Sunday, April 12, 2015

Cimate Hawk Response to Franzen Misses the Big Picture

Reading the climate hawk response to conservationist Jonathan Franzen makes it clear that we cannot make progress on climate or conservation if we do not recognize a broader sustainability deficit and take responsibility for our own participation in growing environmental disasters.

The New Yorker published an article this month written by Franzen, who expressed concern that the focus of attention and resources on climate change comes at the expense of traditional conservation efforts to protect wildlands and wildlife.  A wave of criticism followed, with self-styled "climate hawks" slamming Franzen as being too "myopic," and "birdbrained."   If you haven't been following the debate, Chris Clarke has an excellent blog post on Franzen and the critical response: "Orthodoxy in the Climate Movement: Franzen and his Deniers." 

The ongoing discussion among those concerned about climate change and conservation exposes a fault line in the environmental community that some climate pundits have created with their refusal to recognize that climate change is part of a broader sustainability deficit.  Any mention of other environmental problems  - and especially any discussion of the environmental impacts of renewable energy - is usually slapped down with assertions that these problems are minuscule compared to the effects of climate change.   We do indeed need to take serious steps to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but browbeating conservationists that want to synchronize our climate movement with a broader ethos of sustainability is counterproductive.  Unfortunately, I don't think Franzen's piece does a good job of communicating this broader problem, either.

I do not agree with everything Franzen said or how he said it.  I don't like his pessimism, or what seems to be his lack of faith in our options to significantly reduce our impact on the climate and wildlife. And, above all, I do not agree with Franzen that our contribution to climate change as individuals "makes no difference." I thought this was a shocking contradiction of the points he makes later (I will get to this...hang with me).

But it was the response to Franzen's piece by self-appointed referees in a much broader environmental discussion that frustrated me the most.  Pundits like David Roberts and Joe Romm frequently go on the defensive against conservationists' concerns, and are perfectly happy with the needless sacrifice of wildlands and wildlife in service of human society (they frequently dismiss concerns about wildlife impacts at renewable energy facilities as a "distraction").  These pundits borrow from the same themes and tactics employed by ultra-conservative war mongers.  Just as some are quick to abandon civil liberties and social justice in the face of threats to our safety, some climate pundits argue that it is okay to sacrifice biodiversity and wildlands for what is ultimately a temporary fix to our sustainability problem.

Roberts, Romm, and some other climate hawks preach to environmentalists as if climate change is some new problem that we do not understand, and accuse environmentalists of being myopically focused on birds or other wildlife.  They completely miss the point that it is often environmentalists that see the big picture - climate change is not the problem, but a piece of a much bigger problem - our unsustainable, and often selfish expectations of what this planet can and should provide to humans.   We dig up and burn oil and coal with the same feverish and blind ambition that we drain wetlands for subdivisions and office parks, dam rivers for energy and recreation, and bulldoze woodlands for strip malls and highways.  Replacing fossil fuel energy with renewable energy is a necessary upgrade to our way of life, but it is ultimately just a temporary patch for what is actually an outdated operating system that will continue to undermine the vibrance of our planet long after the last coal power plant is shut down.

I know how bad climate change is, and the people, wildlife and places I care about are already being impacted.  I am not arguing that we should ignore climate change, but rather that our solution to climate change is mindful of, and corrects the underlying cause of climate change.  When I argue for distributed generation and energy storage as a higher priority than bulldozing wildlands for utility-scale solar and wind turbines, it is because I don't want to repeat the same mistakes that got us into the climate mess.  Climate pundits like Roberts and Romm believe that deploying the renewable energy patch is good enough.  Most environmentalists know that we have more work to do beyond fixing our emissions.

Climate Change - Illness or Symptom?

