Monday, November 29, 2010

Investigation Blasts Stimulus Spending on Destructive Solar

The non-partisan Center for Public Integrity conducted an investigation of projects receiving Federal stimulus funds and found that Washington intentionally ignored environmental damage when granting money to several projects.  Among the recipients singled out by the Center's investigation is BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generation System, which received a stimulus-backed loan guarantee in the amount of $1.37 billion.  The project will be built on 5.6 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat in the northeastern Mojave Desert.

From the Center's report:
According to documents, the Obama administration has unequivocally concluded that one of the Energy Department’s biggest stimulus outlays — a $1.37 billion loan guarantee for the massive Ivanpah solar power installation to be built on federal lands in California’s Mojave Desert — will negatively affect the environment.


The solar plant represents one of the few dozen stimulus projects required by the department to undergo the most comprehensive NEPA review. It was approved by both the department and Interior’s Bureau of Land Management earlier this year even after the environmental analysis had found that it would have a “direct, adverse” impact on 3,471 acres of prime habitat for the endangered desert tortoise, according to a copy of that study obtained by the Center.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Silent Spring: The Sacrifice of California's Deserts

By April 2010, the solar rush in California staked claim to dozens of square miles of pristine desert, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and California Energy Commission (CEC) were on the verge of granting approvals despite concerns about how these projects would transform wilderness into an industrial zone.  The BLM and CEC were accelerating the approval process to the detriment of public involvement, in a hurry to make good on promises by State and Federal leaders that our public land would be used to generate  renewable energy was mounting.

How Policy Brought the Bulldozers

Months earlier in October 2009, the Secretary of the Interior and Governor Schwarzenegger announced an agreement between the State and Federal governments to speed up the permitting of solar projects on public land in California.  Ironically, they made their announcement at a solar array on Loyola Marymount University's campus, a perfect example of distributed generation or "rooftop solar." The document that the Governor and Secretary signed would lead to the loss of endangered species, wildlife corridors, unspoiled vistas, and historic sites over 100 miles away in the Mojave and Colorado Desert regions where it would cost exponentially more to build, operate and deliver electricity back to the customer in California's cities.

The Governor of California and Secretary of the Interior agree to bulldoze pristine desert, while standing on a better answer to their demand for renewable energy -- rooftop solar. Photo: Office of the Governor.
But the agreement between California and the Department of the Interior was just one in a long line of policy decisions that doomed the desert.   In 2005 the Congress passed the Energy Policy Act.  Among its many provisions was a little known goal set for the Federal government -- build 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public land.  The Department of the Interior was initially slow to answer the call.  But in March 2009, Secretary Salazar authored Order number 3285, an obscure memo to his agencies requiring them to ensure the "timely" processing of renewable energy projects on public land.  Salazar proclaimed that the Department of the Interior was the steward for America's public land, so the siting of renewable energy should be "environmentally responsible."

The BLM, a component of Department of the Interior, would carry out Salazar's instructions to speed up the approval process, but it would ultimately neglect the call for environmental responsibility.  Energy companies had already swarmed the BLM with applications to use public land, eager to qualify for grants and loan guarantees offered by the Department of Energy that were set to expire by 2011.  The companies selected plots of land that would serve profit-making purposes, not the Department of the Interior's call for stewardship.  Energy companies pounced on the political momentum, and touted the benefits of "clean" energy and "green collar" jobs.  But the companies' plans spoke of habitat destruction and greed. 

In a conference call with concerned citizens, Salazar would eventually admit that the projects his office approved would have significant harmful effects on California's deserts, but only hoped his Department would do better with future applications.


A map depicting energy company applications in the Western Mojave Desert.  Dozens more were filed for other parts of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts.  Map: CEC Staff Assessment.
Alarm Bells

By May 2010, the CEC had already published its final impact assessment of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, a project that would destroy 5.6 square miles of desert habitat home to a population of desert tortoises whose genetic diversity would be crucial to the health and survival of the beleaguered species.  The CEC had proposed measures that it believed would offset the significant damage expected when Ivanpah began construction later in the year.  Among them, purchase and set aside land elsewhere for conservation, move tortoises to nearby habitat, and build around sensitive plant species.

