The tortoise and the sun

It's a showdown among environmentalists out West, where proposed solar-energy plants threaten the desert ecosystem.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published January 22, 2009 11:45AM (EST)

As a desert tortoise living in the Mojave Desert, you'd spend much of your coldblooded life catering to the whims of your body temperature.

In the winter, you'd hibernate in one of your several burrows to stay warm. In the summer, you'd also lay low for months on end to keep cool -- a habit called estivation. In the spring and fall, you'd venture out to find a drink of water and wildflowers, such as desert dandelions, to munch on. Mornings, you'd be found sunbathing, basking to warm up, while in the heat of the afternoon you'd park it under a creosote bush to keep cool.

While you and your fore-tortoises would have lived this way for more than 10,000 years, there's some news that could make your so delicately regulated blood boil. You've just become an obstacle in the race to cut the United States' greenhouse gas emissions by bringing industrial-scale solar installations to the California desert. As a desert tortoise that lives in the Mojave Desert, you enjoy protection under the federal Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, as well as state protection, which puts your low-key, dandelion-eating lifestyle at odds with California's urgent need to go solar.

Although you may be the official California state reptile, you may also be a casualty of a new national priority, as President Obama is determined to boost renewable energy in a big way, fast.

In hopes of displacing those CO2-spewing coal-fired power plants, no less an advocate than Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is committed to turning tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of acres of remote California desert into vast solar-powered power plants to help light the state's cities and towns. But harvesting sun power comes with its own environmental costs. Some proposed projects would require grading or scraping the desert floor, denuding vegetation and the wildlife that lives in it.

While not all of the projects may get off the ground, the very idea of using hundreds of thousands of acres of public land for renewable energy development has pitted environmentalist against environmentalist, both sides wrestling with urgent priorities.

"We're seeing a green smiley face being applied to another form of ecological destruction," says John Moody, who is on the board of directors of Desert Survivors, a desert advocacy organization. "Once you grade the desert floor you cannot restore it. In the Mojave Desert, you can still see the old Spanish mule paths from the 1700s. The time cycle for the desert is very slow. It doesn't heal very quickly."

If it heals at all. "You're talking about thousands of acres that have to be scraped bare for this development," says D'Anne Albers, California desert advocate for Defenders of Wildlife. "Once it's scraped, it's pretty much gone. It's not like you chop down a tree and plant it back." As a tortoise, there goes your natural home.

The gold rush is on to win the right to build solar and wind projects in the desert on federal lands. The Bureau of Land Management's California Desert District office is currently considering 75 applications for solar projects that would impact some 647,000 acres of desert land in the region. On much of that desert land, companies are vying to get their solar projects approved, should the first-in-line fail to cut the mustard. The BLM has received close to 200 applications for solar projects in six Western states, including California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. The first project may be approved by the Bureau of Land Management and the California Energy Commission on Nov. 3, 2009, with groundbreaking to begin shortly thereafter.

"If we're really serious about fighting climate change, we're going to need to build large renewable energy projects," says Keely Wachs, a spokesperson for BrightSource Energy, the Oakland, Calif., company that's attempting to develop about 4,000 acres in the Mojave.

In a softball interview on "60 Minutes," Schwarzenegger mocked conservationists who have raised concerns about the impacts of solar developments on wildlife. "The Mojave Desert is the best place to have a solar field because it has the most sun," Schwarzenegger said. "You have sun all year round. It's the best place. But there are some that want to hold it up because they think that it would endanger some animal life. That is going overboard."

Critics insist that Westerners can have their solar power and desert animals too. They argue that installing rooftop solar panels on select urban homes and businesses is a viable alternative, pointing to Germany where federal support has boosted solar panel installation. "We have the potential to generate our power in the places that it's needed, rather than usurp public lands and transport energy hundreds of miles," says Terry Weiner, Imperial County conservation coordinator for the Desert Protective Council, which has been lobbying the California Energy Commission on the issue.

Yet many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, are joining the governor in pushing for the new desert solar projects, arguing that solar needs to get big fast to fight climate change. "We need to develop large amounts of renewable energy quickly so we can ramp down this country's use of coal," says Carl Zichella, the Sierra Club's director of Western renewable programs. "If we don't do that, the environmental consequences for the country and California are unmentionable. We would wind up with a Joshua Tree National Park without Joshua trees. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada is predicted to decline by about 80 percent by the end of this century."

The Sierra Club's Zichella contends that rooftop solar can't expand quickly enough to meet the state's ambitious goals for renewable energy. What's more, utilities trying to meet the state's new renewable mandates won't get any credit for solar panels that individuals or businesses chose to put on their own roofs, according to Nate Lewis, a California Institute of Technology professor of chemistry, who has done consulting for solar companies.

Lewis sees desert solar as the logical alternative for utilities seeking to meet the new renewable mandates. "I think that we'll see a lot of solar in the desert, because hydro is maxed out in our state, we don't have much biomass resources, and we don't have much room to grow in geothermal, and maybe even wind," he says.

