Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Calico Solar Decision Expected Soon

According to the transcripts for a 25 August California Energy Commission (CEC) hearing for Tessera Solar LLC's proposed Calico Solar power project, the CEC planned to issue a Presiding Member's Proposed Decision this week.  The CEC initially planned to issue a decision earlier in August, but changes to the conditions of certification delayed the decision and prompted additional evidentiary hearings.

As noted previously on this blog, the Tessera Solar's Calico project could result in the deaths of over a hundred tortoises, the elimination of dwindling Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat, and further fragment the population of rare white-margined beardtongue, and other special status plants.   Tessera Solar also has not yet identified adequate receptor sites for its desert tortoise translocation.

Photo of the Calico Solar project site in the Mojave Desert, taken from the PWA report on the Calico Site hydrology and geomorphic qualities, submitted to the CEC on June 18th.

Doubts About Desert Tortoise Translocation Plans for Ivanpah and Calico Solar

Hearings held by the California Energy Commission (CEC) in late August cast doubt on plans to translocate endangered desert tortoises from the proposed Ivanpah and Calico solar power sites.  According to transcripts from the hearings, desert tortoise experts testified that tortoises moved from the proposed solar sites are more likely to die, and could also do harm to the sites to which they are moved.  According to one biologist, the results of the translocation of 158 tortoises from Fort Irwin resulted in 49% mortality in within months of translocation in 2008, and this year alone 11.6% of the remaining tortoises have died (see correction of previous post).

The hearings raised concerns about the sites selected to receive tortoises translocated from solar energy sites, the potential for the spread of disease, inadequate information, and last-minute changes in the plans:
  • In one example, the expert noted that some tortoises removed from the Calico Solar power project (proposed by Tessera Solar LLC) would be moved to land adjacent to private property that is not fenced and is known to host packs of dogs that could kill the tortoises.  
  • The hearing also reiterated the concerns of the California Department of Fish and Game that Tessera Solar had not yet identified sufficient receptor sites for tortoises moved from the Calico solar site.
  • In the case of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (proposed by BrightSource), the hearings focused on plans to move tortoises to the Mojave National Preserve .  
  • Witnesses and intervenors noted that the plans to move tortoises to the Preserve have not been fully analyzed to assess the risk to tortoises already in the Preserve--potentially by introducing diseased animals--and the move would be a longer distance than originally planned. 
  •  A witness from the Mojave National Preserve also testified that the officials at the Preserve had not yet decided if they could accept tortoises from the Ivanpah site this year.
  • A witness that testified on behalf of BrightSource Energy at one point downplayed the concerns of other experts, claiming that it did not matter what happened to the translocated tortoises since the public already views them as "taken"--or lost--tortoises.  The witness' testimony, however, did not account for the responsibility of government agencies to ensure a minimal impact on the endangered desert tortoise.
What does this mean for the Mojave Desert?
Utility-scale solar power projects are projected to displace hundreds of endangered desert tortoises.  The CEC previously assessed that the impact on the tortoises could be mitigated by translocating the tortoises to other parts of the Mojave Desert with suitable habitat.  The Fort Irwin experience, however, suggests that many of the translocated tortoises may actually die, and could place stresses on the receiving sites.  This could ultimately do more harm to the tortoise population, and alters what the CEC previously thought about the impact of energy development in desert wilderness.

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.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ivanpah Comment Period

The Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System is awaiting final approval by the California Energy Commission (CEC).  The CEC issued a Presiding Member's Proposed Decision granting initial approval, but pending a 30-day public comment period, the decision is not set in stone.  You can still submit comments to the CEC regarding the Ivanpah site.  Please see Chris Clark's Coyote Crossing for further information.

You can email comments to the CEC at docket@energy.state.ca.us and include reference to "Docket No. 07-AFC-5."  For more information, see the CEC's public announcement on this. 

Friday, August 27, 2010

"What a crock..."

According to an anonymous poster, this blog's critical look at where we should place utility-scale renewable energy production is unfair to the energy companies.

Anonymous said...
What a crock. You cant win for losing trying to build clean energy projects. Maybe they should just put a dirty oil or coal producing energy company there.

Apparently we should ignore the mistakes of previous generations and jump blindly into whatever profit-seeking companies say is best for us.  Okay Anonymous, let's bulldoze thousands of acres of our wilderness so you can run your dishwasher and TV on so-called "green" energy.