The costs to purchase and set aside conservation land to mitigate Ivanpah's damage would cost the company $20 million, a cost expected to be passed down to electricity customers in California.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that the project would displace or kill at least 32 tortoises, and biologists warned that moving tortoises would probably serve as a death sentence for many of the animals.  Previous attempts to relocate tortoises during similar experiments resulted in over half of the tortoises dying within two years of being moved.

Ivanpah will be composed of three large solar arrays that will doom the local desert tortoise population, and erode the genetic strength of the entire species.  Image: CEC Staff Assessment

Ivanpah should have served as a wake-up call for environmental organizations monitoring the permitting process.  The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Defender's of Wildlife provided comments to the BLM and CEC on Ivanpah, and their experts were alarmed by the losses that the solar project would cause.  Local activists and national environmental leaders alike knew that the Ivanpah project was just one of many destructive solar projects in line for approval.   Spring 2010 was an opportunity for these organizations to make an example out of Ivanpah, and to show leadership by steering renewable energy development to already disturbed land or rooftops.

Silence 

The response from national environmental organizations was to silence their local activists who were outraged that massive solar projects could be allowed on pristine habiat and still be called "clean" energy.  Leaders of the Sierra Club were drumming up support to shut down coal plants and the group's rhetoric painted all renewable energy as an idyllic answer to our energy needs.   The Sierra Club barred local chapters from taking action that would be seen as opposition to poorly sited renewable energy projects.  All opposition had to be coordinated at the group's headquarters. 

Spring was a busy time, as the BLM and CEC released draft impact assessments for solar power projects proposed for the Western Mojave Desert and Colorado Deserts.  The Sierra Club and other national environmental organizations were following procedures afforded them by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but each of the organizations knew that only public outrage and law suits could stop the projects.   Their involvement in the NEPA process was a token step that would only result in minor changes to the projects.

Spring was the time that the Sierra Club and its sister organizations should have done what they do best.  Rally the troops.  Any member of these organizations knows that when action is necessary, there will be petitions circulated, protests organized, letters to representatives mailed , and press releases handed out to the media.  If you were on their mailing lists in the Spring, you probably were asked to stop mountain-top removal mining, or the poaching of endangered wolves--all noble goals.  But you probably never heard that the desert was under siege. The nation's environmental leadership did not have the heart to save California's deserts from a beast they created but could not control.  Energy companies were rolling onto pristine desert habitat, wrapped in the garb of renewable energy, and backed by Washington and Sacramento politicians that environmental groups had begged for years to abandon coal.

The Sierra Club continued to project an image of itself inconsistent with reality.  A champion of local environmental activists, and a leader of the renewable energy movement.   But its own grassroots members were gagged, and it had no power over renewable energy companies or government agencies preparing to spoil public land. 

A bulldozer begins grading the Ivanpah Valley.  Biologists have already displaced 40 tortoises in the initial stages of construction.  Photo: Basin and Range Watch

Time for Action?

If all of the approved solar projects move forward this year, over 40 square miles of mostly pristine California and Nevada desert will be lost to "clean" energy (projects:  Ivanpah, Calico, Genesis, Imperial, SilverLight,  and Palen).  That is just the first round in a potentially long and losing fight for our deserts.  As of summer 2010, the BLM was considering applications for another 37 projects in California alone that would destroy over 500 square miles of public land.

Public involvement in the approval process under NEPA failed to prevent poorly sited projects, and Secretary Salazar's promise to do better is nothing more than the verbal commitment of an appointed official.  Our government decision makers and environmental organizations must take steps to keep industrial energy development away from pristine desert, either through legal action or a change to policy that encourages conservation of our dwindling desert habitat, and rooftop solar over massive projects on public land.

