In the “Say it isn’t so” department, on June 11th the city of Los Angeles announced that it has dropped plans to buy electricity from the Soda Mountain Solar Project proposed for the Mojave Desert, just south of Baker, CA. City officials said that the project would be too damaging to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and other wildlife near the site. This decision has left developers scrambling to find other customers and has put the project at risk. At a time when the State of California has reached an impressive milestone of 25% of its power needs from renewable sources, including 5% from solar power (over 10 times the national average), maintaining momentum in the quest to convert from fossil fuels to renewable power is critical. One would expect that environmental groups that have lobbied for so long and hard such a change would be embracing projects such as Soda Mountain. Particularly when the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has issued its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) which includes a modified proposal that responds to concerns raised by the public and various agencies about the project’s potential impacts to bighorn sheep movement, groundwater and scenic vistas. The alternate proposal includes a smaller project footprint that reduces potential interference with future efforts to re-establish bighorn sheep movement across Interstate 15 as well as other changes to address concerns. But instead of celebrating success, the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, and other environmental activists groups have lauded the city’s decision.
It is interesting to note that the arguments against the development quoted “potential impact” to bighorn sheep movement. In fact the bighorn sheep migration route was originally disrupted by the construction of I-15 and subsequent efforts to reinstate that route have been unsuccessful. Therefore, it is more appropriate to say that the Soda Mountain project “might have potential impact to the restoration of a bighorn sheep migration route.” That is a mouthful of tenuous concerns to kill a project that would have such obvious benefits in the drive toward a renewable energy future.
OWOE sees the Soda Mountain project as an important step in the continued development of solar energy in California and more broadly in the US. All options for creating significant new power resources, particularly in the short term, require compromise amongst all the competing interests and concerns. The benefits of shifting another 264 MW from coal burning power generating plants to solar plants has significant and far-reaching impacts well beyond the Mojave Desert that all parties must take into account. Reality is that the Soda Mountain site was chosen specifically for its excellent solar resources, its location in an existing utility corridor, the low density of sensitive plant and animal species that might be impacted by the development, and the access to existing power lines. Coupled with the changes dictated by the final EIS, this project is an excellent example of the compromises that can and must be made in the interest of the broader good.