Sunday, July 27, 2014

Bridges for Bighorn

Despite efforts to protect desert habitat in the southwest, major highways criss-crossing the desert are isolating wildlife into smaller pockets and hindering genetic exchange necessary to keep species healthy and resilient.  Desert bighorn sheep are not exempt from this impact; they may be agile and swift, but they are no match for several lanes of speeding cars and semi-trucks, and they tend to shy away from culverts that cross under highways.

Biologists have already noticed that desert bighorn sheep populations in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts are becoming genetically isolated because the region's major highways - such as Interstate 15 and Interstate 40 - and other human developments pose a barrier to sheep movement from one range to another.  According to a 2005 article in Ecology Letters,  biologists found "a rapid reduction in genetic diversity (up to 15%)" among desert bighorn sheep resulting from "as few as 40 years of anthropogenic isolation. Interstate highways, canals and developed areas, where present, have apparently eliminated gene flow. These results suggest that anthropogenic barriers constitute a severe threat to the persistence of naturally fragmented populations."

Habitat Connectivity Not a Priority

This should be a familiar story, but if it doesn't ring a bell, a more widely known example can be seen in the Los Angeles basin, where the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, and local news stations have covered the impact of highways and human development on the mountain lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains.  The mountain lions there are at increased risk of inbreeding and becoming less healthy because each population is too small and largely cut off from other populations by highways that are too dangerous to cross.

If you have been following human developments in the desert then you probably know that the process for permitting new transportation, mining and energy projects often puts habitat connectivity in the back seat.  Case in point, the Department of Interior approved construction of three giant solar projects and a new rail line in the Ivanpah Valley;  biologists have identified Ivanpah as important to tortoise genetic connectivity.  Other species at risk include the Mohave ground squirrel; this species' home range has declined as a result of urban and agricultural sprawl, and now solar and wind energy projects threaten to further fragment its habitat in the western Mojave. 

For the tortoise, industrial developers that destroy intact habitat often promise mitigation money that can go toward enhancing what is left of the desert tortoise's range.  However, these mitigation funds usually go toward closing illegal off-highway vehicle routes or putting up fencing along highways.  This does not really address the problem of connectivity.  Industrial projects that pump precious groundwater and threaten natural springs promise funds for "guzzlers" - man-made water sources for bighorn sheep.  These water sources may support a pocket of bighorn sheep, but do not address the ability of sheep to move across the range and connect with other populations increasingly isolated by industrial and transportation projects.

Although the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) process will supposedly consider how to protect key wildlife corridors, the DRECP has been delayed significantly from its original timeline and it is not yet clear if the final plan will favor conservation or industry.  It is also unlikely that the DRECP will properly fund wildlife overpasses for bighorn sheep without sacrificing desert habitat.  The practice so far is that money for habitat improvement is provided by corporations paying to mitigate or offset the damage they are doing when they build new energy projects or housing developments.  This is a vicious cycle; we need to destroy habitat in order to improve habitat somewhere else.  Funding for conservation and wildlife should not depend solely on the destruction of these very treasures.

Bighorn Bridges

One measure that can be taken regardless of the DRECP may particularly benefit the desert bighorn sheep.  Looking back at the mountain lion example, wildlife officials are considering building a wildlife overpass across Interstate 101 in Agoura Hills to connect two mountain lion ranges currently severed by the highway.  Bighorn sheep have benefited from this approach outside of California.  In Arizona, the Game and Fish Department and Department of Transportation sponsored three wildlife bridges for bighorn over U.S. Highway 93.  As you can see in the video below, bighorn have been using the bridge to get across the highway safely, leading to a healthier and more resilient ecosystem.


The reason sheep need overpasses is evident in research submitted for the 2013 International Conference on Ecology and Transportation which monitored 199 bighorn sheep approaches to culverts passing under U.S. Highway 93.  Only four of the sheep crossed a culvert, and the rest turned back.  Sheep passed under large span bridges (probably less frightening than the narrow and low culverts), "but at significantly reduced frequencies relative to overpass utilization." Large underpasses might be more valuable for others species like desert tortoises, and could be wide enough to accommodate a natural desert substrate, such as plants to provide shade and cover for a range of different wildlife.

