Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cook's Desert Bill is a Political Ransom Note

A new bill introduced by Congressman Paul Cook would encourage the destruction of over 246 square miles of desert wildlands in exchange for widely supported conservation designations.  The bill - the California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act - panders to harmful, for-profit uses of public lands, including in the heart of the Mojave Desert along Historic Route 66.

The bill appears to be an effort to counter the desert conservation and recreation legislation introduced by Senator Feinstein, who decided earlier this year to seek establishment of desert monuments through the Antiquities Act because of roadblocks in Congress.  Contrary to misinformation I have seen spread online, the monuments would not "restrict access" for people that enjoy and explore desert wildlands.  I say this as a person that uses designated routes to access remote areas of the desert for camping, hiking and photography.  Unlike the monument proposals, Cook's bill would promote the mismanagement of our public lands and do irreparable damage to the landscapes that we treasure.

No Mojave Trails Monument; Mining Instead 

The community widely supports a monument designation for Mojave Trails to protect a swath of intact desert wildlands from Ludlow to Needles from industrial-scale development.  But Cook's  bill would explicitly prevent a monument designation, and instead establish a "Mojave Trails Special Management Area" where mining would be encouraged on nearly 150 square miles of this remote and pristine stretch of desert along Historic Route 66.  Mining, like large-scale solar projects, can involve significant and long-lasting disturbance of the land that is often visible for miles around.

Allowing so much mining in such a remote area would undermine the very qualities people from all over the world appreciate about this stretch of Route 66 and surrounding wildlands.  Cook's own bill recognizes these qualities, stating its intent "to secure the opportunity for present and future generations to experience and enjoy the magnificent vistas, wildlife, land forms, and natural and cultural resources of the Management Area."  But this intent is immediately undermined by the inclusion of language pandering to the mining industry.

The bill also includes provisions to facilitate the expansion of the Castle Mountain Mine next to the Mojave National Preserve.  This gold mine ceased operations in 2001 because of falling gold prices, but a Canadian company is pushing to re-open strip-mining operations and tap new water wells.  The mine is in the remote Lanfair Valley, over 80 miles from the nearest city.  Conservationists had hoped to include the reclaimed land in the Preserve and protect the Joshua tree studded landscape.  Cook's bill will allow the Canadian company to strip more of the mountains before eventually including them in the Mojave National Preserve.

Expanding Motorized Free-for-All Zones

Mining companies would not be the only interest robbing us of desert wildlands.  Cook's bill would also expand Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Recreation Areas by 95 square miles, adding to over 220 square miles of existing OHV Recreation Areas.  Let's be clear - there is a stark difference between maintaining access to public lands through designated routes,  which I support, and the destructive free-for-all that is encouraged within Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Areas. 

An example of a high-disturbance area in the Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area. There are no limits to where vehicles can travel within OHV Recreation Areas.

An example of a designated route in the Mojave Desert. There are thousands of miles of such routes across the California desert.  Designated routes provide access to outdoor recreation and solitude, but noticed that desert vegetation and soils are healthy.  Designated routes can be enjoyed responsibly.  OHV Recreation Areas will turn the desert into a Mad Max-like free-for-all with no regard for nature.
The additional square miles would be added to the Johnson Valley and Spangler Hills OHV Recreation Areas.  These are unnecessary expansions that will lead to the degradation of wildlands over time.  Most of the desert - other than official wilderness areas - are accessible through thousands of miles of designated dirt roads.  But in OHV Recreation Areas, motorized vehicles do not adhere to designated routes.  Hundreds upon hundreds of off-trail trips by motorized vehicles convert a healthy desert ecosystem into a severely disturbed area that will take a long time for nature to repair.

There is no shortage of options for off-highway vehicle use in the California desert, and it can be accommodated responsibly and sustainably.  Many visitors to the desert respect the wild qualities of the landscape that make it worth the trip, staying on designated routes to visit places for camping, hiking, rock hounding, etc.   In the western Mojave alone there are more miles of designated routes than there are miles of roads in Los Angeles. There are even off-highway vehicle races that are held in the desert on some of these designated routes.

Given how destructive and self-indulgent OHV Recreation Areas are, it's a bit of a stretch to think that we even have 220 square miles of such zones in the California desert.  The existing OHV Recreation Areas encompass a combined land area more than three times the size of Washington, D.C.  Adding 95 more square miles is overkill.

Political Ransom, Not a Balanced Compromise

Cook's bill is representative of a political process that holds conservation hostage on behalf of private interests.  Every acre of land that we simply let be in its natural state for future generations to enjoy requires the immediate sacrifice of some other area.  Even Feinstein's California Desert Conservation and Recreation Act includes compromises that would allow utility companies to build transmission lines across the untarnished vistas of the Mojave Trails area.  Cook's bill also includes this gift to the utility companies.

This is not a new dynamic but it is one that seems to be getting worse.  You want to protect some canyons for future generations? Tell me what public lands we should sacrifice to oil and gas companies.  You want to protect this desert valley?  Then pick which mountains we should carve up for a wind energy facility.

