Friday, December 31, 2010

A Riddle for the New Year

What is the difference between a hydropower dam that submerges vast swaths of public land to feed our energy needs, and several massive utility-scale solar energy facilities that fragment pristine desert habitat?
  • Both count as "renewable energy"
  • They will both require costly and destructive transmission lines
  • They drive endangered species closer to extinction and upset the health of entire ecosystems
Utility-scale solar and wind power facilities are not the "guilt free" answers to global warming.  The blessing of solar and wind is that it is scalable--we can put solar panels and wind turbines in our back yard, in the middle of cities, and on rooftops.  Until we realize this potential, we are stuck in the same destructive energy paradigm that brought us the Glen Canyon Dam, dwindling fish stocks, and submerged wilderness.  But this time the the bulls-eye will be on the Mojave Desert as bulldozers make way for fields of mirrors and solar panels.  This is not the future.  It is just a shinier version of the past.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Calico Solar Site Sold to K Road Solar LLC

In a surprise move, Tessera Solar LLC sold its development rights on 7.2 square miles of pristine Mojave Desert habitat to K Road Solar LLC, according to an announcement on Tuesday.  Tessera Solar LLC's parent company, Ireland-based NTR, could not afford to build a solar project on the site after receiving approval from the Department of the Interior.  Tessera and NTR announced the sale on the same day that a lawsuit was filed against the Department of the Interior for improperly approving development on the Calico solar site, among 5 other projects.

The Calico solar power project site is home to at least 22 desert tortoises, a pocket of rare desert wildflowers known as white-margined beardtongue, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, and other special status species. 

Desert tortoise photographed on the Calico Solar power project site.  Photo from the Department of the Interior biological review documents.
K Road Solar LLC announced its intent to increase the energy yield on the site from 663 MW to 850 MW, using more photovoltaic panels instead of Stirling Engine technology proposed by Tessera.  The increase in yield could mean a larger footprint, and the different technology used on the site may warrant another environmental review to determine the impacts of the changes.  K Road will also have to reacquire a power purchase agreement, since Southern California Edison canceled the contract it signed with Tessera.

K Road's acquisition and plans to bulldoze the site are an unwelcome continuation of the threat that has loomed over this pristine desert for the past two years.

Photo of the Calico Solar site from BLM EIS documents.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Legal Challenge Filed Against Six Solar Projects in California's Desert

A coalition of Native American and civic groups filed a legal challenge against the Department of the Interior for approving six massive solar power projects in California's desert, alleging that the Department did not conduct adequate environmental reviews and did not properly consult with Native American tribes.  The legal challenge points to several Federal statutes that the Department of the Interior ignored in its "fast track" approval of the solar projects.  The collective intent of the statutes is to ensure that the Federal government fully considers the consequences of its proposed actions -- in this case, providing public land and taxpayer-backed financing to several energy companies so they can build on over 40 square miles of mostly pristine desert habitat and cultural landmarks.

The lawsuit challenges the Department of the Interior's review process for the following six solar power projects:
  • BrightSource Energy LLC's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (ISEGS)
  • Tessera Solar LLC's Calico Solar power project
  • Teserra Solar LLC's Imperial Valley Solar power project
  • Solar Millennium's Blythe Solar power project
  • NextEra Energy Resources LLC's Genesis Solar power project
  • Chevron's Lucerne Valley solar project

The challenge alleges violations of the following statutes:
  • Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)
  • National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)
  • National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
  • Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA)
  • Administrative Procedures Act (APA)
Assuming the Department of the Interior handled the review process for all of the six projects just as they handled the Imperial Valley Solar project (also among the 6), the plaintiffs stand a decent chance of winning an injunction that could at least temporarily halt efforts to bulldoze the sites.  A Federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush in 2003 ruled earlier this month that the Department of the Interior did not adequately follow the law under NHPA when it authorized the Imperial Valley solar project.   Under NHPA, the government was obligated to carry out thorough "government-to-government" consultations with Native American tribes when deciding whether or not to allow construction on the Imperial site, which contained over 400 cultural artifacts that would have been destroyed, including burial grounds.

Impacts on sites of cultural heritage were apparently ignored in the review of the other 5 projects, as well. Among the concerns, the lawsuit highlights the Department's approval of the Ivanpah solar power project in the northeastern Mojave Desert:
"...approval of the Ivanpah Project will result in the intentional excavation, disposal, or other removal of Native American cultural items (including human remains) known to be or strongly suspected of being on the site of the Project without compliance with the conditions necessary for excavation, disposal, or other removal."
The Department of the Interior likely placed immense pressure on local field offices to conduct the review expeditiously, since President Obama touted solar energy and American Reinvestment and Recovery Act grants and loans for the projects as part of his energy agenda.  Although renewable energy is necessary in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Department of the Interior's interest in quickly generating renewable energy success stories unfortunately dovetailed with poor siting decisions by energy companies over the past two years.  Rather than the careful placement of renewable energy on already-disturbed land or in population centers, energy companies rushed to submit applications for public land totaling well over 500 square miles in California alone, without concern for the ecological or cultural value of the proposed sites.

Desert botanist James Andre, Ph.D summarized the rushed nature of the Department's approval process: "Rather than be smart from the start by utilizing ecologically degraded sites first, a reckless and scientifically unmerited decision has been made to instead race into our most pristine desert and obliterate some of the most botanically significant lands in California."

