Recipe for better solar projects: Companies work with conservation groups

Solar energy. Photo by Alex Daue.

One of the great challenges facing our nation today is our transition to clean, green renewable energy and away from dirty fossil fuels. In California, we are seeing promising signs of this progress with two solar projects approved today by the federal government.

These two solar projects on federal lands in California’s Lucerne Valley and Imperial Valley represent a key lap in America’s race towards clean energy. (California has a 2020 goal that one-third of its power be met by renewable energy; President Obama’s 2025 goal requires that 25 percent of our power come from renewable sources.)

However, meeting these clean energy goals for our state and country will demand that we go the full distance: we will need many more developments with diverse technology from solar, wind and other sources; on private lands and public lands; both large and small projects; and major improvements in how we use and conserve energy.

We also need projects to be “smart from the start” – developments that avoid our wildest, most sensitive lands and wildlife habitats; are located near existing transmission lines and roads; and that use “brownfields over greenfields” wherever possible–that is, disturbed lands previously altered for industrial, agricultural or other purposes.

Unlike the oil and gas industry, whose actions have devastating impacts to the environment, California and our federal government are embarking on a new era of more responsible energy development.

The two approvals today by the federal Bureau of Land Management are the result of environmental groups - including The Wilderness Society - working hard to improve the projects with the developers and the BLM. These efforts, over many months of reviews and negotiations, have helped reduce some of the environmental impacts.

We hope this collaborative spirit will result in future national siting standards and will spark clear guidance for energy developers on how the agency will select and review proposals, reducing environmental impacts as well as unnecessary delays and financial costs. Valuable lessons from these two projects will yield significant benefits as more energy proposals proceed down the pipeline.

The Lucerne Valley Solar project, located east of Victorville, is expected to provide enough electricity to power 20,000 homes. The 45 MW development is sited close to existing roads, infrastructure and transmission lines, and avoids sensitive areas critical for wildlife and other natural resources. This proposal which is one of BLM’s pilot projects on a “fast track,” is also planned for an already fragmented area.

The Tessera Solar Imperial Valley Solar project— also a BLM pilot “fast track” project — will have fewer environmental impacts because of the hard work done by conservation groups, BLM and the developer to improve the project during the review process.

Working with other environmental groups and the company, Tessera Solar, The Wilderness Society helped secure improvements including reconfiguring the project to avoid a major desert wash within the project area, implementing careful phasing of the project, use of retreated waste water for operation of the facility, and mitigating impacts to the flat-tailed horned lizard and bighorn sheep. This 709 MW project will eventually be able to power more than 225,000 homes. Through the process, Tessera Solar, met with The Wilderness Society and other environmental organizations and agreed to measures above and beyond what the state and federal governments had asked of them.

Among the important aspects of the project: careful phasing of this project – steps that require the developer to meet certain standards and will give the developer and the BLM an opportunity to learn and adapt the development after the first phase is completed. This phased approach also makes use of 300 MW of available transmission capacity on existing nearby transmission lines.

Both the Lucerne and the Imperial Valley solar projects reflect lessons learned from an evolving federal process to comprehensively review and revise projects that will develop the renewable energy our country demands – while also protecting the environment.

After decades of fighting the deadly and polluting effects of the oil and gas industry, and our more recent call to combat climate change, our country’s future is at an important crossroads. Renewable energy is needed in large measure to help preserve our most precious lands from the ravages of global warming, to create new jobs and holds the promise for a greener future for all generations.

It is a delicate balance to tap the desert for its solar energy potential, while also preserving its most important wildlands, wildlife habitat and water resources. The Wilderness Society is committed to both these goals – and is working to hold developers and governments to the high standards to achieve this.

photo: Solar energy. Photo by Alex Daue.