February 19, 2014

Government approves two more big solar projects for the East Mojave

Stateline and Silverstate South projects near existing BrightSource plant.
By David Danelski
Riverside Press-Enterprise

The area around Primm, Nevada, is about to become even more of a hotspot for solar energy.

The Obama administration has endorsed two big projects near the existing Ivanpah solar plant that went online in January. One of the new developments would be in San Bernardino County; the other would be east of Interstate 15 in Nevada, near a smaller plant in operation since 2012.

The approvals, announced Wednesday, Feb. 19, renewed concerns among some environmentalists about the potential loss of wildlife habitat, in view of the dozens of desert tortoises displaced by the Ivanpah project and continuing concern about bird deaths at solar plants.

The Stateline and Silverstate South projects are proposed by Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar Inc. If both are built, solar energy plants would cover about 13 square miles of public land in the Ivanpah Valley.

Jim Hughes, First Solar chief executive officer, said in a statement that the approval followed five years of collaboration with federal, state and local agencies and other groups.

The two new projects are expected to supply 550 megawatts of clean energy, enough to power about 170,000 homes, using photovoltaic panel technology.

“This milestone validates the environmentally responsible development of utility-scale photovoltaic projects on federally managed lands to achieve federal and state carbon-reduction objectives,” Hughes’ statement said.

The approvals opened old wounds with environmental groups that had opposed the 5.6-square-mile Ivanpah plant.

The developments destroy habitat of the desert tortoise and other wildlife and compromise views from nearby Mojave National Preserve, part of the national parks system, said David Lamfrom, the California desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Tortoises are protected as a species threatened with extinction.

The solar projects “disconnect two of the most important wildlife linkages in the Mojave,” Lamfrom said. “A swarm of development has amassed upon the Ivanpah Valley, and ill-sited planning continues near our national parks and precious desert landscapes such as the Soda Mountains, Silurian Valley and the Chuckwalla Valley.”

Two other groups — Western Watersheds Project and Defenders of Wildlife — also expressed dismay over the approvals, the Associated Press reported.

A Department of Interior statement said that both projects were reduced in size to lessen damage to desert tortoise habitat. The developer also must protect about 7,200 acres of desert tortoise habitat elsewhere and provide more than $7 million for desert tortoise study and protection efforts.

The Stateline project will cover 2.6 square miles on the California side of the border, near to the existing Ivanpah plant, which uses mirrors to focus energy onto boilers mounted on three, 460-foot towers to make electricity.

Silverstate South will use 3.8 square miles just east of Primm, on the Nevada side of the border and next to the existing Silverstate North, which occupies 600 acres.