Obama admin wants more desert solar

The Obama administration marches on in its quest for more big renewable energy. This week, the Department of the Interior announced its 49th and 50th approvals of utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands. Pre-Obama, there were zero such approvals.

The two projects are along the California-Nevada border – one on each side – in the Ivanpah Valley. That’s right, Ivanpah, so we’re talking about the same neighborhood as the big new Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.

The approved Silver State South project is a companion to the already operating Silver State North power plant (image via Enbridge)

While that power plant uses mirrors, towers and boilers to generate electricity, the newly approved projects will use the thin-film photovoltaics of First Solar, 300 megawatts worth at the Stateline Solar Farm Project on the California side, 250 MW at the Silver State South Project on the Nevada side. (Ivanpah might have a higher gee-whiz quotient, but PV is a cheaper way to produce clean energy.)

The projects, the DOI said, are “expected to supply 550 megawatts of renewable energy, enough to power about 170,000 homes, and support more than 700 jobs through construction and operations.”

For all that clean energy goodness, there will be a price to pay. Both projects are barely a stone’s throw off Interstate 15, which sees an average of 40,000 cars or trucks zip by in each direction every day at the state line, but the habitat is sensitive and home to the desert tortoise, currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The administration says the projects have been trimmed and tailored to minimize risk. It points out, too, that, regarding the Stateline project, “as part of ongoing efforts to protect the threatened Desert Tortoise, the BLM is expanding the nearby Ivanpah Desert Wildlife Management Area by more than 20,000 acres and requiring that the developer achieve 3:1 compensatory mitigation for Desert Tortoise for its 1,685 acres.” For Silver State South it says that “the developer must fund over $3.6 million for Desert Tortoise mitigation and $3.5 million for studies intended to guide future efforts to protect the Desert Tortoise in the project area.”

Nevertheless, Defenders of Wildlife, which says it supports well-sited big renewable energy development in the desert, in November signaled that it could sue to stop or at least change the two new Ivanpah Valley solar projects. The group argues vigorously that the feds are ignoring their own science that shows building the projects will “further fragment desert tortoise habitat in violation of the ESA” [PDF].

* Pete Danko, EarthTechling