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Showing posts from February, 2010

Solar Companies Rushing the Certification Process?

Mr. Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch recently noted in a comment on this blog how the California Energy Commission (CEC) appears to be bending over backward to accommodate an expedited certification process.  As clarified in the comments, it appears that the energy companies (BrightSource, Solar Millennium, etc) are rushing to meet a deadline imposed in Washington mandating that projects break ground by the end of the year (2010) in order to qualify for Federal financial backing.

Underscoring Mr. Emmerich's point, a transcript posted on the Ridgecrest Solar Project site from an informational hearing, a Deputy Director from the CEC commented that the compressed timeline requested by the applicant (Solar Millennium in the case of Ridgecrest) was going to pose a strain on the CEC and other agencies--such as BLM, Fish and Wildlife, etc--involved in the certification process since the site chosen by Solar Millennium in Ridgecrest raises significant questions regarding biological…

Ever feel like you're being watched?

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A Leopard Lizard in the Mojave Desert, watching me carefully from the shade of a Creosote shrub.  Once I got too close he/she (?) darted off and left me no chance to pursue with my camera.

Mojave Desert Future On the Table

Many of you have probably read that the Federal Government promised $1.4 billion in loan guarantees for BrightSource Energy's proposed solar site in the Mojave Desert's Ivanpah Valley.  Even though the California Energy Commission (CEC) has not yet made a final decision regarding whether or not to approve the solar site, the political pressure is clearly in favor of BrightSource despite the biological importance of the site (read more about the importance here).   The CEC's "Presiding Member" is due to make a final decision regarding the Ivanpah proposal soon, which will be one of many decisions made by our elected officials or policymaking bodies over the next year that could make this a critical year for the Mojave.  In addition to Ivanpah, you can expect the CEC to also make a decision regarding the future of several more large energy sites, to include Ridgecrest, Abengoa, and Calico in the Mojave, and Blythe, Palen, Rice and Solar Two sites in the Colorado De…

Apple Valley Considering CDPA 2010 tonight; Victorville Council on March 2nd

The Apple Valley Town Council will reconsider its position on the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010) at tonight's meeting, and the Victorville City Council will consider its position on CDPA on 2 March.  As of 16 February Victorville Mayor Rudy Cabriales was not sure he had enough information to make an informed decision, and Council Member Caldwell was opposed, citing concerns that military training and mining interests would be impeded, according to minutes from the February meeting.

Ridgecrest Solar Site: Ivanpah of the West Mojave?

Preliminary surveys of the proposed site for the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project in the western Mojave Desert indicate it is currently home to several sensitive species, even though it is not far from the outskirts of Ridgecrest.   The proposed facility would disturb roughly 2,000 acres, and would be situated on a site already crossed by some dirt roads, and adjacent to Highway 395.  During surveys in 2009,  however, biologists spotted approximately 50 desert tortoise, including 40 in the proposed disturbance area, and four active Kit fox burrows were also found.  An active burrow for an American Badger was discovered within the project buffer zone, and four primary burrows for the Western burrowing owl were found within the proposed disturbance area.

Although the endangered Mojave ground squirrel was not spotted during the surveys, biologists judged that there is a high likelihood that the squirrels occur on the site because of high quality habitat in the area, and the existence of Mo…

Ivanpah Mitigation Details Available

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BrightSource Energy's submitted details and environmental analysis for its alternative site configuration--redesigned primarily to avoid areas on the site with high concentrations of special status plants--has been posted to the California Energy Commission (CEC) website.  A previous post on this blog provided a synopsis of BrightSource Energy's press release on the matter.   The details provide more illumination on the altered impact of the proposed redesign, although the massive site would still displace, and likely result in the loss of many rare plants and desert tortoise.   Some of the greatest overall impacts of Ivanpah will remain, to include the displacement of many genetically significant desert tortoises, grazing land for Peninsula bighorn sheep, and ephemeral washes.  Permitting so much construction in the Ivanpah Valley reduces biologically diverse Mojave Desert habitat and sets a precedent for accepting a private company's ill-informed siting decision with nom…

CEC Staff Prefers Smaller Solar Plant in Colorado Desert

The California Energy Commission (CEC) released it's Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Stirling Energy Systems (SES) Solar Two site earlier this month.  SES Solar Two -- the twin of the Calico Solar site proposed for the Mojave Desert near Pisgah--is a proposed solar plant utilizing "SunCatcher" technology on nearly 6500 acres of land in the Colorado Desert, just West of El Centro.  In its assessment of biological resource, the CEC Staff indicates that it prefers a reduced site footprint in order to minimize impacts on ephemeral washes and the Flat Tailed Horned Lizard (FTHL), which is considered a special status species.