Research could identify the most critical choke points to determine where wildlife overpasses could best benefit the desert bighorn sheep population.  One potential linkage previously mentioned on this blog could be built near the Soda Mountains and Zzyzx Road, although Bechtel wants to bulldoze desert there, instead.   Perhaps another wildlife overpass could be built over Interstate 40 between Ludlow and Essex to help connect bighorn in the Mojave National Preserve to populations further south.  Locations for an overpass would need to be identified based on an understanding of sheep movement habits, where populations currently exist, or where they could be restored.

These camera-trap photos included in the Arizona Game and Fish Department evaluation shows bighorn sheep using wildlife overpasses along U.S. Highway 93.

We have identified a big problem - wildlife cannot move in meaningful numbers across our highways.  Some wildlife cannot cross above the highway, and some culverts that cross under our highways are not suitable for all species, like bighorn sheep.  We know that the problem is not going to change because our highways will not be going anywhere.  If anything, our transportation corridors will only be widened as we add lanes or rail lines to accommodate more traffic.  For all of the billions we invest in our roads, highways, and parking lots - with full attention paid to making sure we can fly along at 70 miles per hour, or find that perfect parking space at the grocery store - we are overdue on our obligation to repair some of the shortsighted and selfish damage we have done to the desert ecosystem.  Bridges for bighorns, or more underpasses for other wildlife would be a good step.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

How Much is Too Much Heat for Birds?

In testimony submitted in advance of California Energy Commission (CEC) evidentiary hearings scheduled for the end of this month, the CEC staff estimates that the impact of heated air above BrightSource's proposed Palen hybrid solar and natural gas project may result in as much as 2.5 times more bird deaths than at the BrightSource's Ivanpah hybrid project (I use the term "hybrid" because Ivanpah will burn nearly 525 million standard cubic feet  of natural gas, annually.  Palen will burn at least 728 million standard cubic feet of gas, annually.  Unlike photovoltaic solar projects, BrightSource's power tower design needs fossil fuels to warm up the boilers that also convert the sun's energy into electricity).
This peregrine falcon was found emaciated at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar project and later died. Note the clear singing of the feathers likely caused by the intense heat generated by BrightSource's mirrors. Photo from the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory report submitted to the California Energy Commission.
BrightSource has argued that birds are only at risk of death from solar flux (air heated by the concentration of the solar mirror field) in the air space close to the power tower where the heat is most intense.  CEC staff, however, assesses that birds are at risk from injury or death as soon as they enter the flux field, and that they do not need to reach the area close to the tower to be at risk of death.  At issue is the examination of dead birds found at BrightSource's Ivanpah project; some dead birds' feathers were singed by the heat, while others were found with no singing at all.  Early analysis suggested that the birds with singed feathers died of solar flux exposure, and dead birds with non-singed feathers may have died from collision with mirrors.  However,  CEC staff argues that dead birds with non-singed feathers found further from the power towers are also dying from exposure to heat from the solar flux based on the distribution of dead birds throughout the solar field.   This would mean that thermal stress alone, not just the singing and impairment of feathers, is leading to bird deaths.  The reason this is significant is because this would further underscore the increased threat BrightSource's technology poses to wildlife compared to other types of solar facilities, where collision is the primary threat.

The graphic above submitted by CEC staff compares the size of the Palen and Ivanpah solar towers and solar flux fields (Palen is the larger tower and field).  The color coding represents the relative thermal intensity at the Palen project; the intensity of the heat increases closer to the power tower.  CEC staff assesses that birds are at risk upon entering anywhere in the solar field and that the risk increases closer to the power tower, whereas BrightSource maintains that birds are only at risk of death or injury in the cone close to the tower (the darker red shading).