If utility-scale solar energy production that requires thousands of acres for a couple hundred MW of electricity were required to replace all of our coal production, our towns and cities would be sandwiched between vast fields of sun-reflecting mirrors.  Utility-scale solar technology still suffers from inefficiency from an economic scale standpoint, so why should we sacrifice wildlife that has survived centuries for something that has not even proven its worth on this planet?  Surely America's ingenuity can at least find places to put solar panels that do not involve killing hundreds of animals already facing extinction.  Parking lots, rooftops, agriculutral fields, and highway medians, to name a few.

I don't expect every acre of the Mojave to be preserved as it is today for the rest of eternity.  I only ask that we think wisely about our decisions and try to preserve some wilderness for future generations.

Amargosa River

A wonderful post on the Amargosa River (one of the Mojave Desert's few riparian areas) on High Country News blog site.  You can find the article at this link.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bulldozers on the Horizon for Ivanpah; CEC Acknowledges Tortoise Density in Calico

Ivanpah Update:
Check out Chris Clarke's Coyote Crossing for a photo sent to him by Basin and Range Watch.  It appears that BrightSource Energy is beginning to mark the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Site in the Eastern Mojave Desert for construction.  The Presiding Member's Proposed Decision has not yet been finally approved by the California Energy Commission (CEC), but we know that BrightSource Energy will be rushing to beat the clock once the approval is made final.

In order to qualify for the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds, BrightSource must break ground on the project before the end of the year.  But before the company can break ground, it must identify and relocate desert tortoises on the site.  This might explain the seemingly premature placement of construction markers on the site.

Calico Solar Update:
The 18 August evidentiary hearings are further proof that Tessera Solar's Calico Solar power project should not be approved by the CEC.  This company made a poor choice, and it could result in the deaths of over one hundred endangered tortoises in otherwise healthy and beautiful Mojave Desert  wilderness.  The site includes lands donated to the Bureau of Land Management by the Wildlands Conservancy for the preservation of wilderness, not its destruction. 

The CEC posted a document affirming their statements during the 18 August evidentiary hearing (see previous post).  In those statements, the CEC supports a finding by the California Department of Fish and Game recommended that much of the Calico Solar power project site (proposed by Tessera Solar) should be mitigated at a 5-to-1 ratio.  The CDFG found that a previous calculation under-estimated the number of endangered desert tortoises on the site, and thus Tessera Solar should be required to set aside thousands of additional acres for conservation.

CDFG testified that the Calico Solar power project would result in a "take" (likely death, injury or loss) of more desert tortoises than the agency had every previously authorized.  The CDFG believes that the construction could result in the translocation of over 100 desert tortoises, but noted that as many as 436 desert tortoise eggs may be present on the project site.  As noted in previous posts, earlier translocation of desert tortoises from Fort Irwin resulted in a high death rate.  The CEC is also concerned that suitable sites to receive translocated tortoises may not be fully identified.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Calico Solar Mitigation Costs Mounting

In bad news for Tessera Solar LLC, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) increased its recommendation for Desert Tortoise mitigation levels required if the company's Calico Solar site is approved.   As explained in previous posts, mitigation costs are the conditions imposed on energy companies that want to build on public lands that will result in significant harm to the environment.   The proposed Calico Solar site could result in the relocation and likely deaths of as many as 132 endangered desert tortoises if the site is approved and built, and biologists have deemed the site to be of high ecological value.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) and CDFG previously assessed that Tessera Solar should pay over 50,000,000 dollars in mitigation costs for the projected damage done to the tortoise population, assuming the site is approved.  This cost is determined by the number of acres of suitable tortoise habitat that the energy company will have to purchase and set aside for conservation in another part of the Mojave Desert.  In the original CEC assessment, it was determined that for every acre of habitat that would be disturbed by the company, an average of 3 acres would have to be set aside elsewhere.  This resulted in the requirement that Tessera Solar would have to purchase over 14,000 acres as mitigation.

However, according to the transcripts from the 18 August evidentiary hearings, the CDFG recently increased the mitigation requirements for some of the Calico Solar site to 5 acres for every 1 acre disturbed by the energy company.  This would increase the mitigation costs by millions of dollars, and it is another affirmation of the ecological importance of the site to the overall health of the Mojave Desert.  It's not clear if these increased ratios are official, although a CEC Staff member indicated they would support CDFG assessment.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Desert Expert: Find Another Site for Calico Solar

Mr James Andre, an expert in desert research who Tessera Solar sought to ban from the Calico Solar evidentiary hearings, submitted a written brief to the California Energy Commission (CEC) in which he recommends that State and Federal agencies provide incentives to Tessera Solar to find a less harmful location for the energy project.

