Update on Utility-Scale Energy Projects in the Desert

Although distributed generation continues to chart a sustainable path to produce clean energy, many poorly-sited renewable energy projects threaten to continue the fragmentation and industrialization of our southwestern deserts.  If all of the projects are built, they would rival the destructive impacts of climate change and urban sprawl on desert species.  As long-time readers of this blog know, there have been plenty of bad projects approved on public lands in the desert, with some good news sprinkled here and there.  The list below - not at all comprehensive - provides an update on the status of some of the most significant projects.

Projects that are completed or under construction will be in Red; projects approved but not yet under construction in Yellow; and still pending environmental review and approval in GreenAll told, the list below represents over 100 square miles of intact desert that has now been destroyed or industrialized, and over 150 square miles that could be destroyed over the next couple of years.
  • BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project has destroyed approximately 5.6 square miles, and displaced or killed over 130 Federally listed desert tortoises. The facility is nearing completion and is expected to be operational soon.  The Ivanpah Solar project destroyed a significant swath of public land that hosted rare plants, cactus wren, loggerhead shrike, Le Conte's thrasher, and ash-throated flycatchers.  Rare plants, such as the Rusby's desert mallow, Parish's club cholla, and Mojave milkweed are also lost.  A female Cooper's Hawk was also found dead on the project site, potentially after colliding with one of the solar structures.  BrightSource Energy, and even one of its investors, has tried to describe the location as "degraded" land because of a nearby gambling outpost and a highway running through the Ivanpah Valley.  If we accept the company's twisted standard for defining ecological and aesthetic, we would also bulldoze the Yosemite Valley since there are already roads, parking lots, hotels, and restaurants there.
  • First Solar's Desert Sunlight project is well under construction, and is expected to destroy nearly 6.5 square miles of intact desert on public lands when it is complete.   The project is being built approximately two miles from Joshua Tree National Park, and the rows of solar panels may appear as a lake to some migrating birds.  Already an endangered Yuma clapper rail was found dead at the site this year, according to Basin & Range Watch, likely from colliding with panels.  The project is also displacing desert tortoise, kit fox, burrowing owls, and Mojave fringe-toed lizard.
  • NextEra's 2.8 square mile Genesis Solar power project is also under construction in the Chuckwalla Valley of the Colorado Desert region, north of Interstate 10.  The desert probably did not look like much from the road, but NextEra found out otherwise.  The company found over 65 active and inactive kit fox dens and had a difficult time evicting the animals from the project site.  They used coyote urine in an attempt to scare off the kit fox, but the practice may have resulted in a canine distemper outbreak among the kit fox.   At least several have died.  The project also disturbed a Native American burial site and artifacts, and experienced a setback after flash floods destroyed berms and equipment on the site.
  • First Solar's Silver State North solar project bulldozed about one square mile of intact desert in the Ivanpah Valley on the Nevada side of the border.  First Solar now plans to build the Silver State South solar project next to the North phase, and destroy up to another 4.8 square miles and eliminate a key habitat linkage for the threatened desert tortoise.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the BLM not permit construction of the South project because it could jeopardize the tortoise's recovery and ability to endure climate change, but it is not yet clear if the project will be cancelled or modified.
  • NextEra's North Sky River Wind project has industrialized nearly 20 square miles of rolling hills in an unincorporated part of Kern County on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, despite concerns expressed by environmental groups that the project could jeopardize raptors and California condors.  A golden eagle was killed at the project site within weeks of the turbines being switched on.  Not far from North Sky River wind, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Pine Tree wind project has already killed eight golden eagles making it more fatal than the notorious Altamont Pass wind project on a mortality per-turbine basis.
  • The Alta Wind Energy Center has industrialized over 50 square miles of the western Mojave Desert, also in Kern County.  The wind turbines and access roads have destroyed creosote scrub and Joshua tree woodland habitat.  The Department of Interior recently granted Terra-Gen LLC permission to destroy another 3.5 square miles for an extension of the Center known as Alta East, and even took the unprecedented step of allowing the company to kill an endangered California condor. New power lines have been constructed to deliver the energy to the Los Angeles basin over the San Gabriel Mountains from the Mojave.
  • Pattern Energy's Ocotillo Express Wind project industrialized nearly 16 square miles of desert habitat west of El Centro, California, carving miles of wide dirt roads and destroying ocotillo, creosote bush and cholla cactus.   The area previously provided remote desert solitude before the construction of dozens of turbines, each standing over 400 feet tall.  The California Governor's office is believed to have suppressed the concerns of officials at nearby Anza-Borrego Desert State Park regarding the project's environmental impacts.  The project recently made the news when a turbine threw a blade onto land that is technically open to the public.
  • The Moapa Solar power project is under construction by K Road Solar on over three square miles of desert northeast of Las Vegas.  The creosote bush scrub habitat now being bulldozed is expected to host from 25 to 103 tortoises, according to final environmental impact statement. 
  • Solar Reserve's Crescent Dune Solar project has destroyed 2.3 square miles of desert in Nevada for a power tower project.  The destruction eliminates nearly 10 percent of the Crescent Dunes aegialian scarab's habitat, also known as the dune beetle.  The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 determined that the species, which only lives in the Tonopah area, is in peril.  The project will also require to draw on dwindling groundwater supplies.