Shawn Smallwood, an expert on bird mortality at renewable energy projects, submitted testimony that the Palen hybrid project could incur as many as 10,787 birds per year (at an 80% confidence interval) based on preliminary data from Ivanpah and a study of bird mortality at the smaller Solar One in Dagget during the 1980s.  Mr. Smallwood also critiques BrightSource's proposal to use various technologies in an attempt to deter birds from coming close to the Palen project, such as the use of lasers, balloons and an untested means of disorienting the magnetic field of birds.  As Mr. Smallwood notes, "[a]nother approach with just as much sense would be to cut off one or both wings of birds so that they cannot fly at all."  Discussion at the evidentiary hearings this month may also examine whether or not BrightSource can curtail operations of the Palen project during peak bird migration months or when migratory birds are nearby, but BrightSource itself has pointed out that this would be infeasible because financially and because the project takes too long to power down.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Line: A Horse Following the Cart

Southern California Edison (SCE) is suggesting that interconnection of Abengoa's Mojave Solar project is the primary reason it needs to build the nearly 75 mile Coolwater-Lugo transmission line through the Lucerne Valley, according to the Daily Press, even though Abengoa told the California Energy Commission (CEC) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2010 that these transmission lines would not be necessary.   Misrepresenting the need for new transmission lines during the CEC and BLM review of the project would have allowed Abengoa to downplay the costs and environmental impacts associated with approving the project.  The Coolwater-Lugo transmission line is likely to cost ratepayers at least 509 million dollars, and bring bulldozers and transmission towers to mostly undisturbed desert.

Without the Abengoa Mojave Solar project as an excuse,  SCE probably could address other distribution needs - such as relieving the transmission bottleneck at Kramer Junction - by upgrading existing lines, or building new lines along existing transmission corridors.  Alternatively, Abengoa could sell its electricity to LADWP, which also has transmission lines near the project site.

Abengoa Gambling on Transmission Approval

Abengoa may have misrepresented the need for new transmission when it sought approval from the CEC and BLM for its Mojave Solar project.  According to a document submitted by SCE to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2011, Abengoa told SCE that it may not be able to complete the Mojave Solar project without SCE's new transmission line.   However, in documents submitted to the CEC in 2009 and 2010, Abengoa identified upgrades to existing transmission lines as sufficient to deliver power to Pacific Gas and Electric (PGE) - the northern California utility that agreed to purchase power from the Mojave Solar project - and specifically denied that the Coolwater-Lugo line would be necessary (see page 92 of the CEC's final decision - PDF).  Although power from the Abengoa Mojave Solar project is destined for northern California, SCE owns the transmission lines that will connect the project to the grid.
Abengoa and SCE on Record

The screenshot below is from page 92 of the CEC's September 2010 final decision on the Abengoa Mojave Solar project (AMS).  It states that Abengoa (the applicant) told the CEC that it could meet its obligations to PGE without the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line. 


The next two screenshots are from  a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) document recording statements from SCE and Abengoa that the Mojave Solar project is not viable without the Coolwater-Lugo transmission project.  This document was issued by FERC in March 2011, but based on submissions from SCE and Abengoa from late 2010 and early 2011.  FERC ruled in favor of allowing SCE to pass along the costs of the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line to ratepayers.  The Coolwater-Lugo line is the delivery "network upgrade" portion of the "South of Kramer" project.  (FERC Docket EL11-10)

 

Abengoa filed the following document with the CEC in early 2010, indicating that despite transmission congestion, it could proceed with the Mojave Solar project by upgrading existing transmission infrastructure.


According to the CEC's final decision from September 2010,  the CEC acknowledged that the Abengoa Mojave Solar project would create a burden on existing transmission lines.  The document indicates - based on testimony from Abengoa - that the company chose "alternative 2," which would mostly involve upgrades to existing transmission infrastructure and participating in a congestion management program that would curtail the project's electricity delivery when existing lines were overloaded.

Probably because Abengoa signaled that the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line was not necessary for it to meet its obligations to PGE, the BLM also issued a Finding of No Significant Impacts (FONSI) approving the solar project's interconnection to existing infrastructure.   The BLM did not analyze the impacts of building the Coolwater-Lugo line when it reviewed the Abengoa solar project, but now SCE is suggesting the line is necessary to deliver the power to PGE.  If Abengoa had identified the Coolwater-Lugo line as necessary when the project was initially being reviewed, the new transmission line would have been analyzed as a connected action.

