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Showing posts from 2010

A Riddle for the New Year

What is the difference between a hydropower dam that submerges vast swaths of public land to feed our energy needs, and several massive utility-scale solar energy facilities that fragment pristine desert habitat?
Both count as "renewable energy"They will both require costly and destructive transmission linesThey drive endangered species closer to extinction and upset the health of entire ecosystemsUtility-scale solar and wind power facilities are not the "guilt free" answers to global warming.  The blessing of solar and wind is that it is scalable--we can put solar panels and wind turbines in our back yard, in the middle of cities, and on rooftops.  Until we realize this potential, we are stuck in the same destructive energy paradigm that brought us the Glen Canyon Dam, dwindling fish stocks, and submerged wilderness.  But this time the the bulls-eye will be on the Mojave Desert as bulldozers make way for fields of mirrors and solar panels.  This is not the future. …

Calico Solar Site Sold to K Road Solar LLC

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In a surprise move, Tessera Solar LLC sold its development rights on 7.2 square miles of pristine Mojave Desert habitat to K Road Solar LLC, according to an announcement on Tuesday.  Tessera Solar LLC's parent company, Ireland-based NTR, could not afford to build a solar project on the site after receiving approval from the Department of the Interior.  Tessera and NTR announced the sale on the same day that a lawsuit was filed against the Department of the Interior for improperly approving development on the Calico solar site, among 5 other projects.

The Calico solar power project site is home to at least 22 desert tortoises, a pocket of rare desert wildflowers known as white-margined beardtongue, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, and other special status species. 

K Road Solar LLC announced its intent to increase the energy yield on the site from 663 MW to 850 MW, using more photovoltaic panels instead of Stirling Engine technology proposed by Tessera.  The increase in yield could mean …

Legal Challenge Filed Against Six Solar Projects in California's Desert

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A coalition of Native American and civic groups filed a legal challenge against the Department of the Interior for approving six massive solar power projects in California's desert, alleging that the Department did not conduct adequate environmental reviews and did not properly consult with Native American tribes.  The legal challenge points to several Federal statutes that the Department of the Interior ignored in its "fast track" approval of the solar projects.  The collective intent of the statutes is to ensure that the Federal government fully considers the consequences of its proposed actions -- in this case, providing public land and taxpayer-backed financing to several energy companies so they can build on over 40 square miles of mostly pristine desert habitat and cultural landmarks.

The lawsuit challenges the Department of the Interior's review process for the following six solar power projects:
BrightSource Energy LLC's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Sy…

Measuring First Solar's Ecological Impact

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The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has completed initial biological surveys of First Solar Inc's proposed "Stateline" solar power project.   The surveys are part of the "Plan of Development," an initial step in the Department of the Interior's process for evaluating and approving projects proposed for public land.

A review of the biological resources survey completed for First Solar's Stateline solar power project reveals a rich ecology on the site consistent with surveys of other nearby project sites, and suggests the public's land in the Ivanpah Valley should be conserved rather than bulldozed. If approved, the Stateline project would destroy 3.4 square miles of pristine Mojave Desert habitat.  The company is also proposing another project next to Joshua Tree National Park, and may invest in other destructive sites.

Haven for Desert Icon
Although studies of the endangered desert tortoise conducted across the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts suggest the s…

First Solar Looking to Invest in Habitat Destruction?

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According to a Reuters article, First Solar Inc may be considering purchasing development rights for one or more of Tessera Solar LLC's projects in California's deserts.  Both of Tessera Solar's projects -- Imperial Valley and Calico--are in legal limbo and Southern California Edison withdrew its power purchase agreement from the Calico Solar power project, according to the Wall Street Journal.  If First Solar were to invest in either project, they could face significant hurdles, although the company does not seem to be shying away from projects that will severely fragment the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. 

The Calico and Imperial Solar projects may be up for grabs because Tessera Solar LLC appears unable to develop the sites with its own resources.   While Tessera Solar LLC's lack of cash and unreliable technology (Stirling "SunCatchers") are probably the biggest factors contributing to the company's doomed state, its poor choice of locations with high ec…

Desert Rain

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The Mojave Desert has been pounded by nearly 5 days of rain showers that could result in another beautiful wildflower bloom next spring.   As noted in Chris Clarke's Coyote Crossing, the downside is that invasive plants also benefit from the rains, and could lead to a bad wildfire season.  Indigenous plant species do not provide as much fuel for wildfires as some of the non-indigenous species (and are less nutritious for foraging animals like the desert tortoise), and previous rainy seasons were followed by wildfires that can wipe out acres of old-growth vegetation that will not grow back quickly.

