SOLAR: Calif. developers will buy 7,000 acres to offset Mojave Desert habitat damage

Debra Kahn, E&E reporter

E&E: Friday, April 19, 2013

Solar developer BrightSource Energy has agreed to purchase 7,000 acres of land to compensate for the loss of habitat for an imperiled tortoise at the Ivanpah project in California’s Mojave Desert.

The deal is the first under a 2010 California law to help renewable energy companies buy land to compensate for habitat damage, state and company officials said yesterday. The 392-megawatt plant will be the largest concentrating solar plant in the world when it’s completed later this year.

Listed as a threatened species by the federal government, the Mojave Desert tortoise has become a major obstacle for solar and wind power projects in the desert Southwest, including Ivanpah.

The Bureau of Land Management in 2011 temporarily halted some work on the Ivanpah project after the agency found construction would lead to the loss of 3,520 acres of tortoise habitat, the capture of as many as 274 tortoises and the deaths of as many as 608 of the iconic desert species (Greenwire, Dec. 17, 2012).

Project owners NRG Energy Inc., BrightSource and Google Inc. are paying $6.2 million for the land, plus $5.2 million as an endowment to fund long-term maintenance and management. The agreement satisfies requirements of the company’s permit from the California Energy Commission, which oversees large solar thermal projects.

The deal came about under S.B. 34, which allows renewables projects that were seeking money under the federal 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to buy pre-designated land through state agencies.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife gave a grant to two private trusts — the Mojave Desert Land Trust and Transition Habitat Conservancy — which will own and maintain the property under a state conservation easement. Ivanpah is so far the only project to take advantage of the law, officials said.

“Working through the state’s Advanced Mitigation Program has proven to be an effective alternative for satisfying the Ivanpah project’s mitigation land requirements,” said Marc Sydnor, director of environmental affairs for BrightSource. “We’ve also been able to achieve a project goal of ensuring that the land purchased is used for the highest possible purpose — to protect our state’s natural legacy.”

Ivanpah benefited from a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy and expects to recoup about 30 percent of its overall costs from the stimulus law’s Section 1603 green power grant program. The overall price tag for Ivanpah is around $2.2 billion (Greenwire, Aug. 20, 2012).

The land being purchased is on 163 separate parcels in the BLM-designated Chuckwalla Desert Wildlife Management Area (DWMA) in San Bernardino County and the Fremont-Kramer DWMA and Superior-Cronese DWMA, both in Riverside County.

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