It is likely Abengoa will have to curtail generation during peak periods if the Coolwater-Lugo line is not built, but Abengoa knew this when it testified to the CEC that no new transmission lines were necessary to build the project.  If the company was gambling that the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line would be approved, it seems to have done so at great risk to its investors and was disingenuous toward California and Federal stakeholders.

At this point, SCE's use of the Abengoa Mojave Solar project as a key reason for building the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line is inconsistent with facts presented to the CEC and BLM.  SCE should either eliminate the Abengoa Mojave Solar project from its rationale (correcting the record with FERC and the California Public Utilities Commission), or Abengoa should petition the CEC to amend its initial approval.  Most likely, neither will happen and SCE will pass along millions of dollars of cost to ratepayers that was never supposed to be necessary, and destroy pristine desert.

Other Alternatives Available

SCE has examined eight other action alternatives to building the Coolwater-Lugo line, but it has ruled all of them out because they do not meet its objectives or would cost the utility company too much money.  SCE cited the need to connect the Abengoa Mojave Solar project as a reason to rule out six of the eight alternatives.

Alternatives include re-wiring existing transmission lines between Kramer Junction and Hesperia (Lugo), installing new transmission lines and towers between Kramer Junction and Hesperia, or building new transmission lines between Kramer Junction and the Antelope Valley (Llano).  All of these options could utilize existing transmission corridors.

SCE also claims the need to connect other unidentified large renewable energy projects as a reason to build the Coolwater-Lugo line.  At this time, there are no solar energy zones in the vicinity of Lugo and Coolwater substations.  Any wind projects between northern Lucerne Valley and Barstow would likely conflict with the Departments of Defense's flight and radar testing programs.  Moreover, the Granite Wind project near Apple Valley was cancelled, probably in part because of golden eagles in the area.  So, other than the Abengoa Mojave Solar project, there is no identifiable and timely need to connect other large projects to the grid.

SCE also cites the need to serve electricity to a growing Victor Valley as a reason to build the project.  Although SCE does not offer specifics, it also does not suggest alternatives for meeting this demand.  Smaller solar projects are being built in the Victor Valley that can serve local demand, and energy conservation and rooftop solar can help offset the need for an expensive new transmission line.

Abengoa and SCE are betting on a regulatory system that prioritizes industry profit above the need for a sustainable and smart renewable energy future.  Abengoa seems to be confused regarding its need for new transmission lines, and SCE seems eager to profit from new transmission lines.  Hopefully California and Federal regulators will wise up and demand a more efficient and sustainable alternative to the Coolwater-Lugo transmission line.

If Abengoa cannot deliver the project's energy to PGE, then perhaps it can re-negotiate its power purchase agreement and sell the energy to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).  According to documents submitted by Abengoa to CEC in 2009, a 500kv LADWP transmission line runs next to the Abengoa Mojave Solar project and interconnection could occur without the extensive (and expensive) upgrades required by SCE and PGE.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

First Solar Begins Ecosystem Destruction in Ivanpah

First Solar has begun construction on the 2.6 square mile Stateline Solar project - one of the company's two additional solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley - after a judge turned down a request for an injunction by the Defenders of Wildlife.   First Solar is also expected to begin bulldozing desert habitat for the Silver State South project, which will destroy over 3.7 square miles of tortoise habitat on the Nevada side of the Ivanpah Valley.  Both projects will destroy some of the best quality desert tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert and, more insidiously, likely sever a habitat corridor linking separate populations of the tortoise.
A tractor begins clearing intact desert habitat for First Solar's Stateline project in the Ivanpah Valley.  In the initial phase of construction, the project has already displaced at least 16 desert tortoises, including one that was pushed out of its burrow by a bulldozer and happened to survive.  Photo from construction monitoring reports.
Tortoises Lose Key Habitat

According to construction monitoring reports,  First Solar has already translocated at least 16 tortoises - 8 adults and 8 juveniles - from the first phase of construction, which may be an area of approximately 500-700 acres (the final environmental impact statement indicated "zone 1" of construction would be 509 acres, although the current Notice to Proceed covers 693 acres).   Among the 16 tortoises,  one happened to survive being "unearthed" by a bulldozer, and only noticed by a monitor after the tractor had passed.  The incident is a testament to the likelihood that some tortoises - especially juveniles - are missed by pre-construction surveys and will be killed during the course of construction.