Poorly sited solar projects were finally hit by opposition in Novemeber when the Quechan Tribe backed up bark with bite and sued the Department of the Interior for approving Tessera Solar LLC's project near Imperial Valley.  According to the lawsuit, the Department rushed the approval process and ignored concerns raised by the tribe that the Imperial site contained many culturally significant landmarks.   The Imperial site would also destroy over 9 square miles of habitat and kill or displace the rare flat-tailed horned lizard.

The Sierra Club also began to offer a glimmer of hope by mid-November.  It's lawyers told Reuters that it was still considering a lawsuit against a massive 7 square mile project in the Western Mojave Desert.  The Calico Solar power project was proposed by Tessera Solar LLC for public land that is home to a high density of desert tortoises, a corridor for threatened bighorn sheep, and rare desert plants that are found only in isolated pockets of the Mojave.  If the Sierra Club follows through with its lawsuit threat, it will constitute the first substantial effort by the environmental community to correct a broken approval process for big solar projects.

All signs suggest the Department of the Interior will stick with its current process until the public realizes that renewable energy generated from the middle of desert tortoise habitat is as "clean" as coal from West Virginia.   Governor-elect Jerry Brown takes office next year, and will have the opportunity to end the Department of the Interior's rubber-stamping of energy projects in California's deserts.   He will need to decide whether or not the California Energy Commission (CEC) should continue to be Interior's co-conspirator, or shift to truly "clean" energy in the form of distributed generation (rooftop solar) or projects on already-disturbed land.  We will know next year when Governor Brown assumes control, and when his CEC makes its first decision on renewable energy projects.

Whatever is decided in Sacramento and Washington, our deserts cannot sustain the current renewable energy policy.  The loss of forty square miles of desert to solar projects will deal a severe blow to wildlife and ecology this year, but hundreds of more square miles of energy projects will rob future generations of the desert solitude and inspiration that we have taken for granted, and which cannot be reproduced in a zoo or museum.

The proposed site of the Calico Solar power project--home to scores of threatened desert tortoises--awaits its verdict.  Once bulldozed, this ecosystem may never return to its original state.  Photo: CEC Assessment of Calico Solar power project.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Will the Sierra Club Step up to the Plate?

According to Reuters, the Sierra Club claims it is still considering whether or not to challenge Tessera Solar LLC's proposed Calico Solar power project.  If built, the project would destroy 7.2 square miles of pristine desert that is home to at least 18 desert tortoises and impact surrounding habitat where dozens more tortoises have been observed.  The site is also home to rare plants, Western burrowing owls, and Mojave fringe-toed lizard, and would block a wildlife corridor for bighorn sheep.

Although the Sierra Club has been involved in the permit process for several destructive solar power projects, the Club has not yet taken legal action to block them.   The Sierra Club positions itself as a leader in renewable energy, but the group is only now considering taking legal action to steer energy companies in the right direction.  There is plenty of room for solar panels on disturbed land and rooftops -- leave our deserts for future generations.

What You Can Do:
If you are a Sierra Club member, send them an email to encourage the Club to step up to the plate and follow through with its threat to stop Calico Solar:  membership.services@sierraclub.org or call Sierra Club Membership services at (415) 977-5653
Ask them what the Sierra Club's plan is for putting solar panels on rooftops instead of in pristine desert.

According to the California Energy Commission (CEC), the Calico Solar power project's approval has been put on temporary hold until December 1st,  thanks to action taken by the California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE).  The Commission probably violated California law and the Warren-Alquist Act when it approved the project before completing written notices.  The CEC's misstep is indicative of the rushed nature of the solar energy approval process, where shortcuts were taken in the biological review of each project and meaningful public participation was difficult.

The temporary hold on the Calico Project could buy groups like the Sierra Club and CURE more time to mount a legal challenge to stop the project.

