April 16, 2014

Huge solar project questioned

The proposed Silurian Valley solar project would install photovoltaic panels such as those pictured here at the First Solar is project near Desert Center. The project would cover 11 square miles of public lands north of Baker, dwarfing the mammoth Brightsource Solar project near Ivanpah Dry Lake. (David Danelski)

David Danelski
Riverside Press-Enterprise

Worries about possible environmental damage from another large-scale solar project proposed for the Southern California desert has prompted the federal government to give people more time to submit comments on the proposal.

The Silurian Valley solar project would go on 11-square miles of public land in San Bernardino County, about 10 miles north of Baker, between Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve.

The project calls for erecting thousands of photovoltaic panels that would generate a peak of 200 megawatts of electricity -- enough for more than 35,000 homes. The panels would be arranged in several arrays and connected by 44 miles of new roads.

Art Sasse, a spokesman for the developer, Iberdrola Renewables, said the location was chosen because of its ample sunshine and proximity to power lines. The company is the United States subsidiary of Iberdrola SA, which is based in the autonomous Basque region of northern Spain.

The project is one of many large-scale solar plants proposed in Southern California deserts. The Obama administration has approved six commercial-scale solar projects on public land in the deserts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Three already are operating. An additional eight are in the planning stages.

After people raised several concerns about the Silurian Valley solar project during a public meeting in Barstow last month, Sasse said his company supported extending the public comment period by a month. The new deadline is May 28.

“The public needs more time to express its interest in the project,” he said.

David Lamfrom, the California desert program manager of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the project is “poorly sited” and well outside a solar energy development zone set in 2012 by the Obama administration to avoid environmental conflicts.

The project would mar what is now a scenic, 30-mile drive on Highway 127 between Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve, he contends.

”We know this site is critical for kit fox and golden eagle, and is a stunning landscape enjoyed by millions of residents and (park) tourists alike each year. We know there are better places for these projects,” Lamfrom said.

The project area also may have cultural significance. The site is near trails used by Native Americans and it’s close to the Old Spanish Trail, which was the route Mormons and other white settlers took after crossing Death Valley, said Joan Patrovsky, a real estate specialist for the BLM.

Sasse said Iberdrola is following a stringent environmental review process designed for projects that fall outside the solar designation zones and these reviews will address all concerns raised about the project.

He added that projects outside solar zones also are needed to bolster the nation’s alternative energy supply that’s needed to cut the carbon emissions associated with global warming.

He also said the company wants to be transparent and is working with the BLM to publicly release biological surveys and other reviews and studies commissioned by the company during the past three years.

The BLM asks that comments about the projects’ impacts on views, air quality, recreation, wildlife, cultural resources and any other issues be sent to: Katrina Symons, BLM Barstow Field Manager, 2601 Barstow Road, Barstow, CA 92311 or by email to Silurian_Valley_Solar@blm.gov.