Saturday, August 29, 2015

Bird Deaths at Ivanpah Solar Project Likely Underestimated

Birds with severely singed feathers are travelling over a half-mile from the center of the Ivanpah Solar project before falling to the ground, indicating that current research efforts are incapable of accounting for the full scope of project-related avian fatality.  Abengoa recently withdrew plans for a similar "power tower" project after acknowledging concerns about the technology's impact on wildlife, but also suggesting that the technology's benefits are uncertain and unreliable.

Birds Dying Beyond the Reach of Research?

Efforts to determine how many birds are killed by the project involve carcass surveys of only 29% of the project area and do not involve significant searches of the desert surrounding the Ivanpah Solar project's boundary.  According to the 2014-2015 Winter Report for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System Avian & Bat Monitoring Plan, (covering 21 October 2014 to 15 March 2015), seven birds with singed feathers were found far from the power towers, including four found on or near the fence line, almost a half-mile from the power towers where the heat is most intense.  Previous reports assume most, if not all singed birds fall to the ground in the immediate vicinity of the power towers.

Two of the singed birds were ravens found incidentally – not during the systematic carcass surveys - still alive with heavily scorched feathers.  One of the ravens was found on the fence line, and another was found in a logistical yard in between Units 1 and 2, indicating that both birds traveled over a half mile before falling to the ground, even with what the report describes as “severe singeing” of flight feathers. The ravens were found still alive but unable to fly. Based on the incidental find of these two ravens, it seems highly likely that other birds singed by the project travel outside the perimeter of the bird carcass surveys and die undetected, representing an unknown portion of the project related mortality not accounted for in mortality estimates.

The map below shows the birds found dead or injured near Unit 1 (of 3) of the Ivanpah Solar project during the winter.  The two ravens found with burned feathers are depicted in the map as "CORA" (common raven) in the upper right hand corner of the heliostat field, and far upper left hand corner of the map. The solar power tower is located in the center of the heliostat field outlined in blue.

The two other birds found dead near the fence line were located during carcass surveys and include an American kestrel and a Northern harrier hawk. The report speculates that these bird carcasses may have been moved further from the power tower by scavengers.  This seems to be a premature conclusion, especially considering that two ravens managed to fly over a half-mile from the power tower before falling to the ground where they were found still alive by workers.

An American kestrel, pictured above, is a relatively small bird.  If the singed kestrel found dead this winter at Ivanpah traveled nearly half a mile before falling to the ground, it suggests that bird species of various sizes travel beyond the project boundary before dying, and remain undetected by surveys. Two ravens - larger than a kestrel - managed to fly much further than the kestrel, according to the winter report.
Four of Many

These singed birds found far from the power tower remain just a fraction of the current mortality detected at the Ivanpah Solar power tower project.  Searches from 21 October 2014 to 15 March 2015 found 340 birds and 3 bats dead or injured within the project fence line.  Based on these detections, the report estimates that the Ivanpah Solar project killed over 2,000 birds this past winter.  Although the report determined that over 600 died from singeing or collision with heliostats,  the cause of death remains unknown for as many as 1,373 of the birds.  It is likely that many of the bird deaths classified as “unknown” were caused by collision with the mirrors or intense heat above the mirror field, although wildlife experts are still trying to determine the various ways in which the project harms avian species.

The singed feathers of a peregrine falcon burned by the Ivanpah Solar project.  This bird was found alive in September 2013, but later died from injuries.  The report of this bird's death lacks details, but does mention it was found near "fencing," suggesting it may have also made it a far distance from the power tower before falling to the ground.
The studies are still a far way from discovering the full range of impacts on avian wildlife. Not all birds affected by the solar project's heat will end up with singed feathers.  Experts believe that the most intense heat near the power towers causes singed feathers, but birds flying throughout the rest of the project are exposed to elevated heat that may cause death without damaging feathers.

This image, submitted by the California Energy Commission staff during consideration of a separate solar power tower project, shows that the most intense solar flux (heat/energy levels) exist close to the power tower (in red), but the rest of the project area also has high "solar flux" that can stress or injure wildlife.
The winter report also cast light on a high rate of mortality for roadrunners.  Surveyors found 25 dead roadrunners, suggesting dozens more likely died on the project site during the winter months.  The report indicates that the cause of death for the roadrunners is unknown, but collision with mirrors and exposure to solar flux seems less likely since the birds usually stay close to the ground.  Minutes from a recent Technical Advisory Committee meeting for the Ivanpah Solar project indicate that officials are considering whether the fence line of the project may be trapping roadrunners inside, but it is not clear whether researchers fully understand why roadrunner mortality has spiked at the project site.  Nonetheless, the data underscore how little we know about the destructive impacts of such large solar facilities built on desert wildlands.

For What Purpose?

