Courtney Sexton, Communications Associate
Defenders’ dedication to renewable energy sourcing that is “smart from the start” paid off when Calico Solar, LLC pulled the plug on a massive solar energy project that would have wrought havoc on thousands of acres public land that harbor numerous sensitive species of animals and plants and link the western and eastern regions of the vast Mojave Desert, habitat critical to the desert tortoise.
California’s requirement that utilities obtain at least 33% of their supply from renewable resources by 2020, coupled with a federal push for renewable energy development on public lands, has turned the state into a literal hotbed for renewable projects (and it is likely to become an even bigger one with the launch of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan). While this, generally speaking, is a good thing – good for the environment, good for jobs, good for our country’s need to pare back on greenhouse gas emissions – renewable energy development is nonetheless a field that must be carefully navigated, especially in places like California’s Mojave Desert, which supports diverse communities of plants and animals, many of which are at-risk from long-term human activities in the region.
In 2007, Stirling Energy Systems Solar One, LLC (SES Solar Three LLC and SES Solar Six LLC) submitted applications to the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for the construction and operation of a solar energy project that would include about 30,000 25-kilowatt solar dishes, and cover a 8,230 acre site in San Bernardino County. In 2010, the companies merged, becoming a subsidiary of Tessera Solar, and the venture we know as the Calico Solar Project was approved for licensing certification by the CEC, and by the BLM for construction and operation of the project through a right-of-way grant.
The project raised a red flag with Defenders’ staff in California from the onset, as it was clear that Calico would cause significant adverse impacts to several at-risk species and their habitats, including the threatened desert tortoise, white-margined beardtongue, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, burrowing owl, golden eagle and others. For nearly two years Defenders followed developments with increasing concern regarding the siting of the project. Comments from Defenders and several other conservation groups warned of the impacts the project would have, faulted the BLM for analyzing only the proposed site in their EIS and offered a recommendation to both the BLM and CEC to relocate the project to an environmentally acceptable site.
Initially, our efforts seemed made to no avail – Calico was approved. The CEC did analyze a private land alternative, but chose to approve the proposed project, nonetheless. The BLM also included an additional surprise in their final Environmental Impact Statement: a tortoise translocation plan that would likely result in the deaths of many of these animals (both those being moved and those already occurring in the relocation habitat), and inflict undue stress on two adjacent federal Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, public land areas designated for special conservation.
Because the concerns voiced by the environmental community were not considered, Defenders (along with the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity and The Wilderness Society) moved forward with strong opposition to Calico by submitting a formal protest to the BLM director on grounds that the project violated various laws, regulations and policies that are meant to protect sensitive species and their habitats on public lands. Though the BLM and CEC recognized that impacts would be significant, even a formal protest wasn’t enough to stop the continued planning of the project. As a result, Defenders, the NRDC and the Sierra Club took legal action and filed suit against the BLM and the CEC in federal court.
With continued pressure from conservationists mounting, Calico hit several other roadblocks that stalled the project, including a challenge from the Burlington-Northern Railroad Company regarding safety issues and the cancellation of a power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison. It slowly became clear to developers that this project was destined to fail after all.
Clearly, Calico was NOT going to produce the kind of renewable energy we need, that is, the kind that doesn’t come at the expense of wildlife and the environment. The BLM acted hastily in approving this subpar project and disregarded the conservation values of the public lands that would be lost. Though the company cited “changed market conditions” as their reason for abandoning the Calico project, the truth of the matter speaks for itself—poorly sited projects are risky not only for the environment, but for the developers as well. Like the wildlife, developers benefit most when projects are planned smart from the start.
In a June 20 letter to the California Energy Commission, Calico formally nixed the project by surrendering its building and operating license. The sun has officially gone down on Calico, and with our continued efforts, it is instead rising in the realm of responsible renewable energy.