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Where Tortoises and Solar Power Don't Mix

Mirrors jockey for space with a threatened desert tortoise
The population of desert tortoises, which once numbered in the millions: 100,000
The population of desert tortoises, which once numbered in the millions: 100,000Photo illustration by 731; Photographs by Getty Images

For a sense of how complicated it is to combat climate change without collateral damage, consider the $56 million spent so far to rescue and relocate desert tortoises from the upheaval caused by the construction of a Mojave Desert solar plant. When completed next year, the $2.2 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System will use 173,500 computer-controlled mirrors to aim rays at boilers mounted atop three 459-foot towers, turning water into enough steam-generated electricity to power 140,000 homes. Its developer, BrightSource Energy, sees it as a solar equivalent of the Hoover Dam, a Depression-era hydroelectric project that was the green power marvel of its day. The Obama administration awarded Ivanpah a $1.6 billion stimulus loan guarantee, and Google chipped in $168 million. Early on, the project gained green cred from the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council.

That was before its 45-story towers began rising from a 3,500-acre dry lake bed in California, uprooting scores of desert tortoises from their burrows, far more than federal wildlife officials had estimated. The site is prime habitat for gopherus agassizii, the state reptile of California and Nevada. There were once millions of them, but now no more than 100,000 live in their native habitat in the U.S. and Mexico. Both Ivanpah and the tortoise ought to qualify as green icons. The problem is that they can’t coexist.