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The federal government has approved a sprawling solar farm on public lands just outside Joshua Tree National Park, over the objections of environmental groups who say the industrial energy facility will harm wildlife and fragile ecosystems.
The Palen solar project would span about five square miles of open desert east of the Coachella Valley, just north of Interstate 10 and eight miles south of Joshua Tree National Park’s nearest boundary. The Bureau of Land Management said the project will cost $1 billion to build and employ more than 550 people per day during construction, on average. The 550-megawatt solar farm would generate enough carbon-free electricity to balance out the planet-warming emissions of 17,000 average Palm Springs homes.
President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have focused on increasing production of coal, oil and natural gas, the fossil fuels mainly responsible for climate change. But they’ve also taken steps that could boost solar and wind on public lands. Earlier this year, the Interior Department announced it would consider changes to a land-use plan that protects millions of acres of public lands in the California desert, saying the plan makes it too difficult to build renewable energy projects in California.
While environmentalists generally support the growth of renewable energy to fight climate change, some groups have pushed back against large-scale solar and wind farms in sensitive desert areas. They say building projects in the wrong locations can disrupt ecosystems, harming species like the desert tortoise and golden eagle. They’ve pushed for more solar panels on rooftops, and in already-disturbed natural spaces.
The land where Palen would be built is a poor spot for a solar farm, conservationists have argued. Groups including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Parks Conservation Association have said the power plant would destroy desert tortoise habitat, interrupt a sand transport corridor that feeds the sand-dune habitat of Mojave fringe-toed lizard and desert kit foxes and diminish views from the national park.
“This is a very remote area,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It has really important ecosystem values, which include this sand river that basically flows from Joshua Tree National Park to the Colorado River and provides habitat for a lot of very unique plants and animals.”
Native American tribes have also spoken out against the Palen project. They’ve pointed to the cumulative environmental impacts of four large solar farms that have already been built in eastern Riverside County, and several more that have been proposed.
“The desert is now plowed up, and the habitats have been destroyed, the ecosystems have been destroyed,” Patricia Robles, chair of the Lacuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, a Native American group, said at a public meeting on the Palen project in 2016. “The desert bioregion is a very important region to the world and it is very hard to restore. You will never see the desert the way it was prior to the destruction.”
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Palen’s developer is San Diego-based EDF Renewables, a subsidiary of the state-owned French electric utility EDF. The company has signed contracts to sell energy from Palen and another nearby solar farm, Desert Harvest, to Southern California Edison, Marin Clean Energy in the Bay Area and the cities of Anaheim, Burbank and Vernon. It’s not yet clear when EDF Renewables will begin construction of the two solar projects.
It’s been a long road to approval for Palen. The solar farm was first proposed in 2008 by a German firm. That company went bankrupt and the project was ultimately acquired by a Spanish firm that hoped to build 750-foot “power towers” rather than regular solar panels. That company filed for bankruptcy, too. EDF bought Palen and went back to the drawing board, asking the federal government to approve a traditional solar farm.
EDF executive Ian Black said in an email that the company is “grateful to the (Bureau of Land Management) for completing its environmental review of Palen, converting the site from a solar-thermal experiment to an environmentally-preferable, economically-viable” 500-megawatt solar photovoltaic plant. He said Palen will help utilities meet California’s renewable energy mandate “from one of the best solar resource areas on the planet.”
During the decade of tumult for Palen, environmental groups increasingly fought with energy developers over proposed solar and wind farms in the California desert. In an effort to resolve those fights, state and federal officials spent years crafting the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which protects millions of acres while setting aside smaller areas for renewable energy. The Obama administration finalized the plan in 2016. The final product wasn’t popular among developers, who said the restrictions would make it too difficult to build solar and wind farms. But there were no lawsuits.
In early 2018, the Trump administration upset the status quo, announcing it would consider changes to the desert plan, known as the DRECP. Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-scale Solar Association, a Sacramento-based trade group, told The Desert Sun earlier this year she’s “cautiously optimistic” about changes to the DRECP. She said she asked the Trump administration to make targeted changes to the plan through an administrative process, rather than throwing it out and starting from scratch.
“We think upending the plan would result in years of litigation, which doesn’t serve anyone’s interests,” Eddy said.
The Interior Department didn’t respond to a request for comment Thursday about the status of its DRECP review. The Palen solar project would be built on lands identified for renewable energy development in the desert plan.
The Trump administration approved a 3,100-acre version of Palen, rather than the 4,200-acre version proposed by the developer. The reduced-footprint alternative avoids a large dry wash that runs through the project site, which conservationists say could limit the project’s damage to microphyll woodlands, where occasional bursts of water nourish vegetation that provides habitat for birds, mammals and reptiles. But the 3,100-acre configuration also extends further into the sand transport corridor, conservationists say.
Anderson said the Center for Biological Diversity hasn’t yet decided whether to sue the federal government to try to block the project.
Sammy Roth writes about energy and the environment for The Desert Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (760) 778-4622 and @Sammy_Roth.
A new solar farm is coming to California desert, with the Trump administration’s blessing, by Sammy Roth, Desert Sun, November 1, 2018.