With other solar technologies able to generate clean energy more efficiently and with far less impact on wildlife, solar power tower technology is not worth the ecological cost.  Proponents of the solar power tower industry argue that this technology offers an opportunity for energy storage that is badly needed by utility companies.  But the storage capacity of solar power tower projects is likely overrated by proponents.  Evidentiary testimony during the California Energy Commission review of the Palen solar power tower project indicates that the technology may only be capable of providing stored energy for a 15 minute period, and only with the assistance of natural gas-fired boilers.  Considering that photovoltaic solar panels installed on rooftops or already-disturbed lands can be paired with battery storage without burning birds to death, solar power tower technology is struggling to maintain relevance in renewable energy technology and design.

Just this month, Abengoa decided that it would no longer pursue a power tower design for the Palen Solar project, looking instead to use solar trough technology.  Abengoa clearly recognized that the benefits of solar power tower technology are weak compared to the alternatives, indicating in its letter to the California Energy Commission that the decision to abandon power tower technology was made after an evaluation of California's "future electrical reliability needs."  And that's coming from the profit-driven industry perspective.  From a sustainability perspective, the choice is much clearer.  How can a project be green when it burns natural gas, burns birds, barely generates solar energy, and bulldozes intact desert habitat?

All three units of the Ivanpah Solar project can be seen in this photo, taken miles away from the facility.  The bright glare next to each of the three power towers is the most intense portion of solar flux that can burn avian wildlife, although the air space above the entire project likely contains elevated levels of flux. The Ivanpah Solar project destroyed 5.6 square miles of intact desert habitat.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Clean Power Plan Requires Grassroots Polishing

The Environmental Protection Agency this week rolled out a Federal rule - known as the Clean Power Plan - that is designed to reduce toxic emissions from power plants. The Clean Power Plan is a necessary top-down step to cut fossil fuels and toxic emissions, especially in states where policymakers are climate deniers and shills for the coal industry.

But let's be honest - the easiest path for most states to achieve the relatively weak targets set by the Clean Power Plan will be profitable for most utility companies and power plant owners, and destructive to wildlands and wildlife.  And the states that have the most work to do on emissions reductions are the ones least likely to prioritize sustainability or local ownership in how they respond to the plan.

As the President said of the Clean Power Plan, "this is our moment to leave something better for our kids...let's make the most of it."  We have more work to do to ensure that the Clean Power Plan unleashes sustainable changes in how we generate and consume energy.  And we will need a strong grassroots effort to ensure that the renewable energy transformation we see will be one that we can applaud, rather than one that we regret.

Hopefully Just a Starting Point
The Clean Power Plan largely leaves it up to the states to decide how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,  but the EPA estimates that power plant emissions will be cut by an average of 32% of their 2005 levels.  States will have until 2018 to finalize their own plans laying out how they will achieve emissions reductions.

Although there is a lot of support for the Clean Power Plan, many in the environmental community recognize that it sets a relatively low bar.  The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that some states have likely already exceeded the emissions standards, and many are over half way to their goal.  Hopefully these goals are just a start, for the sake of our climate, and perhaps many states will take a cue from the plan and set even more ambitious goals for reducing fossil fuel use.

In the southwest, the states that have the most work to do are Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.  California, New Mexico, and Colorado probably will not have to change much to meet the current Clean Power Plan's targets, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, because of actions they have already taken to shut down dirty power plants and increase renewable energy generation.

Opportunity or Threat to Sustainability?
For states that are furthest behind their emissions target, the Clean Power Plan will act as an indirect renewable portfolio standard (RPS), encouraging states to close down dirty coal power plants and switch to renewable energy (although the Clean Power Plan criteria also allows states to meet targets by switching to natural gas).  It is no surprise that many corporations and utility companies actually support the Clean Power Plan - it is an opportunity to make money by building new power plants and infrastructure.  And although we frequently see references to energy efficiency and locally-owned renewable energy, some southwestern states have a poor record of actually prioritizing these sustainable alternatives.

Energy Efficiency
The final Clean Power Plan does not require energy efficiency to be a part of a state's plan, but states can choose to invest in efficiency to meet their target.  Although energy efficiency and energy conservation are the cheapest, most sustainable ways to cut fossil fuel use, it's likely that this route will be under-utilized without more encouragement.  Utility companies don't make money if they are not selling energy to you.  So local policymakers usually need to require that utility companies invest a certain amount in efficiency programs.

Take Nevada, for example.  From 2008 to 2013, Nevada fell from 15th nationwide to 33rd on energy efficiency performance.  The Sierra Club commissioned a study showing that the state's ratepayers could save $59 million dollars over 20 years and retire the toxic Reid-Gardner coal plant if the utility - NV Energy - improved efficiency by just 2%.  Reid-Gardner is now slated to close, but not because of energy efficiency improvements.  The utility instead plans to increase natural gas generation and bulldoze desert habitat for utility-scale solar projects.

Distributed Generation
Solar installations on rooftops, over parking lots and other places in our communities is another sustainable way to cut fossil fuels.  Utilities have had a hard time figuring out how to make money from this, however, and are working to undermine policies that compensate individuals that share excess solar energy with the grid.

