The push to create an alternative to carbon-based fuel has hit an unlikely snag: environmentalists. . . .To a growing number of environmental advocates, the dozens of large solar plants that are springing up in vast areas of the western wilderness are more scourge than savior.
The upshot is that those who on paper seem to be perfect allies for solar are turning into its biggest enemies.
That includes the Sierra Club, which last week filed what senior attorney Gloria Smith says is its first suit against a solar plant, a giant 664-megawatt project called Calico that is slated to go up in the desert near Barstow, California. It would lie smack in the middle of habitat for rare plants and animals, in an area Smith calls "a very unfortunate site." . . .
For the solar industry overall, the situation marks a fundamental shift in attitude. Where previously almost any bare patch of desert seemed like a prospective solar plant, now the reality is that much of the nation's most fertile ground for alternative power and energy independence may well remain undeveloped.
And the backlash is likely to slow down the number of big plants developers will try to get through. Some 142 U.S. solar plants are under development, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association, up from just 28 two years ago. Many of these are well over 500 megawatts; a handful are over 1,000 megawatts, meaning they would cover hundreds of acres of land and power at least 300,000 homes each. . . .
California lies at the center of the U.S. solar industry, thanks to a confluence of sunlit land and a legal requirement for 33 percent of its electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. More than 40 solar utility plants are in development, according to the state's public utilities commission. Almost all of them have or will run into problems with environmentalists or people who simply don't want the plants in their backyard . . .
Among the plants [Christine Hersey, a solar analyst at Wedbush Securities] considers at high risk is First Solar's 300-megawatt Stateline project, which has high numbers of threatened desert tortoises.
Several other projects are already mired in legislation or under threat of it.
The Quechan Tribe, a Native American group centered around the border between Arizona and California, has sued the Bureau of Land Management over a 709-megawatt plant planned for its ancestral land in the Imperial Valley, citing animals such as the flat-tailed horned lizard. The tribe charges the BLM approval of the project didn't follow appropriate procedures. Last month, it secured an injunction blocking the plant, under development by NTR plc's Tessera Solar.
Just last week, La Cuna de Aztlan, a Native American advocacy group, and its co-plaintiffs filed a lawsuit over federal approval of six solar plants, citing the cultural environment, among other issues.
Among the six is the 370-megawatt Ivanpah plant in the Mojave Desert, for which BrightSource Energy broke ground in October. BrightSource already made some concessions after the Center for Biological Diversity, known for litigation on development it believes threatens the environment, raised concerns. The Tucson, Arizona-based group is keeping a close eye on other proposed solar projects, according to biologist Ileene Anderson.
In its suit filed last week in the Supreme Court of California, the Sierra Club sued the California Energy Commission over its approval of the Calico Solar Project. Among the Sierra Club's worries: the plant is going in an area rich with desert tortoises, which are threatened under federal law and endangered under California law, and other species. CEC officials "look forward to defending our position in court," said spokeswoman Sandy Louey. The developer, Tessera Solar, sold the project to New York-based K Road Power late last month.
Groups ranging from the Audubon Society to the Defenders of Wildlife to the Natural Resources Defense Council are also lobbing out objections against other projects.
About half of all plants in development now are having issues concerning plant and animal habitat, culture sites, or water demand, Hersey estimates. Many of those could end up in court. And just the threat of litigation seems likely to affect the scale of solar, analysts say.