October 22, 2009

Endangered Species Act could deter clean energy projects

While solar technology promises numerous environmental benefits, there are potential environmental issues that should be considered, particularly with regard to project siting. In southern California, where a “renewable rush” is underway to buy and develop lands in the desert flatlands, many solar projects face potential delays due to environmental concerns. For most people, the deserts of Southern California appear nothing more than an arid wasteland. However, what may seem dull to the eye is in many cases a rich ecosystem of plants and wildlife. Moreover, some of the species that make this area home are endangered or threatened, including the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, flat-tailed horned lizard, and several varieties of cactuses. When dealing with such species, the Endangered Species Act provides strict protections against development and disturbance of critical habitat.

In one instance, a 6,500 acre wind power project north of El Centro, CA has been delayed due to a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordering the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider its assessment that the flat-tailed horned lizard not be included on the endangered species list. The flat-tailed horned lizard makes its residence on the proposed projects site so a finding that the lizard is in fact endangered could mean that this particular project is cancelled.

In another case, a huge solar energy project in the Ivanpah Valley (six square miles) is running into resistance from environmental groups due to the presence of a colony of California desert tortoises. One potential solution is a land purchase agreement: for every acre of land developed in the project, the company buys three acres of land elsewhere for the purpose of habitat protection.

These cases show that government agencies and environmental groups are not going to make life easy for developers of renwable energy projects.  While an incredible amount of momentum is building behind commencing new projects, it would developers would wise to heed the early judicial warning signs and carefully select lands, preferably those that have already been disturbed by human activity.

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