One of the most poignant portions of the brief submitted to the CEC commissioners reminds them of their burden to avoid shortcuts, and think of policy solutions that can accommodate the competing demands of "clean" energy and a sustainable and healthy Mojave Desert ecosystm:

Mr. Andre wrote:
"As the decision-making body for this and subsequent utility-scale solar energy projects, the Commission becomes our representative to future generations."

Mr. Andre argues that the Calico Solar site is of high ecological value for several reasons that represent his expertise in botany:
  1. Tessera Solar's survey method for the White-margined beardtongue--a rare desert plant--likely failed to identify the true extent of the threatened species' existence on the Calico Solar site.
  2. The White-margined beardtongue could face extinction due to population fragmentation expedited by the rush of utility-scale energy projects in its range.
  3. The attempted avoidance of special status plants on site does not account for our scientific understanding of the species, has not been tested, and will further serve to fragment the remaining population.
  4.  The Calico Solar site is a rare example of pristine Central Mojave Desert ecosystem.  It represents one of the last sanctuaries in the Mojave for hundreds of floristic species unique to the Central Mojave.
Photo by Lara Hartley Photography.  Screenshot of White-Margined beardtongue from Sierra Club prehearing conference statement. 


Mr. Andre's testimony underscores the site's importance to the survival of plant species in the Mojave, but other testimony and the CEC staff assessment identify additional significant impacts to threatened species, such as the Mojave fringe-toed lizard and the desert tortoise.
  • The Supplemental Staff Assessment indicates that at least 176 desert tortoises would have been impacted by the original Calico Solar site layout. 
  • After Tessera Solar reduced the layout of the site, the CEC staff assessed that only 57 tortoises would be directly impacted.
  • While 57 is still a high number of tortoises that would likely die as a result of the project, a wildlife biologist who has visited the site determined that the revised layout is likely home to as many as 132 tortoises based on a review of the tortoise burrow locations, and the actual number of observed tortoises during protocol surveys.
Mr. Andre's testimony urges the CEC not to issue a Statement of Overriding Consideration.  Such a statement is essentially a policy tool that allows the CEC to disregard the significant ecological impact a project will have if the benefit of the project is deemed to exceed the harm.   As we know from examples like the Beacon and Abengoa Solar projects, there are better locations for utility-scale solar that are not as harmful to the dwindling desert wildlife, which should make overriding considerations unwarranted.  Despite this, the CEC has previously used the Overriding Consideration statement as a policy shortcut. 

Mr. Andre recognizes that Tessera Solar has invested considerable funds to survey the site and understand the biological impact, and urges the CEC to determine how much Tessera Solar spent on the project and apply that amount as a credit toward its use of less biologically sensitive land.  I am copying an excerpt of his testimony below:

"I endorse the concept of State and Federal governments making an example of this project by calculating the amount the applicant has expended on site planning thus far, and applying those funds as a joint state and federal credit to the applicant toward obtaining a right of way on public lands or the purchase of private lands elsewhere on ecologically low-impact lands. This would thereby provide the means and incentives to relocate the project to a less damaging location, while establishing the precedent for what types of lands are and are not suitable for utility-scale renewable energy generation. This type of solution honors the economic and political expenditures of the applicant and others involved in the certification process, while recognizing that the preservation of ecosystem is paramount to all discretionary actions. The Commissioners must consider and make sustainable management decisions that are firmly grounded on science-base ecological principles and that recognize the inherent value of the landscapes that contain the structures, composition and processes that support and enhance biodiversity, heterogeneity and complexity. As the decision-making body for this and subsequent utility-scale solar energy projects, the Commission becomes our representative to future generations.  If the decision is to build the project as proposed by relying on mitigation concepts with no scientific foundation, and on statements of overriding consideration, then we will have set a very low bar for how our generation chooses to transform how we generate energy while cohabiting the planet, and will have hastened the type of ecological destruction for which the Calico Solar project is meant to mitigate." [emphasis added]

Now I know why Tessera Solar's lawyers wanted him banned from speaking at the evidentiary hearings.

Photo of the Calico Solar project site in the Mojave Desert, taken from the PWA report on the Calico Site hydrology and geomorphic qualities, submitted to the CEC on June 18th.

