Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mohave Ground Squirrel Study Plan Due in October

The California Energy Commission (CEC) held expects to receive a proposal to study Mohave Ground Squirrel habitat connectivity from researchers by 15 October.  The Mohave Ground Squirrel is a threatened species that is found only in the western Mojave Desert, and lives in habitat being fragmented by urbanization, transportation corridors and now energy development.

Solar Millennium sought to build the a large solar power installation near the town of Ridgecrest that would have destroyed the Mohave Ground Squirrel's habitat.  The CEC opposed the project on the grounds that its ecological impact would be too significant, so Solar Millennium is planning to conduct a multi-year study of Mohave Ground Squirrel activity in the area to identify where in the area it could build an industrial operation.  The company's researchers will present their study plan by October 15th.

The CEC also revealed, however, that the Public Interest Energy Research Program is also starting a much wider scale research effort to better improve insight into the Mohave Ground Squirrel and its habitat requirements.   As previously noted on this blog,  a lack of research funds as hindered efforts to better conserve this threatened species and steer urbanization and industrial construction in such a way that minimizes impact on the species.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Calico Solar Project "Cut in Half"

There is a lot of press on the California Energy Commission's (CEC) preliminary approval of Tessera Solar LLC's Calico Solar power project.  The press is portraying Tessera Solar's project as being halved by government authorities or "crazy hippies" who are trying to save the desert tortoise instead of building a larger solar power plant.  What most people just now entering the debate do not realize is that Tessera Solar's project is actually proposed for public land, and will receive taxpayer-backed financing in the form of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds.

Plenty of commentators will have you believe that Tessera Solar is being wronged by the government, but consider that the company is basically dependent on government handouts to make a profit, and its profit model is based on bulldozing pristine American wilderness.   And to add insult to injury, we could generate solar energy from the rooftops of our homes, parking lots, or the tops of commercial buildings.    So before we go blaming "environmentalists" or "hippies" because that fits the most simplistic and naive model of interest groups, keep in mind that energy companies looking for sympathy have been taking from our pockets and lining Washington's pockets.  They are not the victim in the CEC's decision.

CEC Requesting Reliability Data from Tessera Solar

The California Energy Commission (CEC) requested that Tessera Solar LLC submit detailed logs on the reliability of its "Suncatcher" solar technology,  potentially reflecting doubt about the effectiveness of the company's proposals.  According to transcripts of a 20 September CEC hearing, the CEC Staff believed that Tessera Solar should be required to submit reliability data in order to be allowed to proceed with its Imperial Valley Solar project, which is proposed for over 6,000 acres of California Desert habitat.   Tessera Solar is the same company that is also proposing to bulldoze another 4,600 acres of the Mojave Desert for the Calico Solar power project.

Both the Calico Solar and Imperial Valley Solar projects would utilize the "Suncatcher" technology.  Each Suncatcher resembles a giant satellite dish that would harness solar energy.  This technology is not as tested as parabolic technology selected for other solar projects since the Suncatchers involve more working parts in order to rotate and track the path of the sun during the day, making them prone to a potentially higher rate of failure.   Additionally, the Suncatcher technology is very loud, and placing thousands of the dishes on the Calico and Imperial sites would be disruptive to the quiet solitude for miles around the sites.  For the Imperial Valley project, a nearby location could have ambient noise increased by 19 decibels, according to a CEC Staff Assessment.

The fact that the CEC Staff requested data on the reliability of the Suncatchers and have gone so far as to include this as a condition necessary to the approval of Tessera Solar's Imperial site suggests the concerns have caught the attention of Sacramento.  It would be a tremendous waste if Tessera Solar's projects fail after it receives approval to bulldoze thousands of acres of prime desert wilderness on public land, using taxpayer money (in the form of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds). 

Screenshot of Suncatchers taken from the CEC PMPD document available on the CEC website.

Ivanpah Valley Video Available Online

You may have read my post on an educational protest held at the site for the proposed Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, which will destroy thousands of acres of old growth desert habitat.  Chris Clarke posted a video on his website consisting of interviews of desert experts who provide an overview of the resources and natural heritage that will be lost.  If you were unable to visit the site, I highly recommend checking out this well made video. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mojave Desert Land Trust Reaches Goal!

