Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Have We Been Fooled by Calico Solar?

This is the story of a solar power project that was approved by State and Federal Governments even though the energy company had no way of building it in the first place.  The representatives of the taxpayer are now being asked to turn a blind eye, once again.

Fool me once, shame on you.... 
Last fall the California Energy Commission (CEC) and Department of Interior approved Tessera Solar LLC's proposal to bulldoze 7 square-miles of public land for a solar power facility in the central Mojave Desert.  Both Washington and Sacramento acknowledged the significant environmental damage the project would cause to the pristine desert habitat, but rushed to approve it so Tessera Solar could qualify for over a billion dollars in taxpayer-backed stimulus funding.  The government approved the project on the basis that Tessera Solar would install thousands of SunCatcher dishes--an unproven and complicated piece of machinery.  

It turns out Tessera Solar may have misrepresented its ability to build the project in the first place, according to documents presented to the CEC.  Not long after receiving the green light from the government, Tessera Solar publicly announced that it would not be able to build the project.  That did not stop them from earning money at the taxpayer's expense.  Tessera Solar LLC sold its permission to build on public land to another company, named Calico Solar LLC.
A photo of the notorious SunCatcher dishes taken from the CEC Staff Assessment.  Tessera Solar told government regulators that it could build thousands of these to fill up 7 square miles of public land.  And then it admitted that this was not feasible.
The circumstances of Tessera Solar's apparently misleading dealings have come to light over the past few months.  During a hearing before the California Public Utilities Commission, a representative for Calico Solar LLC acknowledged that Tessera Solar sought approval for its project fully knowing that it did not have the capacity to manufacture enough SunCatcher dishes.  This is a crucial acknowledgement because the project was approved based on the company's pledge to use the SunCatcher technology.  The company that purchased Tessera Solar's permission to build on public land, Calico Solar LLC, now plans to build the project using mostly photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, with a smaller mixture of SunCatchers.

The Calico Solar power project would stretch for miles up to the Cady Mountains in the distance, displacing or killing dozens of tortoises and a pocket of rare desert wildflowers that only grows in a few other places.
Just to be clear, Calico Solar LLC bought the permission to build on public land.  No assets.  No capital.  Just a government decision that it hopes will be transferable and allow it to build on land that belongs to the taxpayer.

Fool me twice, shame on me...
Calico Solar is now demanding that the CEC expedite its approval of the revised project.  But there are two major problems.  1.) Calico Solar LLC's plans to use PV technology poses new environmental and hydrological problems, and 2.) the company claims it will still be able to install SunCatchers, even though nobody can prove that SunCatchers work or can be built on a mass scale.

Neither the CEC nor the BLM--the two governing bodies that control the future of the solar project--should have an easy time saying yes. 

The CEC's approval of the original project last year expressed confidence in the SunCatcher technology, and the CEC's regulations require that it only certify projects that are feasible and available.  According to the CEC Staff assessment:
"Applicant and Staff evaluated alternative generating technologies to the proposed project. Staff independently concluded that from an energy efficiency prospective, given the project objectives, location, air pollution control requirements, and the commercial availability of various alternative technologies, that the selected solar thermal technology [SunCatchers] is a reasonable selection."
The BLM even assessed that photovoltaic (PV) solar panels would do more harm to the desert than the proposed SunCatcher technology in its assessment of the project:

"The utility-scale solar PV technology was eliminated from detailed analysis because it would require the entire site to be graded. This would result in a greater effect on biological and cultural resources than the Calico Solar Project, which would not require grading the entire site. It would therefore have greater environmental effects than the Proposed Action."
What makes matters worse is that the new company, Calico Solar LLC, seems like it is set up to fail. 

Calico Solar LLC is owned by K Road Sun.  K Road Sun is owned by K Road Power.  K Road Power is owned indirectly by somebody who apparently does not want to have their name on a disaster. All of these layers help protect the owners in case the project fails, which may be the expected outcome.

How many employees work for Calico Solar LLC?

None.

According to testimony given to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on May 17, Calico Solar LLC's representative at the hearing self-identified as a "consultant" and rejected the "employee" title.  The consultant is also the elected "Vice President," but he is not paid by Calico Solar LLC.  He is paid by K Road Power Management, LLC.   So who owns K Road Power Management?  A Frenchman named William Kriegel indirectly owns K Road Power, according to the testimony.