A noted energy engineer, Mr. Bill Powers, criticized the approval process from an economic efficiency standpoint: "So the Orwellian aspect of the government involvement in this process is that now instead of the analysis being focused on is this a cost effective project, is it a project that will minimize or eliminate environmental damage, is it a good investment strategically for this state, all of that is secondary for the race to get the permit so that the project can get a 30 percent cash grant. In this case -- that's $600 million up front per project. So the money is so big that it's now like a bull rush to the finish line."  Many analysts following renewable energy believe that utility-scale solar energy projects could not operate without government subsidies, and would produce power that costs far more to produce and transmit to the cities from the middle of the deserts.

The underlying concern of the lawsuit, however, is what could be lost if the projects move forward, and whether or not the government is even aware of the cumulative impacts of its overall policy to expedite approval of renewable energy on public land.  The Department of the Interior took policy steps over the past two years that purposefully expedited the review process for solar power projects in California's deserts, including a memorandum of understanding between Washington and Sacramento that ordered a quicker process and encouraged solar energy projects in "solar energy zones" that were still being studied under a broader review of energy policy.  The Department's agreement with California ordered:
Place a high priority on processing applications for solar development in any areas ultimately identified as solar energy zones through the Solar Energy Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (Solar PEIS) and renewable energy zones identified in the DRECP and in the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI).”
Through the memorandum of understanding and "fast track" list, the Department of the Interior created a new policy to meet Federal objectives that had not been completely reviewed under the Solar Energy Programmatic EIS, for which a draft was only recently releasedThe "fast track" list and agreement with California set the stage for landscape-scale environmental and cultural damage that was not fully addressed before implementing the new policies.  Failure of the Department to complete a programmatic EIS aside, the Department's policies showed deference to energy companies in the individual reviews of each of the solar projects, and the historical and environmental review process simply became an arbitrary box to be checked before the government approved the handover of public land.

The review process should have been conducted with the intent of fully understanding the overall impacts of the projects and the Department's policies, including what cultural sites would be lost or damaged, and how the Mojave and Sonoran desert ecosystems would be altered when fragmented by multiple large industrial sites.

Federal and State agency leadership only took steps to curb the demands of energy companies in certain instances when US Fish and Wildlife and California Energy Commission (CEC) analysts rang the alarm regarding the extent of environmental damage some projects would cause.  For instance, the CEC staff strongly recommended against the Ridgecrest Solar Power project because of the likelihood it could drive an important desert-dwelling squirrel closer to extinction.  US Fish and Wildlife and California Department of Fish and Game analysts expressed concern with the high number of endangered desert tortoises that would be killed or displaced by the Calico Solar power project, resulting in the CEC sending the company back to the drawing board to find a layout that reduced impacts on the tortoise.  But the Calico Solar power project was approved despite continued concerns about impacts on the desert tortoise and special status plant species, hence it remaining on the list of 6 projects identified in the legal challenge.

Ultimately, the legal challenge should be a wake-up call to the Department of the Interior leadership and energy companies, and encourage a responsible renewable energy strategy that avoids sites of cultural and environmental significance.  The result would be cheaper and cleaner energy, and the preservation of our natural and cultural heritage for future generations of Americans to enjoy.

A photo of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System site before construction.  The lawsuit asserts that the Department of the Interior's review of BrightSource Energy's application for the site ignored concerns about the presence of Native American remains there.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Measuring First Solar's Ecological Impact

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has completed initial biological surveys of First Solar Inc's proposed "Stateline" solar power project.   The surveys are part of the "Plan of Development," an initial step in the Department of the Interior's process for evaluating and approving projects proposed for public land.

 A review of the biological resources survey completed for First Solar's Stateline solar power project reveals a rich ecology on the site consistent with surveys of other nearby project sites, and suggests the public's land in the Ivanpah Valley should be conserved rather than bulldozed. If approved, the Stateline project would destroy 3.4 square miles of pristine Mojave Desert habitat.  The company is also proposing another project next to Joshua Tree National Park, and may invest in other destructive sites.

Haven for Desert Icon
Although studies of the endangered desert tortoise conducted across the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts suggest the species is far from recovery, the tortoise population in the vicinity of First Solar's Stateline solar power project suggest a relatively healthy and abundant population.  If the Stateline project is approved, construction could corner and destroy this genetically significant pocket of tortoises that are crucial to the recovery of the entire species.

A map from the Bureau of Land Management's biological survey results depicts live tortoises (green stars), and tortoise burrows (red and green triangles) observed in the vicinity of First Solar's proposed Stateline solar power project.
During biological surveys, 27 live tortoises and 34 active burrows were observed in the project study area.  Using the survey results, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates that First Solar's Stateline project area is home to 67 desert tortoises.  The calculation is imperfect but necessary since surveys are unable to identify every tortoise present on the site.   The USFWS used similar surveys and calculations for a neighboring project, but the result was a gross under-estimation of the tortoise population.  The USFWS  expected no more than 32 tortoises on BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project site, but construction crews have already displaced approximately 50 tortoises in the initial phase of the project.

The initial bulldozing (pictured above) for nearby BrightSource Energy's project has already displaced over 50 tortoises in the Ivanpah Valley.  Dozens more are likely to be encountered in future phases of construction, contributing to the decline of an otherwise healthy tortoise population.
Special Status Plants in Abundance
Much like the neighboring BrightSource Energy site, First Solar's Stateline project will also crush clusters of rare desert plants and wildflowers, including 12 observed Rusby's Desert Mallow plants, 27 occurrences of Mojave Milkweed, and 26 Parish's club cholla cactus.  The Pink Funnel Lily (androstephium breviflorum) was probably the most abundant special status plant species surveyed on the site, with over 140 occurrences, according to the BLM report.

