Reporting from Ivanpah Valley, Calif.— Construction cranes rise like storks 40 stories above the Mojave Desert. In their midst, the “power tower” emerges, wrapped in scaffolding and looking like a multistage rocket.
Clustered nearby are hangar-sized assembly buildings, looming berms of sand and a chain mail of fencing that will enclose more than 3,500 acres of public land. Moorings for 173,500 mirrors — each the size of a garage door — are spiked into the desert floor. Before the end of the year, they will become six square miles of gleaming reflectors, sweeping from Interstate 15 to the Clark Mountains along California’s eastern border.
BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar power project will soon be a humming city with 24-hour lighting, a wastewater processing facility and a gas-fired power plant. To make room, BrightSource has mowed down a swath of desert plants, displaced dozens of animal species and relocated scores of imperiled desert tortoises, a move that some experts say could kill up to a third of them.
Despite its behemoth footprint, the Ivanpah project has slipped easily into place, unencumbered by lasting legal opposition or public outcry from California’s boisterous environmental community.
The public got its chance to comment at scores of open houses, but the real political horse trading took place in meetings involving solar developers, federal regulators and leaders of some of the nation’s top environmental organizations.
Away from public scrutiny, they crafted a united front in favor of utility-scale solar development, often making difficult compromises.
“I have spent my entire career thinking of myself as an advocate on behalf of public lands and acting for their protection,” said Johanna Wald, a veteran environmental attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I am now helping facilitate an activity on public lands that will have very significant environmental impacts. We are doing it because of the threat of climate change. It’s not an accommodation; it’s a change I had to make to respond to climate.”
That unusual collaboration — along with generous federal subsidies and allotments of public land — has sparked a wholesale remodeling of the American desert.
Industrial-scale solar development is well underway in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The federal government has furnished more public property to this cause than it has for oil and gas exploration over the last decade — 21 million acres, more than the area of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties put together.
Even if only a few of the proposed projects are built, hundreds of square miles of wild land will be scraped clear. Several thousand miles of power transmission corridors will be created.
The desert will be scarred well beyond a human life span, and no amount of mitigation will repair it, according to scores of federal and state environmental reviews.