Let's be clear.  Climate change is indeed a serious threat to the people, wildlife, and places that I care about.  But claims by climate hawks that climate change surpasses all other threats to the richness and viability of our planet is ridiculous.  Swapping out coal plants with utility-scale wind turbines and solar plants will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it will not necessarily stop the severe decline in biodiversity, the loss of habitat or ensure the health of ecosystems.  This is because climate change is not the central threat to the environment, but a symptom of a dysfunctional human way of life that shows no respect for the planet upon which we live.  And a persistent effort by climate hawks to deny this is the reason that they are just as incapable of leading an environmental debate as Republican climate deniers on Capitol Hill are incapable of making sound policy decisions about greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change will worsen the cycle of drought and wildfire in the west, but even if we find a way to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to below 350 parts per million we will still struggle to live within our means.  We will struggle to share water between humans and wildlife, and protect the open spaces that wildlife need to survive, let alone thrive.  Even before the impacts of anthropogenic climate change began to significantly impact our air, water and land, we had already found other ways to devastate wildlands and wildlife.  The World Wildlife Federation found that between 1970 and 2010, populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish around the globe dropped 52 percent.   Habitat loss is the greatest threat to biodiversity, and the WWF identifies it as the main threat to 85% of all species described in the IUCN's Red List (those species officially classified as "Threatened" and "Endangered").  Climate change will contribute to habitat loss - but solving climate change will not end habitat loss.

Watching wildlife go extinct is not just some sentimental issue, even though I'd like to think that wildlife have an intrinsic value just as humans do.  KCET ReWild highlighted a study by UC Santa Barbara that a loss of biodiversity has cascading impacts on how well ecosystems function, putting extinction on par with many other human-caused environmental calamities.  We're in for a bad ride as climate change will accelerate extinction, but to argue that it is okay to add to the loss of biodiversity with our renewable energy solutions is short-sighted.  What most environmentalists argue for is not a zero-impact solution to climate, but a smart one that prioritizes energy efficiency and the most sustainable deployment of clean energy.  So why do we get attacked by climate hawks when we raise this point?  Because they have adopted - and reinforce through their writings - an anthropocentric ethos that absolves individuals of their own role in this environmental disaster.

Anthropocentric Ethos Dominates; Conservation Ethic is Dismissed

Climate pundits' unwillingness to recognize a broader sustainability problem is a severe handicap for them because it undermines their own ability to move people to action even on the climate piece of the sustainability pie.  Some climate pundits, and apparently even Franzen, seem to ignore the culpability of individuals in environmental disasters.  I assume that this stems from hierarchy of considerations prevalent in our society that gives right-of-way to consumption and economic growth, in which our own materialism plays an important role.  It is politically taboo to question the mantra of growth, the persistence and strength of which depends upon consumption.

In Roberts' criticism of Franzen, he asserts that Franzen doesn't get it because climate change is "incredibly complex." Roberts believes the complexity of climate change is why we all have a "climate thing," like some sort of safety blanket.  He argues that a "climate thing" is "a lens that magnifies one aspect of the issue at the expense of all others."  Isn't that ironic?  Roberts is telling environmentalists arguing for sustainability that they lost sight of the real problem.   But the irony doesn't stop there.  Roberts says Franzen's "climate thing" is birds, and for others it is "consumption." Yes, Roberts views consumption as irrelevant, or perhaps some small subset to the climate problem. 

Roberts then laments in his critique of Franzen that "nobody gives a shit" about bird deaths or climate.   But why should we be surprised? One of the most popular voices on climate change implicitly defends needless waste.  Wind turbines can kill all the birds they want because we need them to power our DVRs and charge our iPads.   He absolves us all of any guilt for the damage caused by wind turbines, presumably because we have more important things to worry about.  In a Roberts tweet that Chris Clarke highlights in his blog post, Roberts tells another writer that he is perfectly okay with the idea of cutting down a grove of redwood trees or bulldozing the desert to build solar projects.  Roberts is telling his readers and followers that they should feel no guilt for their consumption; we just need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy without any regard for a conservation ethic. 

Roberts then states that he nodded to one paragraph in Franzen's piece, which happens to be the one paragraph with which I strongly disagree:
"Shouldn’t our responsibility to other people, both living and not yet born, compel us to take radical action on climate change? The problem here is that it makes no difference to the climate whether any individual, myself included, drives to work or rides a bike. The scale of greenhouse-gas emissions is so vast, the mechanisms by which these emissions affect the climate so nonlinear, and the effects so widely dispersed in time and space that no specific instance of harm could ever be traced back to my 0.0000001-per-cent contribution to emissions."
I don't know if Franzen intended that passage to absolve individuals of responsibility or if he was trying to make another point indirectly.  But the words send the same message that climate pundits repeat when they say that bird mortality at wind farms is minuscule compared to climate change, and therefore don't make a difference.