Pink Funnel Lily, which is particularly abundant on First Solar's proposed site.  Photo: Mr. James Andre.
Air Power and the Food Chain
Identification of active Golden Eagle nests in nearby mountains suggests that the proposed Stateline project site currently serves as a foraging area for the majestic birds.  The abundance of other wildlife reveals an active food chain in which the eagles probably participate.  Approximately 145 black-tailed jackrabbits, 2 cottontail rabbits, and 3 coyotes were counted in the Stateline project study area.  A prairie falcon was spotted over the site, and sign of pallid bats roosting in a nearby rock outcropping was also recorded. Biologists assess that the site is likely home to American badger, and burrowing owls, as well.

Bleak Future
Despite the healthy ecosystem that appears to be functioning in the Ivanpah Valley, First Solar Inc hopes to begin construction on its proposed Stateline site by May 2012, assuming the Department of the Interior approves the project.  The tortoise population on the site will likely already be under added stress by that time, since tortoises will likely move to the site after being displaced by the nieghboring BrightSource Energy project.  This shift could increase competition for food sources and ideal burrow sites.  The neighboring project could also introduce new predators (such as an increased raven population initially attracted by the human development), and invasive plant species that are a less nutritious food source for the desert tortoise.

If the impacts from BrightSource Energy's project were not enough, First Solar is also planning to construct another solar facility--the Silver State project--on the other side of the Ivanpah Valley in Nevada.  The Silver State project would be larger than Stateline, but so far the Department of the Interior has only approved the smaller North phase of the Silver State project (approximately one square mile), in part because of the potential impacts to the tortoise.

The Department of the Interior's goal for the Ivanpah Valley following the construction of the BrightSource project should be stabilization and conservation, not the approval of another massive industrial facility.  This is particularly important since biologists continue to study ways to rescue the dwindling numbers of desert tortoise and the Ivanpah population is basically a gene pool that the species cannot afford to lose.  Desert plant and wildlife in the Ivanpah Valley should not be sacrificed for "clean" energy that could easily be built in our cities or on lesser quality habitat.

First Solar plans to bulldoze the site and install photovoltaic solar panels, like the ones pictured above.  The same panels can be installed on rooftops, over parking lots, or on already disturbed-land.  Photo from BLM Plan of Development

Thursday, December 23, 2010

First Solar Looking to Invest in Habitat Destruction?

According to a Reuters article, First Solar Inc may be considering purchasing development rights for one or more of Tessera Solar LLC's projects in California's deserts.  Both of Tessera Solar's projects -- Imperial Valley and Calico--are in legal limbo and Southern California Edison withdrew its power purchase agreement from the Calico Solar power project, according to the Wall Street Journal.  If First Solar were to invest in either project, they could face significant hurdles, although the company does not seem to be shying away from projects that will severely fragment the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. 

The Calico and Imperial Solar projects may be up for grabs because Tessera Solar LLC appears unable to develop the sites with its own resources.   While Tessera Solar LLC's lack of cash and unreliable technology (Stirling "SunCatchers") are probably the biggest factors contributing to the company's doomed state, its poor choice of locations with high ecological and cultural value cast doubt on the future of its proposed projects.  Tessera's Imperial Valley project was halted by a judge earlier this month after the Quechan Tribe sued the Department of the Interior for approving the project absent a thorough review of the site's cultural significance.  Tessera Solar chose a site that contained over 400 Native American cultural landmarks, including burial grounds, and the Department of the Interior failed to properly consult with the Quechan Tribe before hastily approving Tessera's project.

Tessera's Calico Solar power project was under threat of legal action from the Sierra Club and California Union for Reliable (CURE) because the project would kill or displace at least 22 desert tortoises and a rare desert wildflower.  SCE's withdrawal of the power purchase agreement from the Calico project could be one of the final nails in the coffin, although other companies could eventually seek to build on the same site.

The creosote scrub and washes on the proposed Calico Solar site provide foraging habitat for desert tortoises and bighorn sheep, while sand dunes in the lower portion of the site host threatened Mojave fringe-toed lizards.
First Solar Inc is a fast rising solar company that is making similarly poor siting decisions.  The company is proposing to build a 6.8 square mile facility adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park, and desert biologists are already concerned that initial surveys underestimate the potential ecological damage.   Portions of the site appear to support a dense tortoise population, with 22 active burrows spotted in one survey alone.

Desert Tortoise on the Desert Sunlight project site.  Photo: BLM Draft EIS
First Solar is also the proponent of two major solar installations proposed for the beleaguered Ivanpah Valley in the eastern Mojave Desert.  The Silver State and Stateline project could destroy nearly 15 square miles of pristine desert habitat that hosts a significant breeding population of desert tortoise.   The Department of the Interior has not yet issued a decision on the largest portion of the Silver State project, out of concern for the ecological damage the project would cause.  Hopefully First Solar will turn its attention to projects on already disturbed land, or apply its photovoltaic technology to projects in cities.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Desert Rain

The Mojave Desert has been pounded by nearly 5 days of rain showers that could result in another beautiful wildflower bloom next spring.   As noted in Chris Clarke's Coyote Crossing, the downside is that invasive plants also benefit from the rains, and could lead to a bad wildfire season.  Indigenous plant species do not provide as much fuel for wildfires as some of the non-indigenous species (and are less nutritious for foraging animals like the desert tortoise), and previous rainy seasons were followed by wildfires that can wipe out acres of old-growth vegetation that will not grow back quickly.