The first phase appears to be an area of desert habitat closer to the Ivanpah Dry Lake bed, which would typically support fewer tortoises compared to the other portions of the Stateline Solar site, so we may see a higher density of tortoises displaced by the next phases of construction.  According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Stateline project, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates as many as 37 adult tortoises may be impacted by the project, although many more juveniles are expected to be displaced or killed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimate may not count tortoises that are "passively relocated" during construction.  In other words, if a tortoise is found walking into the construction area, it will simply be placed outside of the new tortoise fence that excludes the animals from the habitat that is now being destroyed.  This can lead some tortoises to pace along the fence and die of heat stress, or place them at higher risk of predation if they no longer have access to a burrow on the other side of the fence.   At least one tortoise has been found pacing the new tortoise fence at Stateline.
This map from the Fish and Wildlife Service shows how the Primm area of the Ivanpah Valley is a natural bottleneck in tortoise habitat connecting two populations (from north to south).  The construction of the Stateline and Silver State South solar projects (brown footprints in the map) will essentially cut off this connectivity and potentially rob the species of genetic exchange necessary to maintain resilience.
As construction of the Stateline Solar project displaces or kills tortoises on site, arguably the worst impact will evolve over time as tortoises lose a key wildlife corridor that currently allows genetic exchange across populations of the species.  The Stateline and Silver State South projects are being built in a natural bottleneck in the Ivanpah Valley at the California and Nevada border.  Suitable tortoise habitat was already limited at the narrowest point near Primm, Nevada.  After First Solar's projects are built, the corridor will not support a full desert tortoise home range through the length of the bottleneck, contrary to best management practices and guidelines set forth in the Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan and discussed in the Bureau of Land Management's Solar Energy Development Policy.   The map above shows how the two First Solar projects limit habitat connectivity to a narrow sliver just east of the Silver State project (shown in light green). 

A view of the desert that will be destroyed by First Solar for the Stateline Solar project, as photographed from Metamorphic Hill.
Intricate Web of Wildlife Being Undone

Beyond tortoises, the construction activity has begun to destroy and displace other wildlife dependent upon, and critical to the vitality of this corner of the desert.  Construction activity likely forced at least one kit fox den to be abandoned, and another active kit fox den with pups is likely to be disturbed in a future phase of construction.   A burrow is now being monitored after crews discovered recent sign of use by western burrowing owls; no matter where the owls are now, there will not have a burrow to return to next year.   The first phase of construction is also impacting an area with the highest density of pink funnel lily, a rare desert wildflower.

Construction crews also found a dead Wilson's warbler and black-throated sparrow.  What is not clear is how they were killed - of natural causes, by construction activities, or by the nearby BrightSource Ivanpah Solar project.  If the latter, this may argue for extending the avian and bat mortality surveys beyond the perimeter of the Ivanpah Solar project. 

The rich diversity of wildlife being displaced or killed in the Ivanpah Valley is a stark counterpoint to the arguments put forward by industry that the desert is a wasteland, and a testament to the qualities that make the desert worth protecting.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