Calico Solar Decision May be Pushed Back

The California Energy Commission (CEC) just posted notice that it will be continuing evidentiary hearings on 25 August, which will likely push back its 24 August deadline to issue the Presiding Member's Proposed Decision, per my previous post.   It's not clear how much longer it will take for the CEC to wrap up the evidentiary hearings and issue the proposed decision, but the CEC is under pressure to make a decision soon since Tessera Solar would need to break ground by the end of the year to qualify for public financing under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Correction to Record: Botanist Did Testify

I need to correct the record on this blog.  In two previous posts (7 August and 12 August) I updated you on the evidentiary hearings for the Calico Solar power project, in which the company proposing the project--Tessera Solar--sought to bar the testimony of a respected desert botanist named Jim Andre.  The company argued that he signed a confidentiality agreement when he helped other experts understand how to spot rare plant life on the proposed Calico solar site.

I had downloaded and reviewed the transcripts for the 4 and 6 August hearings and concluded that he did not testify since he was not among the witnesses in those hearings.  I assumed that Tessera Solar had succeeded in buying the silence of the public's natural resources expert.  However, the California Energy Commission just posted the transcripts for the 5 August hearing, at which Mr. Andre did in fact testify, despite the objections of Tessera Solar.

This comes as quite a relief since the energy company's attempt to disrupt the public's effort to learn about the solar site's impact on desert plant life was underhanded (you can read about that in my previous posts).   The mere fact that Tessera Solar tried to silence a scientific expert in the field is frightening and should serve as a warning to the public of the sorts of tactics that private interests may resort to in order to ram their industrial projects through the State certification process.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What will happen to desert tortoises relocated from solar sites?

I had previously posted on studies investigating the effectiveness of translocating desert tortoises to other parts of the Mojave Desert to take them out of "harm's way."   In 2008, Fort Irwin began relocating tortoises from Mojave Desert habitat that would soon become part of the base's training area.  The full Fort Irwin report on desert tortoise mortalities from base activities indicates that 200 desert tortoises were killed and 6 were injured in 2008, the vast majority of those were translocated tortoises.

The report was provided to the California Energy Commission (CEC) as evidence to be used in the CEC's assessment of the proposed Calico Solar power project.  If the solar project is approved, Tessera Solar LLC--the company proposing the project--would likely translocate dozens of tortoises currently inhabiting the area.   Based on the Fort Irwin translocation experience, the approval of large solar projects is essentially a death sentence for tortoises.

Screenshot from just one page of the Fort Irwin report on the status of tortoises, identified by their number in the far left column, and the assessed cause of death in the far right column.  Canid deaths typically means coyotes had taken advantage of the tortoises adjusting to new territory.

Monday, August 16, 2010

OHV Races and the Mojave Desert

It was a very unfortunate day for Mojave Desert Racing and Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) recreationists with this weekend's tragic accident in the Johnson Valley OHV area.  As much as I prefer my pristine desert wilderness, I understand that off-road vehicle enthusiasts ultimately share a love for the open space and freedom afforded by the Mojave. 

The media tends to paint OHV enthusiasts as the arch nemesis of environmentalists (and vice versa),  but there is middle ground, and hopefully that will not be ignored during the coverage of this tragedy.  It is true that OHV recreation is incompatible with conservation.  It is a fact that OHVs damage desert lands and harm endangered wildlife.  But if enjoyed responsibly, OHV enthusiasts can have their share of the desert, and leave the rest for everyone to enjoy in its natural state.  OHV recreation is a sport that--in my opinion--has not fully matured, but neither has our management of the deserts.

Some organizations may seek to take advantage of the incident to drive the sport backward, but it is my hope that instead this will be an impetus for positive change in the sport -- to make for safer events in controlled spaces where the sport can thrive.   OHV Recreation areas like the Johnson Valley serve as areas where OHV enthusiasts can practice their sport in a designated area where the environmental damage can be contained.  Shutting down these areas, or limiting access would be a policy mistake that disperses OHV usage elsewhere where it can do more damage to our country's resources.

What's needed is better management by the race organizers and more resources for local and Federal agencies, to include the Bureau of Land Management.

Mojave Desert Racing and other Race Organizers:  The organizations that promote and schedule these races charge entry fees for the competitors, who in-turn spend thousands of dollars on their vehicle and maintenance.  Spectators travel from far away and haul beverages and food to Johnson Valley and other OHV areas, likewise spending the equivalent of a mini-vacation budget.    The organizers could increase fees for competitors or charge a token entry fee for spectators that could fund law enforcement or crowd control staff. 