In Arizona, the main utility has spent ratepayer money on ads to attack rooftop solar and has proposed adding penalty fees to the bills of rooftop solar owners.  In Nevada, NV Energy has also lobbied against rooftop solar.   Don't bet on sustainability featuring prominently in any clean energy policies in Nevada.  First Solar - the company that has bulldozed several square miles of intact habitat in the Ivanpah Valley - joined Nevada officials and executives to hail the Clean Power Plan as likely to position the state as a net-exporter of clean energy.  And they plan to accomplish this by bulldozing wildlands and building dozens of miles of expensive, destructive transmission lines.

Policies that encourage local ownership would help save wildlands by encouraging investment in clean energy in our cities.  Feed-in-tariffs, on-bill repayment, and property-assessed clean energy would go a long way to quickly increasing renewable energy generation and making financing for rooftop solar available to individuals.  Community solar programs - especially those that place an emphasis on local installations - allow renters and those that live in apartment buildings to buy into clean energy.

And if you think local ownership does not add up quickly enough to combat climate change, consider that roughly 85% of Denmark's wind turbines are owned by farmers and small co-ops.  Nearly half of Germany's 73,000 megawatts of renewable energy generation is owned by individuals.  And companies like First Solar want us to think that distributed generation is too expensive (see this study challenging that perspective), even as they bulldoze priceless public lands.  Just as we face an uphill battle tossing out fossil fuels, so too will we face challenges keeping clean energy on a sustainable path.

Rooftop solar - generating clean energy without sacrificing wildlands.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Diversity and Inclusion on Our Public Lands

I camped in the Mojave National Preserve early this summer at the southern base of the Providence Mountains.  A couple of hours before sunset I watched thunderstorms slowly build to the east and cross over the Colorado River and Dead Mountains, over 50 miles away.  To the southeast the Clipper Mountains stood prominently, with the graceful Old Woman Mountains further in the distance.

I have to admit that I like having open space to myself.  Looking out for miles and soaking my mind in a landscape dominated by nature. Not by cars, billboards, suburbs, or strip malls.  Although I find solitude in the desert, I know that I am gazing upon a landscape crowded with a diverse human experience.  Native American tribes would meet at the Old Woman Mountains, and miners and homesteaders of various backgrounds claimed different corners of the desert.
The human experience in the desert was not always positive, and the reasons that brought others to the desert are starkly different than my own - escape and rejuvenation. But all of these experiences rest on the same fabric - a landscape that is still largely intact in many parts of the desert southwest. Whether they were looking for gold, harvesting seeds, or passing through to Los Angeles, people in this land likely knew the same scent of creosote bush that I enjoy.  The riot of wildflower color in spring. They knew the relief of sunset, as cooler temperatures and the shadows of the mountains fall upon graceful valleys. Bats flutter overhead and owls call from a rocky perch.

The human experience in the desert spans a relatively short period of time, much younger than the rocks that we scramble across in Joshua Tree or Death Valley National Parks.  But this experience is made up of so many individual stories and emotions.  It is the diversity of those experiences that makes our natural heritage so much richer and meaningful.  And the desert - as intact as it is - provides an opportunity to step partly into those experiences, and to ponder our past and future.
But the future of this landscape - and our natural heritage - is under threat as we prioritize extractive industry over conservation, and the concept of outdoor enjoyment becomes distorted by companies that seem to suggest that you need hundreds of dollars of gear to properly enjoy a night under the stars.  Is the idea of conservation an anomaly that will ultimately give way to a tide of extractive industry and for-profit uses?  Are National Parks a fad that will eventually give in to the weight of human desire for material consumption?
Although there is no question that visitation and use of our public lands continues to climb,  this enjoyment has not been experienced equally across our communities and we must ensure that access to wildlands does not become some luxury good available only to a select few.  We are all responsible for these lands, and we are all responsible for ensuring that every corner of our society has access to the enrichment that we gain from open space.
Whenever I see the environmental community discuss issues of diversity and inclusion, I notice a knee-jerk reaction among some that refuse to acknowledge that we have work to do on this issue.  In response to articles and blog posts on how to ensure that communities of color are welcomed in our wildlands, I have seen comments that are dismissive that any barriers exist.  Some commenters suggest that it's simply a matter of choice that has resulted in some communities of color being underrepresented in visitation to our national parks.
We all have our own individual preferences for how we like to spend our free time, but to suggest that some communities simply don't have the desire to see the gushing falls of the Yosemite Valley, or to see a carpet of wildflowers erupt across a desert grassland in the spring is absurd. In the 2011 survey conducted by the National Park Service regarding visitation, those that had not visited a national park in the previous two years did not express some overall disinterest in nature.  Instead, the survey indicated that a myriad of factors ultimately discourage or prevent more people of color from visiting wildlands. High on the list  of factors was a lack of information and lack of familiarity with national parks, as well as perceived costs.