BrightSource Underperforming; Adds Fossil Fuels

The California Energy Commission (CEC) last week signaled support for BrightSource Energy's request to increase natural gas use at the Ivanpah Solar project to nearly 525 million standard cubic feet each year to help heat steam when the sun is not shining.   BrightSource's request to burn more natural gas underscores the difficulty the company has had with its experimental power tower project, even as the company proposes building the even larger Palen Solar project east of Joshua Tree National Park.  The difficulties at Ivanpah - increased fossil fuel use, impacts on birds and bats, and poor operational performance - undermine the company's argument that the CEC should approve Palen because of the project's proposed renewable energy and storage benefits.
The photo and text above were submitted by CEC staff as part of a supplemental staff assessment in the Palen Solar project proceeding regarding glare.  The Caltrans Aeronautics Division Chief was also part of the flight, and the flight crew noted that the glare was "excessive," "painful" and compromised vision.  Note that Unit 2 does not to appear be operational during this flight in early May.
According to supplemental analysis submitted by CEC staff for the Palen Solar project, the Ivanpah multifuel project was only online for a fraction of the anticipated capacity (see chart below) from January to March 2014.  Although these statistics were meant to provide context for the project's impacts on wildlife, they could also suggest that the overall ratio of natural gas and solar energy inputs could be skewed toward the fossil fuels if natural gas was used to keep steam warm while the company struggled to synchronize its mirrors.  According to the CEC's Renewable Portfolio Standard Eligibility Guidebook,  Ivanpah's energy generation must include no more than 2% of heat inputs from fossil fuels in order to count toward California's RPS goals.  With so many of the Ivanpah project's thousands of "heliostat" mirrors in stand-by mode for so many hours and days out of the year, it's possible that the project could surpass that 2% limit.

The chart speaks for itself.  The Ivanpah multifuel project has had a tough start and may need to burn more natural gas, despite BrightSource Energy's confidence that its technology is necessary to meet California's Renewable Portfolio Standard.
Even with only partial operational success in early 2014, incidental and preliminary biological surveys found hundreds of dead birds and bats at the Ivanpah multifuel project, killed either in the solar flux (superheated air above the field of mirrors) or collision with facility structures.  As a biologist noted in testimony submitted on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, it is likely that many more birds were killed but their carcasses were not found during the partial searches, or scavengers removed the dead birds and bats before they could be discovered in searches.  Biologists are still working to determine the full extent of the power towers' impacts on wildlife.

Once again we have to ask ourselves what we get in return for this sacrifice of intact desert wildlands.  In the case of Ivanpah, we have a multi-billion dollar hybrid solar/natural gas plant that has destroyed 5.6 square miles of prime tortoise habitat, and now burns and batters hundreds - and perhaps thousands - of birds and bats each year.   It would be much wiser to double down on renewable energy and storage technologies that do not use our treasured landscapes as testing grounds and instead promote a more sustainable grid, such as Solar City's batteries paired with rooftop solar, or UC Riverside's solar parking lots and battery storage. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Industry Influence Limits Discussion Space

Protecting intact ecosystems from unnecessary destruction should be considered a core objective for  people concerned with the fate of the planet and our ability to live sustainably, yet the climate crisis has prompted various facets of the energy industry - from fossil fuel interests, to utility companies, wind turbine manufacturers, wind project developers, solar panel makers, and solar panel installers - to manipulate how we discuss the solution to the climate crisis.  Just as any industry tends to lobby and influence the parameters of debates that might affect their profits (e.g., the tobacco industry and public health, and the gun industry and gun ownership regulation) the energy industry will similarly seek to influence how we define and pursue sustainability.  So it is imperative that environmentalists participate in this discussion with a critical eye, questioning not just the information they are given, but also questioning the boundaries placed on the discussion and how those boundaries are established.

A construction marker on the site of the Ivanpah Solar project, before BrightSource Energy bulldozed 5.6 square miles of intact desert habitat.
Within the national debate about how to increase renewable energy generation, industry attempts to define the range of alternatives and the cost/benefit analysis has proven to be a problematic example of industry influence because it the parts of the renewable energy industry have exploited the public lack of knowledge to force compromise on our conservation ethic.  It is particularly insidious because of the partnerships developed between the renewable energy industry and the environmental community to present a solution to climate change and combat the propaganda of the fossil fuel companies.  Working with the renewable energy industry to achieve shared objectives is one thing, but allowing the industry to dictate how those objectives are achieved is quite another.  We have to recognize the profit motive of the industry partners we work with so that the solution to the climate crisis we implement is guided by a conservation ethic, and not any single industry's bottom line. 

The glare of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar's flux and power towers can be seen from over 9 miles away, across the Ivanpah Valley.  The project was built on 5.6 square miles of some of the highest quality desert tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert.  BrightSource was warned by biologists that this was a bad place to build a large solar project, but the company went ahead anyways.

