Solar Power Encounters Head Winds from Environmentalists, Regulators

Published June 13, 2011

A high-profile solar energy project in California is facing serious delays as the Obama administration’s push for renewable energy has collided with its enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In April, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said there are more threatened desert tortoises on a solar power site under construction in the Mojave Desert than had been originally determined by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). BLM’s move effectively froze construction on most of the Ivanpah power project approximately 50 miles south of Las Vegas near the California-Nevada border.

The 2009 biological assessment carried out by FWS had determined only a few dozen desert tortoises would be disturbed by the construction and operation of the solar facility.

Not so, BLM now asserts. The Bureau estimates solar power plant construction would lead to the loss of 3,520 acres of prime tortoise habitat, the death of 608 of the creatures, and the capture of at least 274 tortoises. Bureaucrats at BLM instructed their counterparts at FWS to produce a new biological assessment by the end of May.

Subsidies, Controversies, Lawsuits
The 392-megawatt project is being developed by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, Inc. U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for the project to the tune of $1.6 billion in loan guarantees. The company intends to raise an addition $250 million for the project through an initial public offering.

In a related development, California’s Supreme Court in April refused to consider a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club seeking to delay construction of the Calico Solar Project. The Sierra Club unsuccessfully argued the California Energy Commission had approved the Calico facility without considering the effect on surrounding plants and animals.

Environmental activists have long been champions of renewable energy, but as more solar plants are planned for sunny California, the once-cozy relationship is showing strains. Activists are now targeting solar facilities proposed by First Solar, Inc. and SunPower Corporation. Several tribes, including the Apache, Chemehuevi, and Quechan, have filed a string of lawsuits to halt construction of solar facilities on federal land in California.

Fighting All Energy Production
“It seems environmental activists are never happy with energy production,” said Dan Simmons, director of state policy at the Institute for Energy Research. “When people are trying to use fossil fuels, we hear about how bad fossil fuels are and how we are supposed to use renewables. But as the situation in California shows, when people try to use renewables, environmental activists try to shut them down as well.”

“At some point,” Simmons explained, “you have to ask if there is any energy production environmental activists won’t fight.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.