The proposed site for the Calico Solar power project which will be cleared by Tessera Solar unless groups like the Sierra Club challenge Tessera's definition of "clean" energy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

First Round of Solar Projects Cast Shadow on Future of Desert Ecosystem

The first batch of solar power projects approved by the Bureau of Land Management have begun construction and are expected to fragment and industrialize America's remaining southwestern deserts, blocking wildlife movement and driving some plant and animal species closer to extinction.   Although some projects will be built on land that is already disturbed or on privately owned land, the vast majority are on public land with pristine desert habitat.  Although Federal and State requirements will require measures to lessen the impact on plants and wildlife, the long-term impact of these projects is expected to seriously degrade the ecology of the two primary bio-regions in Southern California--the Mojave and Colorado Deserts.   
Summary of solar power projects:  
 
  • Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System
    • Company: BrightSource Energy LLC
    • Project area: 3,600 acres (5.6 square miles)
    • Location: Northeastern Mojave Desert in California
    • Biological impacts:  At least 40 desert tortoises already displaced, rare plants include the small-flower androstephium, Mojave milkweed, and Rusby's desert mallow. 
    • Status: Approved and under construction
 
  • Calico Solar power project
    • Company: Tessera Solar LLC
    • Project area: 4,613 acres (7.2 square miles)
    • Location: Central Mojave Desert in California
    • Biological impacts:  high density desert tortoise habitat, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, Nelson's bighorn sheep foraging habitat, and rare white-margined beardtongue plant.
    • Status: Approved and pending construction
 
  • Abengoa Solar power project
    • Company: Mojave Solar LLC
    • Project area: 1,765 acres (2.75 square miles)
    • Location: West Mojave Desert in California
    • Biological impacts:  Abengoa to be built on fallow agricultural land, so only minimal impacts on wildlife, although Abengoa uses a cooling technology that will require over 350 million gallons of ground water each year.
    • Status: Approved
 
  • Beacon Solar power project
    • Company: NextEra Energy Resources LLC
    • Project area: 2,012 acres (3.14 sqaure miles)
    • Location: West Mojave Desert in California
    • Biological impacts: Beacon will be built on fallow agricultural land, so only minimal impacts on wildlife.  Beacon will also use a water-intensive cooling technology, requiring over 456 million gallons of water.  Beacon will attempt to purchase grey or "recycled" water from nearby California City.
    • Status: Approved
 
  • Ridgrecrest Solar power project
    • Company: Solar Millennium LLC
    • Project area: 3,920 acres (6.12 square miles)
    • Location: West Mojave Desert in California
    • Biological impacts:  Ridgecrest would disrupt a key Mohave ground squirrel corridor, and supports a high density of desert tortoise.  
    • Status: On hold pending further biological studies
 
  • Silver State Solar power project
    • Company: First Solar, Inc.
    • Project area: 7,840 acres (12.25 square miles)
    • Location: Northeastern Mojave Desert in Nevada
    • Biological impacts:  Silver State is the second large-scale solar project to be built int he Ivanpah Valley, which stretches across part of California and Nevada.  The Silver State and Ivnapah Solar projects will severely damage the viability of the area to sustain a healthy desert tortoise population.
    • Status: Initial phase approved, second phase pending approval.
 
  • Blythe Solar power project
    • Company: Solar Millennium LLC
    • Project area: 9,400 acres (14.69 square miles)
    • Location: Eastern Colorado Desert in California
    • Biological impacts: The massive Blythe project will damage bighorn sheep foraging habitat, and kill or displace Western burrowing owls, desert tortoise, and Mojave fringe-toed lizards.  A special status plant known as Las Animas Colubrine will also be impacted.
    • Status: Approved 
 
  • Palen Solar power project
    • Company: Solar Millennium LLC and Chevron 
    • Project area: 5,200 acres (8.13 square miles)
    • Location: Northern Colorado Desert in California
    • Biological impacts: Palen will destroy habitat for Mojave fringe-toed lizard, desert tortoise, desert kit fox, and Le Conte's Thrasher.
    • Status: Preliminary approval granted, pending final approval expected in December
 