Congratulations to the Mojave Desert Land Trust for closing escrow on the Quail Mountain property located adjacent to the Joshua Tree National Park.  The Land Trust's efforts will ensure that this valuable wildlife corridor will maintain a healthy ecosystem in Joshua Tree National Park and surrounding desert habitat.  The Mojave Desert Land Trust's grassroots efforts and community awareness is a valuable part of citizen efforts to preserve beautiful open space in California's deserts for future generations.

You can also read Morongo Bill's write-up on this good news!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tessera Solar Project Could Kill 18 Tortoises for 60 MW

The California Energy Commission's (CEC) preliminary approval of Tessera Solar's Calico Solar power project would permit the company to build in some of the most sensitive and highest quality desert tortoise habitat available in the area.   The CEC Commissioners could have chosen a less destructive layout that avoids the highest quality habitat, but instead approved the more destructive layout, known as "Scenario 5.5."  For 60 extra megawatts, the CEC is permitting the potential loss of 18 extra tortoises.

Two Calico Solar Layouts Presented to the CEC

Scenario 5.5:
  • Megawatts: 663.5 MW
  • Acres: 4,613
  • Estimated tortoise disturbance: 22 tortoises (not including tortoise eggs)
Scenario 6:
  • Megawatts: 603.9
  • Acres: 4,244
  • Estimated tortoise disturbance:  4 tortoises
If given final approval, "Scenario 5.5" would kill or displace at least 22 desert tortoises, according to a US Fish and Wildlife Service estimate.   Scenario 6--the slightly smaller layout--would only displace or kill 4 tortoises.    Tessera Solar says it can produce a mere 60 megawatts (MW) more with scenario 5.5,  so essentially the CEC and Tessera Solar decided that an additional 18 potential tortoise deaths is an acceptable exchange.    

Screenshot of "Scenario 5.5", showing desert tortoise burrows found on the site.  The highest quality habitat toward the top of the site, and the tortoise exclusion fencing in yellow.
Keep in mind that other approved solar projects are far less destructive.  The Beacon Solar and Abengoa Solar power projects will each produce 250MW, and probably not result in a single tortoise death.


Another issue that arose during the 20 September hearings for the Calico Solar power project is the fact that tortoise exclusion fencing (designed to prevent tortoise entry to the construction area) will be installed even deeper into the high quality habitat.  It is not clear why Tessera Solar needs to essentially obstruct tortoise access to habitat that the company will not even use for the operation of the project.

The CEC issued the Presiding Member's Proposed Decision this weekend, which starts a 30 day public comment period.  The decision is not final until the CEC considers and addresses public concerns.

If you wish to send public comments regarding the Calico Solar power project, you can follow the following instructions:

Send an e-mail AND hard copy to the CEC.  The email and letter have to include the Docket number (Docket No. 08-AFC-13).  The email address is docket@energy.state.ca.us. The mailing address is: Energy Commission’s Docket Unit, 1516 Ninth Street, MS-4, Sacramento, CA 95814.  For more information, see the CEC public notice on the CEC Calico website.

If you need help or would like advice on how to craft more effective public comments, email me at boundless.liberty@gmail.com

Save Sea Turtles; Kill Desert Tortoises

The California Energy Commission (CEC) made two decisions this past week that will contribute significantly to the decline of the ecological health of the Mojave Desert.   In the first decision, the CEC gave final approval to BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.  In the second, the CEC issued a proposed decision to approve the Calico Solar power project, subject to a 30 day public comment period.  Unless the CEC is persuaded to rethink its position during the comment period, the Calico project will be approved.

The CEC Presiding Members determined that despite the significant ecological damage these large solar sites would impart on the Mojave Desert, Californians thirst for "green" energy is more important.  The CEC brushed aside pleas that solar panels can be deployed on roof tops, or that these large solar plants would be better off if they were put on already disturbed agricultural land.  Instead, bulldozers will begin cutting into ancient desert plants and endangered animals by the end of this year.

This is the irony of so-called "green" energy.  Most large-scale solar sites are being proposed for vast swaths of public land, and will be financed with taxpayer's money because Sacramento and Washington are in such a rush to get solar energy online that they are ignoring shortfalls in technology (See Chris Clarke's blog about "Suncatcher" technology), flaunting arguments that there are better locations for the projects (disturbed land or roof-tops), and burying the future of desert wilderness.

