Get ready for Big Solar

Written by
Photo by BrightSource Energy/ Flickr/ CC

California’s electric utilities companies are state mandated to use renewable energy sources to produce one third of their power by 2020, prompting a building frenzy of solar projects across the state.

Kern, Riverside and San Bernardino counties will all welcome solar plants in the near future. These counties get a lot of sun, an obvious benefit; and have large swaths of public land, a less obvious one. Projects on public land get “faster and easier permitting, improved mitigation strategies, and economic incentives” according to the 2012 Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS).

The California Energy Commission’s 2012 list of large solar energy projects shows the range in size and technology of solar plants that are in the works. Some of the biggest projects will generate enough energy to power 200,000 homes and occupy upwards of six thousand acres of land.

With names like Ivanpah Solar, Abengao Mojave Solar, and Calico Solar projects, these large solar “farms” and “facilities” have met their fair share of legal battles and controversies, resulting in project delays.

Photo by USFWS Pacific Southwest Region/ Flicrk/ CC
Photo by USFWS Pacific Southwest Region/ Flicrk/ CC (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Take the Ivanpah Solar plant, a $2.2 billion complex that faced backlash from environmental groups concerned about  threatened species like the desert tortoise. Built on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Ivanpah became operational on December 30, 2013 after more than five years of planning, permitting, and litigation.

For the time being, the federal government is working to safeguard the tortoise by expanding the Ivanpah Desert Wildlife Management Area by more than 20,000 acres according to a statement released by Department of the Interior on Wednesday.

Two more major solar facilities (one in California, one in Nevada) expected to supply enough renewable energy for 170,000 homes have been approved, but environmental groups like Defenders of Wildlife are planning to sue  the government for violating the Endangered Species Act by granting federal land to First Solar, the company building these plants.

Moving to renewable energy is inevitable, but it’s still not clear what tradeoffs Californians are willing to live with.