An article on climate change and moral judgement - that Roberts has praised in a separate piece - identifies the reasons we cannot motivate people to give a shit about climate, and it is precisely because of the point that Franzen makes in the paragraph above.  Because people either don't recognize their role in the problem, or they get defensive.  The study found that the blamelessness of unintentional action or consequences makes it difficult for people to grasp climate change (and other environmental problems).   It also states that discussion of the human role in climate change provokes a "self-defensive bias."

It is a lot easier for climate pundits and environmentalists alike to focus our actions on policymakers and corporations, rather than on the impact of our own participation in the economy.  I'm not saying that we should give corporations and misguided politicians a break.  Far from it.  I am saying that our efforts to cut fossil fuels and chart a more sustainable path requires that we actually confront the fact that each of us, as individuals, need to do a lot more to reduce consumption.  Then we can actually assume more power power over politicians and CEOs.

But I don't think that we have had that reckoning yet in the discussion about climate change and what to do about it.  There is deep acceptance of the fact that we need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, but we tend to tread more lightly on the topics that address our actions as individuals, such as energy conservation and the impact of meat consumption, for example. So here we are, wondering why nobody gives a shit about birds or the climate as we shrug off the impacts of wind turbines and solar power towers on wildlife.  The same shrug of indifference that climate pundits give to birds is what millions of people do when they leave video game and DVR consoles running, or drive to the store when they could walk or take the bus.  It's not their problem, or it's too minuscule to matter.

As Franzen said in his New Yorker article:
"Americans today live far from the ecological damage that their consumption habits cause, and even if future consumers are more enlightened about carbon footprints, and fill their tanks with certified green fuel, they’ll still be alienated. Only an appreciation of nature as a collection of specific threatened habitats, rather than as an abstract thing that is “dying,” can avert the complete denaturing of the world."
I'm not saying that we should turn and browbeat readers for every transgression they commit against the climate.  But our ethos and message needs to accept that climate change is one of many symptoms of an unhealthy way of life on this planet, and that CEOs, policymakers, and every other neighbor shares responsibility.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Public Lands Debate Hijacked by Extremists in Nevada

At the urging of a small but vocal group of extremists, the Nevada legislature is considering an unconstitutional bill that would take public lands currently managed by the Federal government and hand them over to private interests for grazing, logging and mining (Assembly Bill 408).  Cliven Bundy, whose dangerous supporters aimed semi-automatic rifles at law enforcement officers, characterizes the bill as a "freedom and liberty thing," according to the Los Angeles Times.  They suggest that the Federal government limits public access to public land in Nevada, but they apparently define "freedom" as giving industry free reign to destroy the desert.

Southern Nevada is blessed with some beautiful desert wildlands.  Drive in any direction from Las Vegas and you'll find a corner of desert where you can enjoy solitude, the smell of creosote, and a beautiful landscape.  Contrary to what Bundy would like me to believe, I have never felt fenced out.   I have camped and hiked on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) south of Searchlight where I watched the setting sun light up Spirit Mountain.  I camped with my brother in the Wee Thump Wilderness area among a forest of Joshua Trees.  I have enjoyed visits to the Desert and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuges where I stood in awe of how species can adapt and thrive in such an unforgiving landscape.  I watched a shelf of billowy white and silver clouds sit on top of the magnificant Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area as a late winter storm approached.  I drove up rough roads to the base of Bare Mountain to investigate a natural spring frequented by bighorn sheep, and watched a golden eagle circle high above the peak.

Sunset across the Piute Valley with Spirit Mountain catching the last rays of light. BLM lands south of Searchlight, Nevada.
Public lands in Nevada are not being shielded from human destruction, either.  I would argue that quite the opposite is happening as increasing human and industrial demands are taking a toll.  There are bulldozers scraping several square miles of desert habitat next to Primm for First Solar's Silver State South solar project.  Suburbs and cities in southern Nevada have ballooned over the past few decades, eating up open space and tapping into a dwindling water supply.  Bundy's cows are grazing illegally on thousands of acres of the desert near Gold Butte, while cows belonging to other ranchers that follow the law and pay their fair share also graze in the state.  In Clark County alone, mines produced over 4.5 million metric tons of various commodities in the year 2013. Off-highway vehicle enthusiasts enjoy open areas and miles of routes carved into the desert, some of which I also depend upon to get to my favorite camping spots. 