Many observers saw the BP Gulf Oil spill earlier this year as a reason to expedite renewable energy.  Images of dead sea birds and sea turtles coated in oil were plastered all over mailings and e-mails urging people to donate to the Sierra Club, and other mainstream environmental organizations that have pushed the solar gold rush into California's deserts.   We're trading sea turtles for desert tortoises unnecessarily.  
Screenshot from BLM Environmental Impact Statement for Calico Solar Project
America had an opportunity to take a smarter path in its siting of renewable energy.  Instead, we rushed foolishly into funding and approving solar projects proposed for some of the best habitat available in America's public wilderness.

The Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System will displace or kill at least two dozen endangered tortoises, but more importantly, it will erode and block a significant desert tortoise gene pool.  The less genetic diversity a species has, the less likely it is to survive over time, and the tortoise is already struggling due to habitat fragmentation and loss.  By the time Ivanpah shuts down in 20 or 30 years, the desert tortoise population in the area could be reduced to specimens in a zoo or photographs in a textbook.

The Calico Solar project is also likely to jeopardize a wildlife corridor, and even though the CEC asked Tessera Solar LLC to reduce the site layout, the site is likely to have residual negative impact on what is currently a thriving desert tortoise population.  Fences, tractors, roads, increased noise levels, and increased predation by ravens perching on Calico Solar structures will likely lead to deaths and decline in the tortoise population, as well.

But it's not just about the tortoise.  As we all learned in high school biology, all species in an ecosystem are interconnected.  Each depends on another.  These sites could also push several special status plant species toward extinction -- plants that other desert critters depend upon for survival.  The larger the solar projects are, and the more of them that are built, the more the Mojave Desert will turn into a fragmented industrial landscape.  If the Mojave Desert were a heart, America (Sacramento and Washington) is pumping cholesterol and fats into it, speeding up its death.

It's time to think more wisely about where we place renewable energy.  Why should we tolerate the deaths of endangered species and centuries-old plants in the Mojave when there is a better way?  Solar Done Right is arguing for more responsible siting and for "distributed solar" (which is basically solar on your own rooftop).  You can also have your voice heard in the CEC certification process.

If you wish to send public comments regarding the Calico Solar power project, you can follow the following instructions:

Send an e-mail AND hard copy to the CEC.  The email and letter have to include the Docket number (Docket No. 08-AFC-13).  The email address is docket@energy.state.ca.us. The mailing address is: Energy Commission’s Docket Unit, 1516 Ninth Street, MS-4, Sacramento, CA 95814.  For more information, see the CEC public notice on the CEC Calico website.

If you need help or would like advice on how to craft more effective public comments, email me at boundless.liberty@gmail.com

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Chuckwalla Valley Under Siege

The Chuckwalla Valley in California's Colorado Desert is currently being considered for multiple solar energy projects, and has also been targeted for development in the Federal government's solar energy study zones.  The largest solar power project in California, the Blythe Solar power project proposed by Solar Millennium LLC, already received approval from the California Energy Commission (CEC), and NextEra's Genesis Solar power project received preliminary approval.   Both of these projects are proposed for public lands.

These two projects alone would fence off and bulldoze over 10,000 acres, and as you can see in the graphic below, the desert valley that currently is home to desert tortoise, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, bighorn sheep, lynx, burrowing owls, and kit fox will be transformed into an industrial zone if all of the remaining projects are approved.

Proposed solar energy projects and the solar energy study zone targeting much of the Chuckwalla Valley, according to a graphic prepared by the California Energy Commission Staff for the Palen Solar project
The next project currently awaiting CEC preliminary approval is the Palen Solar power project, which would be located on public land east of Desert Center.  The CEC considered the initial project proposal to be too harmful to threatened species in the area and asked Solar Millennium to draw up a reconfigured layout to avoid prime Mojave Fringe-toed lizard habitat.   The company submitted two alternatives, and evidentiary hearings are tentatively scheduled for mid-October.
The valley pictured above would be scarred by Solar Millennium's proposed Palen Solar power project is approved by the California Energy Commission.  Screenshot from CEC Staff report on the Palen Solar project.
However, both of the reconfigured layouts would still destroy over 1,500 acres of Mojave Fringe-toed lizard habitat, according to a CEC Staff assessment of the site.  A reduced acreage alternative offered by the CEC would only impact 584 acres of the habitat, but Solar Millennium appears intent on consuming as much public land as possible and remains focused on the more destructive plans.  Solar Millennium is also responsible for the Blythe Solar power project, which will displace and harm over a thousand Native American cultural sites--such as stone tools and ceramics--in addition to the environmental damage.