CEC judged that the largest ecological impact the construction of SES Solar Two would have would be the alteration of hydrological features--primarily ephemeral washes--and how this could negatively affect the collection of State waters.  SES provided "Drainage Avoidance Alternatives" which involved site footpri…

Abengoa and Calico Solar Sites Inch Forward

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See below for a summary of incremental developments in two Mojave Desert solar projects:

Abengoa Solar, which proposed a water-intensive solar project for the Harper Dry Lake area just west of Barstow submitted additional data on their water source--an aquifer deep beneath Harper Dry Lake from which they would have to draw millions of gallons of water in order to cool off their solar plant (see previous post).  Abengoa is not the only solar site that would tap precious water supplies. The Beacon Solar project near California City also proposes to tap local ground water, although Kern County is now requiring that Beacon transition to recycled water from the nearby municipality within 5 years of the start of operations.  Beacon Solar will also be required to fund programs that off-set their impact on State waters by preserving ephemeral washes and removing non-native tamarisk from other desert waterways.  Perhaps similar conditions will be requested of Abengoa.  We should know in early M…

The Mojave and the American Spirit

The California Energy Commission (CEC) has not yet updated the Ivanpah docket to include BrighSource Energy's proposed changes to the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, but I plan to post a review of any details presented by BrightSource to the CEC.  My blog has been a bit quiet lately, but I just wrote a letter for Congressman Lewis asking him to support the California Desert Protection Act of 2010--which I may post here later--but if you feel inspired to do the same you can find the Congressman's contact information on his website.  I'll leave you with a quote from "The Frontier In American History" written by a historian who assessed that open wilderness fostered the American spirit:

"The disappearance of the frontier, the closing of the era which was marked by the influence of the West as a form of society, brings with it new problems of social adjustment, new demands for considering our past ideals and our present needs...we shall do well also to …

"Useless Land"

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I recently stumbled across a blog--which is an unabashed cheerleader for unimpeded solar energy development--that criticized opposition to BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, and labeled the Mojave Desert as "useless land" that was perfect for solar energy siting.  The blog obviously did not acknowledge the compromises that need to be made as we pursue renewable energy in California, let alone a basic understanding of the Mojave Desert environment.  Yes, some desert land will need to be developed with utility-scale solar.  But the Mojave is not devoid of life, and many Americans appreciate un-interrupted wilderness.  As for Ivanpah, science clearly shows that the site is significant for its unique desert tortoise population, and occurrences of rare desert plants.    While these counter-arguments are likely not news to regular readers of this blog, I had to overcome my initial shock and remind myself that the "useless land" argument i…

Brightsource Attempts to Address Biological Concerns

BrightSource Energy--the company seeking to build a large solar electric generating system in the Mojave's Ivanpah Valley--submitted an alternative configuration for its proposed site in an attempt to address environmental impact concerns.  According to a press release on the company's website, the facility would be 12% smaller than the original proposal and would produce 392 MW of energy instead of 400 MW.  The alternative configuration has not yet been posted in detail on the California Energy Commission (CEC) website, but when the details are available you can expect an updated post on this blog.

According to BrightSource, the reduced facility footprint would avoid an area of the original site judged to contain the highest density of rare plants, leave the largest ephemeral washes intact, and reduce the need for desert tortoise relocations by 15%.  The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Ivanpah estimated 25 tortoises inhabit the site, but the actual number could be as…

San Bernardino County Catching up with Mojave Energy Debate

San Bernardino County's Land Use Services Department and Board of Supervisors are trying to keep up with the  gold rush of the century as various energy companies seek to build vast solar and wind energy projects in the Mojave Desert, the bulk of which lies within County lines.  The County's priorities are predictably economic, but this has led County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt to speak out against the acquisition and preservation of land to off-set the loss of Desert tortoise habitat in Ivanpah, according to an article in the Press Enterprise.  You can read more about the mitigation requirement on my previous post on the subject.

The County assesses that the preservation of tortoise land as a mitigation strategy would lock up land and preclude other economic activity. Mitzelfelt and Brightsource seem to favor a different mitigation scenario that does not involve setting aside land, but instead funding tortoise research and existing preservation efforts.  While biologists did …

Ivanpah Hearings Underscore Brightsource's Poor Site Choice; Reluctance to Fund Mitigation

I finally got around to reading the transcripts from the 11-12 January California Energy Commission (CEC) hearings regarding the impact of the proposed Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) on biological resources.  The January hearings underscore the reluctance of Brightsource Energy--the company intending to build the nearly 4,000-acre facility in the East Mojave--to pay for the CEC's request that 8,000 acres be purchased and set aside in perpetuity for the protection of sensitive species, to include the Desert Tortoise and the Rusby's Desert Mallow.  In addition to the acquisition of 8000 acres, Brightsource would also have to pay funds to help manage existing sensitive habitat on BLM land.

