Another lawsuit to protect critters from solar farms

Desert tortoise

Three environmental groups on Monday filed a law suit against the federal government over a proposed solar farm in California, contending that the government has failed in its duty to ensure the project would not pose a significant harm to wildlife.

The 663.5 MW solar project, called Calico Solar, would take up 4,600 acres of public land in the Mojave Desert. Its original developer, Tessera Solar, sold it to K Road Power in late 2010 after receiving final approval from the U.S. Department of Interior. K Road said it wanted to change the technology to use mostly solar panels instead of only solar mirrors. The Bureau of Land Management said last October it would start preparing a supplemental environmental impact report to reflect the proposed change to the project.

The lawsuit is the latest legal fight over the government’s environmental analysis and approval of solar power plants in more remote corners of the state. Some projects require the approval of both California and the federal government, and at least nine solar farms received the go-head in late 2010 alone. The disputes also reflect a larger issue over what environmental tradeoffs are worthwhile in order to gain more clean energy.

The lawsuit contends that the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aren’t doing adequate assessments on the project’s impact on wildlife such as desert tortoises, golden eagles, burrowing owls and Mojave fringe-toed lizard. As a result, they also haven’t come up with measures to minimize the project’s impact. The environmental groups are asking the court to stop the project from moving forward and require the federal government to re-do the environmental assessments. The groups said the project really should be moved to a different location that won’t create the same environmental impact, such as private land that was previously used for farming.

A BLM spokeswoman, Erin Curtis, declined to comment on the suit.

The Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District in central California. The environmental groups have been actively lobbying and suing public agencies over their decisions to approve solar power plants in sunnier regions of the states such as the Mojave Desert.

In fact, Sierra Club sued California over its approval of Calico Solar and lost when the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case last year. Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity reached a settlement with First Solar and SunPower last year that required the two solar companies to set aside land for wildlife projection around their project sites in San Luis Obispo County.

The two sides reached the agreements while First Solar and SunPower were being considered for federal loan guarantees to help finance the projects. SunPower won $1.24 billion loan guarantee for the 250 MW California Valley Solar Ranch project and sold the project to NRG Energy. First Solar didn’t get a loan guarantee for the 550MW Topaz Solar and has since sold the project to MidAmerican Energy.

Desert tortoise projection has been the center of debate for many solar projects, including the one being built by BrightSource Energy in Mojave Desert. BrightSource has spent over $56 million to protect the creature, reported the Los Angeles Times.

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