The US Interior Department has approved the the Soda Mountain Solar Project on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in California.
Approved by Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider, the project is a part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon pollution, create jobs and move our economy toward clean energy.
‘The Record of Decision signed by Schneider approves a revised project design that BLM developed through extensive outreach and consultation, rigorous science-based analysis and substantial mitigation to address issues raised by stakeholders, partner agencies, the developer and the public. When fully built, the revised project would support 287 megawatts of renewable energy, enough to power more than 86,000 homes and help toward meeting President Obama’s Climate Action Plan goal of 20,000 megawatts (MW) of power derived from renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020.
"Today’s approval is the result of a comprehensive, multi-year environmental review and extensive consultation process, including scientific analysis and meaningful mitigation measures to reduce potential impacts to resources," said Schneider. "The rigorous standards of outreach, analysis and mitigation for the project reflect this Administration’s commitment to facilitate responsible clean energy development in the right places and in the right ways."
Under the BLM’s approved alternate design, the project proposed by Soda Mountain Solar, LLC (Bechtel) would be located on 1,767 acres of BLM-managed lands about six miles southwest of Baker, California. Reduced from an originally proposed 2,222 acres, the revised project will be located in an area of disturbed lands that include Interstate Highway 15 and an active utility corridor for oil and gas pipelines, electricity transmission and communication lines and facilities. The site is adjacent to an approved, but not yet built, high speed rail route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and will be near the Rasor Off Highway Vehicle Area.
Since 2009, the Department has permitted 58 utility-scale renewable energy projects on the Nation’s public lands, including 35 solar, 11 wind and 12 geothermal utility-scale renewable energy projects and associated transmission infrastructure. Together, these 58 projects could support nearly 15,500 MWs of renewable energy capacity, enough to power about five million homes and representing $40 billion in potential private capital investments.
"Soda Mountain is another step forward toward diversifying our nation’s energy portfolio and meeting the State of California’s growing demand for renewable energy," said BLM Director Neil Kornze. "The project is consistent with the BLM’s landscape approach for the California desert, which supports careful development of renewable energy where it makes sense while protecting the resources and places that make the desert special."
The BLM spent more than three years consulting and working with a variety of stakeholders, numerous federal and state partners, and the public to develop a comprehensive environmental analysis of the Soda Mountain project area and devise a project design that preserves scenic vistas, reduces potential impacts to wildlife in the area and protects groundwater. The BLM’s approved design removes an array of solar panels originally proposed for north of the interstate highway, eliminating virtually all visual impacts from the project within neighboring Mojave National Preserve. The project would not be seen from most parts of the Preserve, including from any highway or established route of travel within the Preserve.
The BLM decision also ensures that the project will not interfere with future efforts to re-establish bighorn sheep movement across the interstate highway. There are currently no bighorn sheep on the north side of Interstate 15 in the project area, mainly because the highway creates a significant barrier. Removing the proposed north solar array preserves a connectivity point across the highway in the event that bighorn sheep populations are re-established north of the highway in the future. Furthermore, in reducing the project by nearly 455 acres, the smaller footprint will require less water for construction and operations. The approved alternative also institutes adaptive management for water resources and requires monitoring for wildlife.
In response to issues raised by partner agencies and other stakeholders, the BLM’s environmental review incorporated additional analysis and mitigation, including:
-A groundwater study independently verified by the U.S. Geological Survey that shows the project’s water use would "not measurably affect" nearby springs depended upon by the endangered Mohave tui chub (a rare desert fish);
-Additional mitigation to reduce the project’s night lighting and dust emissions and compensate for lost habitat;
-Developed a bighorn sheep adaptive management strategy to maintain existing foraging, movement and feeding opportunities, improve opportunities to restore sheep movement and connectivity, and provide funding for long term genetic connectivity;
-Additional mitigation to reduce impacts to visual resources, groundwater, air quality and other resources.
The BLM consulted with various tribes regarding properties of cultural significance that may be affected by the proposed action. Other federal agencies involved in the project’s review process included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service. In response to stakeholder feedback, the project developer reconfigured the proposed Soda Mountain site to avoid any overlap with the nearby Rasor Off Highway Vehicle Area, and the approved project design allows for continuing uses of this recreational area.
The Soda Mountain project is consistent with the conservation design and management actions proposed in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), an extensive cooperative planning partnership among the BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of California. Lands in the project area are proposed as unallocated lands in the DRECP and are not proposed for conservation because of existing and planned development in the area.