  • NextEra assumed control of the Blythe Solar power project after the original owner, German firm Solar Millennium, could not afford to pay for construction.  NextEra modified the construction plans and is seeking a review of the new plans.  Before selling the project, Solar Millennium managed to bulldoze dirt roads into the desert, destroying a Native American sacred site.  The new project layout would destroy almost 6.5 square miles of creosote bush scrub and microphyll woodland habitat.  
  • Solar Reserve's Rice Solar project would be built just south of the Turtle Mountains in a remote corner of the Mojave Desert.  The company describes the private land it will be built upon as "previously disturbed," even though much of the land is relatively intact.  The previous disturbance was caused by the Rice Army Airfield, a small facility only in use from 1942-1944.
  • NextEra's McCoy Solar project would be built on over 6.8 square miles, located just north of the Blythe Solar project.  NextEra recently received approval from the Bureau of Land Management.  Most of the project site is creosote bush scrub habitat, including areas with wilderness characteristics.  The project would destroy dozens of acres of desert washes with blue palo verde and ironwood trees. Although this habitat type only makes up a small fraction of the vegetation type in the Colorado Desert, it supports nearly 85% of bird nests.
  • Duke Energy's Searchlight Wind project will industrialize 29 square miles of the picturesque Piute Valley south of Las Vegas with 87 wind turbines.  The project is in proximity to Spirit Mountain, which holds deep significance for tribes in the Colorado River region.  In addition, the land disturbance would fragment otherwise great habitat for tortoises and other wildlife, and could displace or kill as many as 50 of the animals.  Surveys conducted based on the USFWS' voluntary land-based wind energy guidelines found at least 10 red-tailed hawk nests within two miles of the wind project.  Within 10 miles of the project surveys identified an additional 16 active raptor nests, including 3 golden eagle nests as well as burrowing owls, and 16 species of bats that are either resident in the project area or migratory -- 7 of them considered Federal Species of Special Concern. 
  • BP's Mohave Wind project in northwestern Arizona will carve up and fragment approximately 59 square miles of desert habitat, impact golden eagle and bat foraging areas.  The Final Environmental Impact Statement estimated the project could kill between 1,085 and 2,149 bats per year.  For a species already dealing with climate changed and white nose syndrome, adding another major sourc of mortality seems unsustainable.
  • BrightSource Energy's Palen Solar project will destroy over 5 square miles of desert north of Interstate 10  to construct two power towers and a field of thousands of heliostats, which are giant mirrors each as big as a garage door.  The Palen Solar project was previously led by Solar Millennium before financial troubles forced it to sell the permit to build on public land.  The two power towers would be much taller than the three towers at Ivanpah, however, and at 750 feet they would be visible from remote desert wilderness as far away as Arizona.  The project's heliostats not only create a collision hazard for birds, but also concentrate the sun's rays to create super-heated air near the towers.  Birds can be blinded by the mirrors' glare or burned to death in the concentration of sun's energy, according to research on a similar facility that once operated near Barstow, California.
  • First Solar's Stateline Solar project could destroy up to 3.4 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley, not far from BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project.  Some of the desert tortoises found on the proposed Stateline site were already handled or displaced by BrightSource construction crews, so approving the Stateline project would add considerable stress and reduce their chances for survival.
  • Iberdrola Renewables is planning the Silurian Valley Solar and Wind project on public land north of Baker, California. The solar portion of the project would involve bulldozing over 2.3 square miles of intact desert, and the wind project portion would industrialize an area over 10 square miles.  The Silurian Valley is a gorgeous landscape that is only impacted by existing transmission lines and a two lane highway, which is eligible for scenic highway status.  The Hollow Hills Wilderness and gentle Silurian Hills bound the valley to the east, with the impressive and imposing Avawatz Mountains to the west.
  • The Soda Mountains Solar project will destroy up to 4.6 square miles of habitat adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve.  Perhaps most disturbing is that the project may require groundwater pumping that could impact habitat for the endangered Mojave tui chub fish.  The project could also obstruct a migration corridor for the desert bighorn sheep.
  • E ON Renewable's North Peak Wind project could industrialize up to 23 square miles of the Juniper Flats area of the Victor Valley, where the Mojave Desert meets the San Bernardino National Forest.  The area features riparian habitat that attracts a range of wildlife, including great horned owls, vireos, coyotes, jackrabbits, and an often beautiful wildflower display in the spring.  Community volunteers and the Friends of Juniper Flats have partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to clean up the area and manage the area for future generations of public use.
  • Oak Creek Energy Systems has expressed interest in industrializing about 58 square miles of desert habitat along the California-Nevada border to build the Crescent Peak Wind project.  The project would be immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, where hikers and campers seek solitude.  The project would also be built near a known hot spot for nesting raptors, including golden eagles.
  • The Granite Mountain Wind energy project would be built along the eastern edge of the Victor Valley.  The Granite Mountain area hosts canyon bats, Pallid bats, Townsend's big-eared bat, Mexican free-tailed bats, and others.   Offering a stark warning, a study found that wind facilities in the Pennsylvania killed at least 10,000 bats in one year, sending ripple effects through the ecosystem.  The Granite Mountain Wind project could also imperil turkey vulture migrations that are known to pass over the ridge.


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