Local and State Agencies:  The State could levy an increase in the registration fee for OHVs and pdedicate the proceeds toward resource officers for large OHV events, that would also serve year-round to educate OHV riders and enthusiasts about safety and rider responsibilities.  Law enforcement and rescue personnel in Lucerne Valley probably shifted a lot of resources to respond to the tragedy, and would probably have to do the same for future races, which impedes their ability to respond to other events and cover their normal duties.  San Bernardino County could impose additional fines on OHV riders violating laws (trespassing, traffic violations, etc), and dedicate the collected fines toward the costs of resources dedicated for large events. 

Federal Government:  It's well known that the BLM and its law enforcement arm in the California deserts are underfunded and under-staffed, especially considering that he California deserts cover thousands of square miles.  The Federal government should authorize additional resource for the California deserts.  The Mojave Desert and its southern cousin, the Colorado Desert, draw millions of visitors each year for hiking, camping, road trips, OHV activities, etc.  This generates millions of dollars in economic activity.   Our policymakers need to come to terms with this imbalance between how much we (the public) take advantage of the deserts, and how capable the Bureau of Land Management is of taking care of our natural resources and the public that is using them.  A more appropriate funding level could lead to better management, which would increase our capacity to enjoy the deserts, leading to even more economic activity.

I do not want to see OHVs barreling through protected wilderness areas, but I do not want to see Johnson Valley closed down, either.   We can all enjoy the desert safely, but we need to recognize that we're not doing enough to manage the competing demands being placed on the desert.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

You shall never see elsewhere...

I'm reading The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery by Bruce Pavlik.  There is a chapter on the history of human interaction with California's deserts, and Mr. Pavlik has an excerpt from the writings of John Van Dyke, a professor who visited the California deserts and in 1902 wrote:

The desert has gone a-begging for a word of praise these many years.  It never had a sacred poet; it has in me only a lover.

Is then this great expanse of sand and rock the beginning of the end?  Is that the way our globe shall perish? Who can say? Nature plans the life, she plans the death; it must be that she plans aright.  For death may be the culmination of all character; and life but the process of development.  If so, then not in vain these wastes of sand.  The harsh destiny, the life-long struggle which they have imposed upon all the plants and birds, and animals have been but as the stepping-stones of character...

Not in vain these wastes of sand.  And this time not because they develop character in desert life, but simply because they are beautiful in themselves and good to look upon whether they be life or death.  In sublimity--the superlative degree of beauty--what land can equal the desert with its wide plains, its grim mountains, and its expanding canapoy of sky! You shall never see elsewhere as here the dome, the pinnacle, the minaret fretted with golden fire at sunrise and sunset; you shall never see elsewhere as here the sunset valleys swimming in pink and lilac haze, the great mesas and plateaus fading into blue distance, the gorges and canyons blanked full of purple shadow.  Never again shall you see such light and air and color; never such opaline mirage, such rosy dawn, such fiery twilight.  And wherever you go, by land or by sea, you shall not forget which you saw not but rather felt -- the desolation and the silence in the desert....

The deserts are not worthless wastes...The deserts should never be reclaimed.  They are breathing-spaces of the west and should be preserved forever.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Calico Solar Decision Imminent; Evidentiary Hearings Exclude Respected Botanist

The California Energy Commission (CEC) stated during the early August evidentiary hearings for the Calico Solar power project that they planned to issue a decision on the project by the 24th of August.   As noted in previous posts,  the Calico Solar project would consume 8,230 acres of prime desert habitat, and kill dozens of endangered desert tortoise and Mojave Fringe-toed lizard, and probably disrupt a wildlife corridor.   The site would also impact loggerhead shrike, a nearby Golden Eagle, LeConte's thrasher, and several special status plants, such as the white-margined beardtongue, small flowered androstostephium, Utah vine milkweed, and foxtail cactus.  

Photo of the Calico Solar project site in the Mojave Desert, taken from the PWA report on the Calico Site hydrology and geomorphic qualities, submitted to the CEC on June 18th.
During the evidentiary hearings addressing biological resources, Tessera Solar (the company proposing to build the Calico Solar project on public land) prevailed in its efforts to bar Mr. Jim Andre--a notable desert botanist--from the hearings.  It was explained during the 04 August hearing that Mr. Jim Andre had been paid to instruct other site surveyors contracted by Tessera Solar to conduct a botany survey.  The surveyors needed Mr. Andre to share his expertise on how to spot a specific special status plant species--the white-margined beardtongue--with which they were not familiar.  Lawyers for Tessera Solar argued that this one-time job involved an as yet unproven confidentiality agreement.

