Collateral damage in the Mojave Desert
March 23, 2014
Which should come first: protecting the threatened desert tortoise or creating expensive electricity for an already overpopulated California? The Obama administration and global players in the solar power industry have chosen electricity, and in order to do so they are defiling the Mojave Desert with a massive project that turns the sun's rays into juice for air conditioners in Los Angeles. In February, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz flipped the on-switch at what's now the largest solar farm in the world, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. "This project speaks for itself," said Secretary Moniz as he dedicated the facility. "Just look at the 170,000 shining heliostat mirrors and the three towers that would dwarf the Statue of Liberty."
I have looked at those mirrors and towers while conducting research for the Turtle Conservancy. Like gigantic watchtowers, the supports for the boilers loom some 40 stories over the desert, looking out over the sprawling lake of reflecting mirrors. For those of us who treasure the desert as wild and seemingly limitless, the effect is much like transplanting crowded refineries from New Jersey to the Mojave.
The numbers cited by the Ivanpah plant operator are impressive. All those mirrors are spread across 5 square miles at the California-Nevada border alongside the freeway that connects Las Vegas with Los Angeles. The mirrors focus the sun's rays on boilers in the 460-foot-tall towers, heating water to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit in order to create the steam needed to spin turbines that can generate enough electricity for 140,000 homes. There are numbers, however, that the Google-backed, $2.2 billion developer, BrightSource, does not like to brag about. That includes the high price of the electricity Ivanpah sells to the grid and the several score desert tortoises that have been its victims, despite over $50 million spent to relocate the animals. Add to that a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee for BrightSource, plus the priceless loan of publicly owned land for the project.
At first blush, electricity from the sun and a threatened species seem like green allies. But the Ivanpah project encroaches on land that the desert tortoise has called home for millennia. The official reptile of both Nevada and California, Gopherus agassizii, is a survivor. It lives as long as humans do and weathers the triple-digit Mojave summers by burrowing deep in the desert sand. But it's no match for encroaching development. Military exercises, dune buggies, grazing livestock and now solar farms devastate the tortoise's fragile habitat, killing the grasses and cacti it eats. Since 1950, the species' population has collapsed by some 90 percent.
"Translocation is a terrible idea," one of the biologists hired to try to save tortoises at the construction site told me, requesting anonymity because unauthorized contact with journalists violates BrightSource's rules for the scientists it employs. "Everybody knows that translocation doesn't work. When you're walking in front of a bulldozer, crying, and moving animals and cacti out of the way, it's hard to think that the project is a good idea."
It's not just tortoises dying. During tests of the power plant before last week's official opening, dead and injured birds with scorched feathers were found at the site. Bird biologists think the animals were burned while trying to fly through the intense heat directed at the towers. Biologists believe that the dead birds mistook mirrors at Ivanpah and other solar-power sites for bodies of water.
Although it's too late for the desert tortoises that once lived at the Ivanpah site, economics and technology could save their cousins. Huge, expensive and complex solar-powered electric generating stations like Ivanpah look less appealing as rooftop solar collectors become more cost-effective. Nevertheless, other Ivanpah-size power plants are already under construction or on the drawing boards, though they are sited far from where electricity is needed. These large solar arrays need to be scrapped. It's time to stop wrecking the wilderness with government-supported waste when the sun can be harnessed efficiently right from the tops of the buildings where we use the electricity.
Peter Laufer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the James Wallace Chair Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon and author of Organic: A Journalist's Quest to Find the Truth behind Food Labeling.