  • Rice Solar power project
    • Company: Solar Reserve LLC
    • Project area: approximately 1,600 acres (2.5 square miles)
    • Location: Eastern Colorado Desert in California
    • Biological impacts: Rice will be built on mostly private land, although will displace or kill at least 7 desert tortoises, Western burrowing owl and a special status plant species known as Harwood Milkvetch
    • Status: Preliminary approval granted, pending final approval expected in December
 
  • Genesis Solar power project
    • Company: NextEra Energy 
    • Project area: 4,640 acres (7.25 square miles)
    • Location: Northern Colorado Desert in California
    • Biological impacts: The Genesis solar site does not support many desert tortoises according to surveys, but the habitat on the site supports a high density of threatened Mojave fringe-toed lizards. and some Western burrowing owls.
    • Status: Approved
 
  • Imperial Solar power project
    • Company: Tessera Solar LLC
    • Project area: 6,140 acres (9.59 square miles)
    • Location: Colorado Desert in California
    • Biological impacts: Destruction of habitat for the threatened flat-tailed horned lizard, foraging habitat for bighorn sheep.
    • Status; Approved, litigation pending
  • Desert Sunlight Solar power project
    • Company: Desert Sunlight Holdings LLC
    • Project area: 4,391 acres (6.86 square miles)
    • Location Northern Colorado Desert in California, next to Joshua Tree National Park
    • Biological impacts: Part of the site sustains a healthy desert tortoise population, and at least 22 desert tortoise burrows would be destroyed.  The site also supports Western burrowing owl, and rare plants such as foxtail cactus and Las Animas Colubrine
    • Status: Pending Approval
  • Total area:
    • Acres: 51,521 
    • Square miles: 80.5
 
 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Palen Solar Power project moves forward; Imperial Solar Threatens Cultural Heritage

The California Energy Commission (CEC) provided preliminary approval for a solar power project that will consume almost 8 square miles of mostly public land near the Palen Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) and that would disturb part of the designated Chuckwalla Critical Habitat Unit for the desert tortoise.  The Palen Solar power project is being proposed by Chevron and a subsidiary it created, Solar Millennium LLC.

The CEC is requesting that Solar Millennium LLC build a reconfigured layout and not the initial proposal in order to reduce (but not eliminate) impacts to Mojave Fringe Toed Lizard habitat.  However, the project would also disrupt desert tortoise linkages since it would block multiple washes that allow them to travel under Interstate 10.  If built, the project would probably slow genetic ties between the tortoise populations north and south of the Interstate.  Defender's of Wildlife proposed that Solar Millennium and the CEC should reduce the project by half so that much of the eastern portion of the site would remain undisturbed and continue to provide habitat to the Mojave Fringe Toed Lizard, Kit Fox, and Western Burrowing Owls.  The request was ignored.

Also in the Colorado Desert region, protesters wrapped up a two night educational camp at the proposed site of the Imperial Valley Solar project.  The project would be built by Tessera Solar LLC on nearly 10 square miles of public land that contains American Indian cultural sites and stone formations.   The Quechan Tribe is suing the Department of the Interior for approving the project without conducting proper review of the site's significance.  You can read more about the importance of the site and the protest held earlier this week at the Desert Protective Council website.  If the project is built, as yet unstudied elements of American Indian history would be lost.

Monday, November 15, 2010

BLM Underestimating Impacts on Desert Tortoise?

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is estimating that only 12 desert tortoises will be affected by the construction of the proposed Desert Sunlight Solar power project.   However, biologists have found at least 22 active desert tortoise burrows, suggesting the number of tortoises could be much higher than the BLM report acknowledges.  The project is proposed by First Solar and would consume 6.8 square miles of public land adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.

Why does this matter?  The BLM tortoise population estimates are considered by the Department of the Interior and Department of Energy when trying to assess the overall impact of a proposed energy project.  The lower the number, the easier it is for big energy companies to build their projects on public land, and receive taxpayer-backed loans and grants.

