L.A. Deals Deadly Blow to Fed-Backed Mojave Solar Plant Enviros Hate

Friday, June 12, 2015

Environmentalists lost their plea a week ago for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to end the proposed Soda Mountain Solar Project in the Mojave Desert, but may have received a reprieve from an unlikely source.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported that L.A. had decided not to be the project’s largest customer, after all, and would seek the electricity elsewhere. Bechtel Corporation, the plant’s developer, is in the hunt for new customers with time running short. Eligibility for a 30% federal tax break expires soon.

Unnamed L.A. officials cited a new report by the city’s Department of Water and Power (DWP) that electricity could be obtained cheaper from other sources, but also expressed concerns about bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and the wisdom of building a disruptive solar plant just one mile from the Mojave National Preserve.

There were questions about whether the “serenity and solitude” of “singing sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, Joshua tree forests, and carpets of wildflowers” in a 1.6-million-acre park was compatible with a 1,900-acre, 264-megawatt solar facility with arrays of photovoltaic cells.

Defenders of Wildlife thought not and identified 800,000 acres of already-disturbed and impacted California desert land that would be more suitable.  

But the BLM said it was compatible, on June 5, when the agency approved the final environmental impact report (pdf) for the project after scaling it down from 2,557 acres to preserve some sheep. The plant, if completed, is expected to generate electricity for more than 79,000 homes.

Sierra Club spokeswoman Sarah Friedman told the Times after hearing news of the city’s decision, “We support clean energy, but this is the wrong place to do it.” Project opponents feared that 100 bighorn sheep would have their migration routes fatally disrupted. The Times said that plant proponents are searching for methods to direct the sheep around unnatural hazards by using concrete bridges and tempting tubs of drinking water.

In addition to the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep, environmentalists also raised concerns about a threat to water resources at Mohave Chub Spring from increased pumping, and maintenance of scenic viewsheds.

A lot of these issues were raised when the project was first proposed in 2008 by Caithness Energy, an East Coast company. It stalled and Bechtel, the largest construction and civil engineering company in the United States, bought in a few years ago. 

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

L.A. Won't Buy Power from Mojave Desert Solar Plant, After All (by Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times)

BLM Advances Solar Project That Will Harm Bighorn Sheep (by Judith Lewis Mernit, High Country News)

Solar Project Advances Despite Objections (by David Danelski, Riverside Press-Enterprise)

Stripped Down Solar Project Nears Approval in Mojave Desert (by Jed Kim, KPCC)

BLM Proposes Reduced Size for Soda Mountain Solar Project (Victorville Daily Press)

BLM Proposes Major Changes to Soda Mountain Solar Project (U.S. Bureau of Land Management)

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