Saturday, December 26, 2009

Solar Power Siting in the Desert Not Yet Matured

California's next gold rush is in full swing as energy speculators scout out new sites for utility-scale solar energy construction. Neither the energy companies, environmentalists, or policy makers seem to have set an efficient process for finding suitable locations for the competing demands, reflecting the immaturity of the solar rush.  It's clear that the different stakeholders in the solar rush have not fully considered their own position, let alone the potential compromises that are needed for a positive outcome.

In a recent editorial, the Los Angeles Times criticized Senator Dianne Feinstein's proposed California Desert Protection Act 2010 (CDPA 2010) for not including enough incentives for solar energy development, declaring that CDPA 2010 would set aside too much desert land when solar energy development should be given a higher priority.  Although the editorial acknowledges that the goals of renewable energy and conservation are not mutually exclusive, the LA Times fails to recognize the demands being placed on the Mojave Desert by off-road recreation use, military training, and population growth.  If the solar rush is not tempered by legislative efforts to set aside additional desert habitat for conservation, the dozens of solar energy applications would fragment the Mojave desert with vast areas of industrialization, impacting wildlife migration, and habitat quality.  The LA Times also appears to downplay the value of scenic vistas, forgetting that these vistas present a historical value unique to American heritage and the sense of wilderness that are no longer commonplace.

However, conservationists must also avoid the NIMBY (not in my backyard) perspective and focus on preserving the most ecologically and historically valuable land and promote construction on less valuable habitat or--better yet--disturbed land close to population centers.  This has not prevented myopic calls for environmental protection in order to stop renewable energy development.   On 22 December posted an article regarding opposition to a proposed solar energy plant in the Panoche Valley of San Benito County.  The development would not be in the Mojave Desert but on ranch land near the Interstate 5 corridor, and local environmental groups, including the Audubon society note that the area may be home to the endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox.

View Panoche Valley in a larger map

What the Audubon Society chapters opposing the development must consider is where in their area they would support utility scale solar development if not in the Panoche Valley.  If prairie habitat is at a premium and precludes solar energy on the valley floor, can developers construct wind turbines on the surrounding hills?  Experience in the Mojave Desert has shown environmental harm is unavoidable, to include negative impact on desert tortoises and the destruction of habitat.  All stakeholders -- the policymakers, environmentalists, and energy developers--must consider the broader implications during the EIS and siting process -- the value of renewable energy, and the holistic impact on the affected endangered species, remaining habitat, the quality of the habitat being directly affected, etc.  Environmental destruction alone is not sufficient reasoning to oppose renewable energy development.

As noted in a previous post regarding the Beacon Solar Energy development near California City, the developers do not have their formula figured out yet, either.  Solar energy developers need to implement dry cooling technology that uses less of the Mojave Desert's scarce underground water supply, and choose locations of low habitat quality to minimize environmental impact.  In the case of Beacon Solar Energy, the habitat is of low quality, but the developer is applying to use water cooling technology that would put a strain on water resources.  Compare this to the Ivanpah Solar Energy project, which will use efficient dry cooling technology, but would be built on higher quality habitat.

Senator Feinstein's CDPA 2010 bill encourages solar energy developers to consolidate their speculation to lands already being studied for solar energy use under the Federal Solar EIS process for renewable energy.  If the Federal Solar EIS process can balance the long-term need for conservation with the near term need for renewable energy--with decisions supported by science rather than politics-- that forum would focus what is currently a frenzied rush for open land into a focused and reasonable effort to preserve wilderness and counteract global warming.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mojave Desert Land Trust Persevering Toward Quail Mountain Goal

The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is persevering towards its goal of raising enough funds to purchase 955 acres adjacent to the northwestern portion of Joshua Tree National Park, deemed an integral wildlife migration corridor.  The area likely hosts bobcat, desert tortoise, and bighorn sheep.

MDLT's land stewardship and preservation efforts represent true grassroots efforts to conserve some of the most ecologically sensitive and important Mojave Desert habitat.   The MDLT successfully raised funds and purchased land at Nolina Peak, also near Joshua Tree, in 2008.  MDLT's efforts dovetail well with Senator Dianne Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act of 2010, which includes a proposed "Sand to Snow National Monument" that essentially extends preservation from western Joshua Tree National Park into the San Bernardino National Forest.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

California Desert Protection Act of 2010

Senator Feinstein's office released more details on her proposal to create two national monuments in the Mojave Desert on her official site.  In the press release, the Senator lays out policy implementation that balances the need to preserve desert wilderness,  and scenic vistas along the iconic and Historic Route 66, and reconciling this with the need to make the renewable energy siting question more efficient. The California Desert Protection Act of 2010 summary also lays out plans to designate an additional 250,000 acres of wilderness area on lands previously designated as wilderness study areas.

