Our first Solar Refugee? That’s what it looks like for tortoises residing on a 3,700-acre stretch of land in California’s Mojave Desert. The bulldozers are coming once again to stamp down the bare-earth footprint of mankind. But this time its not the trees they’re after, nor the oil; it’s the sunlight.
The Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System will be located on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Technically the acreage in question is not protected as critical habitat for the tortoises, although it has been confirmed that some of the creatures do live there. Before construction (or destruction) on the land begins, California’s state reptiles will be moved to surrounding areas that are still protected. Sounds good…
But some environmentalists are arguing for some reparations for the tortoises. First there is the issue of translocating. A recent op-ed in the San Bernardino Sun implied a high risk of mortality in moving desert tortoise populations. Secondly, protected or not, you are removing nearly 4,000 acres of habitable land from the tortoises. Solar Partners, the subsidiary of BrightSource Energy that will construct the solar plant, is offering a 1:1 compensation. That is for every acre of habitat destroyed, they will acquire one acre of land as future habitat.
Again, it sounds pretty fair, but the issue gets more complex. The Ivanpah region is considered valuable habitat, or prime real estate, for the desert tortoise. So if the proposed replacement habitat does not meet equal standards of living, should not the ratio of compensation to eradication be higher? In his op-ed, Professor G. Sidney Silliman of Cal Poly Ponoma suggests a ratio of 5:1.
While the desert tortoise is endangered, and so gets the most attention, there is a wealth of other creatures and plant life that will be affected by erasing 3,700 acres of desert landscape. Proponents claim that precautions will be taken (i.e., moving the tortoises) and that there is plenty of land in the deserts of the Southwest. But with over hundreds of thousands of acres up for lease by solar companies in the area, these first few California power plants are just the start.
It would be easier to take the stance that Big Solar and the California leaders are claiming, that there’s no time for dilly-dallying, we need solar NOW, as if there weren’t oodles of available rooftops and urban spaces for solar power plants available that would have minimal impact on the environment and avoid a host of other issues; lack of available transmission infrastructure being just one.
When we first discovered oil, it too was considered an unending resource. We just ran out there and started drilling holes all over the place without much thought for longevity or the environment. We have now seen the repercussions of that mentality. Solar power may be a more definite renewable resource, but that is no reason to chase fortune without temperance. The environmental controversy behind proposed desert solar power plants does not start and stop with the desert tortoise either.