The political narrative driving this hostage taking suggests that being good stewards of public lands is some diabolical plan by the Federal government to take our rights and prohibit access to the land.  Our elected representatives hide behind false notions that they are making a balanced compromise, or defending public access or property rights. But what they are really doing is handing over our natural treasures to private interests.

Public land managed for future generations is an American treasure.  It means that two or three generations from now a distant relative can visit your favorite camping spot in the Mojave and experience the same quiet sunset that you did.  Future generations will not fault us for protecting wildlands, but they will blame us for the scars that our reckless decisions leave on the landscape.

Wildflowers in bloom along the lava rock near Amboy Crater in the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.
Taken from atop Amboy Crater, looking north toward the Bristol Mountains.  Route 66, barely visible, lies between Amboy Crater and the mountains in the distance.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

First Solar Project Displaces Over 160 Desert Tortoises

First Solar has displaced at least 161 adult and juvenile desert tortoises to make way for its Silver State South Solar project in Nevada, as of August 2015, according to documents provided by the Department of Interior.  Initial information indicates several tortoises relocated from the project site have already died, possibly as a result of being forced into unfamiliar ranges.  First Solar is clearing over 3.7 square miles of intact desert habitat for the project after the company ignored requests to consider less destructive locations.  Underscoring its interest in profit over the environment, the company has even funded attacks on rooftop solar - a more sustainable alternative to meeting our renewable energy needs that First Solar sees as a threat to its bulldozer-led approach.

Translocation Results Uneven
Although the 161 desert tortoises found on the Silver State South project site were moved to the surrounding desert before bulldozers leveled the area for solar panels, at least seven of the displaced animals have fallen victim to natural predators and hyperthermia months after construction began. By contrast, only three of the animals already resident in the translocation recipient site have succumbed to predation, according to a review of documents provided by the Department of Interior in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  Biologists will need to determine if the translocated tortoises have lower survival rates than tortoises already residing in the recipient site.

We do not know much about how the process of translocation impacts tortoises, but we do know that tortoises are very accustomed to their home range.  Tortoises in their home range know where they can find fleeting pools of water during a rain shower, or where to find shelter from the sun when foraging during the hot daytime hours.  Messing with their routines probably does not have a positive effect.

This deceased tortoises was relocated from the solar project site in late 2014, and was found dead in July 2015.  The tortoise was relocated relatively far from its home territory, which was bulldozed by First Solar.  The tortoise almost certainly was killed by a predator.  This photo was provided by the Bureau of Land Management in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  Full documents provided by the Department of Interior can be found here.
A previous study of desert tortoise translocation from nearby Fort Irwin found that nearly half of the translocated animals have died.  Biologists are still not sure if that outcome is "good, bad, or typical," underscoring just how little we know about the impact of human activities on the species.  As previously noted on this blog, the translocation of tortoises is not the only experiment taking place because of the Silver State South project.  Biologists are also monitoring tortoise populations to see if the narrow strip of habitat remaining through the Ivanpah Valley just west of the Lucy Gray Mountains is sufficient to maintain genetic connectivity between two populations of the tortoise.  If the populations become genetically isolated, they may become less resilient and see a decline over time.

It is probably best to error on the side of caution and not push the desert tortoise and other desert wildlife past a tipping point.  Instead companies like First Solar advocate for the destruction of vast swaths of desert wildlands to make way for more utility-scale solar projects.

First Solar Not Interested in Sustainability
First Solar has sided with monopolistic utility companies in attacks on rooftop solar, funding a skewed study to portray rooftop solar as uneconomical (a study that was countered by the Institute for Local Self Reliance that points out the many benefits of distributed generation).  First Solar is apparently convinced that the price of electricity displayed on our utility bills is an accurate portrayal of the true costs of the energy we consume.  This is ironic for a company that owes its existence to a movement that has accelerated demand for renewable energy precisely because of the need to acknowledge the total costs shouldered by our planet for destructive energy sources.

Despite ample time and opportunity to find better locations for its Silver State South project, First Solar stubbornly moved forward with its destructive project in the Mojave desert.  First Solar ignored opportunities to double down on rooftop solar investments, or larger projects on already-disturbed lands.  

Construction crews for First solar bulldoze intact desert habitat for the Silver State South Solar project in the Ivanpah Valley.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Calculating the Many Benefits of Distributed Generation

"Renewable distributed generation (“DG”) has benefits to society that cannot be measured on utility balance sheets." That is the bottom line of an extensive white paper submitted by the Sierra Club to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the regulatory body that is currently deciding whether rooftop solar will continue to expand in California or be buried by monopolistic utility companies seeking to continue a destructive status quo.

The CPUC will decide by the end of the year how much the energy generated by a rooftop solar installation is worth under net-metering, and it has solicited proposals from stakeholders regarding how to determine this value.  If you live or work in a home with solar panels on the roof, or if you have purchased shares in a community solar project because you don't own the roof over your head, the utility companies currently credit you at the retail rate of electricity for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) that your solar panels generate.  Environmental groups and the solar industry want to keep a fair credit under whatever net-metering tariff CPUC lays out at the end of the year.