When I flipped through my latest issue of High Country News - the "Special Outdoor Recreation Issue" - I realized that there is not a single person of color that I could identify in any of the dozens of photos of people enjoying the outdoors.  I know that this was not some intentional effort by the magazine to exclude people, but probably an the result of a lack of diversity among those that write about and market the outdoors.  Consider the fact that the National Park Service staff is nearly 80% white.  This staff is working tirelessly under severe budget constraints to manage, protect and share some of our most treasured landscapes.  But it is all the more difficult to reach out to communities of color, and for communities of color to view our parks as accessible, with this gap in diversity. 

For those that are eager to give me the knee-jerk reaction, I will stress that this discussion is not about divisiveness or disunity.  Quite the opposite. Our wildlands ultimately forge a shared experience and constitute a shared treasure.  If we're going to protect them for eternity - if we want conservation to not just survive, but thrive - then we have to recognize how and when we are failing to be nature's advocate in our own communities. And to accomplish this, we need to look critically at how we communicate the value of our wildlands.

I hope that one hundred years from now someone else will find that same camping spot in the Mojave National Preserve and be able to look out across unspoiled desert valleys and mountains.  And just as I was able to reflect on the historical human experience in the desert before me, I hope that future visitors will be reflecting on how absurd it was that my generation continued to exploit and destroy wildlands and wildlife.   But if we're going to succeed in changing that paradigm, we need to make sure that everyone else in our community knows about the treasure that what we stand to lose.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Renewable Energy Legislation Would Slash Environmental Protection

The Wilderness Society is endorsing a bill that would encourage more corporate development of public lands, and allow Washington to undermine the National Environmental Police Act (NEPA).  The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act ( S. 1407, H.R. 2663) would require the Department of Interior to identify priority and "variance" development areas for wind and geothermal energy, adding to the controversial Solar Energy Zones and variance lands established in 2012.  The bill would not require "exclusion areas," would add staffing to speed up renewable energy permitting, and would allow Washington to short-circuit environmental review.

More of the Same...
Landscape-level planning could ostensibly protect desert wildlands, but programmatic energy development plans have shown significant deference to industry and offer environmental shortcuts for industry to bulldoze significant swaths of intact habitat.  If you want to imagine what will happen if the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act passes, you can take a close look at the Solar Energy Program established in 2012 that left hundreds of thousands of acres of beautiful desert valleys vulnerable to energy development through variance lands and development priority areas known as Solar Energy Zones.

Projects in Solar Energy Zones receive streamlined environmental review, but at significant cost to wildlands and natural resources.  The Riverside East Solar Energy Zone in California threatens to constrain a vital wildlife corridor, and projects proposed for Nevada's Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone were approved even though they will contribute to the extreme overdraft of a groundwater basin.   The zones also streamline utility-scale solar projects despite the potential to undermine endangered bird species, including the western yellow-billed cuckoo and Yuma clapper rail, which have already been killed at other solar projects. The Solar Energy Program did establish some exclusion areas, but conservationists - including the Wilderness Society - were forced to accept variance lands and Solar Energy Zones even in some of the most remote corners of the desert.

In the end, the Solar Energy Program not only established a corporate shortcut on over 445 square miles of public lands (Solar Energy Zones), it also allowed for additional destruction on over 30,000 square miles of "variance" lands.   And that is only the beginning because the program allows Interior to identify additional fast-track Solar Energy Zones across six western states during regular revisions of Resource Management Plans.  The draft Resource Management Plan for Southern Nevada has already proposed six more Solar Energy Zones in that state alone.  Variance lands were widely opposed by environmental groups in comments on the Solar Energy Program, and yet the Wilderness Society is now encouraging more such designations.

In the end, the Solar Energy Program did more to reduce environmental scrutiny of projects on public lands in the west, and its only redeeming quality - exclusion areas - were sparsely applied out of deference to industry.

...Or Worse?
The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act does not explicitly require that the Department of Interior establish exclusion areas for geothermal or wind, and would also loosen environmental protections more so than is the case for the Solar Energy Program.   The legislation will likely result in hundreds of thousands of acres of additional energy zones and variance lands across the west for wind and geothermal energy, catering to corporate access and discarding wildlife, recreation and solitude.

Section 203 of the legislation would allow the Department of Interior to determine that a renewable energy project does not require any further environmental review (under NEPA) other than a cursory programmatic assessment.  This is significant because programmatic assessments rarely evaluate site-specific issues in sufficient detail, as we have already experienced with the Solar Energy Program. Why would the Wilderness Society support efforts to water down NEPA?

Section 204 encourages the Department of Interior to also expedite review of utility-scale projects in variance areas.  Under the Solar Energy Program developers are encouraged to first look to priority areas (the Solar Energy Zones) for project proposals; it is supposed to be comparatively difficult for developers to propose projects on variance lands because environmental review would take longer.  This new legislation would eliminate that key distinguishing factor, and streamline permitting on lands that are supposed to receive some modicum of protection from utility-scale energy development.

