Two Thousand Acres of Desert in Southwest Valley to be Destroyed for Solar Plant -- So Why are Conservationists Happy?

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The federal government just approved the destruction of 2,000 acres of Sonoran Desert land in the southwest Valley for a new solar plant, but conservationists aren't complaining.

This time, anyway.

Thomas Hulen, executive director of Friends of the Sonoran Desert National Monument, was one of seven environmentalists who signed a November 21 letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management stating support for the project.   

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the 300 megawatt Sonoran Solar Energy Project would move forward, becoming the first solar plant to be built on BLM land in Arizona. When the sun is out, it will generate enough power for 90,000 homes. Boulevard Associates, LLC, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources, LLC, will build and operate the facility.

Environmentalists figure they have to prioritize their battles, and the NextEra plant is a "tradeoff," says Hulen.

Members of the conservation organizations that Hulen and the others represent "hate to see that much land go," he says. Yet not of all the site is virgin desert -- much of it has already been "compromised" in some way.

The site just west of 163rd Avenue and south of Pecos Road, in an area known as Rainbow Valley, is near large transmission lines, (which help make the spot ideal for the solar plant.) A natural gas pipeline runs through it. Not too far away is a regional landfill. And, Hulen says, the desert isn't as lush there as in other places.

"Its natural qualities were not as distinct or maybe as important to preserve as other areas," he says.

The November letter notes that the plant will help reduce greenhouse gases, removing as much carbon from the atmosphere over its 30-year life cycle as would be normally produced by the electricity it takes to power 1.7 million homes for one year.

The Sonoran Solar Energy Project will be roughly half the size of the original proposal, down from about 3,600 acres to 2,000, and it'll use photovoltaic panels instead of concentrated solar technology. The latter method would have used 100 times as much water.

The BLM says the construction project, at its peak, will employ 358 people. After it's built, 16 people will be needed to run the facility.

Maricopa County Max Wilson was among the local officials who welcomed the project.

"In addition to the prospect of safe, clean and reliable power, the project will result in close to 1,000 jobs over the two-year construction project," says a written statement by Wilson. "In our economy, that is a welcome boost to the west Valley."

The project will also put millions into the federal treasury. The BLM is charging more than $300,000 a year in rent for the land, under a 30-year right-of-way contract, and will rake in $1.6 million a year in "megawatt charges."

The BLM has been ordered to provide land for renewable energy projects, and this particular 2,000-acre parcel is "a pretty barren-looking piece of land," says BLM spokesman Dennis Godfrey. It's also a tiny fraction of the 12.2 million acres the BLM owns in Arizona.

As the area gets torn up for the solar-panel array, animals like burrowing animals and desert tortoises found by workers will be moved to other areas.

Thirty-one applications for solar and wind projects on BLM lands are now being considered, and two of others, besides the NextEra plant, are "actively moving forward," Godrey says.

Still, the decision to destroy pristine land is a controversial one in the growing solar-power industry.

Godfrey points out that if you want to build a plant as big as NextEra's, it's hard to find 2,000 acres of connected land in already-developed areas.

Yet at a solar power conference in Phoenix a couple of weeks, Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club -- who approves of the NextEra plant -- urged industry leaders to consider putting more panels on rooftops and open space in cities. She warned that environmentalists would not stand behind every solar project despite the concerns about global warming.

Hulen takes a similar stance.

"There are literally thousands of acres of rooftops, parking garages, canals -- all kinds of things -- on which we should probably do solar development," he says. "In the environmental advocacy business ... we need to be very judicious about what undeveloped lands we use for this purpose." Click here for a map of the project site.

If more desert is needed for solar power, APS can always loan out its saguaro-shredder.

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