So what do Cliven Bundy and some members of the Nevada legislature think we should be doing with our public lands?   Apparently they want a free-for-all where the most powerful interests can expand destructive uses, depriving the rest of us of the natural treasures that we should be protecting for future generations.  Are these people familiar with the tragedy of the commons?

I do not always agree with the Federal government's decisions on how to manage public lands, but I sure as hell do not agree with Cliven Bundy's proposal to hand over public lands to industry and other profiteers under the guise of freedom.  Public lands should stay in public hands, and that means finding a balance among the multitude of human demands that protects wildlife and wide-open landscapes.  We should not take open space and biodiversity for granted.

We should have a rational discussion about land management in Nevada, but people like Cliven Bundy - who want to deprive us of our ability to enjoy and explore public lands - have proven that they have nothing constructive to say.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

West Mojave Plan Would Expand OHV Route Network


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in February released a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the West Mojave Plan that would expand the open route network for off-highway vehicle (OHV) use and limit livestock grazing.  Despite concerns that an earlier iteration of the plan's OHV route network would have a significant adverse effect on wildlife, this draft proposes to significantly expand authorized OHV access to 10,428 miles of routes.  For the sake of comparison, the City of Los Angeles alone has about 6,500 miles of paved roads.

The last iteration of the West Mojave Plan was finalized in 2006 and proposed to designate 5,098 miles of open routes, but a Federal judge ordered the BLM to revise the plan.  The court ruled that the original plan lacked sufficient analysis of the effects of OHV use and grazing on wildlife, and asked the BLM to evaluate alternative OHV route networks that would minimize conflict and avoid considerable adverse effects on soil, wildlife and cultural resources.

A wash southwest of Ridgecrest known to support Mohave ground squirrel and desert tortoise.  The El Paso Mountains can be seen in the distance.
The court also asked the BLM to update its baseline inventory of existing routes (both authorized and unauthorized).  The public expressed concern that the BLM's original assessment of 8,000 miles of existing routes underestimated the amount of illegal new routes carved by OHV riders not following open routes.  In response, the BLM took another look at the West Mojave using high resolution satellite imagery and found approximately 15,000 miles of authorized and illegal routes carved into the West Mojave - far more than the BLM had originally thought existed.

Miles of existing routes inventoried in 2001: approximately 8,000 miles

Miles of open route designated in the 2006 West Mojave Plan:  5,098

Miles of existing routes inventoried in 2012: approximately 15,00

Miles proposed as open routes in the 2015 supplemental EIS: 10,428

Despite public concern that the smaller open route network would itself have adverse impacts on wildlife, the BLM is now proposing to more than double the miles of authorized routes in its 2015 supplemental EIS.   Although every fan of the desert relies on open routes to access our favorite corners of this beautiful region, there is a careful balance that needs to be struck between access, recreation, and protecting the integrity of our wildlands.  The plan would create areas where the concentration of open routes combined with the high frequency of OHV use would encourage a pattern of erosion and vegetation loss that could threaten the viability of wildlife habitat over time.  Specifically, a significant portion of the proposed open routes occur between the Golden Valley and El Paso Mountains Wilderness areas, which serves as important habitat for the Mohave ground squirrel and desert tortoise.  Each route eliminates desert vegetation, and reduces forage and cover available to animals.

A screen shot of the open route network map for a portion of the West Mojave Plan area near Ridgecrest, California.  The open routes are designated in green, with a significant concentration between the Golden Valley and El Paso Mountains Wilderness Areas.
Perhaps the impacts of the route network could be manageable if every OHV rider stayed on designated routes, but the impacts are likely to expand with unauthorized route creation.  Without proper education and enforcement, riders sometimes add to the network by departing from authorized routes and carving new tracks across the desert.  Once a track is carved into the desert soil, it is unlikely to disappear for years.   Other riders may see and follow the track, assuming it is part of an open network.  The repeat OHV travel on the illegal track increases the damage, and makes it all the more difficult to conceal from other OHV riders. 