For more information on the natural resources and some excellent photos, check out Basin and Range Watch's Chuckwalla page. 

Cultural Injustice at Blythe Solar Power Project Site

Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch commented on my previous post on the Blythe Solar power project that, in addition to the environmental damage Solar Millennium will do with its Blythe project, the company will also bulldoze over a thousand important Native American points of significance on the site.  So it is even more unfortunate that the California Energy Commission (CEC) approved the site. 

You can read a continuation of this discussion on Chris' Coyote Crossing blog and the Basin and Range Watch site.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Solar Millennium Site Approved; 21 Million in Mitigation Costs

One of the largest solar sites currently under review by the California Energy Commission (CEC)--the Blythe Solar power project--received final approval today.  The site will disturb at least 7000 acres of habitat in the Colorado desert in Southern California, making it the largest site to be approved this year.  The project will destroy sand dune habitat for the threatened Mojave fringe-toed lizard (at least 57 were spotted on the site), bighorn sheep foraging grounds, and nesting areas for the burrowing owl.

The Blythe Solar project, which is proposed by Solar Millennium LLC and is sited on public land just west of Blythe, would produce 1000MW of energy.  However, because the Blythe Solar power project will be sited on sensitive habitat, Solar Millennium will pay at least $21,000,000 to mitigate for environmental damage.  Solar Millennium may elect to pay these funds to the Renewable Energy Action Team's (REAT) mitigation fund, which will be put toward conservation in other parts of the Colorado desert. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Educational Protest Planned for Ivanpah Site

A group of citizens passionate about the old growth desert habitat that will be destroyed to make way for the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System will hold an educational event on the site from 14-16 September.  The event will also serve to protest the poor choice of locations by BrightSource Energy, which will bulldoze over 3,000 acres of ancient desert plants and over two dozen desert tortoises for the site later this year.

The group will take the opportunity to educate visitors about the rich ecology of the site.  I highly encourage those interested in learning more about desert ecology, and the impact of industrial development on public lands to visit the Ivanpah Valley event.  You can find more information on this event at Chris Clarke's blog, Coyote Crossing.  The site is located just a short drive West of Primm, Nevada, and about 2.5 hours from Victorville off the I-15.



View Ivanpah Valley in a larger map

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Urge Legislators to Pass Wilderness Protections Now

My last post highlighted two pieces of legislation currently stuck in Congressional committees that could improve conditions in California's deserts.  I previously assessed that the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010) was unlikely to see a full vote before the Senate and House before the end of the legislative calendar in November.   However, I just read analysis by Politico--a publication that closely follows trends on the Hill--that suggests a Republican turnover in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee could severely limit opportunities to protect western wilderness over the next few years.

Unfortunately, one of the misguided themes in recent political activism is that concern for the environment and protecting open space is synonymous with "big government" and "socialism".  The political figures that oppose environmental protections ironically boast of their patriotism and faith in God as reasons to allow private interests free reign over public land.  These figures also want to withdraw any form of government regulation over wilderness and public land, returning to the "tragedy of the commons" that ultimately harms commerce and natural resources over time.   It's ironic that these "patriots" want America's open space to resemble the ravaged and depleted lands that members of our Armed Forces witness in places like Afghanistan or Haiti, where over-logging, poaching, and pollution leave these countries with few places to be proud of.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee ultimately holds the power to edit, withhold or eliminate any legislation that protects or enhances America' wilderness and environment.   According to Politico's analysis, the Committee likely will see the appointment of additional Republicans from Western states next year that would be opposed to the designation of wilderness areas, and favor additional energy development on public land (although potentially more oil, gas and coal development instead of renewable energy). 

Progress in preserving America's natural wealth in the Mojave Desert and other Western lands will become more difficult, even though the need to employ more sensible land management has more merit now than ever.  If you want to remind your representatives that we need to protect our open space, you can e-mail or write to Senator Dianne Feinstein (who proposed CDPA 2010, S.2921),  members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and other key members of Congress below:

Senator Feinstein: contact form on website
Senator Bingaman, current Chairman of the Committee: senator_bingaman@bingaman.senate.gov
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK): contact form on website
Other Committee Membership: listed on Committee website
Senator Harry Reid: contact form on website
Representative Jerry Lewis (R-CA): contact form on website

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Congress Back in Session Next Week...

...and there are a couple of proposed bills that could benefit desert conservation and promote sensible land management.


