Exclusive: Sierra Club sues over California solar plant

LOS ANGELES Wed Jan 5, 2011 10:31am EST

Storm clouds are seen from the La Canada Flintridge area as the setting sun is reflected in buildings in downtown Los Angeles, California December 22, 2010. REUTERS/David McNew

Storm clouds are seen from the La Canada Flintridge area as the setting sun is reflected in buildings in downtown Los Angeles, California December 22, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/David McNew

Related Topics

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A leading environmental advocacy group is suing the state of California's Energy Commission over its approval of a giant solar plant, underscoring the growing challenge to the nation's renewable-energy goals from within the environmental community.

The lawsuit, filed December 30 in California's Supreme Court by the Sierra Club, alleges that state regulators improperly approved the plant, known as the Calico Solar Project.

The suit, obtained by Reuters, charges that regulators failed to fully mitigate the project's impact on rare plant and animal species, and asks the court to void approval and permits for the plant.

"We are confident in the integrity of our decision and look forward to defending our position in court," said Sandy Louey, a spokeswoman for the California Energy Commission.

At the Sierra Club, lawyer Gloria Smith said Calico is slated for "a very unfortunate site" and says her group has "very serious concerns" about the project. She said it is the first time the group has sued over a solar plant.

Conflicts between solar proponents and foes are taking on growing importance as the industry experiences a boom, particularly for California.

The lawsuit is the latest in a string of suits targeting planned solar plants, potentially setting back the development of solar energy and derailing state and federal commitments to lessening dependence on fossil fuels.

Last week, a group called La Cuna de Aztlan, which represents Native American groups such as the Chemehuevi and the Apache, filed a challenge in federal court to the federal government's approval of six big solar plants.

In December, the Quechan Indian tribe won an injunction blocking construction of the Imperial Valley solar project, under development near California's border with Mexico by NTR's Tessera Solar.

The Calico plant was also under development by Tessera until the company sold the plant last month to K Road Sun, a subsidiary of New York investment firm K Road Power. Tessera has been struggling to find funding for its plants, which cost about $2 billion.

Other companies with plants under development that are raising environmental concerns include First Solar Inc and SunPower Corp.

Last year, just three new utility-scale solar plants serving California came online, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. Now, there are more than 40 plants with contracts or pending contracts with the state's utilities under development.

While fostering renewable energy has become an important federal and state goal, proposed plants are meeting increasing resistance from groups that believe the plants will do irreparable harm to threatened or endangered plants and animals or historic areas.

In the Calico case, the CEC has 10 days to file a response. A judge should decide about a month after the suit was filed if the Sierra Club can proceed with its action.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and John Wallace)

FILED UNDER: