Renewable Energy Industry Ignoring National Environmental Groups

Solar and wind energy companies are seeing their "green" image slip away as they stake claim to large swaths of sensitive wildlife habitat in America's southwest, and balk at conservation groups calling for smarter siting decisions.  Although many in the grassroots conservation community wish the national environmental groups would be more vocal and consistent in their stand on responsible renewable energy standards, even the handful of examples where national groups do demand that renewable energy projects reduce impacts on our ecosystems, the renewable energy industry and even policymakers have resisted.

Calico Solar
The Calico Solar power project is an example of the renewable energy industry watching their "green" image melt away.  National environmental groups gave solar companies and the Federal government a three year opportunity to clean up their act and find a better place to build a 7 square mile solar project.  Neither listened, and now the Sierra Club, NRDC, and Defenders of Wildlife have filed a legal challenge against the Department of Interior faulting gaps in the environmental review process that led to a rushed approval of the project in 2010.  The environmental groups warned Interior to conduct a more thorough review for the project in August 2011, pointing out that the central Mojave Desert location would imperil rare plant and animal species and destroy prime desert habitat on public lands.  The groups noted that nearby disturbed land would be a more ideal place to build such a large facility.

A Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard on the site of the proposed Calico Solar power project. Some of the desert on the site contains sandy washes, which provide ideal habitat habitat for this well-adapted reptile.
In December 2010, the Sierra Club previously filed a challenge against the Calico project in California court, faulting California's hasty approval process that overlooked negative impacts on special status plants and animals,  capping months of efforts by the Sierra Club and other groups during the environmental review process to prevent the project from destroying habitat identified by the Nature Conservancy as "ecologically core" to the Mojave Desert's health.   But that challenge was thrown out by the state court, and the solar project plan was modified after the original company realized it could not afford to build it.   Federal officials must review those modifications, but continue to ignore concerns being expressed by the environmental groups.

According to the environmental groups' press release:
Over the course of three years, the environmental groups met 10 times with the Bureau of Land Management and Calico’s current and former developers, K-Road Power and Tessera Solar (respectively), to urge the developers and Interior to relocate the project to less environmentally sensitive lands. Some of these options included degraded private agricultural lands near the proposed project that would significantly reduce the project’s impacts and bring it more in line with “smart from the start” principles. All these options were rejected.
North Sky River
In addition to the destructive Calico Solar power project, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club are also challenging Kern County's decision to permit NextEra Energy's North Sky River wind energy project.  The nearly 18 square mile project would install over 100 wind turbines in the path of the protected Golden Eagle, and is expected to harm California Condors.  NextEra Energy apparently was unwilling to make changes to the project, prompting the legal challenge filed in the Kern County Superior Court.

The North Sky River Wind project would be built near the Pine Tree Wind project, pictured in the image above, which has already killed several protected Golden Eagles.
Rio Mesa Solar
And even for projects at early stages of development, solar and wind companies would rather maximize profit than minimize impact.  BrightSource Energy learned the hard way that the environmental review process should be thorough and accurate so the public and the company can understand the environmental costs of their choice in locations.  BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar facility was rushed through environmental review so it could meet Federal loan and grant deadlines in 2010, but in 2011 the company and the Bureau of Land Management realized that there were far more tortoises on the site than estimated during the review process.  The Ivanpah Solar facility has garnered national attention for taking its toll on California's official state reptile, which also happens to be Federally listed as a threatened species.  

Instead of learning its lesson, BrightSource officials are now asking the California Energy Commission (CEC) and Department of Interior to speed up review of its proposed Rio Mesa Solar project, according to the transcript of CEC's 19 March status conference.  BrightSource wants to build the facility on nearly 9 square miles, while the Center for Biological Diversity has pointed out that more studies are needed to estimate the number of birds that will be killed when colliding with any one of the thousands of giant mirrors, or burn to death in super-heated air reflected by those mirrors.  The facility would be built near the Colorado River and a wildlife refuge that provide a migrating corridor for thousands of birds each year.

The profit motive for all of these companies clearly overrides any desire to provide sustainable clean energy.


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