Friday, January 29, 2010

The Project Formerly Known as Solar One...

Updates on the certification process for two large-scale solar projects -- Solar One and Beacon Solar

The  850 megawatt and approximately 8,000 acre solar project previously titled "Solar One" proposed for the Pisgah, California area (just east of the Interstate 40 and Interstate 15 Junction) has adopted a new name -- Calico Solar Project as proposed by the newly re-named Calico Solar LLC (formerly SES LLC).   You can read my December posting on the preliminary environmental impact statement for the Calico site, but the short and dirty is that the site is host to the endangered Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard and Desert Tortoise. 

As of early January Calico Solar LLC  submitted additional information required by the California Energy Commission (CEC) for its application so we can expect to see more forward movement on the certification process.  They still have to submit a Desert Tortoise relocation and mitigation plan.  However, review of Calico LLC's documents from last year suggest the program managers have been proactive in reaching out to various stakeholders.  Calico LLC reached out to the office of Senator Feinstein early in the drafting of the California Desert Protection Act 2010 (CDPA 2010),  and consulted with the BLM in the project's initial stages to identify ideal land.  To the company's credit, they even consulted with the Wildlands Conservancy to deconflict and ensure the project's ability to use nearly 1,700 acres of lands donated by the Conservancy to the BLM for conservation purposes.  According to the company's submissions, the Wildlands Conservancy did not object to the Calico Solar project being built on some of the donated land. 

Calico Solar also uses minimal water resources since the "sun catcher" technology does not require the same type of cooling processes seen at other proposed solar projects.

Speaking of water, Beacon Energy is attempting to move it's water intensive project forward in the CEC.  You can read my previous post on this project, which explains the troubles Beacon Solar encountered because they plan to use a water guzzling "wet cooling" process.  According to a January 2010 document, the CEC has proposed conditions that would require Beacon Solar to have a recycled water system in place within 5 years of the project's completion.  The proposed recycled water delivery would take used water from nearby California City to help cool the solar plant.   The company's initial application proposed pumping up to 856 million gallons of groundwater a year (who knew all that water existed in the desert!). 

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Beacon Solar site actually has very little impact on biological resources because it will be built on abandoned farm land, so the "wet cooling" process was an ironic weakness of the proposal at a time when the Ivanpah project proposed using a more efficient "dry cooling" process in the middle of ideal Mojave habitat.  Hopefully Beacon Solar's recycled water solution will get the project back on track.

Mojave Desert Land Trust Offering Guided Hikes

The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is offering the public guided hikes, primarily in Joshua Tree National Park.  The hikes are $10 for MDLT members and $25 for non-members.  The late March hikes (during the predicted wildflower peak season) will probably go fast!  You can get more information at their website.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ludlow...

...Just one of many points of interest along the stretch of Route 66 that crosses through the Mojave Desert.  The town has seen better days, but Senator Feinstein's proposed California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010) would place this town and many other places along the historic Route 66 within the boundaries of the Mojave Trails National Monument.  Ludlow was a water stop for the railroad as early as 1882, and also hosted miners with a hardy American spirit prospecting nearby hills for ore.

While much of the debate surrounding CDPA 2010 in the coming year is certain to focus on a parochially characterized clash between environmental and economic interests, we should not forget that within the Mojave Desert lies our national heritage intertwined with a natural heritage.  American Indians, settlers, homesteaders, the economic migrants of the Great Depression, and generations of military recruits and test pilots have all experienced the vast open wilderness and harsh solitude of the Mojave Desert.  CDPA 2010, if approved by Congress, would go beyond protecting part of a fragile ecosystem, it would preserve a national experience for future Americans.  You can read one of my more recent CDPA posts here.