Below are some pictures of the swollen Mojave River as it passes through Victorville, California on Wednesday.  The photographs were taken during a break in the weather, but heavy showers resumed in the Western Mojave Desert on Wednesday night.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Solar Programmatic Draft EIS Available

The Departments of Interior and Energy released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for the program to establish "solar energy zones" (SEZ) in America's southwestern deserts.  The Draft EIS evaluates the SEZs and other proposed permitting policies and guidelines that would streamline the process for government approval of solar energy projects on public land.  The Solar Energy Zones proposed for California cover approximately 530 square miles, far more land than is being considered in other states.

If done correctly, the program could steer more energy development to already-disturbed lands, and away from pristine desert habitat.  However, a cursory review of the SEZs proposed for California indicates that the Department of the Interior is still considering solar energy development in areas already confirmed to be of high ecological and cultural value, such as the Pisgah area (near the proposed Calico Solar power project) and the Imperial Valley. The Chuckwalla Valley in California's Sonoran Desert would also host one of the largest Solar Energy Zones that could severely fragment this area's habitat if the zone is not carefully configured.

The release of the Draft EIS starts a 90-day public comment period.  Stay tuned for a more in-depth assessment of the proposed Solar Energy Zones in California's deserts.  To view the DOI press release, you can visit the Desert Protective Council's website.

Judge Halts Tessera Solar Project

U.S. District Court Judge Larry Burns granted an injunction this week that prevents Tessera Solar LLC from moving forward with its Imperial Valley Solar project in response to a lawsuit filed by the Quechan Tribe against the Department of the Interior.  The Imperial project would have destroyed over 9 square miles of Sonoran desert habitat that also held over 400 sites of cultural significance to the Quechan Tribe, including burial grounds.

Judge Burns--who was appointed to the bench by President Bush in 2003--chided the Department of the Interior  for "gliding" over its statutory responsibility to consult with the Quechan Tribal government before approving the project, which would be built on public land and would have been awarded taxpayer-backed financing.  Judge Burns' order underscored the shallow nature of what the Department presented as evidence of "consultations."  The order summarized letters that the Department sent to the Quechan Tribe, dismissing the tribe's concerns and approving the destruction of the cultural sites without meaningful consultation with the tribe's representatives.
"BLM's invitation to "consult," then, amounted to little more than a general request for the Tribe to gathers its own information about all sites within the area and disclose it at public meetings. Because of the lack of information, it was impossible for the Tribe to have been consulted meaningfully as required in applicable regulations.  The documentary evidence also discloses almost no "government-to-government" consultations.  While public informational meetings, consultations with individual tribal members, meetings with government staff or contracted investigators, and written updates are obviously a helpful and necessary part of the process, they don't amount to the "government-to-government" consultation contemplated by the regulations."
The decision is the first legal strike against the Department of the Interior's "fast track" approval process for renewable energy, which concerned citizens believe rushed the environmental review process and reflected political momentum behind industrial-scale solar energy more than a careful examination of the impacts of proposed projects.  Part of the first wave of massive solar proposals in California's desert, Tessera Solar LLC selected the Imperial site apparently without regard for its ecological and cultural significance, and the Department of the Interior hastily approved the project in October in order to meet Washington's goal to build 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public land. 

Tessera Solar LLC's CEO Robert Lukefahr complained that the judge's decision prevents his company from providing renewable energy and jobs to Southern California.  Lukefahr's company is beset with problems, ranging from complicated technology plagued by noise and mechanical failure, lack of investment, and poor siting decisions.  Tessera Solar's other California proposal--the Calico Solar power project--was approved for construction on over 6 square miles of public land that is home to a high density desert tortoise population and wildlife corridor.  Although the Department of the Interior also approved this site, it has been scaled down due to environmental concerns and may face a legal challenge from the Sierra Club and California Unions for Reliable Energy.

Tessera Solar's legal woes could have been avoided if the company had simply taken the time to identify and consolidate already-disturbed lands for its project, avoiding ecologically and culturally sensitive areas.  Exemplars of projects on already-disturbed land include the Beacon and Abengoa Solar power projects.  Although scrutinized for their use of water-intensive technology, the projects were approved earlier this year with minimal mitigation costs and no legal intervention since they are being built on fallow agricultural land.  

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ivanpah Valley: Before And After

Basin and Range Watch has posted photographs of the Ivanpah Valley, before and after BrightSource Energy began bulldozing old growth desert vegetation there.  I have copied a couple of the photos below, but check out the Basin and Range Watch site for a full report and aerial photos.  Sadly, these photos only represent the initial phase of construction, and several more square miles will be destroyed for the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.  During this initial phase construction workers have displaced 40 endangered desert tortoises.

You can read a previous post on another energy company's plans to add to the destruction of the Ivanpah Valley.  First Solar Inc plans to built two massive facilities on nearly 15 square miles of prime tortoise habitat-- the Stateline and Silver State solar projects.

