Western Watersheed Sues to Stop Ivanpah Development

DFN: Ivanpah is one of a handfull of utility scale solar projects approved by the BLM / CEC (in California), Ivanpah is Brightsource’s first project out the gate.

Western Watershed Project files suit to stop Ivanpah CSP project
Rendering of heliostats on the Ivanpah CSP plant

On January 14th, 2011, the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) filed suit in U.S. federal court to stop construction on the 370MW Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, claiming that an "inadequate" environmental review process will result in the destruction of habitat for a rare species of desert tortoise. The suit is the latest in a series of lawsuits by various groups attempting to halt a series of large concentrating solar power (CSP) projects recently approved by U.S. government agencies.

"No project can be considered clean or green when it involves destruction of habitat for a species listed under Endangered Species Act on this scale," said Michael Connor, California Director for Western Watersheds Project. "The Department of Interior is tasked with siting energy projects in an environmentally sound manner. Instead it is allowing thousands of acres of important desert tortoise habitat to be bulldozed when there are alternative ways of generating power."

Project incorporates multiple features to reduce environmental impact
The project in question incorporates multiple design features to reduce its environmental impact, including the use of a more costly dry-cooling system to reduce water usage.
Project developer BrightSource Energy Inc. (Oakland, California, U.S.) is using a design whereby a field of heliostats (mirrors) are mounted on poles driven directly into the ground, instead of sitting on concrete pads. The company says this design removes the need for grading the site and allowing for less disturbance of vegetation.

Additionally, during the regulatory review process the project was reduced in size from 16.5 square kilometers to 14.5 square kilometers to lessen impact on wildlife and habitat.
BrightSource began construction of the Ivanpah project in October 2010 and if completed, the project will consist of the three largest solar power tower plants in the world.

Desert tortoise alters plans for CSP projects
The desert tortoise was listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1990. Due to its presence on project sites a number of developers have had to alter their plans, including purchasing additional land to compensate for lost habitat.
The Western Watersheds Project claims that since 1990 U.S. desert tortoise populations have declined, and states that the Ivanpah site is “prime” habitat for 19 other rare animal species.

Lawsuits carry the potential to halt CSP breakthrough
Other lawsuits filed to stop CSP plants include a suit filed on December 27th, 2010 calling for a restraining order to stop six large CSP projects including the Ivanpah project. The suit was filed by the La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, a Native American group, which was joined by a group calling itself Californians for Renewable Energy.

There is an irony to the filing of lawsuits by environmental and renewable energy groups to stop projects which represent not only a scale of solar power much larger by watt than the current total installed capacity in the United States, but also a major development in replacing fossil fuel generation.

As CSP plants have the ability to incorporate molten salt storage systems at much lower costs than conventional forms of electricity storage, CSP has the unique ability among forms of variable renewable energy generation such as wind and solar to provide “baseload” and on-demand power. Though the WWP states that alternative forms of electricity generation are available, due to the issue of power storage no other form of variable renewable energy generation (wind or solar) currently has the same potential to directly and affordably replace fossil fuel and nuclear generation.

Because of this, lawsuits by these groups have the potential to block one of the more significant developments to date to address greenhouse gas emissions.



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