California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010)
We will see if Senator Feinstein is able to push CDPA 2010 (S.2921) beyond the Committee stage and out for a full vote before Congress.  Congress only has until November to get this done, but the pace of industrial development impacting public lands requires sensible land management policy.  CDPA 2010 would preserve desert lands for the public to enjoy without affecting energy development elsewhere in California's desert.  Kevin from Basin and Range Watch noted in a previous comment on this blog, however, that the bill would release some wilderness study areas, making them vulnerable to energy development.  I know some of these study areas would ultimately be included in one of the two national monuments that the bill would create, but it's not clear to me how much of the areas would be lost (welcome comments that could clarify this!).


Clean Energy, Community Investment, and Wildlife Conservation Act (S.3587 or H.5735)
Before Congress went on recess this summer, Republican Congressman Dean Heller and Democrat Senator Harry Reid proposed this bill to re-structure the way that energy companies take advantage of public lands.  The legislation would start a pilot project to identify and auction appropriate public lands for energy companies to use, while the royalties paid by the energy companies would be split with State and County governments.  A portion of the proceeds (35%) would also benefit a wildlife conservation fund that would support habitat improvement and conservation in the desert.  If the legislation passes, this program could take up to two years to implement, and would not stop energy companies destroying other public land in the meantime.   However, the wildlife fund would provide another revenue source that could be used to better manage and conserve desert habitat.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Abengoa Solar Approved; Calico Solar Submits Revised Layouts

Two solar companies. Two sites.  Two different outcomes.  The California Energy Commission (CEC) announced today that the Abengoa Solar power project--which will be located on former agricultural land--will be granted its license to start construction this year.  Abengoa Solar is sited on private land that is not nearly as ecologically sensitive as the site chosen by Tessera Solar LLC for its Calico Solar power project.

The CEC sent Tessera Solar back to the drawing board earlier this month after it deemed much of the Calico site to contain high quality desert tortoise habitat.  In response to the CEC request, Tessera Solar just submitted 6 options for reduced footprints seeking to alleviate the CEC's concerns.  The original layout probably would have displaced or killed over 100 desert tortoises.

Unfortunately only one of the recently proposed options entirely avoids the highest quality habitat ("scenario 6", screenshot below taken from Tessera Solar submission to the CEC).  Since the Commissioners explicitly asked Tessera Solar to consider layouts that avoid the highest quality habitat, I would assume that only scenario 6 would have a chance of meeting the criteria.

Scenario 6 from Tessera Solar submission to the California Energy Commission.  The least destructive of the layouts

The Commissioners' own words, as stated in the notice issued earlier this month:

"The Committee is willing, if one or more parties are interested in pursuing the matter, to consider further evidence on project proposals with reduced footprints that exclude the highest quality tortoise habitat."  (emphasis added)

Tessera Solar, probably eager to take advantage of public financing and public land, submitted 5 proposals that still included the highest quality desert tortoise habitat.  Among these is "scenario 3" which still includes over 1000 acres of the best habitat in the project footprint (the dark red shading in the screenshot below is the highest quality habitat, taken from the Tessera Solar submission to the CEC).

"Scenario 3" from the Tessera Solar submission to the California Energy Commission, the "middle road" option that would still destroy high quality tortoise habitat.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Overview of Energy Projects That Could Impact California's Deserts

Here is a brief overview of the industrial transformation proposed for the Mojave and Colorado Deserts in Southern California.  A couple of the projects will only have a minimal impact on the desert ecosystem because they are sited on former agricultural land (Beacon and Abengoa Solar).  The rest will contribute to the fragmentation and deterioration of desert ecosystems.

The list is not comprehensive, but the combined impact would be over 30,000 acres of desert habitat.  That is over 46 square miles, or the equivalent of 8 LAX airports.  California's desert ecosystems are already under strain due to urban growth, military usage, invasive species, off-highway vehicle use, and climate change.  Ironically, "green"energy could place unprecedented levels of stress on the desert as the majority of the projects listed below will break ground before the end of this year.  Unfortunately, the list below is just the beginning, since dozens of additional applications for energy projects are expected to be submitted or reviewed by the California Energy Commission next year.