Photo from Basin and Range Watch

Photo from Basin and Range Watch website

Monday, December 13, 2010

Important Week for America's Deserts

Stay tuned this week for a few policy and legal developments that will have an impact on our southwestern deserts, including the Mojave.

1.) Solar Programmatic Draft EIS:  The Department of the Interior is expected to release the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) for its program to rapidly site and permit massive solar facilities on public land, mostly in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.  Once the draft EIS is available,  probably by the end of the week, the Department of the Interior will accept public comments.  One of the key components to watch for are the boundaries of its proposed "solar energy zones," where utility-scale energy projects will be encouraged.  The initial "study zones" proposed late last year included ecologically important sites near the Cady Mountains in the Mojave, and throughout the Chuckwalla Valley in the Sonoran Desert.  Projects already approved for these areas by the Federal government and State of California threaten to displace or kill scores of desert tortoises, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, Western burrowing owls, and rare desert wildflowers.

2.) Big Solar vs. Cultural Heritage:   On 15 December a judge is expected to rule on whether or not to grant an injunction against the Department of the Interior's approval of the Imperial Valley Solar project, which was proposed by Tessera Solar LLC.  The Quechan Tribe filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior, alleging that the agency approved Tessera Solar's project without conducting a thorough review of the cultural landmarks that would be destroyed by the massive solar facility.  Tessera Solar's parent company, Ireland-based NTR, recently announced that it would hold off on construction of the project since investors have shied away from its relatively expensive and noisy "SunCatcher" technology.  If the lawsuit moves forward, however, it could nonetheless strike a blow to the Department of the Interior for its insufficient "fast track" environmental review of several large solar facilities this year.

3.) The Last Days of the 111th Congress:  It's almost the end of the year, and Congress is frantically trying to wrap up unfinished business.   Two items to watch include the possible extension of the Treasury Grant Program (TGP), and the California Desert Protection Act of 2010.    The TGP is a component of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act that provided grants to renewable energy developers.  Unfortunately, some of the ARRA incentives benefited utility-scale projects in California and Nevada deserts that threaten to destroy over 40 square miles of habitat for endangered species.  Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar has promised to do a better job of siting renewable energy facilities to avoid pristine desert.  The barometer for Secretary Salazar's promise will be his decisions on First Solar Inc's Stateline and Desert Sunlight projects, which could have devastating impacts on desert ecology, but they are early in the environmental review process.

While TGP's chances of passage are favorable, the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010, S.2921) may not make its way out of Congress this year.  The Senate is considering pulling together an omnibus lands bill that would package dozens of proposed conservation so that Congress can pass them all at once.  CDPA 2010 has not yet been reported to the Senate floor by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which means that it is unlikely to be included in the omnibus package.  There are still ways of making CDPA 2010 happen, and Senator Feinstein reportedly is working hard to advance the legislation.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

California To Begin Charging For Sun Delivery

In Governor Schwarzenegger's weekly radio address, he complained about the length of time required to permit the Sunrise Powerlink -- a two billion dollar transmission line that is intended to deliver solar energy from California's Imperial Valley to San Diego.  What he neglected to mention is that the Sunrise Powerlink will not carry energy from "green" sources, and it will cost the ratepayer more money.   Yes, utility-scale solar energy will reduce carbon emissions overall, but America's southwestern deserts--treasured for recreation, wildlife, tranquility, and our cultural heritage--will be given away to energy companies, along with taxpayers' money, ignoring a cheaper option.

Not So "Green"
The Governor boasted about his office's progress in approving nearly 5000 MW of renewable energy.  Unfortunately, most of the utility-scale projects that his office encouraged through the California Energy Commission (CEC) permitting process will bulldoze vast swaths of pristine desert ecosystems and fragment habitat for threatened and endangered species.  California's "progress" in renewable energy is dubious.  By encouraging and permitting massive solar facilities on public land--instead of distributed generation or "rooftop solar"--the State will cause environmental damage similar to those of coal mines or hydro power dams.  But as long as the Governor calls it "green" energy, it's worth the cost.

The Governor's motorcade drives past protesters after he celebrated the groundbreaking for BrightSource Energy's 5.6 square miles solar facility in the Ivanpah Valley, which has already displaced over 40 desert tortoises.
Now that California has handed over 40+ square miles of our open space to big solar energy companies, the State has to sell a destructive companion of utility-scale energy--transmission lines that stretch over one hundred miles from our deserts to the cities.    In his radio address, the Governor writes off the public's natural resources and says "you can have all the power in the world out in the desert,"  referring to the projects he approved to be built in the middle of prime desert tortoise habitat and on top of Native American landmarks, "but if you can't bring it in, you have nothing."  Apparently the Governor feels that America's southwestern deserts are something like an old storage shed.  Americans have enjoyed and profited from the Mojave and Sonoran deserts for centuries, but never has our country sought to exploit and destroy these ecosystems on the scale being proposed for so-called "green energy".

California Will Charge You for Sun Delivery
Governor Schwarzenegger was complaining in his radio address because concerned citizens opposed his approval of the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line.  If the transmission line is built, California will have to deal with even more protests.  The Sunrise Powerlink line will cost over $2 billion dollars to build.  Hundreds of miles of expensive spooled copper, acres of undisturbed land, tons of steel, and a damaged environment -- all so California can deliver sunshine to San Diego.  That cost will be added to Californians' electricity bills,  just like the loan guarantees, and cash grants for the solar companies building on public land. 

BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System will receive a taxpayer-backed $1.4 billion loan guarantee, and Tessera Solar LLC and First Solar Inc scrambled this year to qualify for taxpayer funded grants so that they could afford to build their industry on public land and public dime.  Energy analysts have warned that utility-scale solar energy projects will lead to higher costs for ratepayers.  Why?  Because the technology is more expensive than the photovoltaic panels that you can place on your rooftop, and because the new solar facilities will require expensive transmission lines.

Notice how the sunlight looks the same in this picture as it does in your backyard?  Apparently California did not notice, and has to build $1 billion dollar transmission lines to bring it to your house.  For the same money, we could get a lot more solar panels built in our cities and on our rooftops. Photo courtesy of Basin and Range Watch.
Who is the NIMBY?
Proponents of California's poor decisions--mostly those that stand to profit from the energy companies--label people that want something better than utility-scale solar and costly transmission lines as NIMBYs (not in my backyard).  This is a false accusation.  Unlike the flow of a river, or coal locked in a mountain, solar and wind potential exists in our backyard. Rooftop solar would actually realize the full potential of renewable energy -- the sun shines on rooftops and parking lots as much as it does in the wilderness.  The reason energy companies want to shut down opponents is because their control of the profits is jeopardized by rooftop solar.  The companies cannot receive multi-million dollar cash grants and public land from the taxpayers if people install energy in their backyards.  In an ironic twist, big energy companies have become the NIMBY whiners.

What's New?
So what is so new about California's renewable energy strategy?  The State will destroy natural resources, build miles of transmission lines to deliver the same sun shine you get in your backyard, hand land and money over to private companies, and then add a line-item to your electricity bill to pay for it all.  Governor Schwarzenegger calls this an "example to the nation."  To add insult to injury, a 709 megawatt solar facility in the Imperial Valley that the State used as a justification for the Sunrise Powerlink may not move forward because investors are hesitant to pay for a bad idea, and the company cannot get enough grant money from Uncle Sam.

What would be a better option would be to divert the public's money back to the taxpayer, giving them tax rebates for installing rooftop solar panels and allowing them to invest in their own homes and energy sources.  California could institute a "feed in tariff," a policy that pays citizens for excess energy that their solar panels generate and is fed back into the system.  Feed in tariffs are credited for the creation of jobs and several gigawatts of rooftop solar in other countries.   In California, we deprive taxpayers of energy independence, and created a welfare program for big solar.  Next time you see an image of a transmission line or a vast solar facility in the middle of our open space, think about the lost money and opportunities, and call up the Governor's office to ask for renewable energy generation in our cities and backyards.

Protesters rally against Governor Schwarzenegger's approval of the Sunrise Powerlink, and call for distributed generation, also known as "rooftop solar."

The Sunrise Powerlink will cross over miles of undisturbed wilderness, like the hills pictured here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Calico and Imperial Solar Projects in Comatose State

Dublin-based NTR has decided to hold off on the Calico and Imperial Solar power projects indefinitely.  NTR is the parent company for Tessera Solar LLC, which received approval from the California Energy Commission and Department of the Interior to build the two utility-scale solar projects--Calico and Imperial--on a combined total of over 19 square miles of public land.

According to the Irish Times, NTR did not have the financial resources available to move the projects forward, but could float stock at a later date that would bring the necessary investment to the company.  The article did not suggest a timeline for when they would reconsider moving forward with the two projects.

Citizens concerned about Tessera Solar LLC's business decisions pointed out that the Calico Solar power project would destroy prime desert tortoise habitat, killing or displacing at least 22 desert tortoises and destroying one of the few remaining populations of the rare white-margined beardtongue wildflower.   As of early December, the Sierra Club and California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) were considering taking legal action to stop the Calico project.

The Imperial Solar project was proposed to be built on a site that is home to the threatened flat-tailed horned lizard, and several landmarks of value to the Quechan Tribe.  The tribe filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior earlier in the fall, alleging that the Department did not heed the tribe's requests for a proper review of historical and cultural resources on the site before granting approval to Tessera Solar's project. 

Beyond the poor siting decisions by Tessera Solar LLC, the company has adopted a technology that is extremely noisy and probably requires more maintenance than other solar technologies.  The projects would have each hosted tens of thousands of giant "SunCatcher" dishes which track the sun during the day, and contain a "Stirling Engine." The engine is notorious for noise levels that could reach up to 75 decibels, which you can sample on a previous post.  Such levels of noise probably would drive away surrounding wildlife, eroding nearby habitat quality.

It's not clear if either Sierra Club or the Quechan Tribe will move forward with litigation against the project approvals, or if the company's decision to hold off on construction will make the purpose of legal action moot.    Stay tuned...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

First Solar, Inc Adds to Destruction of Ivanpah Ecosystem

First Solar Inc. is proposing to build two projects in the Ivanpah Valley which will have significant cumulative impacts on plants and wildlife in the northeastern Mojave.  Although one of First Solar's projects has already received partial approval, the company's second project can expect intense opposition.

Earlier this year, BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (ISEGS) was approved for construction by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and California Energy Commission (CEC).  The ISEGS project alone will destroy 5.6 square miles and is expected to kill or displace well over 40 desert tortoises, but there are other projects planned that could continue to deprive the Ivanpah Valley of its threatened plant and wildlife. 