Abandoned Structure in Ludlow, California (January 2010)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Panorama Photos of Solar Energy Study Areas Available

As many of you are probably already aware, the Federal Government is proposing Solar Energy study areas, whereby the government has designated areas throughout the southwestern United States to evaluate for the suitability of future solar energy development.  The upside to this program is that it would ideally encourage energy companies to consolidate development in specific areas rather than scattered all throughout the Mojave Desert, although the jury is still out regarding the environmental impact on the specific sites chosen by the Federal Government.

You can visit the website for the Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) here, and you can also view panoramic photos of the sites being evaluated here.  If you check out the photographs for Pisgah, California, you'll see plenty of old lava flows, which will most likely host the endangered Mojave Desert Fringe-toed lizard.  That said, the site is located near agricultural fields and not far from populated areas.  You can read an update I posted late last year regarding the SES Solar One proposed development which is located in the Pisgah area here.  There has not been much movement on the SES Solar One proposal in the California Energy Commission Review process since December.

Below is a screen capture of the map depicting the locations under Federal review in California, which you can also find on the Solar Energy Development Programmatic EIS website.  The study areas in California cover approximately 351,000 acres.


Monday, January 25, 2010

West Mojave Solar Proposal to be Water Intensive

Looking over the proposal for the Abengoa Solar's Mojave Solar project description indicates that this plant would use water cooling as opposed to the far more eco-friendly dry-cooling technology proposed in a number of other solar plants.  Just how much water are we talking about?  According to Abengoa Solar, approximately 1,077 acre-feet of water per year for each plant site.  There will be two plant sites.  I had to look it up myself, but a single acre-foot of water is equivalent to 325,851 gallons of water.  In total,  Abengoa's project would consume nearly 350 MILLION gallons of water.  I had to check my math twice.


View Untitled in a larger map

This is yet another sign of the immaturity of the solar siting situation in the Mojave Desert.  Companies are rushing to stake a claim without thinking about the impact of the project.  Abengoa was smart enough to locate their project on mostly abandoned agricultural fields, but they're making the same mistake as Beacon Energy (read "Got Water?" here) and using a cooling process that is not fit for the desert.

BLM Open House at Needles Field Office

For those that can make it, the California Energy Commission just posted a notice that the BLM will hold an open house at its Field Office in Needles, California to address questions regarding the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.  Copies of the Draft Final Staff assessment and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement will be available.  This open house will also be a good chance to pose some questions regarding the BLM's holistic approach toward utility-scale solar energy siting and how it plans to balance preservation of desert wilderness and renewable energy needs.

The event will be held on 04 February, from 2-4 pm.  The point of contact for the event is Tom Hurshman, BLM Project Manager who can be reached at (970) 240-5345.

The announcement is posted on the CEC website and you can read about the Ivanpah project debate in my previous posts.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Review of Riverside County Solar Projects in Initial Stages

The California Energy Commission (CEC) invited the public to view three proposed solar energy sites near Blythe, California.  The three projects include:
1.) Rice Solar Power Project (Solar Reserve LLC asking for approximately 1,370 acres)
2.) Palen Solar Power Project (Solar Millenium asking for 5,200 acres)
3.) Blythe Solar Power Project (Solar Millenium asking for 9,400 acres)

It appears that Palen and Blythe will be the largest plants in terms of energy output (which usually equates to larger footprint in the desert, as well), and all three projects would utilize dry-cooling technology, reducing the amount of water taken from local aquifers.

If you want to follow the proceedings of each CEC review process you can clink on either three of the links above and sign up for the corresponding list-serve, or you can check back here for updates as I plan to keep track of the processes myself.  You can read this posting from November for background on the CEC process as it applied to a separate project in the Ivanpah Valley of the East Mojave Desert.

Cima Dome


If you're looking for a good day hike, try Teutonia Peak trail located in the northern portion of Mojave National Preserve.  The photo above was taken from the trail, with a portion of the Cima Dome in the distance.

San Bernardino County Easing On ORV Rules?