Below are some pictures of the swollen Mojave River as it passes through Victorville, California on Wednesday.  The photographs were taken during a break in the weather, but heavy showers resumed in the Western Mojave Desert on Wednesday night.





Solar Programmatic Draft EIS Available

The Departments of Interior and Energy released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the program to establish "solar energy zones" (SEZ) in America's southwestern deserts.  The Draft EIS evaluates the SEZs and other proposed permitting policies and guidelines that would streamline the process for government approval of solar energy projects on public land.  The Solar Energy Zones proposed for California cover approximately 530 square miles, far more land than is being considered in other states.

If done correctly, the program could steer more energy development to already-disturbed lands, and away from pristine desert habitat.  However, a cursory review of the SEZs proposed for California indicates that the Department of the Interior is still considering solar energy development in areas already confirmed to be of high ecological and cultural value, such as the Pisgah area (near the proposed Calico Solar power project) and the Imperial Valley. The Chuckwalla V…

Judge Halts Tessera Solar Project

U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns granted an injunction this week that prevents Tessera Solar LLC from moving forward with its Imperial Valley Solar project in response to a lawsuit filed by the Quechan Tribe against the Department of the Interior.  The Imperial project would have destroyed over 9 square miles of Sonoran desert habitat that also held over 400 sites of cultural significance to the Quechan Tribe, including burial grounds.

Judge Burns--who was appointed to the bench by President Bush in 2003--chided the Department of the Interior  for "gliding" over its statutory responsibility to consult with the Quechan Tribal government before approving the project, which would be built on public land and would have been awarded taxpayer-backed financing.  Judge Burns' order underscored the shallow nature of what the Department presented as evidence of "consultations."  The order summarized letters that the Department sent to the Quechan Tribe, dismissing t…

Ivanpah Valley: Before And After

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Basin and Range Watch has posted photographs of the Ivanpah Valley, before and after BrightSource Energy began bulldozing old growth desert vegetation there.  I have copied a couple of the photos below, but check out the Basin and Range Watch site for a full report and aerial photos.  Sadly, these photos only represent the initial phase of construction, and several more square miles will be destroyed for the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.  During this initial phase construction workers have displaced 40 endangered desert tortoises.

You can read a previous post on another energy company's plans to add to the destruction of the Ivanpah Valley.  First Solar Inc plans to built two massive facilities on nearly 15 square miles of prime tortoise habitat-- the Stateline and Silver State solar projects.


Important Week for America's Deserts

Stay tuned this week for a few policy and legal developments that will have an impact on our southwestern deserts, including the Mojave.

1.) Solar Programmatic Draft EIS:  The Department of the Interior is expected to release the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for its program to rapidly site and permit massive solar facilities on public land, mostly in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.  Once the draft EIS is available,  probably by the end of the week, the Department of the Interior will accept public comments.  One of the key components to watch for are the boundaries of its proposed "solar energy zones," where utility-scale energy projects will be encouraged.  The initial "study zones" proposed late last year included ecologically important sites near the Cady Mountains in the Mojave, and throughout the Chuckwalla Valley in the Sonoran Desert.  Projects already approved for these areas by the Federal government and State of California threaten to displa…

California To Begin Charging For Sun Delivery

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In Governor Schwarzenegger's weekly radio address, he complained about the length of time required to permit the Sunrise Powerlink -- a two billion dollar transmission line that is intended to deliver solar energy from California's Imperial Valley to San Diego.  What he neglected to mention is that the Sunrise Powerlink will not carry energy from "green" sources, and it will cost the ratepayer more money.   Yes, utility-scale solar energy will reduce carbon emissions overall, but America's southwestern deserts--treasured for recreation, wildlife, tranquility, and our cultural heritage--will be given away to energy companies, along with taxpayers' money, ignoring a cheaper option.