First Solar, Inc. is proposing to build its "Stateline" project on approximately 3.4 square miles of public land just north of the ISEGS site.  An initial study conducted by First Solar observed 27 tortoises on the site, and special status plants such as the Mojave milkweed, Parish's club-cholla, and small flowered-androstephium.  Basin and Range Watch provides a more thorough overview of the First Solar Stateline project on its website.

On the other side of the Ivanpah Valley but in Nevada, First Solar is planning to build the Silver State project on over 12 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat.  In the Environmental Impact Statement for the Silver State project, the BLM expressed concerns for the viability of the desert tortoise population in the Ivanpah Valley.  The tortoises belong to an evolutionary significant unit, which means the gene pool of the Ivanpah Valley tortoises is important to the long-term health of the entire species across America's southwest.  
Map of projects proposed for the Ivanpah Valley from the Basin and Range Watch website.
Despite BLM's concerns about the tortoise, the Department of the Interior approved the first phase of the Silver State project, and is beginning its review of the Stateline project soon.  ISEGS was approved earlier in the year.  Combined, all three projects will destroy over 21 square miles of the Ivanpah Valley, eroding the quality of the remaining habitat in the area. 

First Solar's Stateline project can expect hefty opposition, however.  The cumulative environmental impacts on wildlife in the northeastern Mojave are mounting quickly, hastened by First Solar's Silver State and BrightSource's ISEGS.  The Stateline project's close proximity to the ISEG's project means that tortoises "relocated" from the ISEGS project will be placed in jeopardy again, an impact that was not adequately considered in the ISEGS environmental review.  Tortoises being found on the ISEGS site are being released just outside the project boundaries, and could stray into and inhabit the desert being considered for the Stateline project.  For tortoises that survive the initial relocation, a second relocation may prove too stressful, reducing the chances of their survival.

It's not clear why First Solar, Inc. continues to view it's Stateline project as viable, given the opposition experienced by BrightSource Energy's ISEGS project and given the biological resources already found on the site.   First Solar's poor site choice will also affect its bottom line.  In BrightSource's case, the company will have to spend over $20 million just for desert tortoise habitat compensation because of the high quality of the habitat it chose to build upon.   First Solar can expect similar costs, if its Stateline project is approved.

Part of the  desert currently being bulldozed for the ISEGS project.  First Solar's Stateline project would be built immediately beyond the hills in the background.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Alert: Take Action for CDPA 2010

According to the latest news from Capitol Hill, the current omnibus lands bill (a combination of many proposed conservation bills into one piece of legislation) does not currently include the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (S. 2921), or any wilderness designations in California's deserts.    Senator Feinstein introduced the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010) late last year, but it has not yet been reported from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  CDPA 2010 is unlikely to be included in an omnibus lands bill until it has passed from the committee, but time is running out.

Call or e-mail Senator Feinstein's staff to urge them to work to include the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 in the final omnibus bill.  Otherwise, the chances of wilderness protection in California's deserts next year are dim.   CDPA 2010 would set aside over over 1 million acres of pristine desert for conservation, including areas along Historic Route 66, and establish two new national monuments.

Take Action:
Senator Feinstein's office:  send her staff an email from the Senator's official website, or call her Washington DC office at (202) 224-3841.

For more information on CDPA 2010, you can read this blog's previous post or go to the Campaign for the California Desert website.

A map of the land use provision of the bill is copied below:

CA Desert Protection Act Map

Monday, December 6, 2010

Glimmer of Hope for the Desert Bill

The U.S. Senate is considering legislation that would combine several land and water conservation bills into one package--called an omnibus bill--and putting it up for a vote before Congress concludes business at the end of the year.  Senator Feinstein's proposed California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010, S. 2921) could be a part of the omnibus bill.  If CDPA 2010 is not included, or if the omnibus bill never materializes, the proposed National Monuments in California's Mojave and Sonoran deserts may never receive protected status.

As a recap for those not familiar with the bill,  CDPA 2010 would balance conservation of natural areas and preservation of recreation opportunities by establishing:
  • Mojave Trails National Monument: 941,413 acres of Mojave Desert along Historic Route 66 and the southern boundary of the Mojave National Preserve.  Many of the valleys in this area were proposed for industrial development, and could still be vulnerable to destructive uses if the legislation does not pass.
  • Sand to Snow National Monument:  133,524 acres of habitat connecting desert habitat adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park and wilderness in the high country of San Bernardino National Forest.
  • Additional or expanded wilderness: 346,108 acres of new wilderness areas or additional acreage for existing wilderness areas.  Much of the new or added wilderness would be in the northern Mojave Desert. The western Mojave and northern Colorado Desert region (part of the Sonoran Desert) would not see many new protections.
  • Recreation areas: The bill would legislatively designate five off-highway vehicle (OHV) use areas, all in the Mojave Desert.  As a compromise for designating land within proposed monuments or wilderness areas as off-limits to OHV, the legislation would secure off-road enthusiasts' access to several large parcels of land.

CA Desert Protection Act Map

CDPA 2010 was introduced by Feinstein in December 2009, but Congress had other priorities this year and has very few environmental accomplishments to boast about.  An omnibus lands bill would probably be the hallmark environmental achievement for the 2009-2010 Congress, if it can make it through in the next week or two.  The problem is that the omnibus bill is not even on the Senate calendar yet, and it would have to also pass the House without getting caught up in negotiations.  For this to happen, the House would need to pass it with a 2/3 vote, which is not a sure bet. 

