Mojave Desert solar power project angers conservationists

For most travelers on Interstate 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas, the jagged Soda Mountains of the Mojave Desert rise above a seemingly lifeless wasteland of hellish sand dunes, lava flows and vast plains.

But scientists say the scorched land just half a mile north of Mojave National Preserve’s aptly named Devil’s Playground is an incredibly delicate and vital ecosystem rich in wildlife: turtles, foxes, badgers, bobcats and bighorn sheep.

Now, proposals to build a high-speed electric rail linking Southern California to Las Vegas and reviving a long-dead solar project in the area have sparked a clash with conservationists over the best way to ensure bighorn sheep populations don’t become genetically isolated – or end up as roadkill.

Of particular concern has been a recent announcement that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is reviewing a revised version of the controversial Soda Mountain solar project that includes applications for permits to “take” or fatally harm desert tortoises and alter the washes of the desert during construction. .

“We can’t let this solar project happen,” said Chris Clarke of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Assn.

“The value of this landscape and its habitat,” he said, “far exceeds the value of the energy the proposed project would generate.

Chris Clark of the National Parks Conservation Association. walks along a trail in an area of ​​the Mojave Desert that environmentalists say is threatened by proposals to build a high-speed rail linking Southern California and Las Vegas and a controversial solar project.

(Louis Sahagun/Los Angeles Times)

For Mojave watchers, the situation is a crucial test of the State Fish and Wildlife’s ability to negotiate compromises among developers while planning a sustainable future for complex and fragile ecological networks across the desert.

Critics fear the solar project could jeopardize negotiations between federal railroad officials Caltrans, state wildlife authorities and railroad developer Brightline West of Miami to include three wildlife crossings in its proposed 8 billion, which would occupy the central divider of Interstate 15. .

Zglobal, the Folsom, Calif. renewable energy company that supports the Soda Mountain solar project, and Brightline were unavailable for comment.

But Christina Aiello, a biologist at Oregon State University who specializes in bighorn sheep along Interstate 15, said, “It’s a bit of a shock that this zombie solar project is rising from the dead.”

In the worst-case scenario, it could lead to bighorn sheep populations avoiding the area, making wildlife overgrowth a huge waste of money, she said.

“It would also amount to a slap in the face to everyone who has invested work, money and years of their lives in local bighorn sheep recovery efforts,” Aiello said.

State wildlife authorities will assess the environmental impacts of the project, as required by California’s Environmental Quality Act.

“Let’s all take a deep breath,” said Chuck Bonham, director of state Fish and Wildlife. “The desert is a priceless landscape, and any proposed solar project must go through a public process.

“If we have to make changes to avoid conflict, we will. But there will be a way in which everyone can accept and embrace connectivity for sheep populations – it makes sense.

Cars and large motorized vehicles along a desert highway.

Traffic on Interstate 15 passes the North Soda Mountains, home to desert sheep.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Desert sheep once thrived in the jagged mountain ranges of the Mojave Desert, where they formed a “metapopulation” of groups connected by ancient trails. Today, their survival is threatened by disease, drought, highways and renewable energy.

Developing solar power facilities in the desert has been among the most pressing federal priorities since the former Obama administration announced plans to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels and curb global warming.

Potential solar energy developers have long viewed the site, about seven miles south of the community of Baker, as a high-quality resource.

This is due to its proximity to existing infrastructure, including Interstate 15, two transmission lines, a distribution line, wireless cellular communication towers, a fiber optic line, a fuel pipeline and a telephone line.

The City of Los Angeles in 2015, however, dropped plans to buy power from the 3-square-mile project after a review found other proposed renewable energy projects would charge less electricity to the city and would have less difficulty supplying electricity to LA

A year later, the project was rejected by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors due to the potential effects of its wells on underground aquifers, dealing a serious blow to one of the most controversial renewable energy projects. of State.

The revised proposal, however, aims to address this obstacle by eliminating groundwater wells from its plans.

And there’s something else about the project that has apparently changed: Los Angeles officials say they would be interested in receiving proposals to purchase power from the 300-megawatt project “as part of the competitive procurement process.” “.

The project would operate year-round and supply solar power to the regional power grid through an interconnection with the existing 500-kilovolt transmission line cooperated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Electricity, officials said. responsible.

But sandwiched between Interstate 15 and Devil’s Playground, suggests Clarke, there are desert scenes that are unlikely to appear in a renewable energy company’s pitch to potential investors.

Walking along an arroyo lined with creosote brush, smoke trees and countless animal burrows and lava out of sight, Clarke said: “We favor renewable energy, but not here. “

“This land is a crossroads of pathways and volcanic outcrops that help maintain the gene flows of native wildlife,” he said. “To the south is the Mojave National Preserve, which covers 2,400 square miles.”

Spinning a full circle on his heels, he then gestured north and said, “Over there, beyond Interstate 15, are protected habitats stretching 100 miles to the park boundary. Death Valley National.

“The idea of ​​sacrificing that beating heart of Mojave for more solar panels just doesn’t make sense.”

Los Angeles Times

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