A hill south of Ridgecrest scarred by multiple OHV routes.  Over time, the loss of topsoil contributes to erosion and prevents vegetation from growing.  As routes become impassable, OHV riders sometimes carve new routes, further expanding erosion and loss of vegetation.
The BLM is accepting comments on the draft supplemental EIS until June 4, 2015, and has indicated that it may revise the open route network based on specific comments from the public.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Grid Operator Says Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Line Unnecessary

Southern California Edison's (SCE) proposal to build a destructive new transmission line across desert wildlands just hit a snag.  The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) - the organization responsible for managing the state's transmission grid - reported that SCE's proposed Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Project is no longer necessary to bring all of the Mojave Solar project's energy to the grid.  SCE had argued that it could not deliver energy from Abengoa's Mojave Solar on existing transmission lines because those lines were already in use by other power plants.  A new 75 mile transmission line would be needed to connect the project to the grid, according to SCE, a portion of which would be built outside of existing transmission corridors.

The early dawn sun highlights desert silhouettes in the northern Lucerne Valley, just east of the Granite Mountains.  The proposed Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Project would cut right through this landscape.
However, the CAISO's submission to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) undercuts SCE's case for building the new transmission line.  SCE needs CPUC's approval in order to pass along costs to build the new line to ratepayers.  CAISO argues that the retirement of other power plants in the region have freed up enough capacity on transmission lines to fully deliver the energy generated by the Mojave Solar project.  This doesn't count the Coolwater natural gas plant, that has also ceased operations but has not relinquished its rights to transmission lines.  If that plant also follows suit, even more capacity will be available.

SCE has put forward other reasons to build the Coolwater-Lugo Transmission line, but it had scrapped less destructive alternatives because it argued that it needed to serve the Mojave Solar project.  Hopefully CPUC will ask SCE to reconsider its options for transmission line upgrades in the desert.  There are plenty of existing transmission corridors that can be upgraded, and distributed generation and storage should be used to alleviate the need for new transmission lines in the first place.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

DRECP: Is the New Approach a Threat or Opportunity?

The Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT) agencies announced this week that they would adopt a phased approach to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) in response to widespread concern about the proposed endangered species permitting mechanism and conflict with county land use plans.   Under this approach, the more contentious aspects of the DRECP will be further refined after additional consultation with the counties and rolled out at a later date.

The first phase will amend the land use planning for Federal lands in the California desert, establishing both conservation and development focus areas.  The second phase will establish development areas on private lands as well as the streamlined permitting process for renewable energy projects under State and Federal Endangered Species Acts.  Reactions to the phased approach range from concern to relief.

Will Desert Conservation Move Forward?

How well the first phase is received will depend largely on whether or not the BLM sticks to its original preferred alternative or attempts to cram more Development Focus Areas (DFAs) onto public lands.  CEC Commissioner Karen Douglas during a teleconference this week noted that many of the 12,000 public comments on the DRECP expressed strong support for conservation designations on public lands.  It is safe to say that many of those comments probably asked for even more public lands to be included in the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) or designated as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).

Although the draft BLM land use plan was not perfect, many recognize the need to confer the conservation designations that the desert needs.   As California expands its Renewable Portfolio Standard, we can expect the energy rush on public lands to continue; any delay in conservation measures will only prolong the dangerous game of  roulette that we have played with our prized desert landscapes and wildlife.

However, public land enthusiasts and conservation groups have expressed concern that the BLM may try to compensate for the delayed roll out of DFAs on private lands by adding more DFAs on public lands.  During the teleconference announcement this week BLM California Director Jim Kenna did not specify whether, or how much the "preferred alternative" would change when it is rolled out in a final environmental impact statement.  This is not surprising considering that Federal agencies have not finished reviewing public comments and typically maintain silence regarding internal deliberations.  However, Mr. Kenna did acknowledge that the BLM land use plan will be based on the original range of alternatives included in the draft DRECP. 

A significant addition of DFAs on public lands almost certainly would rile the majority of people that spent time reviewing and commenting on the DRECP because of the overwhelming support for conservation designations, and the fact that most people probably did not have the time to comment on the DRECP beyond the preferred alternative.  Although the draft DRECP identified several other alternative land use plans with varying configurations of DFAs and conservation designations, most people I spoke with had focused their comments on the the constellation of DFAs identified in the preferred alternative.  Selecting a different alternative would constitute a last minute bait-and-switch, depriving people of providing meaningful input on additional DFAs.



An Opportunity to Reduce DFAs

Delaying the second phase of the DRECP provides more time for agencies to reconsider the role that distributed generation can play in meeting our renewable energy goals.  Plenty of individuals and groups urged the REAT agencies to re-evaluate the role that energy efficiency and rooftop solar can play, thereby reducing the need for DFAs.  During this week's announcement,  the REAT agencies did not give any indication that they planned to do so, however.  In fact, the announcement of the phased approach reiterated the DRECP's underlying assumption that DFAs should accommodate 20,000 megawatts of large-scale renewable energy generation in the California desert.

