All Eyes on Ivanpah: Will Federal Policy Finally Take Notice?

BrightSource CEO John Woolard told the media that his company's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (ISEGS)--a 5.6 square mile energy facility being built on public land in the northeastern Mojave Desert--has "the lowest environmental impact of any project in solar." Anybody familiar with the Ivanpah Valley--a beautiful desert landscape blanketed by creosote bushes and yucca, and ringed by rocky spires inhabited by bighorn sheep--knows that his statement simply could not be true.  Mr. Woolard's attempts to conceal the destructive impact of ISEGS are failing since the project has actually become an icon of poor solar siting, representing the dangers of building vast facilities on ecologically intact desert habitatThe Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last week was confronted with this reality when citizens submitted a conservation plan for the area, and Washington announced a draft policy that could discourage solar development there. 

BrightSource Project an Icon of Desert Destruction:
BrightSource Energy's ISEGS project has already begun clearing the last phase of its desert solar project of tortoises and vegetation.  Monthly reports submitted by the company to the California Energy Commission paint a bleak picture for wildlife being displaced by the bulldozers.  A list of hundreds of tortoises displaced or killed by the construction--with each tortoise identified by a number with the prefix "BS" for the initials of the company responsible for their predicament--is maintained by State and Federal officials.  A total of 127 tortoise were being held in pens as of early October, waiting to be relocated to other desert habitat.  Their fate upon relocation is uncertain.  Previous tortoise relocations resulted in almost half of the tortoises dying, unable to adapt to a new home range and more vulnerable to predators.

This photo by Basin and Range Watch shows tractors destroying desert habitat for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) project.  Rare plants, and at least 127 desert tortoises have been displaced or killed for the 5.6 square mile project.
In September, at least four tortoise hatchlings being held in BrightSource pens died of ant-related injuries and exposure to heat (those tortoises were numbered BS232, BS218, BS206, and BS311), suggesting the conditions in the pens are inadequate.
"In addition to BS232 and BS218, four other hatchling deaths occurred. These four were all initially found deceased: BS206 was found dead with significant ant-­‐related wounds at the surface of a nest, BS311 was found dead in the holding pens, presumably from hyperthermia..."
Some tortoises have been found pacing back and forth along the project's fenceline, probably hoping to return to a now-destroyed burrow.  Pacing along the fence exposes them to fatal heat-related stress and predation.  Other  tortoises have been trapped inside the project area because the fenceline was constructed before the habitat was cleared of tortoises living there.  According to the monthly compliance report:
On September 18th and 19th, adult male BS49 was observed pacing the fence along the northeast side of Ivanpah 3 during high temperatures. On the 19th he did not seek shelter as temperatures climbed, so the Designated Biologist decided to place him in a burrow over the fence to the east. 
On September 24th, adult male BS50 was moved from Ivanpah 3 over the fence to the Recipient Site to the north. The tortoise had been pacing the fence for three days.
The number of tortoises found is not a surprise to biologists who warned authorities during the permitting process that the prime habitat here hosted a thriving population of the endangered animal.  The Ivanpah Valley also hosts an unusual richness of rare plant species, according to the Nature Conservancy's Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment.

Scars in Ivanpah Valley inflicted by BrightSource Energy's bulldozers.  The damage in this picture represents only a one-third of the total size of the 5.6 square mile project.
Conservation Groups Step In:
A legal challenge by Western Watersheds Project failed to stop BrightSource's ISEGS after a judge determined that construction was too far along, although the judge acknowledged that the group had raised serious doubts about the adequacy of the government's environmental permitting.  Concerned citizens and conservation groups are now focusing on other major threats to the Ivanpah Valley, including railway, mining claims and, most notably, two more large solar projects being proposed by First Solar Inc.

Basin and Range Watch and the Desert Tortoise Council last week submitted a plan to preserve the Ivanpah Valley's critical natural resources, including a desert tortoise corridor that would be destroyed by First Solar Inc's proposed Silver State South and Stateline Solar power projects.  The conservation groups propose designating the Ivanpah Valley as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).

(Click on image to expand) A Google Earth image showing the Ivanpah Valley with an overlay of the three large solar projects--each one several square miles in size--and an additional transmission line. 
Tortoises are not the only concern.  At least 36 special status plants have been identified in Ivanpah, and the area provides foraging habitat and an inter-mountain corridor for Nelson's bighorn sheep, and at least 7 sensitive bird species use the area, including Golden Eagles and Western burrowing owls.

First Solar Inc has promised to develop its own conservation plan for the Ivanpah Valley in an attempt to project a greener image for its projects in the area, but the company's plan is expected to favor its construction plans over sound science.  The locations of its proposed solar projects -- at the chokepoint of the Ivanpah Valley -- make it  unlikely that the project footprint can be reconfigured without having significant impacts on the north-south wildlife connectivity.
This photo by Basin and Range Watch shows the western Ivanpah Valley where First Solar plans to build the 3.4 square mile Stateline Solar power project, just south of the Valley's chokepoint near Primm, NV.
Renewable Energy Policy Identifies Ivanpah as Bad for Solar
Apparently somebody in the Federal government also agrees that the Ivanpah Valley is not a good place for solar facilities.  The Department of Interior last week released the supplement to its Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement analyzing a plan to speed up industrial-scale solar energy development on public lands.  After receiving over 80,000 public comments on the initial draft, Interior decided to revise the solar policy under review to include tools that encourage solar companies to build on desert lands judged to be of lower habitat quality.

One of the policy tools included in the draft supplement would discourage solar energy development in areas identified as desert tortoise connectivity corridors.  One of those corridors is the Ivanpah Valley, which is an ironic contradiction after Interior permitted the destructive ISEGS project last year, and is now considering whether or not to permit First Solar's massive projects in the same area.  According to the proposed policy:
For  all  applications  in  variance  areas  within  the  range  of  desert  tortoise  and  within proposed connectivity  areas  (see  red  hatched  areas  in  Figure  2.2-­2),  siting  will  be discouraged given anticipated  high  conflict.
The map below show proposed tortoise connectivity corridors where solar development would be discouraged (outline in red), including a corridor in the Ivanpah Valley.

Screenshot of the map of proposed tortoise connectivity corridors outlined in red, with the Ivanpah Valley identified in the center. The Department of Interior would discourage solar development in these areas if the policy is adopted. (Fig 2.2-2 in the Supplemental to the Draft PEIS)
A lot is on the line in the Ivanpah Valley.  The Federal government has a choice to make -- preserve a natural treasure that benefits the overall health of the Mojave Desert ecosystem, or sacrifice it to large-scale solar development, industrializing a beautiful landscape with solar panels that could be more efficiently built on already-disturbed lands or on rooftops.


  1. Shawn, you got it right, there is a lot on the line, especially for the First Solar management, when you consider the ceo having been replaced recently, and the shareholders hanging on by their fingernails.From a high stock price of $175 down to a close today at around $49- this company is absolutely going to need both of their Ivanpah projects to go through, First Solar's survival may depend upon it, especially now that their Topaz project in the Carrizo Plain appears to have been flushed down the crapper(thank the Lord)and the crash in solar panel prices seem to threaten their core business, unfortunately for them with the administration having been severely burned by the Solyndra debacle, the help that they so desperately need will probably not be forthcoming from that direction, now more so perhaps due to the information that you have posted here today.

    Would the Department's of the Interior and Energy be willing to back them now after this
    latest supplement which purports to direct developers to less environmentally sensitive areas?

    Now we will see where the rubber meets the road, at long last.

    This was an excellent and timely post sir.


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