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Environmentalists Object to Huge US Solar-Power Project

A Houston, Texas company called Tessera Solar is running into conflict with environmentalists over its plan to build a solar farm on 3,292 hectares of land in southern California's Mojave desert.This is a case in which environmentalist agendas are in conflict with each other.

While some environmental groups argue for the development of such alternative energy sources as wind, solar, geothermal and bio-fuels, others warn of the negative ecological impacts that might come from large-scale projects. Such appears to be the case with the Tessera project, planned to be one of the biggest solar developments in the American southwest.

Company vice president for market strategy and regulatory affairs, Sean Gallagher says the objections raised by some environmentalists are understandable, given the scale of the project, and Tessera is prepared to address their concerns. "There is no surprise that environmentalists are giving this project some attention, but we think we can work through all the issues and we want to do a responsible job of doing that," he said.

One of the main groups raising objections to the Mojave project is California Unions for Reliable Energy, which sent its own biologist to the project site. At a recent hearing of the California Energy Commission, biologist Scott Cashen said the company had not adequately assessed the impact the solar farm could have on desert wildlife.

Another southern California-based group, The Wildlands Conservancy, also raised questions about why the project was being sited on pristine desert land near federally protected conservation areas. Among the animals environmentalists say could be adversely affected by the solar power development would be the desert tortoise and the fringe-toed lizard.

But Sean Gallagher says his company chose this site both because of its suitability for transmitting power over nearby Southern California Edison lines and because it is not totally undisturbed land. "The transmission line runs right past the site, the highway runs right past the site and the train tracks run right through the site. So it is an area that has had some use and impacts by humans in the past," he said.

This is one of dozens of cases in the United States where development of so-called green energy, especially wind and solar, has run headlong into conflicts with environmentalists who worry about the impact on local flora and fauna. Wind and solar projects have also come under fire from local communities over fears that they will blight the views of the natural landscape.

But Gallagher says such concerns need to be weighed against the potential benefits of replacing carbon-spewing coal and natural gas generators with the solar generators that would be used in this project. "The total amount of power that ultimately could be put out there is about 850 megawatts. In California, the rule of thumb is that one megawatt can power about 750 homes on a peak summer afternoon. So, it is around 600,000 or 650,000 homes that could be powered on a hot summer afternoon by the 850 megawatts of solar power," he said.

Tessera Solar plans to deploy 34,000 solar suncatchers on the desert site. Each solar collector stands 12-meters high and uses huge mirrors, focusing sunlight into an engine that produces the electricity from the heat. The company hopes to start construction next year and start generating electrical power by 2011.