The BLM estimates only 12 tortoises on the solar site, but admits there are at least 22 active burrows.
You can tell them to check their math.
Photo from BLM Draft EIS.
The BLM already underestimated the number of desert tortoises on another solar project site in California.  In the separate case,  BLM stated that they expected to remove 32 desert tortoises at a project site currently being bulldozed by BrightSource Energy in the northeastern Mojave Desert.  After only a month of construction, workers have already moved 40 tortoises, and the number continues to climb.  The BLM should not make the same mistake with the Desert Sunlight project.

What you can do:

The BLM is collecting comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) until 27 November.  The government currently "prefers" the layout of the project site that would harm a dense population of tortoises, including all 22 active desert tortoise burrows, but you can speak up and let them know you disapprove of the Desert Sunlight solar power project.

You can participate in the public comment process and tell the BLM that 1.) You prefer that solar projects be built on already disturbed land or on rooftops, and not pristine desert habitat near Joshua Tree National Park, and 2.) the BLM should conduct a thorough survey of the proposed "Desert Sunlight" site in order to accurately assess the number of desert tortoises that will be harmed by the project before making a decision on which site layout is preferred.

Email your comments by 27 November to the BLM Project Manager, Allison Shaffer at: CAPSSolarFirstSolarDesertSunlight@blm.gov

You can read more about the Desert Sunlight comment process, and download the biological assessments available on the BLM website.  You can also read a previous Mojave Desert Blog post on the topic, and learn about the overall threat posed by energy development in the Chuckwalla Valley--where the Desert Sunlight project would be built--on the Basin and Range Watch website.

Photo of the proposed site for the Desert Sunlight project.  Note the ample desert dandelion blooms - tortoise food!  Photo from Basin and Range Watch website.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Desert Skies Calendar

It's almost 2011, do you know where your new calendar is?  Check out a calendar put together by Chris Clarke at Coyote Crossing. The Desert Skies calendar includes photography of beautiful desert vistas, and you can preview the photos at his site.

Peaceful Protest Planned for Imperial Valley Solar Project

Citizens supporting the Quechan Tribe's lawsuit against the Imperial Valley Solar power project are planning to hold a peaceful and educational protest against the project today and tomorrow (14 and 15 November).  The Imperial Valley Solar project will be built by Tessera Solar LLC on public land that contains many artifacts and sites of cultural significance to the Quechan Tribe.  The Tribe is suing the Department of the Interior for approving the project as part of the "fast track" process for solar energy projects because the Department failed to conduct a thorough review of the cultural significance of the site, and ignored Quechan Tribe requests for such a survey.  You can read more on a previous post on the Imperial project.

The Imperial Valley Solar project will consume over 10 square miles of Colorado Desert habitat near the town of Imperial, California.  The site also contains habitat for the threatened Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard and foraging habitat for the Peninsula Bighorn Sheep.  The projects owner, Tessera Solar LLC, is also responsible for a 7 square mile facility on prime desert tortoise habitat near the Mojave National Preserve.

If you wish to participate or visit the protest site to learn more about the harmful Imperial project, here are directions:

Starting late afternoon Sunday November 14th,  we will be gathered on the western boundary of the Imperial Solar Two site, south side of Old Highway 80 ( Evan Hewes Highway) , 4.1 miles east of Imperial Highway in Ocotillo immediately across from the marked road to Painted Gorge.  The large sign for the Plaster City OHV Open Area is directly north of our site. 
  • From Interstate 8 East, take Exit 89, "Ocotillo/Desert Parks".  Turn left from the off-ramp and go under the freeway. Take the first right on Old Highway 80.
  • From Interstate 8 West, take Exit 89, and turn right from the off-ramp, take the first right and go 4.1 miles.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Government Favors Destructive Layout of Solar Facility Near National Park

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) reviewed three different alternatives for the proposed Desert Sunlight Solar power project, and expressed support for a 6.8 square mile layout that includes an area with a dense desert tortoise population.  The Desert Sunlight solar project would be built by First Solar and Desert Sunlight Holdings LLC on public land less than two miles from Joshua Tree National Park.  The project is still in the initial stages of review, and you can read the draft environmental impact statement and offer comments on the BLM website.