A Backwards Approach
As climate change threatens the wild places we cherish, our approach should be to expand conservation designations, such as the National Landscape Conservation System, while doubling down on policies that encourage distributed generation and energy efficiency.   Instead, we are accommodating a destructive status quo and ignoring a golden opportunity to undermine the centralized industrial model that has ravaged wildlands.   We're stuck in a negotiation where our options are unjustly constrained by corporate interests.   When faced with the destruction of our public lands by the fossil fuel industry, our counter offer is to give the renewable energy industry expedited access to add to the destruction already caused by fossil fuels and other industries.

In a poll conducted about the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, respondents favored guiding larger renewable energy projects to already-disturbed lands by a 2-1 margin.  The respondents probably were not asked whether they also prefer solar panels on rooftops and over parking lots, but its clear that the public would rather protect wildlands from utility-scale energy development.   But the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act says nothing about guiding energy development to already-disturbed lands. 

So let's rescind the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act and instead introduce a Sustainable Energy and Public Land Conservation Act.  Instead of identifying thousands of acres for the energy industry to destroy, let's identify more lands to add to the National Landscape Conservation System.  And let's generate clean energy sustainably by using the spaced in and around our cities that are already-disturbed.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

New Bill Would Gut Desert National Wildlife Refuge

The draft National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 (NDAA) is loaded with plenty of problematic riders, including attempts to lift endangered species protection for threatened sea otters in California, de-list the endangered lesser-prairie chicken, and prevent the listing of the sage grouse.  Of particular relevance in the Mojave Desert, the version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives includes language that would offer jurisdiction of over half of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge to the U.S. Air Force for weapons testing.  Handing over jurisdiction of this important desert habitat is unnecessary because the military already has access to over several million acres of training and weapons testing ranges throughout the southwestern United States.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is one of the nation's largest, at about1.6 million acres.  However, over half of the Refuge is closed to the public and managed jointly by the Fish and Wildlife Service and Secretary of the Air Force as part of the Nevada Test and Training Range (see map above).  Within this restricted area of the Refuge, the U.S. Air Force  has primary jurisdiction of nearly 112,000 acres of bombing impact areas (blue areas in the map above), but the Fish and Wildlife Service retains secondary jurisdiction over these areas.   The draft NDAA language under consideration in Washington would offer the entirety of this restricted area - over 800,000 acres - to the Air Force, removing Fish and Wildlife Service jurisdiction altogether, and substantially reducing any consideration for wildlife in how the land is managed.

The photos below show how the 112,000 acres of existing bomb impact areas within the Refuge boundary are affected by military activities.  If more land is handed over to military jurisdiction, you can expect more desert habitat to be destroyed. 

Bomb craters are visible in this Google Earth image, covering nearly one square mile of desert in Three Lakes Valley.  This is part of 112,000 acres of existing bomb impact areas that fall within the Refuge boundary.  The draft NDAA bill would permit the Air Force to conduct this type of activity on much more land if transferred from the Fish and Wildlife Service to the Air Force.

The red line added to this Google Earth image traces a string of bomb craters over 1.25 miles long, ending in a large disturbed area on the left hand side of the photo. This disturbance is in the Indian Springs Valley.

This is a Google Earth image of what appears to be a mock base constructed for training or target practice purposes in Three Lakes Valley, within a designated bomb impact area of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
There are multiple live weapons testing and training areas throughout the southwestern United States already available to the military, in addition to the 112,000 acres of bomb impact areas in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.  Giving the Air Force several hundred thousand more acres seems unnecessary, and Congress should instead ensure that the military efficiently uses the spaces already available for testing and training.
  • In Nevada, the military already has access to the entire Nevada Test and Training Range, a total over over 2.9 million acres.  It's not clear if this 2.9 million acres also includes over 1,300 square miles of the heavily impacted Nevada Test Site, where nuclear weapons were tested.

    The square-shaped clearing alone is an area of bulldozed desert encompassing
    over 1.8 square miles at Edwards Air Force Base, California.  This is prime Mojave Ground Squirrel habitat.
The NDAA does not make clear why the Department of Defense needs to add several hundred thousand more acres to these test and training ranges (the list above is only a sampling of the live ordnance training areas on U.S. territory).  I could not find Department of Defense testimony indicating that this extra land is necessary, but the Department of Interior testified in 2014 against a similar attempt to gut the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. 

The House and Senate are now debating the final language of the NDAA before it is sent to the President, who has threatened to veto the bill if it ignores his Administration's national security funding requests.   It is appalling that Congress is opposed to designating new national monuments to protect our natural heritage, but it is willing to needlessly designate so much of America's beautiful landscapes as bombing ranges.

If you live in Nevada, sign this petition to urge your elected officials to oppose this unnecessary rider in the NDAA.