Not So "Green"
The Governor boasted about his office's progress in approving nearly 5000 MW of renewable energy.  Unfortunately, most of the utility-scale projects that his office encouraged through the California Energy Commission (CEC) permitting process will bulldo…

Calico and Imperial Solar Projects in Comatose State

Dublin-based NTR has decided to hold off on the Calico and Imperial Solar power projects indefinitely.  NTR is the parent company for Tessera Solar LLC, which received approval from the California Energy Commission and Department of the Interior to build the two utility-scale solar projects--Calico and Imperial--on a combined total of over 19 square miles of public land.

According to the Irish Times, NTR did not have the financial resources available to move the projects forward, but could float stock at a later date that would bring the necessary investment to the company.  The article did not suggest a timeline for when they would reconsider moving forward with the two projects.

Citizens concerned about Tessera Solar LLC's business decisions pointed out that the Calico Solar power project would destroy prime desert tortoise habitat, killing or displacing at least 22 desert tortoises and destroying one of the few remaining populations of the rare white-margined beardtongue wildf…

First Solar, Inc Adds to Destruction of Ivanpah Ecosystem

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First Solar Inc. is proposing to build two projects in the Ivanpah Valley which will have significant cumulative impacts on plants and wildlife in the northeastern Mojave.  Although one of First Solar's projects has already received partial approval, the company's second project can expect intense opposition.

Earlier this year, BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (ISEGS) was approved for construction by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and California Energy Commission (CEC).  The ISEGS project alone will destroy 5.6 square miles and is expected to kill or displace well over 40 desert tortoises, but there are other projects planned that could continue to deprive the Ivanpah Valley of its threatened plant and wildlife. 

First Solar, Inc. is proposing to build its "Stateline" project on approximately 3.4 square miles of public land just north of the ISEGS site.  An initial study conducted by First Solar observed 27 tortoises on the site,…

Alert: Take Action for CDPA 2010

According to the latest news from Capitol Hill, the current omnibus lands bill (a combination of many proposed conservation bills into one piece of legislation) does not currently include the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (S. 2921), or any wilderness designations in California's deserts.    Senator Feinstein introduced the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010) late last year, but it has not yet been reported from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  CDPA 2010 is unlikely to be included in an omnibus lands bill until it has passed from the committee, but time is running out.

Call or e-mail Senator Feinstein's staff to urge them to work to include the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 in the final omnibus bill.  Otherwise, the chances of wilderness protection in California's deserts next year are dim.  CDPA 2010 would set aside over over 1 million acres of pristine desert for conservation, including areas along Historic Route 66, and e…

Glimmer of Hope for the Desert Bill

The U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would combine several land and water conservation bills into one package--called an omnibus bill--and putting it up for a vote before Congress concludes business at the end of the year.  Senator Feinstein's proposed California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010, S. 2921) could be a part of the omnibus bill.  If CDPA 2010 is not included, or if the omnibus bill never materializes, the proposed National Monuments in California's Mojave and Sonoran deserts may never receive protected status.

As a recap for those not familiar with the bill,  CDPA 2010 would balance conservation of natural areas and preservation of recreation opportunities by establishing:
Mojave Trails National Monument: 941,413 acres of Mojave Desert along Historic Route 66 and the southern boundary of the Mojave National Preserve.  Many of the valleys in this area were proposed for industrial development, and could still be vulnerable to destructive uses if th…

Tessera Solar LLC -- Constrained by Noisy Technology?

Tessera Solar LLC -- the company that plans to build two large solar energy projects in Southern California--uses "SunCatcher" technology that has been criticized for its high levels of noise.  Never mind the fact that Tessera Solar's two proposed sites--Calico and Imperial--would kill or displace endangered species and bulldoze cultural landmarks, once the company installs tens of thousands of "SunCatchers,"  it will quickly earn itself a reputation as a noisy neighbor, as well.

Most solar energy companies do not have the same problem that Tessera does, since other forms of concentrating solar are quieter, and photovoltaic panels being the most adaptable since you can put a few on your rooftop.  Tessera Solar LLC invented a technology that is far less pleasant to build next door, which may be why the company prefers to build in the middle of our treasured public lands.

Unfortunately, wildlife too can be disturbed by loud noises.  A study of bird life around na…

Free Next Weekend? Volunteer in the Mojave

The Mojave Desert Land Trust is holding another land restoration event in Joshua Tree National Park on 11 December.  You can volunteer by contacting their stewardship coordinator, Mizuki Seita at mizseita@gmail.com or call 760-366-0542.

