In December, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit over the environmental impacts of another solar project in San Bernardino County, the planned 663-MW Calico development.

That project lost its contract with Southern California Edison and was sold by developer Tessera Solar to K Road Power, which has said it may change the plan from using Solar Catcher solar receiver heat exchangers to photovoltaic panels, a move that would send it back to the approval process.

Similarly, the Native American Quechen Tribe recently filed lawsuits alleging that Ivanpah, Calico and three other projects violated the tribe’s sacred places.

“There has been growing sensitivity to large projects in the Mojave,” Coleman says. “We are seeing what we saw on the wind side. Initially the technology was embraced, then when we saw more of it, you started to get pushback.”

Coleman says, “No resource is without consequences.” He adds, “Solar may have less of an impact than a gas project, but it still has an impact.”

Those effects also include changes in the albedo—the reflectiveness of the desert floor. Covering the surface with photovoltaic panels or mirrors reflects light and heat and changes the immediate ecosystem. It can also affect habitat and disrupt Native American cultural sites, Coleman explains.

To mitigate the environmental impact on desert tortoise habitat, BrightSource reduced the proposed project’s footprint by 12%. It also is mounting mirrors on poles to limit grading and destruction of vegetation.

“It was clear that if approvals had proceeded under business as usual, they would not have made the cutoff.”
—Travis Coleman, EPRI

Miller says his office has learned from the first round of approvals and improved the process, including reaching out more proactively to interest groups, such as Native American tribes. He adds that the bureau also is changing the name of the approval approach from “fast track” to “priority processing.”

“The perception was that we were cutting corners when in reality we were just coordinating processing,” Miller says. “Lessons learned will allow us to make a smoother process that delivers the smoothest, most environmentally sensitive process possible.”

The Ivanpah project could be just the beginning of a rush to build industrial-scale solar in California’s deserts. Miller says that an additional 22 solar projects on 162,000 acres of public land in California are still in the approval process.

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