However, closer coordination with the counties should still allow for a reduction in the DFAs.  The draft DRECP over-allocated DFA lands in part to counter perceived uncertainty regarding whether renewable energy companies can secure access to private lands for development.  Presumably, coordination with counties will clear up some of this uncertainty, enabling planners to significantly reduce proposed DFAs. 

Sand verbena blooming at the base of Amboy Crater in the Mojave Desert


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Senator Feinstein Reintroduces and Expands Desert Bill

Senator Feinstein this week introduced a revised version of her desert bill that would protect beautiful and remote stretches of the California desert while also setting the stage for significant land exchanges intended to allow for industrial development elsewhere in the state.  The bill would create two new national monuments, designate six new wilderness areas, and add acreage to existing national parks.   The new conservation areas would provide welcomed protection for over a million acres of desert wildlands that industry is eyeing for development.  However, the bill will also leave open the potential that new transmission lines will bisect the new monuments, and requires the Department of Interior to transfer nearly 370,000 acres of public lands elsewhere in California in exchange for parcels of land owned by the State of California that currently fall within the boundaries of desert wilderness, monuments and parks.

The bill is a reincarnation of the California Desert Protection Act, but it is renamed the California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act of 2015 (CDCRA).  If passed by Congress, the Mojave Trails National Monument and Sand-to-Snow National Monuments would protect over one million acres of desert wildlands.  It would also establish 250,000 acres of new wilderness areas throughout the California desert, and add 75,000 acres to  Death Valley National Park, the Mojave National Preserve, and Joshua Tree National Park.  Earlier iterations of the bill have already impacted how the BLM is managing the desert, essentially establishing de facto conservation areas within the footprints of the two new proposed monuments.  Solar and wind energy applications proposed along the Route 66 corridor between Ludlow and Goffs, for example, have since been abandoned or are unlikely to be processed because they would fall within the boundary of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.


However, the bill also includes a provision that could open up other lands in California to development.  Hundreds of thousands of acres of land managed by the California State Lands Commission (CSLC) are interspersed throughout desert conservation areas established by the original California Desert Protection Act of 1994, as well as the conservation areas that would be established under the CDCRA of 2015 (see the light blue squares on the map above).  California has not been able to develop and profit from these stranded parcels because they are surrounded by Federally protected conservation lands.  The new bill would require the Department of Interior to make a good faith effort to acquire those stranded CSLC lands within ten years by swapping them for other Federal lands in the state.  The exchange would ensure the integrity of desert conservation lands, but encourage development - renewable energy or mining, for example - on the Federal lands that the California acquires as part of the exchange.  What is not clear is which Federal lands in California will be most vulnerable to exchange, and thus, development. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Soda Mountain: A Test of Landscape Level Planning

The Bureau of Land Management is expected to conclude its environmental review of the Soda Mountain Solar project - one of the most contentious utility-scale solar projects currently being reviewed for construction on public lands - any day now.  The release of the final environmental impact statement for the Soda Mountain Solar project is overdue, almost certainly a result of inter-agency wrangling following the publication of the draft environmental analysis that underplayed the potential impact of the project on natural springs critical to desert wildlife, and the area's potential to restore habitat connectivity for bighorn sheep.  Also at stake is whether or not the BLM will ignore landscape-level planning that has identified the proposed solar project site as critical for wildlife.

The sweeping creosote bush and white bursage scrub pictured above would be graded and bulldozed for the Soda Mountain Solar project.  Photo by Michael E. Gordon.

Wildlife Crossing or Industrial Zone?

The Department of Interior has pursued a “landscape-scale approach to identify and facilitate investment in key conservation priorities in a region” (Secretarial Order 3330) to avoid the type of conflict presented by the proposed Soda Mountain Solar project and to protect wildlife that face increased threats as a result of climate change.  The draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) - Interior's flagship landscape-scale planning effort - stresses the need for a bighorn sheep crossing at Interstate-15 between the Soda Mountains and Cronese mountains to restore bighorn sheep habitat connectivity. (DRECP, Appendix C, pages 9, and 38-39)  These plans are embedded in the DRECP's biological goals and objectives that provide the foundation for the BLM's conservation efforts in the California desert for the next 25 years.  Interior will now have to choose whether to follow the biological goals and objectives of a landscape-level planning effort in which it is heavily invested, or give the go-ahead for bulldozers to once again threaten the intactness of an ecosystem.