More details are available on the Land Trust's website, and you can also check their calendar for other volunteer opportunities in Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve.

Rice Solar Project Tests the Definition of Wilderness

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At face value, the Rice Solar power project seems much less harmful compared to other solar projects approved by the California Energy Commission (CEC), including the destructive Ivanpah, Calico or Imperial Solar projects.  The project is proposed for about 2.5 square miles of mostly privately owned land with low quality desert habitat.  The project could result in the death or displacement of approximately 7 desert tortoises,  a smaller impact compared to the 40 desert tortoises already found at the Ivanpah Solar project site.


If it receives final approval, however, the project's small 2.5 square mile footprint will host a giant tower rising 653 feet above the ground, that could project glare comparable to half the brightness of the sun, according to CEC analysis.  The tower and its glare will be visible from 737 square miles surrounding the project.   The project will be visible from four separate wilderness areas.

The Presiding Member's Proposed Decision -- which is the seco…

CEC Reinstates Calico Project, but Hurdles Loom

The California Energy Commission (CEC) reinstated its approval of Tessera Solar LLC's Calico Solar power project, but California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) and the Sierra Club are still considering litigation to stop Tessera Solar LLC from building on pristine desert habitat.  Tessera Solar LLC proposed building its Calico Solar project on over 7.2 square miles of public land that is home to a high density of desert tortoises, a rare desert wildflower, and serves as a wildlife corridor for threatened bighorn sheep.  If the project moves forward, Tessera Solar LLC would bulldoze the land and install over 26,000 giant "SunCatchers."

Tessera Solar LLC's other project in California is also facing a hurdle due to poor site selection.  The company is proposing to build the Imperial Solar project on over 9 square miles of public.  The Quechan Tribe filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior for allowing the project to be built on public land without condu…

Investigation Blasts Stimulus Spending on Destructive Solar

The non-partisan Center for Public Integrity conducted an investigation of projects receiving Federal stimulus funds and found that Washington intentionally ignored environmental damage when granting money to several projects.  Among the recipients singled out by the Center's investigation is BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generation System, which received a stimulus-backed loan guarantee in the amount of $1.37 billion.  The project will be built on 5.6 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat in the northeastern Mojave Desert.

From the Center's report:
According to documents, the Obama administration has unequivocally concluded that one of the Energy Department’s biggest stimulus outlays — a $1.37 billion loan guarantee for the massive Ivanpah solar power installation to be built on federal lands in California’s Mojave Desert — will negatively affect the environment.


The solar plant represents one of the few dozen stimulus projects required by the de…

Silent Spring: The Sacrifice of California's Deserts

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By April 2010, the solar rush in California staked claim to dozens of square miles of pristine desert, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and California Energy Commission (CEC) were on the verge of granting approvals despite concerns about how these projects would transform wilderness into an industrial zone.  The BLM and CEC were accelerating the approval process to the detriment of public involvement, in a hurry to make good on promises by State and Federal leaders that our public land would be used to generate  renewable energy was mounting.

How Policy Brought the Bulldozers

Months earlier in October 2009, the Secretary of the Interior and Governor Schwarzenegger announced an agreement between the State and Federal governments to speed up the permitting of solar projects on public land in California.  Ironically, they made their announcement at a solar array on Loyola Marymount University's campus, a perfect example of distributed generation or "rooftop solar." Th…

Will the Sierra Club Step up to the Plate?

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According to Reuters, the Sierra Club claims it is still considering whether or not to challenge Tessera Solar LLC's proposed Calico Solar power project.  If built, the project would destroy 7.2 square miles of pristine desert that is home to at least 18 desert tortoises and impact surrounding habitat where dozens more tortoises have been observed.  The site is also home to rare plants, Western burrowing owls, and Mojave fringe-toed lizard, and would block a wildlife corridor for bighorn sheep.

Although the Sierra Club has been involved in the permit process for several destructive solar power projects, the Club has not yet taken legal action to block them.   The Sierra Club positions itself as a leader in renewable energy, but the group is only now considering taking legal action to steer energy companies in the right direction.  There is plenty of room for solar panels on disturbed land and rooftops -- leave our deserts for future generations.

What You Can Do:
If you are a Sierr…