Among the three different alternatives, layout "C" would have the least impact on desert tortoises and other sensitive plant and wildlife, but the BLM and CPUC expressed support for layout "B," which contains at least 22 active desert tortoise burrows.  Surveys of the smaller layout "C" only found 7 active burrows.  The draft Environmental Impact Statement did not explain why the more destructive layout "B" was justified.

The Desert Sunlight Project (center, outlined in bright blue) would be built just outside of Joshua Tree National Park.  Map from Bureau of Land Management.
A closer examination of the three different layouts, with the smallest layout outlined in light gray.

Blue shading represents lower quality desert tortoise habitat, and the dots and triangles represent observed tortoises or signs of tortoise found on the proposed project site.  The destructive layout "B" would include the higher quality tortoise habitat in the northwestern portion of the site.  Map from Bureau of Land Management.

In addition to desert tortoise, layout "B" would also impact burrowing owls, loggerhead shrikes, and a high number of foxtail cactus.  The transmission lines and substation for the project would be built on public land designated as desert tortoise critical habitat south of the main project site.  The draft environmental impact statement dismisses the option of encouraging rooftop solar, and also dismissed the option of building the site on private land, or public land with lower quality habitat.

Desert Sunlight would be one of several large-scale solar energy projects proposed or approved for operation in the Chuckwalla valley of the Colorado Desert (see "Chuckwalla Valley Under Seige").  The Blythe Solar power project has begun construction in the Chuckwalla valley and will destroy over 14 square miles of desert habitat. 

Public comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement are due by 27 November.

Desert Tortoise.  Photo from BLM Draft EIS

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ivanpah Tortoise Count Highlights Poor Choices

Workers at BrightSource Energy's 5.6 square mile solar energy site in the Ivanpah Valley have now found approximately 40 desert tortoises in the paths of bulldozers, and the project is only in initial stages of construction.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service only expected to find 32 tortoises on the entire site, showing that the biological assessment of the Ivanpah Solar site underestimated its ecological value.  Some biologists are now concerned that the population of tortoises in the Ivanpah Valley--which represents a "genetically significant unit"--is at risk of a serious population decline as a result of solar energy projects.

On the other side of the Mojave, Solar Millennium LLC continues to search for ways to site a large solar power plant near the town of Ridgecrest.  Review of the company's proposal was suspended by the California Energy Commission (CEC) due to concerns that the site selected by Solar Millennium for its proposed project was too ecologically important to the endangered desert tortoise and the rare Mohave Ground Squirrel.  Solar Millennium is considering a two-year study of the Mohave Ground Squirrel in order to makes its case for constructing a project in the area, although CEC staff insist that the study is unlikely to alter their opinion that the site is unsuitable for development.

The CEC's opposition to the Ridgecrest Solar power project is a rare example of California recognizing the energy company's poor choice in locations, and opposing a project in order to preserve America's natural resources for future generations.  Several other projects--including the tortoise-laden Ivanpah Solar project--were approved despite concerns raised by several groups regarding the environmental consequences of poor siting.

Unfortunately, dozens of additional projects are still pending review by the CEC or the Bureau of Land Management, and are proposed for areas of California's deserts that would have similar negative impacts on wildlife corridors, genetic linkages, and rare populations of plants and wildlife.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

American Indian Tribe Sues Interior Over Imperial Valley Solar Project

The Quechan Tribe has filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior for not completing analysis of the Imperial Valley Solar projects impacts on cultural resources, according to a copy of the civil action.  The 709 megawatt Imperial Valley Solar project was proposed by Tessera Solar LLC for nearly 10 square miles of public land.  The Department of the Interior approved the company's proposal for the site in October, as did the California Energy Commission (CEC).