As soon as 26 January (delayed vote) the San Bernardino County supervisors may vote to repeal an existing county ordinance (Ordinance 3973) that requires a permit for gatherings of 10 or more Off-Road Vehicle users on private property. This issue should fall into the property rights and public nuisance debate more than a Mojave Desert wilderness preservation issue, but it's a good hook to examine the current state of regulation and enforcement in ORV use in the Mojave Desert area in general.

As the Hi-Desert Star newspaper reported earlier this month, only six individuals have applied for the permits over the past 3 years.  Almost certainly more people have held gatherings that would meet the permit threshold that did not apply.   San Bernardino County may repeal the ordinance and it would take a great deal of pressure to argue that it remain in place, quite simply because it is most likely not an efficient mechanism to control or deter the public nuisance caused by large gatherings.

ORV recreation is an easy entry sport.  As long as you can afford to buy, rent, or use an off-road vehicle (or if you know someone that has access to one), and you can find the space to use it, you have entered the sport.  In the State of California ORV riders are required to purchase a two-year permit from the DMV, the proceeds of which help maintain some of the State's recreational vehicle areas.  However, given the the meager resources devoted to enforcing ORV laws relative to the open areas, it is not difficult for ORV users to avoid law enforcement for a weekend in wilderness areas.  It would only take a weekend of ORV use to inflict serious damage to a large swath of the desert, destroying the fragile biotic crust responsible for the nitrogen in the soil (an important nutrient for desert plants).

If you have an issue with the San Bernardino County supervisors repealing the public nuisance ordinance, you can find their contact information on this website, but when writing your comments I'd recommend urging them to consider more meaningful methods of controlling the impact of ORV use, such as educating riders about appropriate sites for ORV use, the negative impact of ORV use in designated wilderness areas, and stricter penalties for ORV use in areas where it is prohibited.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Desert Rain

For those note in Southern California this week, the Mojave Desert is receiving a good soaking from mother nature, hopefully boosting our chances for a colorful spring.

Here is a shot of Kelso Dunes taken from the Quail Basin trail head on 16 January -- just a day before the storms hit.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ivanpah Wildlife, Visual Resources and Botany Hearings Completed

According to someone testifying to protect rare natural resources in the Mojave Desert at the California Energy Commission (CEC) evidentiary hearings for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), the 11 January CEC hearing for the Ivanpah Solar Energy site lasted until nearly 10:30pm, and covered visual resources and the impacts on wildlife.  Today's hearing was scheduled to address botanical resources, which may present the greatest challenge to the CEC and BLM's consideration of granting right-of-way to BrightSource Energy, since the site selected by BrightSource happens to host several sensitive and rare plants.

The CEC Staff rebuttal to comments from environmental groups and BrightSource Energy spent considerable time addressing arguments requesting alternative site considerations and changes to the mitigation efforts directed at special status plant species. Most environmental inervenors argued for more effective measures to ensure that construction at Ivanpah avoided special status plants, and BrightSource argued that such avoidance measures would be too costly.

In the 4 January rebuttal, CEC shared the concerns raised by the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) that BrightSource's construction would alter the hydrology, shading effects on plant reproduction, and soil compaction, but essentially rejected CNPS' proposal for an expanded pre-construction survey, and did not offer meaningful support to a proposal to set aside conservation easements to mitigate for the loss of special status plants at Ivanpah. 

However, the CEC Staff response did concur with adding the small-flowered androstephium to the list of plants that BrightSource should consider--which also includes desert pincushion (pictured below), Rusby's desert mallow, and Mojave milkweed--when crafting its special status plant avoidance and mitigation plan.  As of early January, BrightSource was crafting an alternative plant avoidance and mitigation plan for CEC review. 

Desert Pincushion - one of several special status plants at the Ivanpah site
Photo from www.desertusa.com

Monday, January 11, 2010

Unfair Zoning in Fairview Valley?