Mojave Desert:
  •  Abengoa Solar (proposed by Mojave Solar LLC):
    • Approximate footprint: 1765 acres
    • Energy production: 250MW
    • Status:  Approval Likely (pending PMPD comment period)
    • Location: west of Barstow on former agricultural land.
    • Notes: Abengoa will only have minimal impact on desert habitat.  However, it would use wet-cooling technology, which uses significant amounts of water in the plant operation.  Abengoa could consume over 350 million gallons of ground water each year, and retention ponds on the site could contain toxins and pose a hazard to birds in the area.
  • Beacon Solar (proposed by Beacon Solar LLC):  
    • Approximate footprint: 2000 acres 
    • Energy production: 250MW 
    • Status: Final Approval Granted 
    • Location: Former agricultural land west of California City.  
    • Notes: Although the project will only have minimal disruption on desert habitat, the developer chose to use wet-cooling technology which will require nearly 456 million gallons of water each year.  California City may begin to supply the plant with recycled water, but the transition to recycled water could take years.
  •  Calico Solar (proposed by Tessera Solar):
    • Approximate footprint: 8230 acres
    • Energy production: 850MW
    • Status: CEC requested reduced site layout citing ecological concerns
    • Location: Pristine desert habitat east of Barstow, and west of Amboy Crater.
    • Notes: The CEC noted the poor choice of locations selected by Tessera Solar for the Calico solar power project, which contains over 100 endangered desert tortoises, bighorn sheep foraging area, and prime Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat.  Tessera Solar may present a smaller site layout during a 20 September CEC conference.  The site would use "SunCatcher" technology which does not require wet-cooling, and would only use ground water for washing the mirrors.
  • Ivanpah Solar (proposed by BrightSource Energy):
    • Approximate footprint: 3230 acres
    • Energy production: 392MW
    • Location: Pristine desert habitat located just west of Primm, NV in California's Eastern Mojave Desert.
    • Status: Approval likely (pending PMPD comment period)
    • Notes: The Ivanpah Solar site will displace or kill at least 25 desert tortoises, and eliminate dozens of special status plant species that are found only in a few remaining locations in California, such as Mojave milkweed and Rusby's desert mallow.
  • Ridgecrest Solar (proposed by Solar Millennium):
    • Approximate footprint: 3920 acres
    • Energy production: 250MW
    • Location: pristine desert habitat southwest of Ridgecrest
    • Status: CEC review suspended
    • Notes:  The proposed site for the Ridgecrest Solar power project could disrupt a vital Mohave Ground squirrel corridor and displace or kill at least 40 desert tortoises.  The site is also home to burrowing owls and desert kit fox.  The CEC staff recommended against the proposed project, and the energy company--Solar Millennium LLC--decided to suspend review of its project in order to conduct a study of the Mohave Ground squirrel population in the area.  The study should be completed by 2013.
Colorado Desert:
  • Blythe Solar (proposed by Solar Millennium)
    • Approximate footprint: over 7,000 acres
    • Energy production: 1000MW
    • Location: just west of Blythe, CA
    • Status: Approval likely (pending PMPD comment period)
    • Notes:  The Blythe Solar site is currently home to desert tortoise, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, burrowing owls, and desert kit fox.  The site also provides foraging habitat to bighorn sheep.  The site's footprint would also effect 93 acres of public land specifically designated as a Desert Wildlife Management Area, which are supposed to be set aside for conservation purposes.
  • Genesis Solar (proposed by NextEra Energy):
    • Approximate footprint: 1,800 acres
    • Energy production: 250MW
    • Location: west of Blythe and east of Joshua Tree National Park
    • Status: Approval likely (pending PMPD comment period)
    • Notes: The site is of lower habitat quality compared to other solar sites (such as Calico, Ivanpah, Ridgecrest, or Blythe), but it could block wildlife movement from the Palen/McCoy Wilderness area to the north.
  • Imperial Valley Solar (proposed by Stirling Energy Systems and Imperial Valley Solar LLC)
    • Approximate footprint: 6,140 acres
    • Energy production: 750MW
    • Location: west of El Centro and east of Coyote Wells
    • Status:Approval likely (pending PMPD comment period)
    • Notes: This site will impact threatened flat-tail horned lizard populations, and eliminate bighorn sheep foraging habitat. 

Calico Solar Workshop Scheduled for 9 September

For those following the proposed Calico Solar power project (see previous post), the California Energy Commission scheduled a workshop for 9 September at 10AM.  Even though the actual workshop is held in Sacramento, members of the public can tune in by dialing in via telephone or computer.  Just follow the instructions on the September 9 notice posted on the CEC's Calico Solar site

The purpose of the workshop will be to discuss potential alternative layouts for the Calico Solar power project site.  Depending on the issues discussed at the workshop, a revised layout may be presented to the CEC during the Committee Conference scheduled for 20 September.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A couple of books worth reading...

