Threatened Tortoises Slow Down Desert Solar Project


Threatened desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). Photo by Beth Jackson/US Fish and Wildlife Service

The building of the massive 5.6-square mile Ivanpah solar project in the Mojave Desert by BrightSource Energy has been suspended in the midst of construction while the U.S. Bureau of Land Management assesses whether more than 3,000 acres of tortoise habitat would be lost. It is believed that an estimated 600 endangered desert tortoises could die as a result of the solar complex and 160 tortoises might be captured and displaced. They didn't fare so well with the US Army's translocation a couple years ago. BrightSource Energy, the developer of the 392 MW solar thermal plant, claims that only 38 tortoises would be disturbed from the sprawling solar site in California near Nevada. A spokesperson for the company, which received a $1.6-billion federal loan guarantee for the project, believes the government projections are inaccurate, saying the largest concentrations of tortoise are outside the project areas.

The dispute underscores the conflicts between conservation groups and renewable energy interests, such as the ongoing issue with wind turbine farms imposing dangers to birds. Solutions like bird-smart wind power include carefully planned sites and monitoring, intended to mitigate the problem.


Rendering of BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Power Complex. Image from PGE Green Energy

Environmental groups prefer that solar energy be located to not endanger wildlife and disrupt wilderness. They maintain that smaller solar arrays on rooftops of commercial and residential properties are the best alternative. In addition, this would eliminate the requirement of transmission lines from remote locations to urban areas via the grid. Sustainable Business reported on the advantages of small vs. big solar, questioning the use of public lands for huge industrial solar fields.

California desert tortoises, normally living to be 80-100 years old, have well-established home ranges with food, water and mineral resources. But disease, predators and loss of hospitable habitat have caused up to a 90% decline since the 1980s. When the US Army moved 650 tortoises in 2008, 90 died. The Center for Biological Diversity and Desert Survivors sued the Army, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management for violating the Endangered Species Act.

With the suspension on construction of the Ivanpah solor complex, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will further investigate its construction's effect on tortoises and determine whether finishing the project puts the species at risk. If not, the agency will set limits on how many may be killed or injured. Alternative plans could try to locate another appropriate tortoise habitat.

"Adopt" a tortoise in California through the Joshua Tree Tortoise Rescue Project or in Nevada through the Bureau of Land Management which monitors the animal through an implanted microchip.

Source: LA Times
More on the BrightSource Solar Project:
Sen. Feinstein Wants to Prohibit Renewable Energy Development in 500,000 Acres of the Mojave Desert
BrightSource Energy Readies $250 Million IPO to Expand Solar Thermal
Google Invests $168 Million in 392MW Mojave Desert Solar Thermal Plant
Should Solar Development be Banned from the Mojave Desert

Tags: Alternative Energy | Deserts | Endangered Species | Solar Technology | Turtles

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