Solar Projects Pit Green Against Green

The legal tussle over putting large solar power plants in often-fragile desert landscapes underscores the difficulty of pushing forward projects crucial to fighting climate change and meeting California’s ambitious renewable energy mandates.

The five lawsuits currently pending against five solar thermal projects licensed by the state and approved for construction on federal land represent a multiplicity of interests.

The Sierra Club, for instance, has petitioned the California Supreme Court to overturn a license issued for the Calico Solar Energy Project, which the environmental group argues would harm the imperiled desert tortoise and other wildlife. A labor group, California Unions for Reliable Energy, also filed a petition on similar grounds.

But as I wrote previously in The Times, the group has a history of singling out those projects whose developers refuse to sign contracts requiring the employment of union workers.

Two American Indian groups, meanwhile, have sued to stop solar power plants on cultural grounds, charging that covering square miles of their ancestral homelands with mirrors and industrial equipment will destroy artifacts and wildlife associated with the tribes’ creation stories.

But even absent such legal challenges, developers have seen projects scuttled when they have chosen unsuitable sites.

Take the case of Solar Millennium’s ill-fated Ridgecrest project. In September 2009, the German developer filed an application with the California Energy Commission to build a 250-megawatt solar trough power plant on 3,920 acres of government-owned desert land.

First, local officials objected to the 815 million gallons of water a year the project would consume to cool the power plant. That forced Solar Millennium to switch to a more water-efficient but expensive cooling technology. Then as the licensing process proceeded, it became apparent to officials that Ridgecrest could harm the Mohave ground squirrel, a protected species.

After sparring over the need to conduct a multimillion-dollar Mohave ground squirrel study, Solar Millennium pulled the plug on the project in late January after spending 16 months trying to get it licensed.

“A review of the record strongly suggests California agency’s staff is unlikely to be open to a recommendation of approval,” Josef Eichhammer, chief executive of the company’s American subsidiary, wrote in a Jan. 21 letter to state officials. “In light of these circumstances, it would not be economically viable to continue to pursue either the study or the project.”

And in late 2009, the opposition of Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, effectively scuttled 13 big solar power plants and wind farms planned for a swath of the Mojave that she and some environmental groups considered pristine.

But even several big solar photovoltaic farms planned for private ranch lands in central California have run into local opposition, although no lawsuits have been yet filed.

The internecine struggles among environmentalists over renewable energy have left some in the business community exasperated.

“It’s green-on-green violence,” said Ted Sullivan, an analyst at Lux Research in New York. “Do you want reduced carbon emissions or do you want to save an endangered species?”

The answer, of course, is both. But it may take time to find the right balance between the two.

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