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The power compromise

THE SOLAR DESERT

Environmentalists are torn over the high cost to sensitive desert ecosystems of breaking the United States' reliance on fossil fuels.

February 05, 2012|Julie Cart

On the state level, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger freed large solar plants from property tax and handed out $90 million in exemptions from sales and use taxes. Under Gov. Jerry Brown, the state invested more than $70 million in clean energy research last year, funded by a ratepayer surcharge.

The funding has sparked a land rush echoing the speculative booms in mining, railroad construction and oil and gas on Western federal land.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, February 10, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Solar energy: An article in the Feb. 5 Section A about the wide-ranging effects of large-scale solar energy projects said that the ratepayer advocate's office of the California Public Utilities Commission had estimated that customers would be charged 50% more for energy derived from renewable sources. The PUC itself, not the advocate's office, reported that the price of renewable power more than doubled between 2003 and 2011. It did not estimate the cost to customers.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, February 12, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 75 words Type of Material: Correction
Solar energy: An article in the Feb. 5 Section A about the wide-ranging effects of large-scale solar energy projects said that the ratepayer advocate's office of the California Public Utilities Commission had estimated that customers would be charged 50% more for energy derived from renewable sources. The PUC itself, not the advocate's office, reported that the price of renewable power more than doubled between 2003 and 2011. It did not estimate the cost to customers.

One of the first firms out of the gate was Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc., which received $1.6 billion in federally guaranteed loans in addition to hundreds of millions in private capital derived from such disparate sources as NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc., investment bank Morgan Stanley and CalSTRS, the state's teachers' retirement fund.

By taking advantage of the available government subsidies, shrewd solar developers can get taxpayers to cover close to 80% of a multibillion-dollar project. The rest comes from investors, attracted by what amounts to a tax shelter.

But other companies -- often no more than a website and a phone number -- obtained solar permits from the federal Bureau of Land Management with no apparent intention other than to sell their place in line. Some gobbled up permits, sat on the land and never turned a spade of soil.

Federal and state officials have used job creation to partly justify their subsidy of private solar companies. During the two to three years of a solar plant's construction, most new jobs will go to union tradesmen. But after a plant is built, employment opportunities are limited.

BrightSource's Ivanpah facility is expected to employ 1,000 workers at the height of construction, but that will shrink to 86 full-time maintenance and facility workers once it is up and running.

"What troubles me is that the public has bought the whole solar expansion hook, line and sinker because it's 'renewable,' " Schramm said. "The public would be up in arms if someone was building Disneyland next to a national park."

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Fragile life

Larry LaPre, the Bureau of Land Management's wildlife biologist for much of the Mojave, said some aspects of the project have been carefully considered and painstakingly done. Other approaches, however, are "complete nonsense," among them BrightSource's experimental approach of shearing the tops of desert plants so they fit under elevated solar mirrors. The company calls it "gentle mowing."

"To get another barrel cactus, even a small one, takes 100 years," he said, driving around the Ivanpah construction site. LaPre peered through the windshield and ticked off what living things might be left after the developers complete their work.

"The birds are already gone. They're outta there," he said. The site "will have plants, short plants, and it will have mice and kangaroo rats and some lizards. That's it. Maybe some more common birds. The insects are an unknown, because you could have massive losses of pollinators because you have all these insects getting burned in the mirrors."

Jeffrey Lovich studies desert tortoises for the U.S. Geological Survey. In preparing a recent paper, he and a colleague scoured published research analyzing impacts from large solar farms on wildlife. They found one paper. Essentially, Lovich said, no one knows what will happen to wildlife in the Mojave.

"This is an experiment on a grand scale," Lovich said. "Science is racing to catch up."

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The bargaining table

Mainstream environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have been largely mute, having traded the picket line for a seat at the table when development plans were drawn.

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the nation's most aggressively litigious environmental groups, has not challenged the Ivanpah project. It signed a confidential agreement not to oppose the project in exchange for concessions for the desert tortoise -- mandating that BrightSource buy land elsewhere for conservation.

Some 24 environmental groups signed statements largely supporting the aims of solar developers. National environmental groups joined BrightSource and other solar companies in a letter sent Dec. 14 to the White House, asking the president to continue a federal renewable-energy subsidy.

The national office of the Sierra Club has had to quash local chapters' opposition to some solar projects, sending out a 42-page directive making it clear that the club's national policy goals superseded the objections of a local group. Animosity bubbled over after a local Southern California chapter was told to refrain from opposing solar projects.

Federal officials, solar companies and environmental groups argue that the urgency brought on by climate change has forced difficult trade-offs.

"We did the best we could," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in an interview. The goal, he added, has been to make sure the projects are "the least environmentally intrusive."

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