From my perspective, Mr. Andre's role in the site survey--whether or not he was paid by Tessera Solar--should not have precluded him from testifying during the evidentiary hearings.  Mr. Andre's unique expertise benefits this country's understanding of its natural resources, and no single entity seeking his impartial expertise should be able to claim a monopoly.  Furthermore, Tessera Solar paid him to help survey public land for a project under review by State and Federal agencies.   Mr. Andre's--or any other scientist's--knowledge of what exists on public land is neither confidential nor should it be barred from the public record.  Our government owes us--the public--full access to this country's expertise so that we can accurately estimate the impacts of such large scale energy projects, and energy companies such as Tessera Solar should not be permitted to silence our few Mojave Desert science experts.  Unfortunately, the evidentiary hearings were deprived of his insight.

The two screenshots below are taken from the Revised Staff Assessment prepared by the CEC, and show the proposed Calico Solar site from the historic Route 66, and an altered image that shows what the site would look like with thousands of industrial mirrors that would carpet the desert almost all of the way to the distant Cady Mountains in the background.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ivanpah's Last Summer

For a great write-up by Chris Clarke (and a beautiful photo by Laura Cunningham), visit Coyote Crossing.  Mr. Clarke draws a parallel between the willingness of environmental groups to sell out pristine and threatened desert habitat for the sake of "green energy," and a poor decision by the Sierra Club decades ago when it acquiesced to the Bureau of Reclamation's inundation of Glen Canyon  by constructing a dam there.

While I have written on the California Energy Commission's imposition of mitigation fees on energy companies proposing to build on good quality desert habitat, the damage to the Mojave and Colorado Deserts will ultimately be irreparable.  Every poor decision made by energy companies, and approved by policymakers, will fragment our deserts until what remains is an industrial corridor with small pockets of desert that cannot sustain the rich diversity of life one can encounter in the desert now.  Watching a desert tortoise forage for wildflowers in the morning, or waking up to coyotes howling will be something we pass on to future generations with a museum exhibit rather than a camping trip. 

What can be done?

--You can make your voice heard during the public comment period for the CEC's and BLM's permitting process, which energy companies must go through in order to pave over the desert.  I have a post that gives some background on this, but basically you need to be aware of what energy projects are proposed and where they are in the permitting process (if you have questions, just send me an email at boundless.liberty@gmail.com)

--You should let any organizations you belong to--such as the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, etc--know that you care about pristine wilderness in the California Deserts and you do not want to give it up for poorly sited renewable energy.  Let them know specifically that you are opposed to projects like Ivanpah, and Calico Solar power projects.

--Write letters to local officials, such as the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, and local city councils for population centers in the deserts, that you appreciate open space and the value pristine habitat can bring to the area (increased property values, hikers, campers, etc).

--Write your congressperson and Senators and tell them you support the California Desert Protection Act of 2010.  It may not be perfect legislation, but it will permanently protect thousands of acres of desert habitat in the State, sparing it from the gold rush of energy development.

Giant Blythe Solar Power Project Approved

The Blythe Solar Power project proposed by Solar Millennium was approved by the California Energy Commission (CEC), according to the Presiding Member's Proposed Decision.  The release of the Proposed Decision starts a 30-day comment period, but the decision is likely final.  The Blythe Solar power project is located in the Colorado Desert near the California town of Blythe, and is slated to provide 1,000MW of energy.  It will also involve paving 6,958 acres of desert habitat on public land.  Solar Millennium will be required to mitigate for the damage to desert tortoise habitat and preserve 6,958 of tortoise habitat elsewhere in the Colorado Desert, which could cost nearly $14,000,000.   That will be in addition to other mitigation costs for impacts on State waters, bighorn sheep, and threatened Mojave Fringe-toed lizard.

The habitat quality on the propose Blythe Solar site was deemed to be of lesser quality than other large solar power projects--such as the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System in the Eastern Mojave Desert--but the size of the project will have a significant impact on the health of the desert ecology in the area.   As I noted in a previous post on mitigation costs that energy companies are confronting, companies that chose ideal desert habitat for their projects will pay the price.  Solar Millennium's $14,000,000 mitigation costs could have been much lower had they chosen a site on fallow agricultural land.

