NRDC won a great victory this week in our work to ensure that utility scale renewable energy development takes place on appropriate places when the Bureau of Land Management terminated the right of way for construction and operation of the Calico Solar Project. The Calico Project was one of the original solar projects that the Obama Administration decided to “fast track” following enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“ARRA” or “the stimulus bill”) and as such was one of the very first such projects on public lands that the BLM had ever approved. It is also the only large solar project that NRDC has challenged in court to date.
As readers of my blog and blogs of my colleagues know, NRDC believes we need all the clean energy we can get – from large and small projects. For that reason, making our homes and buildings more energy efficient and covering our rooftops with solar panels are also essential parts of the solutions that will enable us to stave off the worst effects of climate change and to meeting our economic, energy security, and environmental goals.
But as my colleague Johanna Wald has written before, these projects, especially the very large ones like Calico, need to be done right. That means, solar projects have to be sited, planned and designed in ways that avoid or minimize conflicts with unique and sensitive natural and cultural resources. Going forward, it is our hope that these projects will be proposed for lands pre-identified by land managers as appropriate for development, as in the zones that the BLM identified as part of its still new solar program which was finalized last fall. When there are impacts that cannot be mitigated to acceptable levels, as was the case with the Calico project, developers need to look at different locations. From virtually the beginning of the permitting process, it was plain to us and a number of our conservation partners that Calico was in the wrong place, a place that was simply inappropriate for utility scale solar development, but the developer would not look at alternative locations.
The Calico project was proposed for a site in the California Desert, east of Barstow and north of US 40. The solar operation would have been constructed in the remarkably intact Pisgah Valley, a valley so sensitive that the BLM rejected designating it as a solar zone and put it off limits to utility scale solar, save for this project, in its solar program. The project itself posed serious harms to a number of imperiled wildlife species, including the Mojave Desert tortoise, a species of concern to NRDC for decades, as well as key movement areas for the tortoise and other species. NRDC and our conservation partners met numerous times with both the original developer and the new owner to urge them to move the project to less-sensitive areas identified by us and the BLM, but they would not even consider relocating.
Our lawsuit against the BLM was filed after the original proponent of the project sold its BLM right of way to another developer. Our lawsuit was put on hold by the court pending preparation of a new plan of development and a new environmental analysis, both of which were necessary because the new owner was going to use an entirely different technology than was originally approved. The new owner, however, never even submitted a proposed development plan to the BLM.
Recently, apparently recognizing that environmental opposition to this site would not go away, the current developer asked the Bureau to terminate the right of way. The project site is not yet saved from other utility scale development however, and we will be working with the BLM in the coming months to ensure that it is.
The conflict and legal challenge over this project highlight the need for guided, zone-based renewable development where land and resource managers identify in advance where development should go and where it shouldn’t. This is the kind of development that NRDC has been advocating for and will continue to work towards so we can strike the right balance between conservation and clean energy.