« Return to this article

Know the West

Solar energy on public lands: The 80,000 have spoken


If the bumpy mountains that rise up between the California desert city of Twentynine Palms and the western flood plain of the Colorado River don’t look like anything else on this earth, it’s because they aren't: The living things that flourish here can’t get a toehold anywhere else; once they're gone from here, they're gone -- wiped out, nonexistent, extinct. When I drove through them in late September of this year, I was astonished how lush they looked; the hills were actually glowing with green fuzz and yellow wildflowers, the kind that had the nerve to bloom after a couple of wicked summer thunderstorms.

The sight left me a little heartbroken, too: A large segment of the public land I was looking at, roughly 250 square miles, had been cordoned off for solar development by the federal government. Last December, the Iron Mountain Solar Energy Zone was one of the many sites parceled out in an environmental study of solar development on public lands put out by the Bureau of Land Management and the Energy Department. Various developers had proposed building five different large-scale solar projects, potentially razing one to six square miles each. They would change the character of this land forever.

But now Iron Mountain is gone from the solar energy zone proposal. The updated plan was released in a new iteration -- a 582-page "supplement" -- last Thursday. Several other zones proposed in the first round have been axed as well: Bullard Wash in Arizona, Pisgah in California, Mason Draw and Red Sands in New Mexico, Delamar Valley and East Mormon Mountain in Nevada. Other zones, including one that bumped up against the southeastern boundary of Joshua Tree National Park and another that tread close to the eastern flank of Death Valley, have been significantly reduced.

Officials at the Bureau of Land Management hinted in July that the document was in the offing; Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes describes the supplement as a bridge between the draft environmental study and a final document. "We received a lot of comment on the original draft and concerns on all sides about the ways we would approach this," Hayes told reporters last week. "Rather than go directly to final, we met with all of the interested constituents, read the 80,000 comments and have come out with what we hope is a strong reinforcement of the principles that were mentioned in the draft, but with a lot more detail about how these solar energy zones will be identified, how they will tie in transmission and how we will deal with environmental issues."

Hayes emphasized that the solar zones are meant to be "attractive to developers," with access to transmission and roads; grazing rights and Defense Department conflicts also played into the decision-making process. Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey stressed that many zones dropped out "because of a lack of investor interest." Barbara Boyle, a senior representative at the Sierra Club who tracks renewable energy development, sees both industry and the environmental community represented in the decision-making.

"The Iron Mountain zone was not of interest to industry because it has no transmission, so that deletion was something they and we sought," she says.

But what stands also out reading through the document is the extent to which critical habitat, tribal resources and wilderness views influenced the new zone proposals. "Pisgah is an area with healthy desert tortoise populations, bighorn sheep habitat and movement corridors, rare plants and other elements giving it strong biodiversity," Boyle says. "We were thus pleased to see it deleted, as we advocated."

Sacred and historical sites also merited adjustments. More than one amendment mentions impacts to the Salt Song Trail, a sacred Southern Paiute throughway that crosses through four Western states.

In other words, it appears that comments were heard. "We’re glad to see it," says Alex Daue, a renewable energy associate with The Wilderness Society. "It seems clear that Interior cares about getting solar program right. What we’ve seen so far is that they listened to most important recommendations that came from a collaboration of environmental groups, utilities purchasing solar and solar developers."

All is not perfect on the environmental side, of course (is it ever?) The zones aren’t a "static" proposal, said Hayes, and developers can apply for leases outside of them -- "they'll just have to make a better case." And controversial applications for solar developments already in process, even some in the dropped zones, will continue to move through the system. One already permitted development in the Pisgah zone, the Calico Solar Project, has been the target of Sierra Club lawsuits in the past, so egregiously does it cut across sensitive wildlife routes. A company called K Road Solar has plans to build a 4,600-acre photovoltaic field there, and there's no sign it will change them.

But Calico, like so many others, was a plan already in process when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar took over the solar development process in early 2009; no one argues that it wasn’t fraught with conflicts that slowed progress for developers and wasted resources in the court room. One hopes the lawsuits in the future can be minimized. Interested parties now have 90 days to review on comment on the supplement, after which the BLM and Energy Department will collaborate on a final proposal.

"The beauty of the iterative process is that they have the ability to listen to the stakeholders," says Daue, "and it’s really great that they’ve taken the step of publishing the supplement. Now the work is to get us to take a close look at it. We hope the final result means more certainty for everybody."

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at High Country News.