Limiting the Boundaries of Compromise

As an example of how the industry has influenced the national discussion, someone I know and respect as a person suggested that arguing against utility-scale solar projects that destroy intact desert habitat ignores the "big picture" in favor of avoiding local impacts.   In other words, my passion for protecting the desert is going to prevent efforts to rescue the planet - including the desert wildlands that I want to protect - because I oppose companies like BrightSource Energy mowing down 5.6 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat to build the ecological disaster that is the Ivanpah Solar project, or Bechtel bulldozing a swath of desert that is home to burrowing owls, kit fox, and bighorn sheep for the Soda Mountain Solar project.

What troubles me is that this person's argument in favor of utility-scale solar projects replacing intact desert wildlands focuses on the need for a "compromise," and suggested that perhaps more projects like BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project must be allowed to move forward.  Compromise itself is wise and a necessary part of our everyday lives, but in the case of building utility-scale solar in the desert,  the parameters of the negotiation that lead to compromise are almost always defined and skewed by those with power and omit the alternatives that are more sustainable.   Environmentalists have sought to convince BrightSource and First Solar to move projects to less destructive locations, and for regulators to emphasize distributed generation, such as solar on rooftops and over parking lots.  Some environmentalists even supported the establishment of "solar energy zones" in the desert in an effort to compromise with the industry and limit impacts to areas away from some of the most important wildlife habitat. 



Germany set a record in May for meeting half of its energy needs with solar, even though it barely has the solar resources that much of the U.S. enjoys.  Most importantly, the vast majority of Germany's solar panels are installed on rooftops.
The industry has generally ignored these attempts for true compromise.  Companies continue to propose and build projects on intact desert outside the "solar energy zones."  The industry has also filed comments with the California Energy Commission and Department of Interior arguing that we cannot meet renewable energy portfolio standards without giving the industry wide access to desert wildlands, building destructive projects far from our cities, and tolerating the loss of important wildlife habitat.   In other words, compromise can only take place where it makes sense for the company's bottom line.

When these companies' talking points reach the press, the story is portrayed as "green vs. green,"  or environmentalists fighting solar companies.  What these talking points and press stories tend to ignore is that there are practical alternatives to destroying remote desert wildlands.  Just look at the thousands of megawatts of large-scale solar projects built on already-disturbed lands and closer to human population centers, or the thousands of megawatts of solar panels installed on rooftops and over parking lots across the country.   If your definition of "compromise" puts the destruction of desert before these other alternatives, BrightSource Energy's CEO thanks you. 

Wildlife Body Count 

The energy industry also preys upon ecological illiteracy.  During my recent conversation, the person I respect asked me how many birds die each week flying into buildings, probably trying to share the lens through which they view the evidence that the Ivanpah Solar project has burned and battered hundreds of birds in its short operational lifespan.  This is the same tactic that the American Wind Energy Association uses to deflect criticism of wildlife impacts - "don't worry, other things kill far more birds."  Even if replacing fossil fuels with solar power towers reduced the net total of bird deaths, the unique impacts of each solar power tower project have to be evaluated on their own merits.  Setting up a solar power tower that attracts and then burns birds along a migratory flyway is not a good idea.  Neither is extirpating a local raptor population.  Any project can have cascading effects on an ecosystem; it's not simply a numbers game.   And from the standpoint of forging a renewable energy path, shrugging off wildlife impacts by finding a higher statistic is simply compromising on our conservation ethic.  Plenty of other forces in society are already quite good at that; it is depressing to think that the environmental community would do so, as well.  Especially when smarter alternatives and locations are practical and available. 


The person I had a conversation with has remarked that far more tortoises have died by natural predators - such as raptors and coyotes - than from the construction of solar facilities in the desert, trying to put Ivanpah Solar's negative impacts on the tortoise in a more favorable perspective.   They have suggested that tortoises may even be better off given BrightSource's investment in caring for the tortoises it took from burrows before it sent in the bulldozers.  BrightSource could pay for tortoises to stay in Las Vegas penthouses, but at the end of the day habitat loss is one of the most significant threats to the species.

