Spot The Tortoise?Todd Woody, 06.08.11, 06:00 PM EDT
Forbes Magazine dated June 27, 2011
More than $10 billion in solar projects are riding on the shell of an iconic desert reptile.
Last October BrightSource Energy began construction on the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the U.S. in two decades. After an arduous three-year environmental review, a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee and more than a half-billion dollars in investment from the likes of Google (GOOG - news - people ), Morgan Stanley ( MS - news -people ) and NRG Energy ( NRG - news - people ), Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared at a sunny groundbreaking ceremony in Nipton, Calif., in the Mojave Desert. The 370-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, they proclaimed, heralded a clean, green energy future.
But as the dignitaries speechified, biologists were discovering the creosote-bush-studded landscape was crawling with some uninvited guests: desert tortoises. Years of surveys had estimated that, at most, 32 of the iconic, imperiled animals called the 5.6-square-mile site home. But as giant road graders moved in, biologists had already found nearly that many tortoises just in the project's first, 914-acre phase.
"The big mystery question is, why are there more animals than expected?," said Mercy Vaughn, a respected desert tortoise biologist who's leading the company's roundup and relocation of the long-lived reptiles, as she stood outside a tortoise holding pen in October.
Today those pens have expanded to hold even more tortoises. Federal officials in April ordered construction temporarily halted on part of the project until a new environmental review could be conducted. The reason: Government biologists now predict that between 86 and 162 adult tortoises and 608 juveniles roam the site, some 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas. Biologists with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which leases the land to BrightSource, concluded that the project would "harass" 2,325 mostly juvenile tortoises living within a 2-kilometer radius outside the site in the Ivanpah Valley, where another company, First Solar ( FSLR - news - people ), intends to construct two huge generating stations.
Wildlife has emerged as the wild card in plans to build more than a dozen multibillion-dollar solar projects in the desert Southwest. Earlier this year German developer Solar Millennium's U.S. venture abandoned a 250-megawatt solar project after 16 months of environmental review because of concerns over its impact on the Mohave ground squirrel. The renewed scrutiny of other big solar projects raises the stakes for the Obama Administration, which has offered more than $8 billion in loan guarantees for solar construction, and for developers and investors making bets on Big Solar.
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