is going to be putting incredible stresses on wildlife and ecosystems, especially in the deserts,” said Anderson.  “For species such as the desert tortoise to survive the coming decades, we need to preserve large blocks of intact habitat.  Destroying places like Ivanpah Valley in the name of green energy makes no sense, particularly when better alternatives are so clearly available.”

First Solar's Desert Sunlight project may become yet another example of national environmental organizations falling short of their objectives and the Department of Interior receiving false assurance that a project is righteous.  For their part, national environmental organizations should go public with their stand on these projects.  Do they support or oppose Desert Sunlight?  What about First Solar's plans to build two other projects in the beleaguered Ivanpah Valley?

It's clear that these national environmental organizations have become wayward vanguards, with only the outlines of a smart solar advocacy in place that is routinely muddled by agreements with energy companies.  Mitigating dozens of square miles of environmental destruction has its limits, as the green groups are well aware. Redrawing boundaries of massive solar projects and setting aside money for notional habitat improvement efforts will still leave us with a fragmented ecosystem and species pushed closer to extinction.  It's time for national environmental organizations to reclaim a true conservation ethic and a leadership position in renewable energy policy to put more solar panels on rooftops and keeping energy companies off of pristine wildlands.


  1. Wait... there's more tortoise per acre than previously estimated? What does that imply for the Mojave tortoise population as a whole?

  2. Nick, you can read the Desert Tortoise recovery studies at the Fish and Wildlife Service website. Overall, biologists estimate that the desert tortoise population has declined by as much as 90 percent since the 1980s throughout its range due to habitat loss and disease. The number of desert tortoises likely to be found on the Desert Sunlight project site, and the Ivanpah Solar site speaks more to the quality of habitat chosen by the energy company for construction.

    For whatever reason, these companies chose public land that is quite pristine, which consequently means that the tortoise population is thriving on these sites. If you walk through privately owned desert land on the outskirts of Victorville or Adelanto (western San Bernardino County) you are much less likely to find tortoises. That is because urbanization, predation by feral dogs and ravens, and off-highway vehicle recreation have taken their toll. Some groups argue that these lands would be a better place for solar projects than the remote and pristine locations chosen for the Desert Sunlight and Ivanpah projects.

  3. Shaun,

    But the areas in Ivanpah Valley selected for solar (on both the California and Nevada sides of the border) are not considered pristine tortoise habit. There's been many studies by CSU, UC, and UNLV regarding tortoise in Ivanpah Valley. So the finding of Brightsource implies the tortoise counts are too low in general?

  4. Nick,
    That's incorrect. The Bureau of Land Management did not approve the second phase of the First Solar Silver State project, also in the Ivanpah Valley, because of concerns that it would have negative impacts on the tortoise population there.

    Furthermore, testimony by biologists at the California Energy Commission found that the BrightSource Energy site contains good quality tortoise habitat.

    The argument that the Ivanpah Valley is not "pristine" is often made by First Solar Inc and BrightSource Energy LLC. They point to the existence of some development in the Ivanpah Valley. But a quick examination of Google Earth imagery shows that the vast majority of the public land there is relatively undisturbed.

    It is in the interest of First Solar and BrightSource to toy with definitions and endangered species listings so they can reap profit from public land and taxpayer financing. The bottom line is that your company is not "green" if it decides to build on pristine desert habitat.


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