April 7, 2010

Million Dollar Tortoises a Symbol of Environmental Schizophrenia

By BC Upham

This may not be a very popular post with some readers, but I feel it is my duty to present the other side of an issue, and maybe help Greens understand why business people and even average Joes sometimes think they’re completely crazy.

The Mojave Desert Tortoise is a threatened species that lives in the Mojave Desert. Brightsource Energy is a solar thermal power company that wants to provide clean, renewable energy to California. Brightsource, tortoise. Tortoise, Brightsource.

Both tortoise and solar company are “green,” in the sense that one is a cute, threatened animal, and the other because it is helping to mitigate global warming.

Yet in order to build its proposed 392 megawatt “Ivanpah” solar plant in the Mojave, Brightsource will have to spend, by the most recent complete figures available, about $20 million to relocate about 20 desert tortoises.

That’s $1 million a tortoise.

The money will be spent to buy 12,000 acres of desert land to accommodate the tortoises, plus a trust fund to care for them in perpetuity. The tortoises currently live on only 4,000 acres, but apparently a tract of land can only support 33 percent more wildlife than already exists there, so when they’re moved to a new neighborhood they’ll have to be dispersed over three times the area.

(Brightsource recently announced the affected tortoises may only number 17, but gave no revised figure for cost)

Brightsource’s plant, which uses concentrated sunlight to run a steam turbine and generate electricity, has a $1.5 billion price tag so $25 million might seem like chump change. But the fact is, that’s $25 million that’s not being spent on other things, like the next solar power plant — or other green jobs.

The company is being a good sport, telling the San Bernardino Sun it “wants to set a good environmental precedent for future solar power plants.”

If there are any.

Brightsource clearly takes its environmental obligations seriously and without complaint. So I’ll complain for them.

The problem is the obstacles to building solar plants on federal lands are having a dispiriting effect on the industry. It is not just the money, but the myriad of bureaucratic hurdles and permissions necessary to get the land which delay projects and scare away investors.

Last year Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in Congress that would create two new federal monuments in the Mojave, effectively banning solar development there. Before it could even become law, the legislation killed a dozen projects already in the works.

On March 17th, the staff of the California Energy Commission recommended that the Ivanpah plant go forward, after Brightsource shrunk the size of the power station to protect more tortoises.

Environmentalists continue to object.