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“Affect Heuristic” and Solar Power

by Shawn Regan

Matt Ridley recently discussed the tendency for regulators to fall victim to the “affect heuristic,” or the propensity to “discount the drawbacks of things we are emotionally in favor of.” Case in point: the $2 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System being built on federal land in California’s Mojave Desert.

Officials are breaking ground today on what will become the world’s largest solar thermal electricity project — a series of 346,000 billboard-sized mirrors directing heat onto a solar tower powering a turbine. But as the LA Times reports, not everyone is thrilled:

Environmentalists fought the project for years, concerned about its effect on the habitat of a rare tortoise. Others see the developer, Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc., as just another “Big Solar” corporation chasing down profits on the public dime.

“It’s the old centralized robber-baron monopoly model,” said Sheila Bowers, an activist with the advocacy group Solar Done Right. “This is the worst way to go about getting clean energy — it’s slow, it’s remote, it’s devastating to the environment, and taxpayers are footing most of the bill.”

As the Times reported earlier this month, “an estimated 17 federally threatened tortoises — and an unknown number of half-dollar-sized hatchlings” were in danger of being “squashed by heavy equipment” in the initial project area. In response to these concerns, biologists have been attempting to relocate the tortoises from the project site — an effort that is dubious at best.

Tortoise translocation is still an experimental strategy with a dismal track record. In previous efforts, transported tortoises have shown a tendency to wander, sometimes for miles, often back toward the habitat in which they were found. The stress of handling and adapting to unfamiliar terrain renders the reptiles vulnerable to potentially lethal threats: predation by dogs, ravens and coyotes; respiratory disease, dehydration and being hit by vehicles.

Nevertheless, unlike the delta smelt or the kangaroo rat (which merely halted housing development and diverted water away from farmers) a threatened tortoise just isn’t good enough for regulators to pass up a trendy solar project. And ensuring that all the tortoises have been removed before construction begins is unlikely. State and federal regulators have put solar thermal projects on a path for fast-track approval. In order to qualify for lucrative federal financial incentives, companies must break ground on projects or spend 5% of construction costs by year’s end.

When it comes to politically glamorous projects like solar power plants, even a federally protected species isn’t safe.

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