Brightsource would be expected to pay approximately $20 million dollars for the "BIO-17" (which is the designation of CEC's proposed mitigation plan) efforts to offset the loss of important desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.  During the hearing, scie…

ORV Damage in Yucca Valley

There is a great editorial in the Hi-Desert Star by Russel Drake drawing attention to off-road vehicle (ORV) damage to a key wildlife corridor connecting the San Bernardino Mountains to the Mojave Desert.  The land, known as Section 11, was set aside as off-limits to ORVs but signs had not yet been posted when the land was trampled in early December 2009.  The Yucca Valley Town Council still plans to post signage prohibiting ORV use and illegal trash dumping.  The land in question was identified in research used by the Morongo Basin Open Space Group to argue for its preservation.  You can access some of the research on ecosystem linkages on the SC Wildlands website here.

Published February 10 on the Hi-Desert Star website:



Land under attack is critical to wild animalsBy Russell Drake
Yucca ValleyPublished: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 1:49 AM CST When wildlife resource advocate Pat Flanagan told the Yucca Valley Town Council last October that Section 11, a square mile of town-owned des…

ORV Ordinance Still Under Consideration

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors has not yet voted on whether or not to repeal current County Ordinance # 3973, which mandates that private property owners obtain a permit in order to hold large off-road vehicle (ORV) gatherings. If you are interested in voicing your opinion on this issue, you still have time to call or contact the Supervisors, and there contact info can be found at the County website.  At the time of my previous post on this issue, it appeared that the Board could vote on the ordinance by the end of January.  It is no longer clear when this vote will make the agenda, since it does not appear on the February 9 agenda on their website.

Hi-Desert Wilderness Workshop: February 11th

The California Wilderness Coalition is sponsoring a workshop in Victorville on February 11th to discuss Senator Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act 2010 (CDPA 2010) and what you can do to ensure preservation of Mojave Desert wilderness.   You can read my initial posts on CDPA 2010 here and here.

Here is the relevant information if you're interested in attending the workshop:

Location: Sterling Inn - 17738 Francesca Road Victorville, CA 92395-5105 Date: February 11th, 2010 Time: 630-830PM contact: lwilliams@calwild.org

Western Wilderness Conference: April 8-11

An agenda has been announced for the April 8-11 2010 Western Wilderness Conference, to be held in Berkeley California.  The conference discussions and speakers will address an array of issues regarding efforts to manage and conserve wilderness throughout the Western US, but there will be a workshop focused on the "Campaign for the California Desert: Then and Now."  You can get more information on the Western Wilderness website.

CEC Staff Assessment of Thirsty Abengoa Project Due in March

The California Energy Commission (CEC) indicated in early February that it sought to release it's Staff Assessment--which is usually accompanied by the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)--for the Abengoa Solar project in March 2010.   The Abengoa Solar project would be built north of Helendale and west of Barstow.  You can read more about the Abengoa Solar project in one of my previous posts, but ultimately this project's primary vulnerability is its cooling system, which will require millions of gallons of water a year.  According to the CEC, it is still waiting on more information from Abengoa Solar to complete its analysis of the soil and water impacts.

$50 Million Burried in the Mojave

That's right folks, if you are special enough to have access to ample capital, financing and real estate in the Mojave you can lay claim to thousands of acre-feet of water (1 acre foot = 325,851 gallons) deposited underneath the Mojave Desert, and earn $50 million dollars per year for as long as the water lasts, according to a Business Week article.  Unfortunately, this treasure hunt can impact the wildlife and people of the Southwest long after the treasure is spent.   Cadiz Inc, which has been growing lemons and raisins on some of its Mojave land as it conducted studies to ascertain the volume of subterranean water it could sell, is planning to pump that water as soon as it can manage the paper work.  The Cadiz funded study, conducted by CH2M Hill, suggests there is enough water for up to 400,000 people in the aquifer.  Although Feinstein has voiced opposition to the pumping, the political forces in California are likely to swamp the Senator's clout.

So what's the big de…

California Approves SCE's Distributed Solar Generation

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved of Southern California Edison's (SCE) proposal to develop up to 500 megawatts of energy using distributed solar generation, which would largely consist of contracting with "Independent Power Producers" to install roof-top photovoltaic solar panels.  As SCE, and possible Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)--which is also considering distributed solar generation--standardize the process for distributed solar generation the benefits of this model may take root and alleviate some of the pressure on the Mojave Desert.

