Sunday, April 24, 2011

Solar Gold: Will the San Luis Valley be Colorado's Mojave?

The San Luis Valley is Colorado's sole target for massive solar development although efforts have not proceeded at the same pace as in California.  Still, more than 150,000 acres of mostly intact public land are being offered up by the Bureau of Land Management for industrial scale (100-1,000 MW) solar development.  Two controversial Big Solar projects (Tessera Solar and Solar Reserve) are underway on private lands in Saguache County.   Is the San Luis Valley poised for its own solar conflagration?

Below are excerpts from the Desert Sun report on Big Solar in California's Mojave desert.....

Solar: California's new gold

Green energy offers the prospect of an economic boon, but some worry the environmental, cultural cost is too high.

It's been called California's second gold rush: the clamor by large solar companies to stake a claim in southern California's open deserts and capture one of its most abundant resources — sunlight.

While many cheer the cleaner energy and economic possibilities utility-scale solar development may bring to a job-starved region, some environmentalists, Native Americans and others are critical of the process, saying it's running roughshod over threatened plant and animal species and culturally sensitive areas.

The California Energy Commission and federal Department of the Interior have approved eight major solar projects in Southern California since last year, including seven projects in the deserts north and east of the Coachella Valley. All but two of the approved plans utilize largely undeveloped public land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. 

Another eight utility-scale solar projects are also in the permitting pipeline for Riverside and Imperial counties. And long-range plans are in the works that could open up millions more public acres to solar development in six western states with the largest proposed solar energy zone in Riverside County.

Critics contend the politically driven fast track to approving projects on tens of thousands of acres of public lands will cause irreparable damage to threatened plant and animal species, as well as to historic, prehistoric and culturally important sites.

“The irony is, in the name of saving the planet, we're casting aside 30 or 40 years of environmental law. It's really a type of frenzy,” said Christine Hersey, a solar analyst at Wedbush Securities who closely follows environmental concerns associated with solar projects.

The state of California and federal government are spurring the desert solar development, offering billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees, cash grants and tax breaks. On Monday, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced $2.1 billion in federal loan guarantees for one project, a 1000-megawatt proposal near Blythe and another solar plant in development, Ivanpah in eastern San Bernardino County, received $1.37 billion in federal loan guarantees in February.

Janine Blaeloch, executive director of the nonprofit Western Lands Project, questioned the huge taxpayer commitment to the solar projects.

Blaeloch is a member of Solar Done Right, a coalition of public land activists, solar power and electrical engineering experts, biologists and renewable energy advocates critical of placing large solar projects on relatively unspoiled public land. She co-authored a report released earlier this month on governmental push for solar in the open desert, entitled “Wrong from the Start.

She noted that corporate investors in companies developing solar projects in the California desert include Chevron, BP, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.

“It's big money and big oil,” she said. “It's the same people who have driven us into the hole we're in now trying to get us into another one.” ....“They are not saying to the public, ‘We want to know how you feel about this;' They're saying, ‘We're going to do this and you can comment on it if you want,'” she said.

“These solar plants will introduce a huge amount of damage to our public land and habitat. The sites will be turned into permanent industrial zones. Even if the plants are dismantled after their life is expired, you cannot restore the desert to what it was.”

Solar Done Right's report contends government officials could take advantage of already disturbed lands such as brownfield sites and former agricultural fields. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified hundreds of thousands of acres of such sites with the potential to generate 920,000 megawatts of solar electricity, the [RE-Powering America] report notes. 

Distributed generation [on residential and commercial rooftops, crop circles and other urban "solestate"] is another option, Blaeloch said [see the Luskin Center study, for an example].

Read the full story here

Related news:
May 18, 2011, Los Angeles Times: The wrong sites for solar (OpEd)
Apr 25, 2011, Reuters: Tortoises Lead to Halt of Part of BrightSource's Solar Project
Apr 25, 2011, Greentechmedia: BrightSource Files for $250M IPO: A Closer Look
Apr 25, 2011, Desert Sun: Endangered tortoises slow push for power
Apr 24, 2011, Desert Sun: Tribes: Solar projects tread on sacred Indian ground