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Environmentalists and solar companies face off over Mojave development

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Reporter Caitlin Esch flies over the Mojave Desert.
Caitlin Esch
Reporter Caitlin Esch flies over the Mojave Desert.

In the California desert, the battle between environmentalists and renewable energy companies is heating up. Some conservation groups say the local impact on plants and animals is too severe.

The federal government has set a goal to approve 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public land in the Mojave Desert by 202o. Many companies are moving in to make a profit. In the California desert, the battle between environmentalists and renewable energy companies is heating up. Some conservation groups say the local impact on plants and animals is too severe.

Reporter Caitlin Esch took a tour of the desert from 6,000 feet in the air to investigate.

At Atlantic Aviation in Palm Springs, Pilot Bruce Gordon stands beside his tiny, six-person Cessna Centurian 210 airplane.

A few environmentalists and I pack into the plane, ducking our heads and folding our bodies into snug seats. It’s late in the afternoon, and it’s getting really windy. Gordon says that doesn’t bode well for the tour, but we decide to take off anyway

In the air, thousands of miles above ground, the wind pushes the plane around like a toy, and I have to admit, my heart is in my stomach. We fly in and out of clouds that cast long shadows on the desert floor.

This trip gets cut short because the weather made the flight downright uncomfortable.

But the next morning is clearer, so we try it again, and it’s incredible. Flying north from Palm Springs through Mojave National Preserve, you see miles and miles of uninterrupted desert, rocky and rugged as far as they eye can see. The ground is reddish brown, fading purple in the horizon.

David Lamfrom with the National Parks Conservation Association is guiding the tour. He points to the site of a proposed solar project in unincorporated San Bernardino County that would provide power for 170,000 homes.

“We’re actually flying now over the valley that it would be proposed in,” said Lamfrom. “This is a stunning landscape and a really inappropriate place for renewable energy.

Construction firm Bechtel is trying to build a 2,000-acre solar facility in the Soda Mountain Valley, within a mile of Mojave National Preserve. Lamfrom worries it’ll have a devastating affect on species like the desert tortoise, a rare fish called the Mohave Tui Chub, and bighorn sheep.

“This is a key migration corridor for the bighorn sheep,” said Lamfrom. “The mountain ranges that we’re flying over on our right side are one of the best places in the California desert to see bighorn sheep.”

Soda Mountain Solar project manager Adriane Wodey says Bechtel has been studying the site that straddles interstate-15 for years. She denies the project would significantly impact the animals.

“I think this is an ideal location for a solar project,” said Wodey. “There are distribution lines, phone lines, petroleum pipelines, a cell phone tower, a mine, off-highway vehicle recreation area, it’s also permitted for high speed rail. So there’s a lot already going on in this valley, which we think is important.”

The Bureau of Land Management has final say on the project, because it’s on public land. It’s also not the only project they’re looking at. Renewable Energy Program Manager Greg Miller says the BLM has received 191 solar applications in the California desert. Just seven were approved and 30 are still pending.

“The goal that we’re trying to achieve is something that nationwide,” said Miller. “If you look at where the best solarity is for the nation, it’s in the area of Southern California, Northwestern Arizona and south Nevada, that area there, this is just the best part for sun, that’s all there is to it.”

But environmentalists like David Lamfrom want to see renewable energy facilities built on land that’s already developed, like on above parking lots and un-used agricultural land, closer to the communities that will use the energy.

“I think that in our very reasonable eagerness to fight climate change we’re moving so quickly that we may be making decisions that actually compromise the very things we’re trying to protect,” said Lamfrom.

Public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Report closes March third. The Bureau of Land Management will decide on the project later this year.

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