The Tortoise Stops the Power Plant

The article in Forbes Magazine of June 27, 2011, titled Spot the Tortoise discusses  the plans for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the first large-scale solar thermal power plant project to be built in the United States in 20 years.

The green spot on the right upper side of the image is a golf course. To the right of it, you can’t quite see it here, would be I-15, and in the distance, about 40 miles away, in the right upper corner of the image would be Las Vegas. When you drive from the Southern California to Las Vegas you drive right by this project. Have you ever noticed it?

There is endless Mojave Desert along this stretch of freeway. If you stop your car and walk a few paces into the desert, it becomes quiet and seemingly completely dead. Other than an occasional insect, you will probably not see a creature stir, not even a mouse. Yet, we know that the desert is the home of millions of desert critters, little rodents, spiders, tarantulas, rattle snakes, turtles, coyotes, all kinds of birds, and billions of insects. They all live there.

The 370 megawatt Ivanpah Power Plant, heralded as the harbinger of a clean, green energy future, is imperiled by a tortoise. Years of surveys during the planning estimated that there would be at most 32 of the iconic animals roaming the 5.6 square mile site. Now construction has been temporarily halted until a new environmental review can be completed, since government biologists now predict that there will be between 86 and 162 adult tortoises and 608 juveniles on the site.

I am a member of the Nature Conservancy. I pack every scrap of trash out of miles of wilderness. I believe strongly in our national park system and in the protection of nature. I have strong opinions on oil drilling, logging, air pollution and protection of endangered species.

Yet I think this is insane!

If the 162 adult tortoises don’t like it under the mirrors, they can amble right out of the bright lights and into the desert, which stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions. Next to the 5.6 square miles of the power plant are thousands of square miles of desert habitat, with lots of the tortoises’ cousins living on them, at an approximate population density of 162 adults per 5.6 square mile. Yes, young tortoises suffer a high mortality rate and may not begin reproducing until age 25. Yes, some of the juveniles may not make it away from the concrete trucks.

If we cannot build a power plant in the endless, forsaken, empty, seemingly dead, vast, hot, uninhabitable Mojave Desert because of 162 animals, we might as well give up. There is not a square foot left in the entire United States where we can build an outhouse lest we destroy the habitat of some worm. Let’s just stop building altogether.

30 years from now we will import all fossil fuels, if the earth still has any left, from Canada, Mexico, South America and the Middle East. All our nuclear powerplants will be decommissioned, and since building a nuclear plant takes 10 to 20 years, we won’t have time to build any, and we won’t have any expertise. We’ll have to hire French and Chinese firms to come in and build them for us. We won’t have solar plants because there are tortoises, snakes and tarantulas that need to procreate on those sites. I hope Hoover Dam keeps churning out hydroelectric power for many years to go.

Sustainable, renewable and clean energy appears impossible to create and maintain in our country. I think I had better start building a stable for the horse and buggy, and a shed for firewood.

One thought on “The Tortoise Stops the Power Plant

  1. A concerned citizen

    You express an opinion that I’m sure is shared by the vast majority of Americans. However, I think we overlook some important issues when we dismiss the notion that the existence of the desert tortoise should influence how we approach solar development in the Mojave Desert. I am particularly bothered by the general perception that renewable energy, especially renewable energy that is produced in the same manner of traditional energy production (i.e. centralized), is without environmental costs. Development of centralized solar energy-producing stations requires enormous amounts of land in order to approach the output of a traditional coal plant. I’m not advocating for coal plants because their footprints are smaller, I’m arguing that we need to rethink the idea of centralized solar and start thinking amount democratizing energy production by installing rooftop PV on every available roof in the nation.

    I am also bothered that we are not having a more vigorous national discussion about the virtues of conservation. I have worked at the Ivanpah site. At night, you can see the absurd glow of Las Vegas in the distance. It was particularly disheartening to know that the 5+ square miles of high quality Mojave habitat was helping destroy in the name of green energy could not power 5% of Las Vegas on a typical summer day.

    I’m not saying that tortoises should halt development of all solar energy production in the Mojave. I’m saying that perhaps the tortoise can help us pause and think carefully about how we want to pursue “green” energy production in this country. Do we want to continue the status quo of large corporations controlling unnecessarily centralized energy projects in formerly unfragmented high quality desert habitats, or do we want to place solar energy production in already disturbed areas and in the hands of more producers through the use of photovoltaic panels on existing rooftop space. Which is a better use of government subsidies?(Ivanpah would not have been possible without massive federal loan guarantees).

    Yes, the Mojave is large and yes there are other healthy tortoise populations out there (although the Ivanpah densities are particularly high relative to other areas of the desert), but upon close examination, relatively little of the Mojave remains that has not been riddled with OHV tracks, pocketed with mines and toxic tailings, grazed to the soil by cattle and sheep, plowed and irrigated with Colorado river water, pulverized and poisoned with weapons testing, or trashed and vandalized by gun toting yahoos. The remaining areas of high quality habitat deserve to be protected by the BLM and other relevant land management agencies, not turned into solar farms by energy corporations with the assistance of rock bottom lease and loan rates.

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