Utility-scale solar energy demands way too much habitat destruction, making "green energy" a misleading term, especially when there are smarter ways to implement renewable energy.  Unfortunately, political pressure has fast-tracked poor decision-making in the private sector and in the government, leading to the approval of solar energy projects that are unnecessarily robbing us of biodiversity and beautiful open space.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Tessera Solar Attempting to Silence Science?

According to the transcript from the 30 July prehearing conference held by the California Energy Commission (CEC) to discuss the Calico Solar power project, Tessera Solar's lawyers sought to bar one of California's prominent botany experts from testifying on behalf of concerned citizens.   Tessera Solar claimed that because they had previously paid a particular plant expert to conduct a survey of the Calico Solar site--which would be built on public lands--the expert was unable to provide testimony in the debate regarding the solar site on behalf of other citizens because of his contract.  Tessera Solar's underhanded tactics suggest energy companies may want to buy the silence of biologists to prevent the public from fully understanding the harmful impacts of the energy company projects on public lands.

As energy companies rush to bulldoze open space in the Mojave Desert, they are required to conduct surveys to determine the extent of damage that would be done to plant and wildlife.   Tessera Solar, the company seeking to build the Calico Solar project on nearly 8,000 acres of pristine Mojave Desert wilderness managed by the BLM, contracted with Mr. Jim Andre to survey the site for special status plants earlier in the CEC application process.   Mr. Andre is an expert on desert plant life, and is considered one of the best-qualified individuals to provide impartial assessments of how energy projects will impact the Mojave. 

Given Mr. Andre's respected knowledge of desert plant life, community groups seeking to discuss the harm the project would do to biological resources presented Mr. Andre as one of their witnesses to give testimony, prompting Tessera Solar to object and have Mr. Andre barred from speaking at the early August evidentiary hearings.  Given that the field of desert biology experts is relatively small, Tessera Solar's move to exclude one of the most qualified experts is significant.

During the pre-hearing, Tessera Solar's lawyer argued that Mr. Andre signed a non-disclosure agreement that would prevent him from testifying in the CEC process, but was not able to produce evidence of this contract at the hearing.  A CEC committee member interjected and noted that Mr. Andre should be able to testify if he has evidence that could help the CEC make an accurate determination of the Calico Solar impact.

Since the expert's work for Tessera Solar was done on a limited basis, and his survey results are ultimately made public through submissions to the CEC, Tessera Solar's claim that his work excludes him from testifying seems to simply be the company trying to exclude expertise to improve its chances of final approval.  The expert was used to survey public lands to identify public natural resources present on the proposed site -- a private corporation should not be permitted to interfere in the public's access to his expertise.
According to the log from the CEC website, Tessera Solar submitted a formal request to exclude Mr. Andre on 3 August -- just one day before the evidentiary hearing.   It is not yet clear if Mr. Andre was permitted to testify.

Excerpts from the pre-hearing transcripts posted on the CEC website (Ms. Gannon is the representative for Tessera Solar, and Mr. Byron is a CEC committee member):

"MS. GANNON: Mr. Kramer, we have an objection to presenting Jim Andre as a witness in this case. Jim Andre -- Mr. Andre was hired as a subconsultant to the project, and was paid for doing work on the site and there was a non-disclosure agreement for the company, with which he was working. And we believe that he should not be presented or accepted as a witness in this case."

ASSOCIATE MEMBER BYRON: Mr. Kramer, I don't know if you're waiting for Committee members to interject, but a non-disclosure or contract issue is outside my interest as a Committee member. If this witness feels he can testify and has information that would be of interest to us as evidence, I'd certainly like to hear him. If he decides between now and then that he's not in a position to testify, sobeit. But my inclination is let's go. Let him in.

"Ms. Gannon: We are willing to make it a formal motion to exclude his [Mr. Andre's] evidence -- his testimony as evidence in this matter."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Choose Your Solar Site Wisely - Lessons from Ivanpah

If there is one bit of good news from the California Energy Commission's approval of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, it's that energy companies will pay more--millions more--if they want to build on some of the best Mojave Desert habitat.  The Ivanpah Solar site chosen by BrightSource Energy is public land managed by the BLM,  and the company's 392 Mega-Watt plant will destroy 4,000 acres of pristine Mojave Desert habitat there.   The site is home to dozens of endangered desert tortoises, and diverse array of special status and rare plants, to include the Mojave Milkweed and Parish's Club cholla cactus.   It's not clear why BrightSource Energy chose this site out of the millions of acres of potential sites across the sunny Southwest United States.