An article in the Victor Valley Daily Press recently highlighted that 11 January was significant for another reason in the Mojave Desert (for the other reason, read here).  The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors designated 11 January as the last day for the public to comment on the environmental impact statement for the proposed development of a sub-division in Fairview Valley, located within the Apple Valley sphere of influence but in area where humans are outnumbered by Jackrabbits.


View Fairview Valley in a larger map


The Strata Equity Group proposes building nearly 3,000 homes in the area over the next 20-25 years, which would severely burden city services, existing transportation infrastructure, and add noise and air pollution.  The overall impact would be a dramatic shift for the way of life of current Fairview Valley residents, who cherish the seclusion and open vistas of the Mojave Desert on the fringes of the Victor Valley.

Although this is partly an environmental impact question, the impact is also one of economics. given that thousands of additional residents on the outskirts of Apple Valley would bring thousands of cars, and hundreds of thousands of trips to the grocery store, movies, and doctor's office.  This generally would sounds like a good thing for any community facing bad economic times.  The problem is that such a development is ill-conceived and represents a potential pitfall for the County seeking quick revenue but forgetting to preserve the desert heritage that provides a hallmark character for the Victor Valley community. (sound familiar? Read about Victorville's expansion plans here.)  Adding more residents on the perimeter of Apple Valley will force the County to invest more heavily in Country services, will place an extra burden on roads in the City of Apple Valley, increase demand for fire protection and law enforcement services, and sanitation.  Perhaps the County and the developer should consider pushing this development closer to the city, where the roads and services are in better shape to handle the influx of residents.

Once again the vast expanse of the desert projects a mirage that invites wild dreams that neither the desert nor the dreamer can sustain.

If you'd like to keep track of the process, check out the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Department website and scroll down to the Hacienda project.

Ivanpah Solar Energy Hearings Progress

For the many that were not able to attend the 11 January California Energy Commission (CEC) hearing addressing the Ivanpah Solar Energy hearing today, we will have to wait until the staff posts the comments and outcome of decisions regarding the impact of the Ivanpah site on the Mojave Desert's biological resources.  A review of the CEC Staff's initial rebuttal to the comments from BrightSource Energy request to water down many of the requirements holds promise that, even if Ivanpah is allowed to move forward, neither the State or the BLM will subsidize BrightSource for their poor choice in locations.


You may have read in an earlier Mojave Desert Blog posting about BrightSource Energy's complaints about the conditions imposed by the CEC, some of which demanded that the company mitigate for the loss of desert tortoise habitat, institute a raven management plan and a desert tortoise relocation plan.  The CEC rebuttal appears to hold fast to most of the biological resource conditions, rejecting BrightSource Energy's attempt to weasel out of its responsibility to mitigate for the loss of desert tortoise habitat--requiring that the company purchase and set aside quality tortoise habitat at a 3:1 ratio.  The CEC staff also agreed with intervenors, such as the Sierra Club and Defenders of Widlife, that the company needed to submit a more detailed closure/revegatation plan so that the company would not  be let off the hook 25 years down the road when it decides to close the facility without restoring the habitat.

BrightSource has lodged public complaints about the costs of the permitting process, alleging that the process could hurt the solar energy industry in its infant stages.  The problem with their argument is that neither the State of California nor the Bureau of Land Management asked BrightSource to build in the Ivanpah valley.  There are alternative sites in the Mojave that would be better suited for development, and would not endanger as many natural resources.  If BrightSource had chosen more wisely, they would not be meeting these hurdles.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mojave Desert Musings

Some noteworthy broadcasts in the Mojave Desert this week:

1.) Desert wildflower watchers are forecasting a great spring for the desert blooms.  You can read up on regular status reports on DesertUSA.  You can also learn more about blooming periods by region at the Digital Desert's website.

2.) The New York Times Greenwire Blog posted an assessment of Feinstein's proposed California Desert Protection Act 2010 (CDPA 2010), emphasizing the legislation's intention to encourage more renewable energy development on military bases in the Mojave Desert (Fort Irwin, 29 Palms, Edwards AFB).

