April 19, 2013

State Lauds Mitigation Deal For Ivanpah Solar Project

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (Photo: Craig Dietrich/Flickr/Creative Commons License)

by Chris Clarke
KCET Rewire

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has announced that the finishing touches have been crafted on a deal to preserve 7,000 acres of land in the Mojave Desert as mitigation for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System near the Mojave National Preserve. But not everyone's happy with that.

The land, whose acquisition and management has cost Ivanpah's owners $11.4 million dollars, was purchased through the state's Advance Mitigation Land Acquisition Program (AMP), started in 2010 by the passage of Senate Bill 34. That program streamlined previous mitigation programs in which developers had to work on their own to acquire parcels of land for protection to "mitigate" the habitat destruction their projects entailed. Under the AMP, CDFW does the legwork of finding suitable mitigation land and developers need only write a check.

A press release on CDFW's website describes the land being preserved to mitigate Ivanpah, though with a significant error:

The lands are comprised of 163 separate parcels in the Chuckwalla Desert Wildlife Management Area (DWMA) in San Bernardino County, and the Fremont-Kramer DWMA and Superior-Cronese DWMA both in Riverside County.

The Chuckwalla DWMA is actually in Riverside County east of the Coachella Valley. The Fremont-Kramer and Superior-Cronise DWMAs are in San Bernardino County; the first is near Boron and the second north of Barstow along the southern edge of the Fort Irwin Army base.

Each individual parcel of the newly acquired lands will be managed either by the Transition Habitat Conservancy, based in Pinon Hills near Hesperia, or the Joshua Tree-based Mojave Desert Land Trust.

The Ivanpah project occupies about 3,500 acres of land, meaning that the ratio of mitigation land to developed land is about 2/1. Ivanpah is owned jointly by developer BrightSource Energy and investors NRG Energy and Google. "Working through the State's Advanced Mitigation Program has proven to be an effective alternative for satisfying the Ivanpah project's mitigation land requirements," said Marc Sydnor, BrightSource's director of environmental affairs, in the CDFW press release. "We've also been able to achieve a project goal of ensuring that the land purchased is used for the highest possible purpose -- to protect our state's natural legacy."

Other observers are less sanguine about the deal. Ileene Anderson, biologist and Public Lands Desert Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, lauded the land being preserved but told ReWire that better development strategy would avoid the need to replace the tortoise habitat at Ivanpah:

While these acquisitions are in important areas for desert tortoise conservation, future solar projects would be best developed on already disturbed lands and rooftops, so that desert tortoise habitat is not impacted and therefore there is no need for mitigation.

Meanwhile, blogger Shaun G. at Mojave Desert Blog, a long-term critic of utility-scale desert solar projects, was even more unsparing about the trade-offs:

[W]hat benefit did we achieve in Ivanpah? Approximately 392 megawatts of solar energy. Companies in the United States installed far more solar panels on already-disturbed lands and rooftops during the Ivanpah Solar project's construction period. And Germany added thousands of megawatts of mostly rooftop solar. All while we watched BrightSource destroy a true natural treasure in the Mojave.