Distributed generation can take the form of up to 1 or 2 megawatts of generation from panels placed on top of large commercial buildings, raised over parking lots, etc.  Compared to the vast "utility-scale" projects being proposed in pristine Mojave Desert habitat, distributed generation will bring considerable savings since it will not require a large transmission network, it takes advantage…

Some Wind Farms May Kill Thousands of Bats Each Year

A recent study published by the US Geological Survey Fort Collins Science Center indicates that wind turbines kill certain species of bats possibly through direct impact but also because of significant changes in air pressure caused by the rotating blades.  This is an additional factor that needs to be considered in when assessing the impact of wind energy projects in the Mojave, such as the Granite Mountain site near Apple Valley. 

Researchers are still studying what factors may be drawing the bats to wind turbines, and which species are the most vulnerable, but the study estimates that some sites may be responsible for the deaths of thousands of bats each year.  An increase in wind energy farms in the Mojave could significantly impact a key pollinator and insect predator.  

Ideally research will be able to identify what is causing the deaths and inform the siting and design of wind energy farms so that this renewable energy source can be tapped.  Bird and bat deaths aside, wind ener…

I blogged too soon

In my post on 1 February, Phantoms of Mojave Desert Transportation Projects, I noted the relatively quiet state of two major transportation projects that would impact the Mojave Desert, to include the high speed rail line titled the "Desert Xpress".  In the post, I surmised that since Federal funds were allocated for the LA-San Francisco line that may have doomed the prospects of the Desert Xpress, which would connect Victorville with Las Vegas.  In the past couple of weeks developments seem to have given new life to both the Desert Xpress and a Mag-Lev train concept, despite the diversion of Federal funds to the LA-SF line.

Even though some political opponents termed the project the "Sin City Express" and derided the use of funds as wasteful. Although the wasteful spending claims create political reluctance, the project actually would have some political traction otherwise because Nevada Democrat Harry Reid and California Republicans Jerry Lewis and others would s…

Anxious for a Mojave Spring

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There is a lot of hype for this Spring's Mojave Desert wildflower bloom, and admittedly I feed into that hype.  Being anxious to see how it turns out but unable to fast-forward time, I decided to rewind and review past blooms, although admittedly the two photos below were taken in early January 2008, so no quite spring.



Mojave Max

With all of the East Coast-centric press reporting on Punxsutawney Phil and his weather predictions, I have to give an obligatory shout-out to Mojave Max the Desert Tortoise.  Actually, that's tortoises (plural) because there are two Mojave Max (talk about identity theft), one residing at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation area outside of Las Vegas and another in Palm Desert, CA.  I would personally dispute the Palm Desert tortoise's claim to the Mojave title since I believe the exhibit technically falls within the Colorado Desert (as does part of Joshua Tree National Park), but that would ruin it for the kids.  So let's hope that both Mojave Max in California and Nevada will enjoy a spring season with bountiful wildflowers!  You can read more on Mojave Max at the Desert Tortoise Recovery Office website.

Thrasher

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A distrustful Thrasher at Teutonia Peak, Mojave National Preserve  (although any bird watchers out there can correct me on the bird species!)

Wilderness: The Great Debate

I found reference to an interesting documentary that is scheduled to air in Utah on KUED called "Wilderness: The Great Debate" looking at the same sort of questions that are coming up in current Mojave Desert land use discussions.   The documentary examines wilderness policy in Utah and attempts to capture the views of various stakeholders, to include ORV riders, conservationists, locally elected officials and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.   The synopsis is available on KUED's website, but if anyone knows if it will air elsewhere please let me know.

Phantoms of Mojave Desert Transportation Projects

It's been eerily quiet on the public policy side of two major transportation projects impacting both the east and west Mojave Desert.  I was reminded about these projects when the President announced funding for high speed rail lines throughout the country.  California received nearly 2 billion dollars to begin development of a high speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  This would suggest that State and Federal authorities have at least temporarily side-lined the "Desert Xpress", which was a planned high speed rail line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (a multi-billion dollar project to usher vacationers to the gambling capital of the US seems out of place in today's climate!).  That said, there still seems to be some private capital behind the project, so it's likely to pop up again.  If the line follows Interstate 15 it's impact on the desert's biological resoures could be minimal, however

The second project is the Hi-Desert Corridor (E-2…

Desert Tortoise Council Symposium Soon!

The Desert Tortoise Council is organizing it's 35 Annual Meeting and Symposium in Ontario, CA from 25-28 February.  The symposium will include guest speakers from the Center for Biological Diversity, BLM, and energy interests to discuss the impacts of the renewable energy rush on the Mojave Desert.  There will also be a field trip to a Desert Tortoise critical habitat area.  You can get more information at the Desert Tortoise Council website.  Note that the symposium also includes a call for research papers and a photo contest!