3.) A bird count sponsored by the National Audobon Society at Joshua Tree National Park counted a total of 3,067 birds across nearly 50 different species according to the Hi-Desert Star.

4.) The California Energy Commission (CEC) began its evidentiary hearings on the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Site, and the hearings are set to continue on 11 January, with presentations from the Sierra Club, the California Native Plant Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity.   Brightsource Energy is complaining about the costs of relocating desert tortoises found on the site and the requirement that the company should purchase land to mitigate the loss of desert tortoise habitat.  The CEC staff posted a 189 page response to BrightSource Energy complaints and proposed revisions, which I still need to review and I will post a summary/analysis of it on the blog.   In the meantime, you can check out my previous post on BrightSource's complaints here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

CDPA 2010: Product of NIMBY Environmentalists?

One of the dynamics that will inevitably unfold over the next year--assuming Senator Feinstein is able to get her proposed California Desert Protection Act 2010 before Congress for a vote--will be opponent's attempts to frame CDPA 2010 as the product of Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) environmentalists looking to shut out economic development. Read about early signs of opposition here.

The portrayal of Feinstein's legislation by opponents almost certainly will over-simplify the field of stakeholders by labeling what is actually a diverse array of opinions as stubborn NIMBY environmentalists.  Although you can count this blogger as an early supporter of the legislation's intent, I hope you never read anything on this blog that over-simplifies the arguments against CDPA 2010...if you do, call me out on it.


The California Desert Protection Act of 1994 (which established Mojave National Preserve, and designated Joshua Tree and Death Valley as National Parks) provides a useful case study for issues that may arise during debate over CDPA 2010, since the 1994 legislation attracted a spectrum of opinions among those that truly respect the Mojave.  High Country News wrote a good article a few years following the creation of the Mojave National Preserve about how the park was received and how it matched with people's expectations.  Some private landowners on or adjacent to the Preserve initially opposed any Federal designation fearing crowds of visitors and land use restrictions that would harm their desert lifestyle.  Others feared the legislation was inadequate to preserve the Mojave from off-road recreation, grazing, and other uses.  All told, the 1994 legislation passed despite harsh opposition because a the final legislation was able to protect the interests of various stakeholders, to include ranchers and hunters.

Already concerns about CDPA 2010 reflect the 1994 debate, as renewable energy proponents fear the legislation could harm the industry in its infant years,  many conservation groups applauded the proposal, while others believe the legislation may not go far enough in protecting the Mojave since it may allow for a lot of currently existing land uses--such as hunting, grazing, and existing energy rights of way--and also reduces the size of some wilderness areas.  At the end of the day, the field of voices in the debate around CDPA 2010 does not include a monolithic NIMBY monster opposed to any and all development, but a conglomeration of people who want what the Mojave has to offer.  The goal of CDPA 2010 should ensure that the country can enjoy and utilize the Mojave well into the future.

Vote on Victorville Expansion Postponed

The Victorville City Council postponed a vote on a proposal to expand the City's sphere of influence by up to 32 square miles, according to the minutes of its 5 January meeting.  The proposal will now be addressed on 19 January after the Council discusses the proposal with San Bernardino County and the City of Apple Valley.  You can read more about the original proposal on this post.  A review of the City's proposal suggests the City seeks to maintain some open space within the proposed expansion, although the intent to spur more residential development along more of the Mojave River.

Here is an approximate reflection of the area that could be affected by the expansions of both Victorville and Helendale.


View Victorville-Helendale Expansions in a larger map

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Victorville Plans 32 Square Mile Expansion

In what would be one of the most significant municipal expansions in the West Mojave Desert in recent years, the City of Victorville will vote tonight (05 January) to expand its sphere of influence by up to 32 square miles.


