Feds Approve Controversial Solar Project In California


The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) has approved the Soda Mountain Solar Project, which will be built on public lands in Southern California. Soda Mountain has faced protest from various environmental groups, and although the DOI says a revised project design helps address those concerns, some organizations are still unhappy.

According to the agency, the revised project has been reduced from 2,222 acres to 1,767 acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and it will produce 287 MW once fully built. Soda Mountain Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Bechtel Corp., is developing the project.

The DOI says the BLM spent more than three years consulting and working with a variety of stakeholders, numerous federal and state partners, and the public to develop a comprehensive environmental analysis of the Soda Mountain project area and devise a project design that preserves scenic vistas, reduces potential impacts to wildlife in the area and protects groundwater.

About six miles southwest of Baker, Calif., the revised project will be located in an area of disturbed lands that include Interstate Highway 15 and an active utility corridor for oil and gas pipelines, electricity transmission and communication lines and facilities.

The agency says the approved redesign removes an array of solar panels originally proposed for north of the interstate highway, eliminating virtually all visual impacts from the project within the neighboring Mojave National Preserve; now, the DOI continues, the project would not be seen from most parts of the preserve, including from any highway or established route of travel within the preserve.

The DOI says the decision also ensures that the project will not interfere with future efforts to re-establish bighorn sheep movement across the interstate highway. There are currently no bighorn sheep on the north side of Interstate 15 in the project area, mainly because the highway creates a significant barrier, according to the agency. Removing the proposed north solar array preserves a connectivity point across the highway in the event that bighorn sheep populations are re-established north of the highway in the future.

Furthermore, in reducing the project by nearly 455 acres, the smaller footprint is expected to require less water for construction and operations. The approved alternative also institutes adaptive management for water resources and requires monitoring for wildlife.

“The rigorous standards of outreach, analysis and mitigation for the project reflect this administration’s commitment to facilitate responsible clean energy development in the right places and in the right ways,” says Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider, who signed the record of decision.

Nonetheless, the National Parks Conservation Association has vowed to continue fighting the decision.

“The approval of Soda Mountain Solar is a stark contradiction by the Obama administration,” says Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the group, in a press release. “Less than two months ago, we lauded the administration as conservation heroes after they designated national monuments in the California desert to protect and connect important landscapes. Today, in an incredibly disappointing move, the administration approved this harmful renewable energy project that is devoid of public support and contradicts its own scientists and policies.”

“We can enjoy the benefits of 100 percent clean energy without sacrificing unspoiled public land,” adds Bruce Nilles, senior campaign director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “At the same time, we are fighting to eliminate dirty fossil fuels, we have a shared responsibility to protect vulnerable species and lands, such as Soda Mountain.”

The DOI says that since 2009, the agency has permitted 58 utility-scale renewable energy projects on the nation’s public lands, including 35 solar, 11 wind and 12 geothermal utility-scale renewable energy projects and associated transmission infrastructure. Together, these 58 projects could support nearly 15,500 MW of renewable energy capacity, enough to power about 5 million homes, and represent $40 billion in potential private capital investments, the agency continues.

The record of decision and further details about the project can be found here.

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