California desert, © California BLM

Lost and Found in the Desert

Exploring a Renewable Energy Development Area in Arizona

I stepped out of my small white rental car into the chattery quiet of the October desert. The sun blazed overhead. A lizard skittered across the rutted dirt road in front of me. The leaves on the creosote bushes shimmered in the light breeze. I climbed up on the hood of the car to look around – there was no reception on my phone and the battery on the laptop holding my scanned maps was draining fast. There was no question about it: I was lost in the Sonoran Desert.

Sonoran Desert National Monument, © BLM

Healthy desert habitat in the Sonoran Desert National Monument (© BLM)

Fortunately, I wasn’t that lost. I was exactly where I had intended to go, except I had read the maps wrong. Instead of driving into the center of the proposed site for the utility-scale solar energy project Maricopa Solar Park (located on public lands about 35 miles southwest of Phoenix), I had inadvertently crossed into the Sonoran Desert National Monument about two miles from my destination. What a difference those two miles made. In the National Monument, the road was a rutted single-track, with lizards and birds darting in and out of the dark green creosote bushes and across numerous dry washes. To either side of the road the soil was intact and the land was free of litter. I may be a DC-based policy analyst most of the time, but even I can identify a nice patch of high-quality habitat when I see it!

Fast-forward half an hour. I am back in the car and headed towards the proposed Maricopa Solar site (having exchanged greetings and a chocolate bar for some directions and an extra bottle of water with a crew foreman at a construction site just outside the National Monument boundary). The Italian-based project developer, Marisol Energy 2 LLC, has applied for the right to develop on a 1,730-acre patch of land—most of which is as different as could be from the corner of the Sonoran Desert National Monument I had found myself in just a short time before. Where earlier the creosote bushes had been green and leafy, here they were brown and denuded, showing signs of heavy cattle grazing. Numerous tire tracks crisscrossed the soil beyond the road beds, and I was passed repeatedly on the dirt roads by heavy trucks carrying water, construction materials, and other loads to the several homesteads, landfills, and air strips that border the site. An occasional bullet hole-ridden box off the edge of the road was evidence of recreational shooting, and high-tension power lines hummed overhead.

Road near Maricopa project, © Eliza Cava

Approaching an intersection near the center of the project application. Note the truck approaching on the cross-street making a dust trail. If you squint you can see the high-voltage transmission towers in the background. (© Eliza Cava/DoW)

About three-quarters of the Maricopa site overlaps with a Renewable Energy Development Area (REDA), making this the first utility-scale solar application to be filed under Arizona’s innovative Restoration Design Energy Program (RDEP)—an initiative we have supported and worked to help shape from its inception. RDEP identified areas throughout the state of Arizona, on public and private lands, where the effects of renewable energy development on sensitive resources would be minimized. This particular parcel was actually nominated for inclusion as a REDA by outside groups, including some of Defenders’ partners in the region, as a disturbed or degraded site likely suitable for solar development. In addition to its roads and close proximity to other developments, the REDA is on very flat land, making it unlikely to attract Sonoran desert tortoises, which prefer the rocky uplands nearby. It is less than three miles from the Pinal West power substation, and the developer should be able to run their transmission line along the existing high-voltage infrastructure corridor rather than requiring additional land to build it on.

In short, we think this REDA is probably a low-risk place for solar development, and we’re very excited that the developer chose to submit their application for it and that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has moved ahead with processing it under RDEP. We will continue to work with the BLM, the developer, and our partners to ensure that wildlife impacts in the area are avoided, minimized, and mitigated to the maximum extent possible. And I don’t plan on getting lost when I go back to visit.

Eliza Cava, Renewable Energy & Wildlife Policy Analyst