The City's vote may be hurried by a similar plan by the City of Helendale to also expand its sphere of influence, conflicting with Victorville's proposal.  Victorville officials have already expressed their desire to bring resident development to the land, although San Bernardino County has expressed reservations with the extent of Victorville's proposed expansion, fearing that mineral and natural resources would be abandoned in favor of more residential growth.

Victorville's proposed sprawl is unfortunate given that the city can barely keep up with it's current growth, with rising crime and poor transportation infrastructure.  An expansion of the city's sphere of influence would only promote more unabated growth--abandoning the High Desert's original qualities in favor of near-term revenue gain.

The potential for more expansive growth (rather than smarter city growth with current municipal boundaries) also raises questions for the health of the West Mojave Desert, which is already fragmented by population centers and highways.  The West Mojave Desert is unique for some of its higher elevations, with more Joshua Tree growth and Juniper flats adjacent to the mountains. 

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Rep. Jerry Lewis Set to Oppose CDPA 2010?

Congressional Representative Jerry Lewis (41st District) has expressed concern that Senator Feinstein's proposed California Desert Protection Act 2010 (CDPA 2010) locks up too much desert land from potential energy development, mining, and military training, according to the Hi-Desert Star website.    Rep. Lewis' early opposition deserves some historical context.


The early California Desert Protection Act of 1994 (which created the Mojave National Preserve and upgraded Joshua Tree and Death Valley to National Park status) lacked compromise with some stakeholders-- recreational users, hunters, and ranchers.  Rep. Lewis took advantage of this and a hostile atmosphere toward environmental conservation among the newly empowered GOP-controlled congress to opposed the 1994 bill.  In the end, compromises were made and the 1994 CDPA passed, although Rep. Lewis budgeted only $1.00 to run the newly created Mojave National Preserve (MNP) in its infant years.

Rep. Lewis is signaling his intent to oppose CDPA 2010, suggesting he does not realize that CDPA already has compromises built into the legislation.  Lewis is much more concerned with tag line politics and short term economic benefit than ensuring his district's--and his country's--heritage is preserved.  His concern for economic and military development simply do not pan out, and his office has done little to ensure proper land stewardship in the Mojave Desert.  Rep. Lewis' allocation of a single dollar to the budget of the MNP reflected the respect he has for the natural beauty of his district.

Senator Feinstein's CDPA 2010 would encourage energy developers to look to the nearly 350,000 acres designated as solar energy study areas by the Federal Government, curbing the modern gold rush threatening to fragment the Mojave.   If anything, a successful bill would funnel development onto land where it would cause less harm to the Mojave, and thus save developers from a lengthy and contested EIS battle (which is far more likely under the prevailing free-for-all scenario). The legislation would also help renewable energy developers overcome environmental mitigation requirements in the siting applications.

As for military training, the bill would leave the door open for the Marine Corps base at Twentynine Palms to conduct maneuvers outside the current boundary, and the additional wilderness areas would not prohibit Ft. Irwin's current expansion plans.

Sadly, Rep. Lewis' opposition portends a battle that will only harm all of the stakeholders in the Mojave.  By expressing his opposition to CDPA 2010 legislation even though he admittedly had not fully studied the legislation, Rep. Lewis is seeking to increase the volume of the extremes on each side -- environmentalists arguing for more wilderness protection or restrictions on land use, and businesses, unions, and off-road vehicle users arguing for the opposite.  Rather than position himself as a sounding board for extreme voices in an attempt to scuttle meaningful land stewardship, Rep. Lewis should act responsibly and seek to represent the full array of interests that seek to enjoy the Mojave.

Just as we have seen with the solar energy siting debate, the Mojave's inspiration is boundless, but it's fragility and borders ultimately will require sound land management.   Without a compromise that responsibly guides wilderness preservation, off-road recreational use, military training, and economic development, the Mojave Desert would soon be stripped of its beauty and the American heritage that it embodies.