Biologists note that the proposed wildlife crossing at Soda Mountains is important for bighorn sheep because the species is beginning to experience genetic isolation as a result of highways preventing intermingling of sheep populations across the desert.  No other location along Interstate 15 is likely to have as much success encouraging bighorn sheep migration and inter-mingling, and if populations of bighorn sheep remain more isolated they can become more vulnerable to disease and extirpation.  This is why landscape-level planning is so important - to identify these very conservation priorities and ensure a resilient ecosystem.  BLM approval of the Soda Mountain Solar project would undermine the DRECP before it is even finalized, and once again confirm criticism that science takes a back seat to industry influence.

A video by the Arizona Game and Fish Department underscores the potential to restore habitat connectivity with wildlife crossings, like this one over Highway 93 in Arizona.


The Soda Mountain Solar project would pose a number of other threats to wildlife.  The project would drain groundwater and likely endanger natural springs at Zyzzx that are home to the endangered Mohave tui chub (a small fish endemic to the Mojave) and where bighorn sheep slake their thirst.  To make way for the giant mirrors, Bechtel would bulldoze nearly 3.4 square miles of the creosote bush scrub habitat in between Interstate-15 and the Soda Mountains, which currently provides habitat for kit fox and western burrowing owls.

Bechtel Ignoring Alternative Locations

The  National Park Service and Environmental Protection Agency both submitted letters critical of the BLM's environmental analysis, and community and conservation groups have implored Interior and Bechtel to consider alternative locations for the solar project.  Bechtel does not yet have a power purchase agreement with a utility company willing to buy electricity from the project, so Bechtel has time to consider a less destructive location.  But the environmental impact statement dismisses other locations, in part because Bechtel claims that it is too difficult to find private lands large enough to accommodate its 358 megawatt project close enough to transmission lines.

Bechtel's claim regarding the lack of alternative locations is clearly misleading; there are several large-scale solar projects under construction or completed on private lands, to include Sun Power's 579 megawatt Solar Star project in the Antelope Valley.  And Bechtel has not even secured an interconnection agreement with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), the company that owns the transmission lines running near the Soda Mountains.  So the value of the nearby transmission lines is hypothetical, and the inability to find a feasible alternative site on private lands is dubious. 

One thing is for sure,  Bechtel and BLM put much less rigor into consideration of alternative locations than the DRECP put into identifying the Soda Mountain area as important for wildlife.  Yet Bechtel may just get its way, natural springs may dry up, and we will lose an opportunity to restore bighorn sheep migration across the Mojave.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

How Much Is Rooftop Solar Worth?

While we were focused last month on reviewing thousands of pages of proposed land management plans that would encourage utility-scale renewable energy projects across the California and Nevada desert, a seemingly obscure ruling by an administrative law judge quietly dismissed a key argument activists use in defense of wildlands and wildlife - that distributed generation is a better alternative to utility-scale renewable energy because it does not require the destruction of intact wildlands.  The ruling (.pdf) was part of an initial step by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to determine the price utility companies pay for energy generated by rooftop solar projects, known as net-metering.

Reading the statements and briefs submitted by various interests involved in CPUC's effort to determine how much rooftop solar is worth can seem almost perfunctory and sober to someone who cares a lot about the landscapes affected by large-scale energy generation of any kind - fossil fuels and renewables.  I imagine it would feel the same way for soldiers and citizens of two war-torn countries if they had to listen to their elites banter back and forth in protocol-smothered negotiations seeking token face-saving measures to allow peace.  Do the people at the table understand the consequences and implications of the outcome?  With mountains on the east coast stripped of their coal to feed noxious power plants, and mountains in the west capped with hundreds of 400 foot tall bird and bat-killing wind turbines to power our air conditioners, rooftop solar is an obvious escape from the violence of our current energy paradigm that has ravaged our land and wildlife over the past century.  The value that CPUC ultimately sets on the energy generated from solar panels on rooftops or over parking lots will affect how much and how quickly we can generate energy in our cities, rather than destroy our wildlands.