Because the project is being constructed on public land administered by the federal government, the Department of the Interior is obligated to assess a range of impacts before issuing a final decision.  The Tribe alleges that the Department of the Interior did not conduct a thorough assessment of the solar project's impacts on cultural resources -- such as sites of historical and religious significance to the Tribe -- and artifacts that would be lost during the construction of the energy project.  The Tribe noted that it raised objections to the site during public review of the draft environmental impact statement, in which the Department of the Interior brushed aside concerns of cultural significance and its responsibility to conduct a review consistent with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

According to the civil action:
Interior did not determine the NHPA-eligibility of resources located within the Project Area prior to approving the Imperial Valley ROD and the Programmatic Agreement, and made its decision without taking the required "hard look" at the affected cultural environment or the impacts to NHPA-eligible resources.
As noted in a previous post, the California Energy Commission acknowledged that the Imperial Valley Solar power project would result in significant damage to cultural sites, but issued an "override" which basically put short-term economic interests above those of cultural or biological significance:
"Therefore, this Decision overrides the remaining significant unavoidable impacts that may result from this project, even with the implementation of the required mitigation measures described in this Decision."
There are two faults in the CEC and Department of the Interior approval of the site.
  • The CEC and Department of the Interior failed to consider viable alternatives to the Imperial Valley Solar site.  As noted in the Tribe's civil action, neither organization ever considered separate public land designated for more intense use (such as energy) as an alternative.  The Imperial Valley Solar site falls mostly on "Class L" land, which means the government should only permit activities of "lower intensity" on the land.  It is fair to say that building one of the world's largest solar facilities that will destroy the existing landscape is not "low intensity".
  • Neither the CEC nor the Department of the Interior conducted a thorough survey of the cultural resources on the site, which means they fail to properly inform decision makers of the overall costs of approving the project. The whole point of the NEPA law (National Environmental Policy Act) is to ensure that public parties have adequate voice in federal decision-making and that the policymakers are aware of the direct and indirect impacts of a particular action.  
The Department of the Interior specifically created a "fast track" list of projects that it sought to approve before the end of the year so that energy companies could qualify for government subsidies, which were set to expire next year.  In doing so, however, the Department of the Interior modified its policy toward the permitting of energy projects without proper environmental review, and began to cut corners in order to expedite approval.  The Imperial Valley Solar project was on the "fast track" list.

The project is located in Colorado Desert habitat in Southern California.  In addition to sites of cultural significance, the project would have impacts on the threatened flat-tailed horned lizard and foraging habitat for Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.

Ten square miles of mirrors would replace prime desert habitat and sites of historical and cultural significance.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sierra Club Concerned About Rushed Calico Solar Approval Process

The Sierra Club informed the California Energy Commission's (CEC) that it should not approve the Calico Solar power project given concerns about the impact on desert tortoises on the 7 square mile site.  The Sierra Club objected to the rushed nature of the approval process that did not include adequate opportunities for public input, especially when the revised layout was decided between the CEC and Tessera Solar LLC.

According to comments submitted to the CEC and stated during a 22 October evidentiary hearing, the Sierra Club pointed to the unfinished nature of the desert tortoise translocation plan, which the CEC considered sufficient mitigation despite concerns that receptor sites for relocated tortoises would not be adequate.  Also, the fact that construction at the Calico Solar site will begin beyond late October could reduce the ability of biologists to find and relocate tortoises since the tortoises likely will be hibernating.

Another very significant point made by the Sierra Club, the CEC approved the project without considering the impacts of a 67 mile transmission line that will be necessary in order to bring the project online.  The transmission line will likely cut through more desert tortoise habitat and areas of critical environmental concern.  By approving the project without considering the unavoidable impacts of a transmission line, the CEC was committing itself to the damages the transmission line will bring without considering those consequences.