When I'm not reading the beautiful prose of the California Energy Commission or the determined theatrics of evidentiary hearing transcripts, I try to find time to read books on desert ecology and environmental policy.  I've just finished two books that I think are worth reading, especially for people that are passionate about desert conservation and sensible environmental policy.


Endangered: Biodiversity on the Brink, by Mitch Tobin

Tobin's new book draws from his experience as a journalist in America's Southwest, which often involved working to understand multiple sides of a particular story or policy issue.  He uses this access and experience to share his broad perspective on policy and societal issues that impact how we as a country triage environmental damage.  Endangered examines the role of multiple stakeholders--from municipal to federal government agencies, to ranchers, recreationists, and the spectrum of environmental NGOs--and how these actors' decisions impact species and their habitat.  Much of Tobin's book draws on examples in Arizona's Sonoran desert, but also California's arid lands as well.  All of Tobin's examples have lessons that apply to the challenges facing the Mojave Desert.   Occasionally I wanted Tobin to give more insight on particular policies or case studies, but I'm sure his editors were trying to keep the book from reading like a textbook.  Until he comes out with a textbook, I strongly recommend Tobin's Endangered.

The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery, by Bruce M. Pavlik
This is a new book that provides a good primer on desert ecology in California.  It is an excellent book for someone like myself (someone who does not have a background in biological sciences), but wants to learn about the the natural history, processes and species of the California deserts.  Pavlik's book boils down desert ecology in a way that makes it understandable--including the use of beautiful photography and illustrations that serve the book well--and the book's scope includes the interaction of humans throughout the desert's history.  The book starts out wonderfully by addressing the history of American Indians in California's deserts, and how the deserts were viewed by the first European settlers.  Pavlik then goes into detail about how the deserts themselves were created and evolved over time, and how the species we find in the deserts today adapted to the extremes of the ecosystem.  I have always been passionate about the California deserts, but Pavlik's book managed to deepen my appreciation even further, and I would recommend the book to others who want to achieve the same.

Friday, September 3, 2010

CEC Orders Calico Solar Back to the Drawing Board

According to a notice posted on the California Energy Commission (CEC) website, the Commission "cannot recommend approval of the Calico Solar Project as proposed" by Tessera Solar LLC because of the "scope and scale" of the environmental damage that the project would do to high quality Mojave Desert habitat.   The CEC's decision is an important message to energy companies that hastily choose to build large scale projects on pristine public land, and will hopefully encourage other energy companies to select sites that will not have such high impacts on ecologically sensitive land.

As noted in previous posts, there are thousands of acres of other suitable energy sites available in Southern California, to include already disturbed land.  Tessera Solar's choice to propose an 8,000 acre energy project in the Central Mojave Desert that is home to over a hundred endangered desert tortoises was a poor one.  The CEC should be applauded for recognizing the value of this land, and the irreversible nature of the damage that these energy sites can do to our desert wilderness.

I am sure there will be opponents of the decision that will claim "crazy environmentalists" are stunting economic growth.  To counter this inaccurate notion, consider the following:
  • The CEC has already approved--or provided preliminary approval--for several solar projects, to include Beacon Solar power project, Abengoa Solar (Abengoa and Beacon both are on previously disturbed land), Imperial Solar, Blythe Solar, Genesis Solar, and Ivanpah Solar.  
  • America values its public wilderness for more than just industrial use.  We began to realize this as a country by the middle of the last century when our natural heritage was being trashed, poisoned and bull-dozed.  Our national bird was threatened with extinction, and the bear that graces California's State flag no longer exists in the State.
  • Energy companies have plenty of locations to choose from for their proposed operations, to include public lands of less ecological importance and private parcels of land that have already been disturbed.  The companies are in a rush to benefit from public financing (American Reinvestment and Recover Act) and were short-sighted to choose public land that is also host to high quality habitat.
The CEC will consider any proposals by Tessera Solar for the same site that reduces the footprint of the project so that it avoids the highest quality habitat in the area.   The CEC set a hearing for 20 September to follow-up with Tessera Solar and other interested parties, and the CEC staff may hold a workshop before that date to discuss alternative project designs.