Sunday, August 29, 2010

New Report Suggests Energy Siting On Wrong Path

Thanks to our friends at Basin and Range Watch, and Coyote Crossing for highlighting a report compiled by independent experts regarding the impact of energy development on California's deserts.   The report was prepared by the Independent Science Advisors as part of California's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).   The DRECP is intended to create a science-based process for reviewing and permitting renewable energy projects in the desert, and would provide a framework for implementing regionally coordinated land acquisition and mitigation to off-set the negative effects of the energy "gold rush" that threatens to turn California's deserts into an industrial zone.   The Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT), which this blog has previously described, is the multi-agency body that will implement the DRECP.

The full report, which you can find at the DRECP website, supports the development of renewable energy sources in order to limit greenhouse gas emissions, but provides guidelines for where utility-scale energy projects should be built, and how to assess the overall impacts on California desert ecosystems.  The report's concerns with permitting renewable energy on pristine desert habitat, the use of incomplete information to make permitting decisions, and the poor track record of previous desert conservations efforts suggest that the current California Energy Commission (CEC) permitting process is at odds with the DRECP's objectives.

Key Recommendations: The guidelines include some important recommendations that the California Energy Commission's (CEC) current permitting process has not always adhered to:

The State of California and agencies involved in the environmental impact assessment and permitting process for energy projects should make every effort to avoid and minimize any new disturbance in the California deserts, and should seek to encourage development in areas that have already been graded or disturbed, such as agricultural fields.  Furthermore, the sites should be clustered near developed areas so as to minimize habitat fragmentation.
  • "Arid ecosystems are strongly shaped by characteristics of soils and other geological surfaces that develop over millennia and that cannot be replicated by human actions. Therefore, ecological impacts of projects that alter surficial geology should be presumed permanent, despite any good intentions or promises to decommission renewable energy projects at the end of their useful life and restore what came before."(Independent Science Advisors for the DRECP)
Seek more thorough data sets and analytic tools in order to make decisions regarding the siting of renewable energy developments.  The science advisors noted that current databases and information used to make decisions are likely incomplete and do not provide a full picture of the impact a site will have on our natural resources.
  • "Avoid using species observation locality data (e.g., from the California Natural Diversity Data Base, CNDDB) as a primary foundation for siting developments or conservation actions, and do not assume that absence of species observations means absence of the species...Moreover, CNDDB data exclude numerous available species locality data sources, do not reliably track taxa not considered rare, and generally do not differentiate among subspecies. This is important because there are many subspecies of conservation concern in the DRECP planning area that cannot be reliably located using CNDDB."(Independent Science Advisors for the DRECP)
Make use of current conservation plans that have not been fully implemented or funded, to include the Western Mojave Desert Plan and the Desert Tortoise Recovery Plan.   Such policy tools were developed years ago, but biologists that have testified during CEC evidentiary hearings have noted that they have not been effectively implemented, primarily due to a lack of resources.  That has left us behind the curve in rehabilitating threatened and endangered desert species and managing American wilderness.
  • "Considerable scientific input has already been applied in these plans to delineate important conservation areas and design specific conservation and mitigation actions to preserve and recover sensitive desert species and communities. However, most of these conservation actions have never been fully implemented due to funding and staffing constraints at the responsible agencies (Bunn et al. 2007). Mitigation for renewable energy developments should be used to help rectify this situation by providing funding to implement appropriate existing conservation plans and recommended recovery actions, and to improve these plans over time via the DRECP Adaptive Management and Monitoring Program."(Independent Science Advisors for the DRECP)
Consider effects of energy development that could have a negative impact on desert ecosystems over time as a result of land and water run off disturbance.  These are effects on "geomorphic processes".  The Calico Solar project was studied for potential impacts on geomorphic effects because the construction of the site could have inhibited the transport of sand, which could disturb dune formations that are home to Mojave fringe-toed lizards and other species dependent on dunes.
  • "Two important examples are eolian (wind-driven) systems such as active sand dunes, and low-slope alluvial fans that produce sheetwash that sustains downslope desert vegetation through runon. Avoid developments that might affect the production, transport, or settling of wind-blown sands or that could divert, disrupt, or channelize natural sheetflows."
The recommendations also suggest more thorough mapping of the California deserts, identifying specific vegetation communities, and specific subdivisions of the California Deserts (i.e. Ivanpah Valley, Sleeping Beautify Valley, Providence Mountains-Lanfair Valley) so that ecological impacts can be assessed at the relevant scale.
  • "It is evident from various maps of proposed energy developments (e.g., BLM Solar Study Areas, Commercial Renewable Energy Zones [CREZ], and solar lease applications) that the developments are likely to be clustered. This suggests that conservation planning, impact analyses, and mitigation requirements should be focused at scales and in areas relevant to the clustered footprints of these likely renewable energy areas. Subdividing should therefore also consider likely clustering patterns, such that individual planning units include one or more of these clusters. This would focus conservation and mitigation actions appropriately within the affected regions." (Independent Science Advisors for the DRECP)

Mapping the Future of Desert Conservation:  The report goes on to provide detailed recommendations on the implementation of habitat conservation and mitigation measures, including advice on particular species of concern.  One of the overarching recommendations for conservation goals is to maintain habitat/population connectivity for species of concern.  The report also acknowledges information gaps that will negatively impact conservations planning.

The science advisers recommend immediate implementation of monitoring programs so that biologists can begin to study and understand the impacts of renewable energy projects on the desert ecosystems and species.  The advisers recommend that experts should be given immediate and enduring access to the energy sites to conduct this monitoring to gauges the impacts of the first batch of energy projects so that the protocols and procedures for future energy projects can be adjusted accordingly.

The report also encourages focused studies of genetic and demographic connectivity of certain desert species, such as the Mohave Ground Squirrel or Desert tortoise.  The study also recommends focused mortality monitoring for bats and birds and wind energy sites.
  • "Results could be used to refine our understanding of habitat connectivity for such key species as desert tortoise and Mohave ground squirrel to inform where to focus conservation and mitigation actions to sustain or improve population connectivity to ensure species persistence in light of habitat fragmentation and climate change."

It is in the best interest of the public that the science advisers' recommendations be taken on board and swiftly implemented.  The approval of multiple large solar energy projects has already begun a fast-paced fragmentation of desert wilderness that threatens the long term health of America's desert wilderness if it is not set on the right path.


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