Obama approves giant solar, wind projects in desert

Big solar was the biggest driver in the record-breaking U.S. solar gains made last year, with utility-scale plants accounting for more than half – 1,752 megawatts – of the 3,313 MW of newly installed capacity.

Now the Obama administration is moving to keep the pipeline full with more projects on public lands.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar this week gave his stamp of approval to the 750-MW McCoy and 150-MW Harvest Solar Farm projects in eastern Riverside County, ground zero for big solar development in the U.S. While he was at it, the secretary also said yes to the 200-MW Seachlight Wind Energy Project in Clark County, Nev.

Salazar made the announcement at a meeting with California Gov. Jerry Brown, a strong backer of the administration’s push to include big renewable projects in sun-blessed – and often fragile – desert environments, part of its “all of the above” energy agenda.

Opposition to desert developments has popped up. The Interior Department noted that the two newly approved solar projects are “in California’s Riverside East Solar Energy Zone, an area established through the Western Solar Energy Plan as most suitable for solar development.” Larger environmental groups have generally backed that plan, but just last month three smaller environmental groups, led by the Western Lands Project, brought a lawsuit against it, charging “the Administration is opting to needlessly turn multiple-use public lands into permanent industrial zones.”

The groups believes industrial-scale power plants – even ones producing renewable energy – do irreparable harm to the desert, and that the goal of clean energy can be achieved by putting solar on rooftops and brownfields and other already disturbed lands.

The group, Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains, for instance, delivers this bill of particulars against the wind power project:

“The project is located too close to the Piute-El Dorado Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Desert tortoise, gila monsters, bighorn sheep, and many species of bats and birds will be killed or disturbed by this project. Individual desert tortoise on neighboring ACEC lands will wander into the project area. Stress from development and movement of tortoises could contribute to upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) and certain shell diseases. The Searchlight area is along the Colorado River migration corridor for geese and ducks between Canada, the Great Salt Lake, and south to Mexico. Many of these birds may be killed by the turbines. The project will be visible from the highway as well as wilderness areas and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The lower Colorado River region is rich in archeological sites which will be destroyed by the blasting and construction of roads and trenches.”

Such opposition hasn’t seemed to faze the administration, or, with the California projects, Brown. But that’s no surprise. The governor laid out his approach pretty clearly at a renewable energy conference in 2011, according to the Sacramento Bee: “In Oakland, I learned that some kind of opposition you have to crush. Talk a little bit, but at the end of the day you have to move forward, and California needs to move forward with our renewable energy.”

Here’s the Department of the Interior’s rundown of the three projects:

TheMcCoy Solar Energy Project, located about 13 miles northwest of Blythe, CA, was proposed by McCoy Solar, LLC (a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, LLC). The 750-megawatt photovoltaic solar facility would be one of the largest solar projects in the world, and encompass about 7,700 acres of BLM-managed lands and 477 acres of private land. Because the BLM worked closely with the developer to reduce the footprint, the project will occupy only 4,394 acres. McCoy Solar has agreed to purchase more than 4,500 acres of habitat to protect the Desert Tortoise, Burrowing Owl, and Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard species. The project is expected to employ approximately 500 workers during peak construction, and 34 permanent jobs. When operational, the facility would generate enough clean power for an estimated 225,000 homes in southern California. A 12.5-mile generation transmission line would connect the project to Southern California Edison’s Colorado River Substation. Click here for a fact sheet on the McCoy Solar Energy Project and here for a map.

The Desert Harvest Solar Farm, proposed by EDF Renewable Energy (formerly enXco) on a site six miles north of Desert Center, CA, would encompass about 1,208 acres of BLM-managed lands for the 150-megawatt photovoltaic facility. The project would have a peak construction workforce of about 250 employees and create 8 permanent jobs. The facility will use an efficient single-axis tracking technology that allows the solar panel arrays to follow the sun to produce more electricity for the same amount of ground disturbance. The project’s infrastructure will be concentrated with that of a nearby solar project, minimizing new ground disturbance. The BLM added requirements to ensure that the plant will not contribute to overdraft of the local groundwater basin. When operational, the facility would generate enough electricity to power an estimated 45,000 homes in southern California. The project also includes an on-site substation and 230-kilovolt line to the Red Bluff Substation, which will connect the project to the Southern California Edison regional transmission grid. Click here for a fact sheet on the Desert Harvest Solar project and here for a map.

The Searchlight Wind Energy Project will be built on 18,949 acres of BLM-managed land near Searchlight, Nevada, 60 miles southeast of Las Vegas. The permanent footprint of the 200-megawatt project will be approximately 160 acres. The Western Area Power Administration is proposing to construct, operate and maintain a new switching station to connect the project to the existing power grid. When built, the project would provide enough electricity to power about 70,000 homes. The facility would create an estimated 275 peak jobs, 15 full- and part-time operational jobs and generate about $18.6 million in property and sales tax revenue for local government. Click here for a fact sheet on the Searchlight Wind project and here for a map.

Pete Danko, EarthTechling