Solar Done Wrong: AB 1073 is Not the Right Path to a Clean Energy Future

Solar energy development is booming in California and across the Southwest. On public lands alone seven utility-scale solar projects totaling a little more than 23,000 acres of public lands have been permitted in the California desert since 2010, and there are many more projects on private lands. The public land facilities are capable of generating nearly 3,000 megawatts of clean, renewable electricity and more projects are in the pipeline.  

NRDC has worked with developers to reduce the potential impacts of some of these large-scale solar projects, resulting in the permitting of some 2,595 megawatts—almost 90 percent of the energy permitted in the California desert and 3,600 jobs. Our efforts have accelerated the Golden State’s transition away from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy, and the nation is watching, as my colleague Johanna Wald wrote about in Forbes Magazine last week. But in order for utility-scale solar power to be clean and green, it must be designed and located to avoid and minimize harm to wildlife, wild places, and sensitive natural and cultural resources. And where impacts cannot be avoided, developers need to identify alternative project locations or undertake sufficient mitigation measures to offset their impacts. 

While an encouraging number of project developers here in California have embraced this challenge, one in particular — K-Road Power’s Calico Solar Project — exemplifies solar done wrong. And legislation now before the Assemby — AB 1073 — that would give the Calico project special treatment is equally wrong.   Passage of AB 1073 will undermine efforts of California’s environmental community to continue to do what California’s elected leaders, including the Speaker of the Assembly and the Governor, have asked us to do — namely, to work hard with the solar industry to find ways to site large-scale solar projects in the desert while protecting unique and sensitive wildlife and other natural resources in order that the State can meet its aggressive and precedent-setting renewable energy goals. 

Approved last year by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the California Energy Commission (CEC), the Calico project covers 4,000 plus acres of important wildlife habitat in the Pisgah Valley, including key desert tortoise habitat.  Building this solar power plant would also threaten at least six other imperiled species such as burrowing owls, golden eagles, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, Nelson’s bighorn sheep and several rare plants. Because of these and other impacts, the Calico project is the only utility scale solar project on public or private land that NRDC and two of our key partners, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, have challenged in court.  Even before our lawsuit was filed, the project’s original proponent sold it to another developer.  And now, the Governor and some in the legislature are pushing a bill that will give the project’s buyer a special gift — despite its severe impacts and both developers’ refusal to even consider moving it to lands with lower wildlife values.

The current project developer has proposed to switch from a solar thermal technology to photovoltaic technology and the Assembly is currently considering a bill that would allow this very controversial project to get expedited review, rather than take the normal route of getting approval from local government and state agencies.  Rewarding the only solar project in litigation with environmental organizations that have been working hard to promote good planning and siting practices to meet California’s important renewable energy goals sends the worst kind of signal not only to those who are playing by the rules.  AB 1073 is ill-conceived and ill-advised.  Calico should not get special treatment and neither should AB 1073.  It should be presented in committee where people have a chance to be heard.  It should be defeated if it ever gets to the floor of the Assembly.