Desert Tortoise Vs. Solar Energy: Which Side Will Win?
When I wrote this story about the development of solar power in the Mojave Desert, and the accompanying disruption to the natural environment, one particular aspect was especially troubling: the fate of 300-plus species of animals in the Mojave National Preserve, and especially the desert tortoise.
Now there is new reason to be concerned.
The Desert Tortoise, the official reptile of the state of California is considered a “threatened” species under the California state Endangered Species Act in 1989 and the federal Endangered Species Act in 1990.
These prehistoric creatures, about the size of a shoe-box, evolved more than 220 million years ago, but it’s possible they won’t survive much longer, thanks to us humans.
What’s going on?
$2.2 Billion Project To Develop Solar Energy
BrightSource Energy, the company with the $2.2 billion project to develop solar energy in the Ivanpah Valley, California, made its first concession to the tortoise during planning, giving up about 10 percent of its expected power output in a redesign that reduced the project footprint by 12 percent and the number of 460-foot-tall “power towers” from seven to three.
The company also agreed to install 50 miles of intricate fencing, at a cost of up to $50,000 per mile, designed to prevent relocated tortoises from climbing or burrowing back into harm’s way.
The first survey of tortoises at the site found only 16. Based on biological calculations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued BrightSource a permit to move a maximum 38 adults, and allowed a total of three accidental deaths per year during three years of construction.
The Tortoises Are Winning!
BrightSource has spent $56 million so far to protect and relocate the tortoises, but even at that price the work has met with unforeseen calamity: animals crushed under vehicle tires, army ants attacking hatchlings in a makeshift nursery and one small tortoise carried off by an eagle.
From The Washington Post:
BrightSource, which was paying to have as many as 100 biologists to be on the site at one time, began seeing red. The company warned that tortoise mitigation was jeopardizing Ivanpah’s viability. In an e-mail to a BLM official, DeYoung complained that tortoise-related costs could reach $40 million. “This truly could kill the project,” he wrote.
BrightSource lawyer Jeffrey D. Harris wrote to the California Energy Commission to suggest that if the Ivanpah crashed because of tortoises, the state’s renewable energy goals would meet the same fate.
By February 2011, all parties realized that the site contained more tortoises than allowed under the permit. Two months later, state and federal agencies ordered construction suspended until a new biological assessment could be completed.
166 Desert Tortoises Collected So Far
At Ivanpah today, 166 adult and juvenile tortoises have been collected and moved to a nine-acre holding facility. The objective is to release them into the “wild,” on the other side of the fence from the solar facility.
But tortoise relocation is no easy matter. Moved animals nearly always attempt to plod home, piloted by an uncanny sense of direction and, so far, only one desert tortoise has been relocated at Ivanpah.
We’ll wait to see what happens next, but the reality is that BrightSource Energy was told that the Ivanpah site was not a good choice and they persisted anyway. Maybe they should have paid better attention to those tortoises in the first place.
What do you think? Are you rooting for the tortoises?
Photo Credit: Ron Wolf