Severe cratering from nuclear weapon testing during the middle of the last century at the Nevada Test Site, just west of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.
An early spring shower brings rain to the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Nevada.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge from Bristlecone Media on Vimeo.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

"Green" Extractivism and the Ivanpah Valley

The Ivanpah Valley is now emblematic of the market's power not only to displace nature for the sake of materialism at an impressive scale, but also to limit the environmental movement's willingness to pursue sustainability.  First Solar continues to bulldoze intact habitat in the Ivanpah Valley to make way for over 6 square miles of solar panels at its Stateline and Silver State South projects.  The impact of the construction has been sobering, with desert tortoises, kit fox, LeConte's thrasher, ancient yucca, and countless other wildlife displaced or destroyed for a clean technology that can easily be installed on rooftops, over parking lots, and on already-disturbed lands. 

These First Solar projects join two other solar projects - including the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar project - and have turned a mostly wild landscape into one that is starkly dominated by human development.  Ivanpah proves that elements of our clean energy transition are dangerously compatible with a status quo extractive paradigm whereby our material consumption - however frivolous -  reigns supreme over nature.

Unit 1 (out of a total of 3) BrightSource power towers glares over the Ivanpah Valley as bulldozers clear intact habitat in the distance for First Solar's Stateline Solar project.

Ivanpah: A Model of "Green" Extractivism
There is nothing sustainable about what energy companies are doing in the Ivanpah Valley because these projects fail to adhere to a conservation ethic, and represent the same anthropocentric arrogance that has already brought us to the brink of the sixth mass extinction.  It is easy for some to dismiss the Ivanpah Valley as just some little corner of the desert, but the scale of destruction there is traumatic when you stop and behold what has been lost in such a short amount of time.  And if we are going to allow industrial-scale renewable energy to compose a significant portion of our future energy generation - as opposed to a more sustainable focus that I will describe later - we are set to witness an ecological trauma that will ironically rival the climate disaster we are trying to avoid in the first place. 
  • The projects in the Ivanpah Valley will have a combined nameplate capacity of nearly 1,000 MW when they are all completed, or less than two percent of California's peak energy demand.
  • The total amount of habitat destroyed for solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley is approximately 12 square miles.  This is an area greater than the size of Yosemite Valley.  Or imagine the Disneyland/California Adventure theme park, and multiply that area by 30.
Habitat bulldozed for the Stateline Solar project (foreground),
and thousands of BrightSource heliostats (background).
The projects online or under construction in the Ivanpah Valley are particularly emblematic of our nonchalance toward nature because we have barely begun to tap easier and more sustainable solutions to our fossil fuel addiction.  Every energy vampire we unplug, and every solar panel we put on a rooftop is another wild life or landscape that we spare. The scale of sustainable opportunities is immense.
  • The majority of the energy that our society generates is wastedEnergy efficiency improvement is the cheapest and easiest way to cut down on electricity use.  The 30 cities with the most potential energy efficiency savings could cut a combined 261,107 gigawatt hours (GWh).  To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent of shutting down dozens of dirty fossil fuel plants.
  • California's rooftops and parking lots offer space for enough solar panels to generate enough energy to meet the state's demand three to five times over, according to a Stanford study.  We have the technology (solar panels, energy storage, grid management tools), we have the space (our cities and already-disturbed lands), we just need the policies and incentives.
...And Another Capitalist Victory over Environmentalism
Naomi Klein argues in her book This Changes Everything that "we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism."  The Ivanpah Valley is a glaring example of how we may still find a way to satisfy climate hawks while changing nothing about the way we view and treat our planet.  People have celebrated the destruction of these wildlands, willing to accept a shallow victory of clean energy over fossil fuels.  On a higher order, however, they are applauding the continued waste of the planet for the sake of profit and materialism.

Barely visible in the center of the photo and above the GPS device placed on the ground is a juvenile desert tortoise found wandering an area recently bulldozed for First Solar's Stateline Solar project.  Photo from Stateline Solar compliance reports.

Climate change is a symptom of a deeper problem in our society; our recognition of the threat that climate change poses is an opportunity not just to swap out fossil fuels, but also to adopt a more thoughtful way of life.  But sustainability seems to be a difficult theme for the environmental community to talk about, probably because it requires addressing how each of us lives our own lives, and requires that we challenge what Naomi Klein calls "market fundamentalism."

Construction equipment scrapes away thousands of acres of intact creosote and yucca scrub habitat to make way for the Silver State South solar project at the northern edge of the Ivanpah Valley.
We tend to censor discussion of sustainability even when it stares us in the face, in favor of a narrow focus on climate. Although much discussion about Pope Francis' recent encyclical centered on his remarks about climate change, the document is actually about our treatment of the environment and the poor as a whole, of which climate change is a part.  And the Pope's message on sustainability is not a new one, either.  Pope Francis quotes from a 1991 encyclical that implores us to change "lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies" in order to improve our world. 

