Mitigating the Impacts of the Renewable Energy Gold Rush
Amy Wilson Morris
Aspen Environmental Group
University at Buffalo Law School
August 9, 2013
Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, Forthcoming
SUNY Buffalo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-008
Solar energy developers have turned their sights on California’s deserts. Since 2010, local, state, and federal agencies have approved nearly 9,000 megawatts (MW) of solar energy projects in the California desert, including more than 3,000 MW on public lands. The 9,000 MW of approved projects (if all are developed) would require approximately 63,000 acres of total desert land with 21,000 federal acres. The scale of proposed landscape change is unprecedented. Solar energy facilities can be more land-intensive than other forms of energy generation. Because of concern about the potentially devastating impacts of climate change, most major environmental groups have expressed general support for expansion of renewable energy. However, many of these groups are also concerned about the impacts of the proposed projects on desert species and ecosystems. Nearly all of the projects have the potential to impact endangered and threatened species. The consequences of desert development are particularly troubling because of limited scientific understanding of these ecosystems. Deserts are slow to recover from disturbance and damaging desert soils limits their ability to act as carbon sinks.
This Article examines the mitigation projects associated with large-scale solar projects and questions where the push for utility-scale solar energy development in the California desert leaves endangered species preservation. Our research highlights general concerns with perpetual off-site mitigation and the lack of oversight and information about mitigation projects. Through examining the development of two specific solar power facilities in the California desert (Ivanpah and Genesis), we demonstrate the mitigation choices, the time lag between project approval and developed mitigation plans, and the roles scientific uncertainty plays in making project decisions. Overall, the picture we paint is a disturbing one where decisions regarding desert development is made without full consideration or understanding of the mitigation measures. The urge to approve projects and get them operational quickly increases this problem. In such an uncertain realm, infusing concepts of reevaluation and adaptive management can provide routes to incorporate new information and alter mitigation or development plans as necessary. Current efforts at consolidated landscape level planning may help ameliorate some of these concerns, but a better solution may be to slow down the pace of project approval to enable better understanding of the desert ecosystem and full evaluation of mitigation pre-construction.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 96
Keywords: Mitigation, solar power, DRECP, Endangered Species Act, renewable energy, desert tortoise, conservation easements
Date posted: August 27, 2013 ; Last revised: March 13, 2014