The plan is already receiving some negative attention, however, most notably from environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in a New York Times interview.  Kennedy also happens to have a financial stake in solar energy development as an investor in Brightsource Energy.  In the interview Kennedy slams Feinstein for taking "land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review."  Presumably Kennedy is referring to the same scientific review process that is green-lighting Brightsource Energy's Ivanpah project, despite the fact that it will endanger a unique desert tortoise population and mow over several rare plant species.  The economic climate is such that a "proper scientific process" that involves layers of local, state, and federal bureaucracy is likely to favor near-term economic development over the long-term preservation of America's natural heritage and dwindling wilderness.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Feinstein Proposes 2 national monuments in Mojave Desert

According to an article in the LA Times (link below), Senator Dianne Feinstein revealed more details regarding her proposed legislation that would set aside additional Mojave Desert land for conservation as Mojave Trails National Monument and Sand to Snow National Monument.  The legislation would also establish current off-road vehicle areas as permanent.  Feinstein estimated that passage of the legislation would occur in late 2010 at the earliest, and the LA Times noted that the territory would include 19 areas sought after by energy companies for solar and wind development.

Based on the rough map posted with the LA Times article, it's not clear if the Ivanpah or Solar Energy One developments would be impacted by the proposed legislation. Separate legislation on solar energy by the Senator would add incentives for energy companies to consolidate "disturbed land" that is better suited for solar energy since it has less biological value.  Disturbed land is generally harder for energy companies to use, however, because they would have to negotiate with several neighboring land owners to accumulate enough land for their massive developments, which span thousands of acres.  You can read more about  solar energy in the Mojave Desert at other posts in the Archive, as well. More to come...

Feinstein to introduce legislation to establish 2 national monuments in Mojave Desert --

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Got Water?

Finding a location for industrial growth in the Mojave that provides the most public benefit with the least impact is always the key challenge, and one discussed in other postings on Mojave Desert Blog.  It's unfortunate, then, that the Beacon Solar Energy Project proposed near California City in the Northwestern Mojave is running into a seemingly obvious hurdle.  The project's proposed site is perfect from a biological standpoint -- the land was previously used for agriculture and has little value as habitat.  Developing this land (approximately 2,000 acres) would not deprive endangered species of key habitat but would provide up to 250 MW of renewable energy.

So what's the hold-up?  Water.  The developers want to used cooling technology that requires vast amounts of water.  If built as proposed, the California Energy Commission estimates that the solar project would use 1400 acre feet per year, which is equivalent to about 456 million gallons.

Ironically, other solar energy developers looking to build in the Mojave Desert are applying dry cooling technology, but unfortunately chose more ecologically sensitive land.  Dry cooling technology in solar plants is more expensive because it requires that the power plant divert some of the produced energy to run the dry cooling process (basically fans that cool the liquids heated up during the solar process), but saves millions of gallons of water. The developers for the Beacon Solar project near California City should either switch to dry cooling or give up the land -- which is prime solar development land-- for another developer to consider.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Astronomy in the Mojave

Another resource taken for granted in the Mojave Desert -- clear night skies.

Check out this photograph taken outside of Victorville that captures a Geminid meteorite as it crosses the night sky above the Mojave, as posted here.

Photo belongs to Wally Pacholka at

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mojave Desert 2020

One of the goals of the National Environmental Policy Act is to consider the long-term effects on our country's natural resources, and the Environmental Impact Statement process being carried out for multiple utility-scale solar energy projects in the desert should account for the long-term impact of each project under consideration.   Given that the current applications for use of desert habitat in California total over 500,000 acres, the long-term impact on the Mojave Desert as a place to live, visit or enjoy will be considerable even if only a fraction of these are approved.

Consider the case of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generation System (ISEGS) in the Northeastern portion of the Mojave Desert as an example.  Although the footprint of the site is not all that large (approximately 4,000 acres) considering that ISEGS will actually provide much needed renewable energy, the affect the site has on the Mojave as a whole will be larger.  Some of the effects of the construction and operation of the site are listed below, and should be grounds for considering less critical alternative sites in California.

1.) Habitat quality -- the Ivanpah site would be constructed on high quality desert habitat rich in species diversity.  Given that there are more suitable locations for construction that have lower quality habitat (and thus impact fewer species), granting Ivanpah unrestricted right of way on their proposed site would unnecessarily deprive the Mojave of key habitat.

2.) Endangered Species --  Brightsource Energy, the utility company that wants to build on the public land in Ivanpah, pointed out that the proposed site is not listed as critical desert tortoise (an endangered species) habitat.  While this is true, they overlook the fact that the desert tortoises living on the proposed site belong to a genetically unique desert tortoise population (at least 25 desert tortoises spotted on the site to date).   Building on the site would further deprive (the species has already experienced a 9% decline since 2005) the Mojave of even more desert tortoises that are needed to maintain a healthy desert tortoise population throughout the desert.   The site is also home to several species of rare plants, and plants that may not be listed as rare because of bureaucratic process, but are certainly do not have expansive populations. 

