On April 7, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the Ocotillo Sol Solar Project, a 20 MW photovoltaic project that will be located on 100 acres of public land in Imperial County, Calif. Ocotillo is the 51st approved renewable energy project that is to be built on public lands – the latest in an approval spree that the BLM began in 2009.
Before 2009, there were no solar projects authorized on public lands. As part of President Barack Obama's Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon pollution and increase renewable energy in the U.S., the BLM has a goal to approve 20 GW of renewable energy production on public lands by 2020. Of the 51 projects approved so far, 28 are solar. The BLM also has designated Solar Energy Zones, 285,000 acres of public land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah that serve as priority areas for these large projects.
The approval process includes reviews that show the projects will not interfere with animal conservation, water-saving efforts and other environmental issues. These reviews comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to consider environmental issues of proposed actions.
‘We provide opportunities for public input on these projects,’ says Ray Brady, manager of the national renewable energy coordination office for the BLM. ‘We work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, states, and other stakeholders to make sure the projects are sited in the right locations, and have appropriate mitigation measures involving conservation efforts to mitigate any impacts.’
For example, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), which will receive the electricity from the Ocotillo project, had to reduce the project footprint by 10% to avoid disturbing sensitive habitat. Also, SDG&E will acquire 600 acres of flat-tailed horned lizard habitat to compensate for disturbance in the Yuha Desert Management Area, and the project will have a wildlife mortality monitoring plan and mitigation measure.
Other projects have undergone similar changes. Two First Solar projects announced in February involved changes to the design to protect certain animals.
The first, the 300 MW Stateline solar farm project, will be built in San Bernardino County, Calif., on approximately 1,685 acres of public land located two miles south of the California-Nevada border. First Solar agreed to reduce Stateline's footprint by more than 20% ‘to avoid and minimize project impacts,’ according to a BLM press release. Also, to protect the threatened desert tortoise, the BLM is expanding the nearby Ivanpah Desert Wildlife Management Area by more than 20,000 acres and requiring that the developer protect three times the area that the project will disturb.
The second, the 250 MW Silver State South solar project, will be located near Primm, Nev., on approximately 2,400 acres of public land. The Silver State South design was reduced by 100 MW, and mitigation measures will include soil stabilization to prevent erosion and polluted runoff. First Solar must set aside $3.6 million for desert tortoise mitigation and $3.5 million for studies to guide future efforts to protect the desert tortoise in the project area.
‘Very few of these projects are sited in the desert tortoise's critical habitat, but they do impact the desert tortoise to some extent,’ Brady says. ‘We are focusing our conservation and mitigation funds on trying to improve critical habitat for the desert tortoise.’
Other animals, such as birds, can be affected by utility-scale projects. Brady says the danger is not just that a flying bird might crash into a concentrated solar power tower or, for that matter, a wind tower, but that birds are attracted to certain features. Some birds are attracted to water, so developers have to reduce the ponds so there is less standing water in the project's area. Ravens are attracted to food remains in trash, so developers have to rid a site of litter.
Water is its own issue, as it is scarce in the desert environment that will have many of the solar projects. Brady says some projects have been redesigned to reduce water requirements. Some project developers have agreed to wash the panels less frequently, and some can use dry cooling instead of wet cooling at the solar facility.
One thing the BLM does not worry about too much with these projects is fire.
‘Most of these areas in the desert have minimal vegetation,’ Brady says, adding that development plans still must include a fire-protection plan.
So far, five of the solar projects have completed construction and have begun operations. For more information, click here.
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.