Green Groups Cast Shadow on Solar Makers’ Plans

September 11, 2012

Environmental organizations admit that filing protests and lawsuits is a key tactic to achieving their goals

WASHINGTON — In October 2010, Solar Millennium received federal approval to build a massive thermal power station in Blythe, California, a remote desert town located between Los Angeles and Phoenix. The German-based firm had predicted that its station would have the capacity to generate 1,000 megawatts at completion, an amount large enough to power 300,000 homes.

Sympathetic media outlets were abuzz. A writer for Tech Crunch predicted, “this thinly populated city will soon be home to the world’s largest solar project.”

President Obama has also said that solar firms will inherit the future. He vows that the country will generate four-fifths of its electricity from clean-energy sources by 2035.

Equally important, the Obama administration continues to provide federal funding and approval for solar manufacturers. In July, the Interior and Energy departments approved a solar energy development plan in six southwestern states, including Colorado.”This is a key milestone in building a sustainable foundation for utility-scale solar energy development and conservation on public lands over the next two decades,” Interior Secretary and former Colorado Senator Ken Salazar said in a press release.

But as company officials with Solar Millennium found out, the primary opponents of the green-friendly solar plan were not oil and gas companies. They were environmental organizations.

In late August, the Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, and Western Watersheds each filed formal protests with the Interior Department. The groups said the agency and the Energy Department had overlooked their concerns, not the least of which were the effect of the plan on rare and endangered species such as the desert tortoise and sage grouse.

Two spokespersons for the environmental organizations admitted that filing protests and lawsuits is a key tactic to achieve their goals.

“There are lots of lawsuits the organization is involved in,” Michael J. Connor, the California director of the Western Watersheds Project, chuckled in an interview.

For conservatives, the number and threat of lawsuits that environmental organizations file is no laughing matter.

Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, said the group’s “frivolous complaints” undermined the public interest. “It’s baffling to see opposition to responsible solar energy on our public lands. Developing American-made energy is the only way to free ourselves from dependence on overseas oil. Utilizing public lands for energy production, solar and otherwise, must be part of that,” he said in a prepared statement.

While economic conservatives said the groups’ opposition was puzzling, a government official speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely said it was not.

This official said the environmental movement was diverse. “There are so many groups that fit under the umbrella. There are some that lean more that way than others. With solar energy, there’s an impact on the ground. Some are more upset about it than others: Anything that’s seen as environmentally harmful will be opposed,” the official said.

Connor’s organization fights proposed economic development on Western public lands that it believes would harm rare and endangered animal species. It protested the Interior Department’s solar plans in the Southwest because the agency proposes leasing to solar companies a 10-square mile “energy zone” whose plants could wipe out the sage grouse, a dwindling bird species. “They’re building these projects with footprints … on public lands, not private lands or degraded lands,” he said.

The Center for Biological Diversity fights proposed economic development on all lands that it believes would harm the diversity of plant and animal life. It protested the Interior Department’s solar plans in the Southwest in part because the agency would lease land to solar companies whose plants would threaten the desert tortoise.

Ileene Anderson, a biologist at the center, estimated that thousands of tortoises could be killed in southern Nevada and California. “(Companies) basically move them off site. Unfortunately, the desert tortoise has an incredible honing range, and they want to go right back home. They walk the fence lines and become prey to predators like coyotes,” she said.

Both environmental organizations believe their missions are consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act, the 1969 law that applies to any project that involves federal funding, regulations, or employees. The opening line of the law says the act’s purpose is to “declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment.”

For environmental organizations, protesting and filing lawsuits against proposed economic development is not obstructionist; their methods serve to make projects better and more consistent with NEPA. “We’re not torpedoing any plans,” Anderson said. “We’re showing how a plan can be improved. (Interior) is a multi-use agency. If they can do something better, that’s what we want.”

Although torpedoing an economic development plan is not often the stated intent of green groups, it has often been the result. Solar Millennium is an example of the costs that environmental protests and threat of lawsuits can impose.

After the firm received the green light from federal regulators, it drew a protest from the Center for Biological Diversity, claiming its proposal posed a threat to the desert tortoise, western burrowing owl, bighorn sheep, and the Mojave fringe-toed lizard. Solar Millennium’s response pleased the environmentalists: It would provide funding for more than 8,000 acres to lessen the project’s impact on the species.

Although environmental organizations were won over, Solar Millennium’s company officials were not. Soon after the Chinese government subsidized the country’s solar panel makers, last December the German firm filed for bankruptcy. After the company went out of business in March, it joined a list of solar panel manufacturers that have gone belly up — Colorado-based Abound Solar, Solyndra, Stirling Energy Systems, Spectra Watt, and Evergreen.

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