Here is some context for what CPUC is doing.  Today, if someone in California installs solar panels on their home or business they can benefit from lower utility bills, and they will be compensated at the full retail rate for any surplus energy generated by the solar panels that is shared with the grid.  However, CPUC was tasked by California legislators in 2013 to determine an accurate value for the energy generated by rooftop solar panels (I will call it rooftop solar, but a person might have panels installed over parking lots, or in their own backyard).  As you might expect, utility companies want the value to be much lower to protect their own outdated business model.

A pile of Joshua Trees removed to make way for the Alta Wind Energy Center near Mojave, California.  Photo by Friend of Mojave.
Utility companies argue that people with rooftop solar panels do not pay their fair share of what it costs to maintain a large and expensive transmission and distribution grid, as if every component of that destructive system is assumed to be desired and necessary.  What utility companies do not say is that they oppose a fair value for rooftop solar because such compensation will encourage more people to install rooftop solar panels, and when more people generate their own energy, utility compy profits nose-dive.  Why?  Because utility companies make their money on building remote, centralized power plants that require new transmission infrastructure.  If a utility company upgrades or builds new transmission lines, not only do they charge ratepayers for the material and labor, but the utilities are also allowed to collect a roughly 10% rate of return on the infrastructure.  That is a higher rate of return than most businesses could expect from their investments, but utility companies receive this rate as default because it it set by California regulators.  That is why central station power plants built in the remote desert are a dream come true for utility companies - they get to justify expensive (and thus, profitable) upgrades to the transmission system.  We pay the costs, we lose wildlife and land, and a select few get wealthier.

Victor Valley College installed solar over some of its parking lots, generating clean energy and saving money on its energy bills. A much more sane alternative to bulldozing desert wildlands.
So the December administrative law ruling is contentious because it identifies the scope of factors that will be considered in determining the value of rooftop solar.  While the ruling did indicate that the avoided transmission costs should be included in the consideration of rooftop solar's value, the judge ruled that avoided land use impacts would not be considered.  In a statement from Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility company opposed the inclusion of avoided land use impacts and avoided societal costs of carbon as "illusory or ill-defined."  Illusory!  Bulldozers scraping deserts and mountains are far from illusory.  And the health impacts of fossil fuel plants are obvious to those that suffer asthma or living with the effects of climate change.  The utility companies want CPUC to treat rooftop solar as existing in some sterile vacuum where the underlying assumption is that central station power plants and a behemoth transmission grid are necessities, and where people are "customers" and not hikers, campers, and individuals that care about wildlands and healthy communities. 

This photo shows less than one-third of the Ivanpah Solar project in the Mojave Desert.  Nearly 5.6 square miles of high quality and diverse Mojave Desert habitat was bulldozed or mowed down to make way for this project far from our cities.  It required a multi-million dollar transmission line upgrade.
The immense societal costs of fossil fuels - such as avoided carbon emissions and health impacts - may be considered in the valuation of rooftop solar, but it is not clear to what extent.  The ruling in December, however, made it clear that avoided land use impacts would not be considered.  Determining a value of rooftop solar without appropriately acknowledging land use impacts and the societal costs of fossil fuel generation would embed a considerable flaw in California's energy market.  Land use impacts of both utility-scale fossil fuels and renewable energy are a key reason distributed generation - such as rooftop solar - should constitute a larger bulk of our generation capacity.  Encouraging robust deployment of rooftop solar and avoiding destruction of the land can address a number of environmental problems, including habitat loss, dust pollution (PM10) caused by ground disturbing activities,  groundwater depletion and contamination, and loss of outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • Habitat loss is chief among these impacts, and it is recognized as one of the most critical threats to many wildlife species; building utility-scale energy plants adds to the problem.  The Ivanpah Solar project alone destroyed nearly 5.6 square miles of amazing desert wildlands, and now burns birds and insects in super-heated air created by its mirrors.   First Solar is now adding to the destruction in the Ivanpah Valley, bulldozing several more square miles of an important desert tortoise habitat corridor, and one of the company's two projects has already displaced over 150 of the the beleaguered animals.  It is difficult to put a monetary value on this destruction, but both companies have paid a total of tens of millions of dollars in a failed attempt to compensate for the destruction.
If you want to follow the CPUC proceeding (known as "R1407001") you can read documents and subscribe to receive e-mail updates here.  CPUC is expected to determine a value by December 2015, but you can see above that important decisions are being made much sooner.