Ivanpah makes clear that we have a long path ahead of us to achieve a more sustainable way generating and consuming energy.

A view of the northwestern portion of the Ivanpah Valley from Metamorphic Hill, with the dry lake bed in the distance.  This photo was taken in 2012, before construction began on the Stateline Solar project
A similar view from Metamorphic Hill, with the Stateline Solar project clearing only partially completed.  Photo from the Stateline Solar project compliance reports.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Are You Kidding?: Interior Set to Approve Project Near Soda Mountain

The Department of Interior released its final environmental impact statement for Bechtel's Soda Mountain Solar project and appears to abandon previous "landscape-level" planning.  The document signals imminent approval for the nearly three square mile project that could ironically make it more difficult for desert bighorn sheep to adapt to climate change and imperil an endangered desert fish, ignoring alternative locations for the solar panels on rooftops or already-disturbed lands.

According to the environmental review, the desert habitat that will be destroyed to make way for the Soda Mountain Solar project currently hosts as many as 142 different species of native plants, 13 reptile species, and 15 mammal species, including three species of bats that forage on the site.  Fifty-one different bird species have been documented using the habitat, including burrowing owls.  Biologists found 50 recently active owl burrows on the project site.

Confidence Rests on Dangerous Assumptions

The final environmental impact statement assumes the project's impacts on wildlife will be limited, despite many unknowns about large-scale solar projects and concerns that some impacts are being underestimated.  The Department of Interior has been down this road before and was later forced to acknowledge harmful consequences that it downplayed or didn't bother to evaluate with other large-scale energy projects in the desert.  Yet, here we are again taking unnecessary risks and ignoring better alternatives.  Although the final environmental review pledges to monitor impacts, such monitoring cannot always stop impacts in time, and not all damage will be reversible.    

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn sheep at Soda Mountain
The Soda Mountain area has been identified as the only opportunity to reestablish demographic connectivity across Interstate-15 for the desert bighorn sheep.  Thus, if Bechtel installs a field of photovoltaic panels here it will impede this opportunity to improve sheep migration north and south across a significant portion of the Mojave.  If we do not restore demographic connectivity, the genetic diversity of desert bighorn sheep will continue to decline if sheep only breed among isolated populations.  This loss of genetic diversity will challenge the species' ability to adapt to climate change.

Much of the solar project's "East Array" will be built less than a quarter mile from the slopes of the Soda Mountains and destroy key foraging habitat used by the sheep.  Bighorn sheep are sensitive to human disturbance, so an industrial-scale solar facility probably will restrict the animal's local range and also complicate efforts to lure sheep to any future wildlife crossings;  they have already shown a reluctance to approach Interstate-15.

The environmental impact statement will require the installation of guzzlers - human-installed water sources - to try to entice bighorn sheep to cross culverts underneath Interstate-15 or the existing vehicle overpass at Zzyzx Road.  If those do not result in sheep safely crossing under or over the highway, Bechtel will be required to put $250,000 toward a possible wildlife overpass just north of the solar array.  But because the solar project extends so far into sheep foraging habitat and close to the slopes of the Soda Mountains, our options for where to optimally place the wildlife overpass are constrained. 

The final EIS mentions that studies are ongoing to determine bighorn sheep crossing opportunities, so it seems bizarre that Interior is ready to approve a solar project layout without sufficient information to evaluate its impacts on bighorn sheep.  With so many sustainable alternative locations for solar panels - on rooftops, over parking lots, or on already-disturbed lands - Interior is taking an unnecessary risk approving this solar project and jeopardizing bighorn sheep habitat connectivity.

Mohave Tui Chub

The Mohave tui chub is an endangered desert fish that lives in natural springs and at Lake Tuendae in the Mojave National Preserve, just east of the solar project.  The Soda Mountain Solar project will pump 62.5 million gallons of water per year during construction, and 10.7 million gallons of water each year for for dust suppression and panel washing during operation of the completed project. Some are concerned that this groundwater pumping will take enough water from the aquifer that the Mohave tui chub habitat will dry up.  And the desert bighorn sheep will lose a critical water source, as well.
Mohave tui chub at Soda Spring

According to the Bureau of Land Management, the Mohave tui chub habitat probably gets most of its water from rainfall on the east side of the Soda Mountains, not from the same groundwater basin as the solar project.  But the National Park Service asserts, and the BLM acknowledges, that water may also permeate through the Soda Mountains from the solar project's groundwater basin and to the fish habitat.  The BLM and Bechtel are assuming a great risk, betting that pumping groundwater from the Soda Mountain Valley will not have much of an impact on the springs that provide habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub and keep bighorn sheep alive.   If the BLM is wrong, the effects on wildlife could be harmful and fast.  Groundwater builds slowly over time, but its manifestations at the surface - at natural springs - can disappear with little warning.  Even if Bechtel ceases its pumping, it may not be able to reverse the damage.

