Published in The Mercury News – 9/09/2016
Silicon Valley is leading the nation’s charge toward renewable energy development by making significant investments and pioneering technological advancements. This is important and commendable. However, in the effort to move toward a sustainable energy future, some companies are failing to seriously consider the size and location of their industrial scale renewable projects.
The largest projects can exceed the size of a small city. In some cases, they are being located in places that cause severe environmental harm to our national parks and wildlife. Such poorly-placed solar plants erode public support for a clean energy future.
A few Silicon Valley companies and the Department of Interior are leading us astray by pursuing harmful projects – and they must correct course.
The proposed Soda Mountain Solar project, owned by Menlo Park-based Regenerate Power, is the poster child of this reckless path.
I’m a retired National Park Service official and chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, comprised of more than 1,100 retired and former Park Service employees who represent over 30,000 years of experience managing America’s most precious natural and cultural resources. I have watched the Soda Mountain saga with interest – and disbelief.
The project is proposed for construction in a pristine valley less than a half-mile from the beautiful Mojave National Preserve. Mojave is a shelter for iconic desert wildlife such as bighorn sheep and kit fox. This landscape park offers visitors a chance to explore towering sand dunes, our country’s densest Joshua tree forest and lava tubes. Located between the world-famous Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, the Preserve stitches a much larger intact desert landscape together. It is vital ground for the movement of wildlife as they seek food, water, and mates.
Scientists at the National Park Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have blasted Regenerate’s proposal due to the significant harm it poses to bighorn sheep habitat important for migration and foraging. Every Mojave National Preserve Superintendent – past and present – has spoken out against this project, as have world-renowned scientists E.O. Wilson and Tom Lovejoy and U.S. Sen Dianne Feinstein, a desert champion.
Despite widespread opposition, Obama Administration officials overruled their scientists and approved federal permits earlier this year. But elsewhere, unlikely heroes for our national parks have emerged.
The City of Los Angeles, the intended buyer of the project power, decided against partnering with this project due to costs and conflicts with its environmental values. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors recently rejected state permits to build the project. Both Los Angeles and San Bernardino County said no to Soda Mountain Solar due to its bad location.
Companies that seek to provide a sustainable energy future for our planet also have a responsibility to recognize where environmental conflicts exist, avoid them and, importantly, to not sacrifice our national parks and wildlife in the process. Regenerate abandoned this responsibility and has therefore come under fire.
It is unknown whether the company or the Administration will correct course. Despite this project becoming a national embarrassment for the renewable energy industry, Regenerate recently stated that it will continue to push forward.
Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior will soon release a master plan for renewable energy and conservation for the California desert, focused on improving energy policy – and fixing past mistakes. Millions of national park lovers including retired park employees expect Interior to do right and finally protect this special valley from Soda Mountain Solar.
We call on Regenerate to demonstrate responsibility and relocate this project, and on Interior to protect this spectacular landscape.
Maureen Finnerty is a retired National Park Service official and Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. She wrote this for The Mercury News.