But utility companies are lobbying the CPUC to reduce this credit drastically and to add outrageous fees onto the bill of any customer that installs their own solar panels.  If utility companies convince CPUC to add enough fees and reduce the credit rooftop solar installations receive for energy they generate, they could succeed in making rooftop solar less economical and thus ensure that customers remain dependent on a centralized grid that involves entangling our open spaces in transmission lines and bulldozing the desert.

Solar panels are added to a parking lot where they provide shade to vehicles and generate clean energy, rather than displacing intact desert wildlands.
Adding up the Benefits
To many of us who value clean air and intact wildlands, there would be no need to ponder whether rooftop solar should continue to expand; many desert conservation activists would argue for more aggressive policies and incentives to unleash the untapped potential in our cities to install solar panels.  But the CPUC's deliberation regarding the value of rooftop solar has been carried out on an uneven negotiating table, where powerful utility companies have dismissed the benefits of DG as "illusory."  Most of the debate regarding rooftop solar's value focuses on benefits to the grid, and being able to reduce the need for costly new transmission lines and central station power plants.  But the Sierra Club white paper also brings other benefits into focus.

The Sierra Club's submission fights back against the utility industry, arguing that CPUC should consider the many benefits of rooftop solar that utility companies and CPUC have previously dismissed or underestimated when calculating the future net-metering credit, including avoided land use, avoided carbon emissions, avoided particulate matter pollution, benefits to the local economy, and avoided water use.  The Sierra Club recommended specific values for each of these benefits to be incorporated into CPUC's overall calculation; if they are accepted it is likely that the new net-metering credit will encourage continued expansion of rooftop solar to the chagrin of rich utility companies.

Societal Cost of Carbon Emissions and Particulate Pollution
The Sierra Club white paper argues that the current CPUC proceedings likely underestimate the benefit of avoided carbon emissions and particulate matter pollution.  The white paper cites the immense impacts of climate change induced by continued carbon emissions on California society and economy, including the receding Sierra snowpack, drought, wildfires and sea level rise.  As climate change worsens, so too will these impacts.  The paper also takes a harder look at the actual costs to society of continued particulate matter and nitrous oxide emissions from fossil fuel plants in the state, and recommends a higher benefit be ascribed to rooftop solar based on the potential to displace these harmful emissions.

Avoided Land Use
The white paper also challenges an earlier CPUC decision to ignore avoided land use when calculating the benefit of rooftop solar.  The Sierra Club white paper notes that every kWh of electricity generated by rooftop solar saves at least $.002 in costs to society.  I know what you're thinking - that seems like a low-ball amount.  This value does not reflect avoided destruction of wildlands, but rather the avoided conversion of agricultural land.  Probably to challenge utility company claims that avoided land use benefits are "illusory," the Sierra Club derived this $.002/kWh benefit from studies on the value of farm or ranch land that would otherwise be used for utility-scale solar if the rooftop solar sector does not continue to expand.

As you might imagine, the desert wildlands in the Ivanpah Valley or near the Soda Mountains are priceless, and in my mind avoiding the destruction of intact habitat would justify quite a bit more than a $.002 per kilowatt hour bump in the value of rooftop solar generation.  But as we have seen before in Sacramento and decision-making halls, protecting wildlands and wildlife generally does not gain much traction in policy deliberations unless you can make some sort of economic argument.  Ultimately, the conservation of open space and wildlife is why our entire grid should be overhauled to prioritize energy efficiency and distributed generation. 

That said, the amount put on the table by the Sierra Club will at least keep the avoided land use benefit on the table as CPUC calculates a final net-metering benefit.  And in the scheme of the net-metering debate, a  $.002 per kWh benefit is not insignificant since it will further erode the utility company attempts to kill rooftop solar.  For future rooftop solar installations, every dollar counts as individuals and businesses consider whether it is worth it to go solar.  Let's take a typical 5 kilowatt residential solar system in Southern California as an example.  A system that size could generate up to 9,260 kWh per year, depending on location and weather.  The Sierra Club white paper is suggesting this system is providing society with the annual benefit of about $18.52 per year for avoided agricultural land loss (not including the many other benefits of DG), and that this value should be reflected in the final CPUC rooftop solar value determination. 

Local Economy
Advocates for rooftop solar have long pointed out that distributed generation invests directly in our communities, rather than allowing utility and energy companies to amass capital and wealth among select shareholders far away.  Rooftop solar jobs also stay in our communities, rather than the limited jobs created by remote central station power plants.

To capture this benefit, the white paper proposes a $.030 per kWh benefit be included in the calculation. That means that the 5 kW rooftop solar system I mentioned as an example would bring $277 of value each year to local society (assuming the value of that local investment is spread out over the lifetime of the system) that should be accounted for when considering whether we expand rooftop solar or submit to the utility companies' preferred centralized, destructive model of generating energy at distant power plants.

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.