3.) Future Development -- The EIS for the Ivanpah did not properly consider the impact of the ISEGS site on future development in the Ivanpah valley.  If ISEGS begins operating in Ivanpah, there is a good chance that other energy companies will seek to develop in the area and have similar impacts to habitat and endangered species.

Other long-term impacts that should be considered apply generally to any siting application in the Mojave:

4.) Fragmentation of the Mojave -- Without careful consideration the California Energy Commission and BLM may end up approving right-of-way for multiple large projects that ultimately break up what is now relatively intact wilderness.  Construction proposals ranging from Ivanpah, Amboy, Joshua Tree and Hinckley could disrupt the broader Mojave ecosystem by a.) disturbing Bighorn sheep migration, b.) reducing desert tortoise populations (direct impact, or impact through increased raven populations), c.) depletion of valuable ground aquifers to meet water demands of the sites and d.) introduction of invasive plant species.

5.) Loss of View sheds -- Inherent in the habitat fragmentation will be the loss of several view sheds, or points in the Mojave where Americans can enjoy the undisturbed wilderness and vistas as they appeared to American Indians, Spanish settlers, miners, and the economic migrants (or Okies of Grapes of Wrath Fame) of the 1930s.  The Mojave means more to America than desert tortoises and sage brush, it manifests a legacy of shared experiences that have shaped our country.  Paving over the Mojave without consideration of the impact of each individual site will deprive future generations of access to this shared history.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bighorn Mountain Wilderness


Solar Site Debate Continues

The BrightSource Energy Company and various environmental groups continue to contest the impact that the proposed Ivanpah solar site will have on Mojave Desert wilderness. A cursory review of BrightSource's testimony to the California Energy Commission (CEC) argues that the designated location for the solar plant is not listed as premium Desert Tortoise habitat. This claim likely rests on dated information from much broader territory surveys and ignores the biological surveys conducted on the designated site over the past year, which have in fact identified significant biological resources, including at least 25 desert tortoises.

In the testimony, Brightsource proposes several major revisions to the proposed compliance measures, which the CEC proposed in order to better protect the natural resources that belong to the public during construction and operation of the site. BrightSource proposes eliminating the BLM as a certifying official in some of the biological compliance standards set forth by the CEC. Instead of the BLM, which has local staff that are more attuned to the resources and conditions at the site, the company proposes that the Sacramento-based Compliance Project Manager (CPM) certify most compliance efforts. The revisions proposed by the company weaken the BLM's role and leave it with nothing more than "review and comment" duties. Questions of biological resources on BLM land should be addressed by BLM, and thus compliance measures should also be determined and certified by BLM.

A review of the company's proposed revisions also appear to weaken the CEC's proposed Desert Tortoise habitat mitigation plan, as well as proposals to preserve very rare plant species located on the site, to include the Mojave Milkweed.

You can find the company's documents posted on this site ("Applicant's Testimony"), as well as responses posted by environmental groups at this site.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Preliminary Environmental Data for Pisgah Solar Project

You can review preliminary data submitted by Stirling Energy Systems (SES) for its application to build a solar power plant just west of Pisgah, CA along the I-40 and Route 66. The PDF file is listed under "Applicant's Documents" on this California Energy Commission site. Some of the land requested from BLM may have been donated to BLM by the Wildlands Conservancy (former "Catellus" lands). This begs the question, can the Federal Government properly steward land intended for conservation, which presumably was the intent of the Wildlands Conservancy's acquisition and donation.

What I do like about the site is that it's located relatively close to disturbed agricultural land and probably will not impact some of the Mojave's more impressive view sheds. This makes the project more agreeable, especially when compared to the impact of the Ivanpah site in the Eastern Mojave. That said, it will be interesting to see the full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for this Pisgah site, which is scheduled to be released early next year.

According to the preliminary biological study funded by the applicant, however, there are Desert Tortoises, Mojave Fringe-Toed Lizard, and Loggerhead Shrike active on the proposed site. Because the Fringe-Toed Lizard's preferred habitat is so unique (sandy areas, particularly in the vicinity of lava formations), BLM and CEC should study and consider how much of this habitat can be devoted to energy projects while still setting aside enough to protect and rehabilitate the endangered specie's population. As for the Desert Tortoise, these populations can be relocated but this begs two significant considerations: 1.) Relocations have historically resulted in the loss of many tortoises, and 2.) Can the tortoise population recover and grow if we continue to sell away its habitat and relocate more tortoises to the dwindling remaining suitable habitat? It seems that the BLM's decision to relocate tortoises carries an implicit acceptance that the tortoises' potential for recovery can be capped, although I'm not aware of any studies that have taken into account the macro demands on suitable habitat and the overall population that remaining habitat can ultimately support.