California's deserts are badly in need of extra protection, as energy development is likely to destroy hundreds of square miles of pristine desert over the next few years.  The BLM approved over 40 square miles of solar energy projects in California this year alone.   The new monuments and wilderness could help protect vital wildlife corridors and outdoor recreation areas that will otherwise be lost to big energy companies.

If you have the time to spare, e-mail or call your Senate and House representatives to encourage them to pass an omnibus lands bill that includes the California Desert Protection Act of 2010, designated as S.2921.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tessera Solar LLC -- Constrained by Noisy Technology?

Tessera Solar LLC -- the company that plans to build two large solar energy projects in Southern California--uses "SunCatcher" technology that has been criticized for its high levels of noise.  Never mind the fact that Tessera Solar's two proposed sites--Calico and Imperial--would kill or displace endangered species and bulldoze cultural landmarks, once the company installs tens of thousands of "SunCatchers,"  it will quickly earn itself a reputation as a noisy neighbor, as well.

Most solar energy companies do not have the same problem that Tessera does, since other forms of concentrating solar are quieter, and photovoltaic panels being the most adaptable since you can put a few on your rooftop.  Tessera Solar LLC invented a technology that is far less pleasant to build next door, which may be why the company prefers to build in the middle of our treasured public lands.

Unfortunately, wildlife too can be disturbed by loud noises.  A study of bird life around natural gas wells in New Mexico found that the noisy operations drove some birds away from surrounding habitat.  We can expect the same effect with Tessera Solar's project sites, since the loud noise levels could disturb and drive away wildlife in the habitat surrounding the site. 

Check out the video below for a sample of the noise that Tessera is bringing to the Mojave Desert.  Each SunCatcher projects sunlight onto the receiver above the dish, which contains a multi-piston engine.  It is this engine that generates the noise.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Free Next Weekend? Volunteer in the Mojave

The Mojave Desert Land Trust is holding another land restoration event in Joshua Tree National Park on 11 December.  You can volunteer by contacting their stewardship coordinator, Mizuki Seita at or call 760-366-0542.

More details are available on the Land Trust's website, and you can also check their calendar for other volunteer opportunities in Joshua Tree and the Mojave National Preserve.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rice Solar Project Tests the Definition of Wilderness

At face value, the Rice Solar power project seems much less harmful compared to other solar projects approved by the California Energy Commission (CEC), including the destructive Ivanpah, Calico or Imperial Solar projects.  The project is proposed for about 2.5 square miles of mostly privately owned land with low quality desert habitat.  The project could result in the death or displacement of approximately 7 desert tortoises,  a smaller impact compared to the 40 desert tortoises already found at the Ivanpah Solar project site.

If it receives final approval, however, the project's small 2.5 square mile footprint will host a giant tower rising 653 feet above the ground, that could project glare comparable to half the brightness of the sun, according to CEC analysis.  The tower and its glare will be visible from 737 square miles surrounding the project.   The project will be visible from four separate wilderness areas.

The orange shading depicts the 737 square miles of surrounding open desert from which the Rice Solar power project will be visible.  Map from CEC Draft EIS.
Similar receiver towers operating in Spain, although these examples exist near the built environment and not land valued for its wilderness qualities.
The Presiding Member's Proposed Decision -- which is the second-to-final step before a project can proceed with construction--expressed the CEC's intent to approve the project.  The CEC Staff, however, recently filed a statement urging the Presiding Member to revise their decision to acknowledge the significant impacts on visual resources.  The CEC Staff judged that the proposed decision downplayed the affect of the project on visual resources in the area.

The CEC Staff argued that the impact of the project's visibility from such great distances would essentially erode the value of surrounding wilderness areas, which provide a unique isolation from the built environment and allow Americans to enjoy nature in its pristine state.  The Staff expressed concern that downplaying the Rice Solar energy project's visual impacts would contradict the CEC's "policy disfavoring hodgepodge development of large solar energy projects and could encourage developers to target renewable energy development in remote and pristine areas. " (emphasis added) 

If the presiding member accepts the Staff's recommendation, they will at least revise their approval to acknowledge the significant visual impacts, and issue an "override finding," which is a policy tool used by the CEC to dismiss significant environmental or cultural concerns with the belief that a project's benefits (renewable energy) justify the loss of natural or cultural resources.  Alternatively, the presiding member could reverse their decision and recommend an alternative configuration for the project.   If the developer chose to use a different solar technology that does not involve the 653 foot tower, such as photovoltaics, the visual impacts would probably be greatly reduced.

CEC Reinstates Calico Project, but Hurdles Loom

The California Energy Commission (CEC) reinstated its approval of Tessera Solar LLC's Calico Solar power project, but California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE) and the Sierra Club are still considering litigation to stop Tessera Solar LLC from building on pristine desert habitat.  Tessera Solar LLC proposed building its Calico Solar project on over 7.2 square miles of public land that is home to a high density of desert tortoises, a rare desert wildflower, and serves as a wildlife corridor for threatened bighorn sheep.  If the project moves forward, Tessera Solar LLC would bulldoze the land and install over 26,000 giant "SunCatchers."

Tessera Solar LLC's other project in California is also facing a hurdle due to poor site selection.  The company is proposing to build the Imperial Solar project on over 9 square miles of public.  The Quechan Tribe filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior for allowing the project to be built on public land without conducting a thorough review of culturally significant landmarks on the site.   The Imperial Solar site is also home to threatened flat-tailed horned lizards.