June 14, 2008

Hearings to debate impact of solar farms on threatened species

The Press-Enterprise

State and federal agencies have their hands full with an onslaught of applications from companies eyeing the Southern California desert for its solar power potential.

The federal government is holding hearings beginning Monday in Riverside to get public input on the environmental impacts of solar farms, while state agencies are seeking to balance Gov. Schwarzenegger's push for solar energy with the need to protect endangered species that live on the sun-drenched landscape.

Habitat for the desert tortoise, Mohave ground squirrel and other imperiled species is scattered across eastern Riverside County and much of San Bernardino County.

"Solar projects in particular have a footprint that reduces the habitat suitability for those species; there's the potential for conflict," said Kevin Hunting, deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Game.

"It's all about planning and siting, and we believe there's room for both out there," he said Friday.

Renewable energy reduces the state's reliance on coal-generated power, a major contributor of greenhouse gases blamed for climate change. Such projects have been a prime focus for Gov. Schwarzenegger, who criticized the Fish and Game Department during an April speech at Yale University for slowing a solar project in Victorville to protect habitat for the Mohave ground squirrel, a species threatened with extinction.

"So a squirrel that may not exist (at that location) is holding up environmental progress on a larger and more pressing fight against global warming," the governor said.

He also voiced frustration because some environmentalists have criticized certain renewable-energy proposals because they would require new transmission lines across the very lands they fought to protect.

Five proposed solar farms, for instance, would cover some 33,295 acres near Desert Center in eastern Riverside County; two of them would sit within a mile of Joshua Tree National Park's southeastern boundary, said Claude Kirby, a realty specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is handling applications on federal land.

The hearings starting next week will be hosted by the BLM and the U.S. Department of Energy to gather public input on environmental, social and economic issues that should be considered when approving solar farms in California and five other Western states.

There are 66 applications for solar farms across more than 518,573 acres in the BLM's desert district, which includes eastern Riverside County and much of San Bernardino County. The agency put a hold on any new applications until an assessment of the impacts is complete.

Donna Charpied, an activist who farms organic jojoba near Desert Center, said the solar farms would be just one more thing to mar the desert landscape near the national park where tortoises roam. She has long battled a proposal to turn a former iron-ore mine near the park into one of the nation's largest landfills. The fate of that proposal is being decided in the courts.

"What really aggravates me is, our desert is not a wasteland for urban area problems," she said. "They are exporting their pollution and importing our electricity. We just have to stop that mentality."

Charpied suggested that more projects emulate one under way by Southern California Edison to install solar panels on several warehouse roofs in Inland Southern California, including Fontana.