This past November, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order, decreeing that by 2020 the state should get 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal. In 2007, the state got about 12 percent of its power from such renewable sources. The move is an attempt to take California toward its formidable climate change-fighting goals of reducing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Hailing the new renewable energy target as "the most aggressive" in the nation, Schwarzenegger also sought to streamline the approval process for new large-scale solar and wind projects on land in the state. To do so, he created a "Renewable Energy Action Team," consisting of representatives from state and federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management. In the next two and a half years, the team is charged with creating the Desert Energy Conservation Plan. The team must figure out how the Mojave and Colorado Desert regions can best be utilized for large-scale solar projects. While projects will still have to go through the usual environmental reviews, the task force signals that the former action hero wants action now.

The governor is also putting Californians' money where his mouth is. Even in the midst of the state's ongoing budget crisis, his proposed budget would set aside $3 million and create 20 positions at the state's Department of Fish and Game to facilitate the permitting process for renewable energy projects in the state. The California Energy Commission would get $2.6 million and 10 positions to help move solar projects along.

While the BLM is also considering applications for dozens of wind energy projects, the solar ones are drawing the most dissent from wildlife advocates and local activists, as they tend to have a greater impact on the landscape. "The footprint with solar is bigger," explains Mark Sanderson, a regional director for the Nature Conservancy. Solar projects often involve covering more of the land, grading and scraping it, and confining the site so other land uses can't take place on it. The projects can also make huge demands on scarce water resources.

The Mojave Desert is an attractive place to put solar simply because the sun shines brightly for much of the year there. But figuring out where to put the projects is shaping up to be a fight, given that 80 percent of the land is federally owned, either by the military, the BLM or the National Park Service. Then there's the problem of where to put the transmission lines to move the power to populated areas.

The first of the projects likely to be built is the Ivanpah Solar Power Complex, a 4,000-acre site in the Mojave Desert. It's currently in the permitting process; a decision is expected in November 2009. Its solar thermal technology is similar to a camper using a magnifying glass to start a fire. Picture three towers, each surrounded by tens of thousands of mirrors, known as heliostats. The mirrors reflect the sun's rays onto giant tower boilers filled with water. Heat would generate steam at temperatures approaching 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That steam would be used to make electricity.

That's bad news for the desert tortoises and other critters living there, according to Ilene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity. "At the Ivanpah site, they're dealing with super-heated liquids, and they don't want to have any inadvertent fires from vegetation." For the desert tortoises, that means no afternoon lounging in the shade of creosote bushes.

But the amount of solar power produced could be impressive. BrightSource Energy, the company building the Ivanpah project, says it could power 142,000 homes and reduce CO2 emissions by more than 280,000 tons per year. According to the company, the 400 megawatt installation could produce more energy in one year more than all the rooftop solar units currently installed in the U.S.

BrightSource has some powerful friends to help bring the heat. Among its investors is the venture capital firm Vantage Point Venture Partners, which counts among its advisors Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the cousin of Gov. Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver; and Terry Tamminen, the former state environmental protection secretary, who continues to advise Schwarzenegger on energy policy. Ironically, environmentalist Kennedy famously tangled with his eco brethren by opposing the installation of a large-scale wind project off the cost of Cape Cod, the Cape Wind Project.

Advocates for desert wildlife realize they may not be able to stand in the way of the political juggernaut. In that case, they argue, the solar plants should be built on lands that have already been disturbed by agriculture and human development. In fact, says BrightSource's Wachs, the Ivanpah site has been used in the past for cattle grazing and off-road vehicles. It also has a major transmission line running through it, unlike many other remote desert sites, to move the power to people who need it.

A permit for the Ivanpah project will likely require a "mitigation" effort. BrightSource would buy a yet-to-be-determined amount of similar habitat and move the tortoises there. But tortoises don't take kindly to being relocated. In March 2008, about 670 tortoises were moved by helicopter to make way for new combat training grounds at the Fort Irwin Military Reservation in the Mojave Desert. But the relocation was suspended after 90 tortoises perished.

Part of the problem is that the tortoises wouldn't stay put in their new digs. "Tortoises are not migratory. They have home ranges that they live in all of their lives," explains biologist Anderson. But if you take them away from their home range they try to walk -- a few miles per day -- back home. "You can move them and they instinctively know which direction their home is and they make a break for it." The slow walk home makes them easier prey to coyotes and cars.

Terry Frewin, chair of the Sierra Club's California/Nevada Desert Committee, says that if the desert tortoise were a cuddlier poster child, preserving the desert might stand a better chance of winning public sympathy. "I often equate our deserts with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in terms of the energy fight, and the uniqueness of the habitat of each," says Frewin. "There are probably more threatened and endangered species in the desert than in ANWR. I often feel that if we had a polar bear cub in the desert, we'd get more attention."

To Moody, from Desert Survivors, there's great irony in attempting to fight climate change by building industrial power plants in the desert. Global warming is already thawing the tundra, he says. "So now we should sacrifice the desert so we don't thaw the tundra?"

It's the kind of difficult question the country will continue to face as it works toward an environmentally sound future. For his part, Zichella of the Sierra Club says that blocking large-scale renewable energy projects is not the way to go. "We have to keep a bigger view in mind," he says. "We simply need to change the way we fuel this economy."

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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