The site of the proposed solar power tower project is in a remote wildland area being planned for inclusion in a new national monument proposed by California Senator Dianne Feinstein.
"I commend BrightSource Energy for this action," Senator Feinstein said in a statement. "It's clear that conservation and renewable energy development are not mutually exclusive goals - there is room enough in the California desert for both."
In March, Feinstein announced her intention to introduce new legislation to establish a national monument to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres in the Mojave Desert.
Formerly owned by Catellus, the real estate arm of the Union Pacific Railroad, the former railroad lands have already been donated to or by purchased by the Department of the Interior for conservation.
Broadwell Dry Lake (Photo by n1vg)
“The former Catellus lands between the Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park were purchased by or donated to the federal government so they would be protected forever. I feel very strongly that the federal government must honor that commitment. That's why I am very concerned about wind and solar development proposals intended for these lands," Senator Feinstein said.
"I'm a strong supporter of renewable energy and clean technology - but it is critical that these projects are built on suitable lands," the senator said. "The former Catellus lands shouldn't be eligible for development."
The former Catellus land acquisitions were financed by $40 million in private donations from The Wildlands Conservancy, $18 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations and approximately $5 million in a price reduction from Catellus, a real estate subsidiary of the former Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad.
"The private parties contributed this large sum of money in the belief that this land will be protected and conserved," said Feinstein. "Building huge solar facilities on these lands is untenable and unacceptable."
The federal Bureau of Land Management is currently reviewing 130 applications for solar and wind energy development in the California desert, covering more than one million acres of public land. Several of these applications are located in the eastern Mojave Desert on or near property previously owned by Catellus.
Senator Feinstein said she intends to work with local stakeholders to determine whether other local desert lands may be suitable for federal protection at this time.
A BrightSource solar power tower. Thousands of mirrors reflect sunlight to a boiler atop a tower, creating superheated steam that is piped to a turbine that generates electricity. (Photo courtesy BrightSource Energy)
The California Energy Commission has estimated that approximately 100,000 to 160,000 acres of desert lands would be needed for the state to meet its 33 percent renewable energy goal by 2020.
Some energy companies and their investors are opposing the proposed monument, contending that it will interfere with meeting California's renewable energy goals, but environmentalists support the monument and the withdrawal of the BrightSource solar project.
Peter Galvin, co-founder and conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “We are tremendously pleased that this poorly-sited project has been withdrawn. Broadwell Valley and similar lands should be recognized as the national treasures that they are and permanently protected as a national monument.”
"A rapid transition to renewable energy is essential if we are to address global warming; however, we need not destroy pristine public lands and endangered species habitat to do so," said Galvin. "Hundreds of thousands of acres of already-degraded lands that are better suited for energy development already exist outside the proposed monument."
The Department of the Interior has begun a programmatic environmental review process to designate solar energy zones where solar facilities could be clustered and built with the least intrusion on the natural environment.
Interior's initial proposal identifies over 600,000 acres in six states where solar projects might be appropriate.
The Center for Biological Diversity also has prepared a map and analysis of areas potentially suitable for solar energy siting, and identified 200,000 acres of degraded private and public lands in the California desert where such a project could occur with minimal environmental impact.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.