This takes us back to the industry's definition of "compromise."  In the case of BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar project and First Solar's Silver State South, compromise has translated into these companies shaving a few acres off of a project that replaces a wildlife corridor, or  shelling out a couple million dollars to house or care for tortoises it displaced in the first place.   Such compromises are a long-term disadvantage to wildlife and a short-term symbolic victory for the company's public relations staff.  If oil companies paid for private polar bear nurseries to offset the species' shrinking arctic habitat, would we be okay with more oil drilling? Probably not.

We cannot allow the industry to limit our renewable energy future to the current paradigm, where we sacrifice more and more wildlands to carry the burden of hosting and electrifying all of our material needs.  Instead, the discussion should center on how our transition to renewable energy can enable a paradigm shift in how we conserve and consume electricity, and where it is generated.  Climate change is not the first - nor will it be the last - sustainability crisis that we face.  The human footprint will now include the ever-expanding renewable energy industry.  It is up to us to make sure we minimize the regrets future generations will have about this path.  We can start by prioritizing energy efficiency, renewable energy in our cities, and on already-disturbed lands.  The first "compromise" we made should not have been to allow BrightSource to bulldoze important wildlife habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Sierra Club Joins Opposition to Palen Solar Project

The Sierra Club filed a petition this month opposing BrightSource Energy's plans to build the nearly six square mile Palen Solar power project in the Colorado Desert between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe, California.  Although the California Energy Commission (CEC) denied the Sierra Club's petition to formally participate in evidentiary hearings regarding the project, the Sierra Club's public opposition adds to the persistent environmental concerns expressed by desert conservationists, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Basin and Range Watch.

[click on image to expand] The Palen Solar power project would blanket nearly 6 square miles of Colorado Desert habitat with thousands of giant mirrors and two power towers taller than the Washington Monument.  Based on initial observations of other solar project in the desert, the Palen Solar project is likely to attract and kill a significant number of migratory and resident birds.
What makes the proposed Palen Solar project remarkable is its solar power tower technology, which appears to burn insects and birds alive, according to biologists and the study of a similar power plant design from the 1980s. BrightSource and NRG's Ivanpah Solar project is believed to be responsible for a mounting wildlife death toll in the northeastern Mojave Desert, and biologists are just beginning to study how the solar power technology proves fatal to avian species. 

A screenshot from Avian Mortality at a Solar Energy Power Plant, a study by Michael McCrary and others at a solar power tower plant in California that found these birds burned by the super-heated air generated by the mirrors focusing the suns rays at central points above ground.   The study focused on a small 10 megawatt solar power tower project on 72 acres near Barstow, CA.  BrightSource's Palen Solar project would be many times larger.

The field of thousands of giant mirrors that would be installed at the proposed Palen site would also pose a collision hazard to birds, which may confuse the perfect reflective surfaces for the sky or a body of water.  Preliminary investigations suggest water birds from far away have been led astray by the Genesis and Desert Sunlight solar projects - not far from where BrightSource plans to build the Palen Solar project -believing that the field of solar panels were a body of water.

A brown pelican was found dead at the Genesis Solar power project, far from the nearest water habitat.  The Palen Solar project would be built near the Genesis project and likely exacerbate the threat to all avian species in the Mojave Desert, including birds that seek out rare riparian habitat.
If this is the future of solar, it is merely the repeat of an ugly system that continues to pit the needs of human society against wildlife and wildlands.  Our next step into the future of energy generation and consumption doesn't have to look like this, especially considering that renewable energy technology can be scaled and adapated to already-disturbed lands and other spaces in our city.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wildlife Viewing at the Preserve this Weekend

If you are free on Saturday, June 7, head out to the Mojave National Preserve for an opportunity to learn from wildlife experts and a chance to see bighorn sheep and other desert denizens.  


I had the fortune of visiting the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx last month, and the even greater fortune of viewing desert bighorn sheep along the rocky slopes that meet the Soda Dry Lake.  Although the landscape is mostly dry, natural springs in the area provide a critical water source for the sheep and habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub.  I would highly recommend heading out to this event early, and consider camping in the Preserve that night if you want to prolong your escape into the desert!

These bighorn sheep were photographed just above the Desert Studies Center, which lies in the Mojave National Preserve at Zzyzx.