Instead of abandoning the site for alternative locations of less ecological value, BrightSource Energy insisted on moving forward with it's choice of Ivanpah Valley for construction, despite the concerns of citizens and wildlife biologists voiced early in the process.  What will this decision cost BrightSource?  At least $20,000,000 in extra costs to fund habitat conservation in order to mitigate for the damage the company will do to this vital habitat and the likely deaths of endangered species.  The company will also be required to attempt relocation of the desert tortoises known to live on the site, and the company also had to alter its site layout so that it did not bulldoze rare plants known on the verge of extinction in the State of California.  The company's total costs for making a bad location decision are probably far more than the $20,000,000 required by "BIO-17", which is the CEC's condition for certification that requires habitat conservation and improvements elsewhere in the Mojave.

Compare this to the much lower mitigation costs for Beacon Solar power project, located near California City in the western Mojave Desert.  Beacon Solar will be built primarily on fallow agricultural land of little biological value.  The most damage Beacon Solar will do to wildlife habitat will involve the construction of power lines, and water pipes to the site.  Beacon Solar will only pay about $529,000 for biological mitigation efforts.  That's a $19,470,000 savings for better decision-making.  Abengoa Solar--another site on agricultural land--will probably pay even less for mitigation.

Overall, the construction of Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System will benefit the State with more renewable energy, but there were plenty of alternative locations that BrightSource Energy could have considered to provide that same benefit for less money. And with less destruction of already dwindling Mojave Desert wilderness.  Hopefully other energy companies take notice and make wiser choices with our public lands.

Ivanpah Solar Site Approved

According to the just-released Presiding Member's Proposed Decision, the California Energy Commission (CEC) has approved the construction and operation of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Eastern Mojave Desert.  With the release of the decision begins a 30-day comment period.  The decision appears to uphold many of the proposed conditions of certification, to include mitigation measures that require the company to fund conservation land elsewhere in the Mojave Desert, and avoid impacts on special status plants.  As noted previously on this blog, such mitigation measures are not always successful, and we can expect the loss of desert tortoise and other desert species'.  This blog will take a closer look at the proposed decision--and its impacts on the Mojave--for a future posting.

Monday, August 2, 2010

BrightSource Energy Eager for a CEC Decision on Ivanpah Solar Project

The energy company proposing to build the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (ISEGS)--BrightSource Energy--is eager for the California Energy Commission (CEC) to issue the Presiding Member's Proposed Decision on the project, according to documents available to the public.  The Presiding Member's proposed decision -- as seen with the Beacon Solar power project -- is essentially the second-to-last step before the CEC either approves or denies an energy project in California.  The decision will also reflect what sorts of conditions the energy company will have to meet in order to start construction--such as the relocation of endangered species or payment of mitigation funds to preserve desert habitat in another part of the Mojave Desert.  Once the proposed decision is issued, there is a 30 day comment period before the CEC makes it final.

BrightSource Energy is in a hurry because it needs to start construction on the project before the end of 2010 in order to remain eligible for American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) financing.  However, the company also anticipates having to start and finish the removal of desert tortoises on the site between September and November before they can start construction.   The company may not be able to relocate tortoises after November because of the hibernation period.   If the CEC Presiding Member's Proposed Decision is not made within the next month, BrightSource Energy may not be eligible for taxpayer-backed financing.

Ironically, the energy company's letter to the CEC invoked the Gulf Oil spill as a reason why it was imperative for the company to begin construction on the site in the near future.   BrightSource Energy claimed that the spill of fossil fuels that destroyed acquatic habitat in the Gulf of Mexico was a good reason to speed up the destruction of pristine Mojave Desert habitat in California with a vast solar power plant.   You can read previous posts on this blog for information on the endangered and special status species that will be harmed by the construction and operation of Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.   It's true that renewable energy will reduce carbon emissions that are accelerating global warming, but it's also true that solar energy production can be installed on your rooftop, or atop parking lots, or on fallow agricultural fields.  BrightSource Energy should avoid the self-righteous rhetoric--the company is receiving taxpayer-backed financing, it is asking to operate on public lands, and it chose a site that is home to dozens of threatened desert tortoises, and rare plants.