Pollution and Water a Vicious Cycle
Another key concern about the project is the amount of particle pollution (PM 10 and PM 2.5) that this project will generate during construction and operation - bulldozing desert habitat removes topsoil and increases windblown dust.  Although solar projects do not emit the same amount or type of pollution that fossil fuel projects do, they can still have a harmful impact on health and regional visibility.  The best way to avoid this problem is to put solar panels on rooftops, and to avoid adding to the problem you can build on already-disturbed lands.   Instead, Bechtel will add to the problem.  And in order to suppress this dust, Bechtel will have to pump millions of gallons of groundwater to spray the project site and hold down dust pollution.  However, other solar projects that have used groundwater to control pollution still emit a great deal of dust, as shown below.  Once again, policies that encourage solar panels on rooftops or over parking lots would allow us to generate clean energy without these environmental costs.

Dust kicked up at the Ivanpah Solar project after BrightSource mowed down desert vegetation there. Dust suppression uses a lot of water, and is not always effective. Photo by Basin and Range Watch.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

BrightSource Cancels Hidden Hills, But Threats Loom

The Pahrump Valley, a vast stretch of creosote, yucca and Joshua tree that unfolds as you descend from the Spring Mountains, remains the target of extensive development proposals despite a recent decision to terminate a solar power tower project here.  BrightSource Energy this week cancelled its proposal to build the destructive Hidden Hills solar power tower project on the California side of the Pahrump Valley.  The project would have replaced desert habitat with nearly 5 square miles of giant heliostat mirrors and two 750-tall towers that would have burned birds and insects, as is the case with the Ivanpah Solar and Crescent Dunes power tower projects.  Hidden Hills also would have pumped hundreds of millions of gallons of groundwater over its construction and operational lifetime from an already-overdrafted basin, threatening wildlife that depend on nearby natural springs.  So it is indeed a relief that the project has been withdrawn.

The Spring Mountains in the distance are the most dominant feature of this mostly intact desert valley.  It would be nice to avoid further human competition with this beautiful landscape, including 750-tall power towers.
Towers May Still Loom on the Horizon

In comments to KCET writer Chris Clarke, BrightSource indicated that it may submit a new application with an energy storage capability.  The company probably would face an uphill battle with such an application on the California side of the Pahrump Valley because Inyo County has implemented a new land use plan that prohibits solar power tower projects.  Both the Inyo County plan and the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan would allow large-scale photovoltaic projects on the California side of the border, although there are no imminent plans for such projects.

However, BrightSource does have a dormant proposal to use thousands of acres of public lands on the Nevada side of the Pahrump Valley, according to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) records.  The company submitted a $75,000 fee to the BLM in 2012 essentially staking claim to these public lands.  The company could use this Nevada parcel to build its renewed solar power tower application with energy storage once it submits plans and goes through environmental review.  According to the BLM's draft Resource Management Plan amendment for the southern Nevada area, the BrightSource parcel would be in an area where the BLM would still consider solar applications.

A BLM photo submitted to the California Energy Commission shows evidence of subsidence in the Pahrump Valley - the land lowering significantly as a result of groundwater pumping for agricultural and residential purposes.
Other solar company applications also target the Pahrump Valley.  Abengoa has plans for a solar power tower project on the Nevada side of the Pahrump Valley; its BLM application has been dormant since last year.  Abengoa also has submitted a plan of development for a concentrating solar trough project, and two other companies have eyed the Pahrump Valley for photovoltaic projects.  Even if a couple of these projects were built, habitat in the area would be significantly fragmented and natural springs likely jeopardized.

Transmission a Key Constraint

However, any large-scale projects here likely will require progress in the Valley Electric Association's (VEA) proposal to build a new transmission line connecting the Pahrump Valley to the El Dorado substation over 50 miles away near Searchlight.  The BLM had begun an environmental review for the project, although it appears it has since stalled with the suspension and now cancellation of the Hidden Hills solar project.  Either way, a new power plant in the Pahrump Valley will also need to ensure the success of this transmission line application and a power purchase agreement with a California utility.  The VEA, although based in Nevada, is part of the California transmission grid. 

The necessity of the transmission line underscores the absurdity of such remote, utility-scale solar projects.  Smaller photovoltaic projects on rooftops or over parking lots could feed clean energy to the nearby town of Pahrump, or the city of Las Vegas.  But instead, developers would scrape clean thousands of acres of desert to ship energy across hundreds of miles of transmission lines to reach customers in faraway Los Angeles or San Francisco.  We are a long way off from sanity in how we generate and consume energy, and the Pahrump Valley can still look a lot different if corporations get their way.  BrightSource's withdrawal of the Hidden Hills application is a welcome relief for conservationists and advocates for responsible renewable energy, but there will be more battles ahead in our effort to protect public lands and open space in the Pahrump Valley from unnecessary destruction.