California solar project shot down after clearing federal environmental permits

Dive Brief:

  • San Bernardino County supervisors in California voted 3-2 to deny an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to a 287-MW solar project proposed by Regenerate Power.

  • The Soda Mountain project was sited on 2,000 acres of federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property about six miles southwest of Baker and near the entrances to Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks, near where the federal government 

  • The project had secured all necessary federal permits, but the supervisors voted it down, saying it would have been harmful to Bighorn sheep and other wildlife in the area.

Dive Insight:

This rejection highlights the difficulty of developing renewables projects on public lands as they intersect with prime wildlife habitat, and the environmental mitigation processes can tie them up for years. 

The BLM issued a final environmental impact statement for the Soda Mountain Solar project last June, but at the time it also reduced the size of the project. The original 358-MW project was sited on 2,557 acres, but the BLM approval called for the downsizing of the project to 287 MW on 1,923 acres. In the end, that was still too big for local authorities.

BLM’s approval also stipulated that the developers, Regenerate Power of Menlo Park, Calif., must secure all state and county permits before beginning any ground-disturbing construction activities. That, in effect, gave San Bernardino County final approval over the project. But Reyad Fezzani, chairman and CEO of Regenerate Power, told the press. “We are going to get this project done. This is a good project and good projects get built.”

Two supervisors, Josie Gonzales and Curt Hagman, said they might reconsider the project if the developers could provide low cost power to San Bernardino residents.

While the Soda Mountain solar project is halted for now, the federal government is nearing approval of the Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan (DRECP), which seeks site renewable energy development on federal lands in California's Mojave Desert. But that plan is meeting hefty pushback from industry interests, which said it has cordoned off many prime sites for wind. Conversely, solar advocates say the project could hurt California's environmental goals. 

To mitigate such concerns from the renewables developers, the Obama administration has proposed a new rule to speed development, similar to how oil and gas leases operate where the locations have already been cleared of environmental objections. 

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Filed Under: Generation Solar & Renewables Regulation & Policy
Top image credit: Mortenson Construction