If you still think it sounds like a good idea for the government to turn a blind eye to Calico Solar LLC's revised project, let me go a bit further. 


Calico Solar's decision to use a high concentration of PV panels would require thousands more poles than would have been drilled into the desert soil if they only used SunCatchers (which apparently cannot be manufactured efficiently, anyways). Not only does this mean lots of dead tortoises and extinct wildflowers, it also means the soil underneath the panels cannot hold water during major storms. Storms in the desert may be rare, but they do happen.

These poles and panels are a problem for Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad, which runs through the project area. You may think a bunch of desert rats are the only ones that care about the fate of beautiful desert landscapes and gentle desert tortoises roaming the area. But BNSF also depends on intact soils and desert habitat to keep gushing rain water from wiping out its tracks, one of the few railways feeding the metropolis of Los Angeles. Calico Solar's PV panels would bring more water run-off, more disrupted soil, and higher chances of a severed railroad. A disrupted railroad--even for just a couple of days--could bring very bad consequences for Southern California's economy.

So it's not just fun and games when a company comes along, promises to build something that it cannot afford, and sells its permission to steal public land to another company that has zero employees and expresses little intent to respect other stakeholders.

The case of Tessera Solar and Calico Solar LLC should be a lesson to the CEC and Department of Interior.  Take our public land seriously.  Profiteers set on destroying our natural treasures at any cost should not have gotten as far as they did last year.  And they should not be allowed to profit from misrepresentation, selling permission to build on public land to other speculators. 

In a bit of irony, just down the road from the the site of the proposed Calico Solar power project is a little town called Daggett.  During the late 1800s and early 1900s, miners and homesteaders chased dreams of riches hoping to turn desert soil into vast farms or striking the mother lode.  The most honest ones invested their own sweat and tears, sometimes breaking even.  But some scheming businessmen saw an opportunity to get money for nothing.  They would bring investors from Los Angeles to this part of the central Mojave Desert, show them a patch of land and spin up their imaginations.  The investors would put down money with promises of a handsome return--perhaps expecting to come back in a couple of years to see a blossoming orchard or a productive silver mine.   The scam artists would disappear, and the investors would be left with nothing but their outrage.

We should be a country of wisdom an ingenuity, not scams and mirages.  Solar technology means we can slap a solar panel on our rooftop and generate power just meters from the light bulb that is plugged into our wall.  Why should we give up vast swaths of public land and billions of taxpayer dollars to private interests when the answer is right in front of us?


This desert tortoise isn't sure that Calico Solar LLC should be allowed to bulldoze 7 square-miles of pristine desert land on the taxpayer's dime.  It's time for real solutions to global warming, not more of the same greedy energy companies that we've accepted for the past century.

8 comments:

  1. Shaun, again, another great post. Where do you get your sources? It's unbelievable to wealth of information that you have.

    On another note, and this relates somewhat to my comment on your last post, there is for me the issue of your use of 'should' and, perhaps, the frustrations that come from this word. You write:

    "We SHOULD be a country of wisdom an ingenuity, not scams and mirages."

    "The case of Tessera Solar and Calico Solar LLC SHOULD be a lesson to the CEC and Department of Interior."

    "Profiteers set on destroying our natural treasures at any cost SHOULD not have gotten as far as they did last year. And they SHOULD not be allowed to profit from misrepresentation, selling permission to build on public land to other speculators."

    I agree with you full-heartedly that these things SHOULD (or should not) be the case. And it's not that I think you don't see the connection, but what is lacking in this normative argument is the explicit acknowledgement that Corporate AND Government economic interests are so intwined as to render the distinction archaic.

    With your own interests in Native American history, you know that, whereas we should be a country of wisdom and ingenuity, it is a country built on scams and mirages, on theft, political misdealings, and genocide. And with your interests in John Muir, you know that, whereas we should not allow profiteers to destroy our pristine natural habitats, this has occurred again and again - always in the interest of profit, always in the interest of growth, always in the interest of a few of the human species at the disadvantage of the rest.

    This is why I find your prescription in our last comment discussion unsatisfactory, that of educating policy makers. It just doesn't seem to be an adequate response to the wanton disregard of these habitats or the beings that will be adversely affected by these extremely undemocratic decisions.

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  2. Shaun, another great post. Where do you get your sources? It is unbelievable the amount of information that you have!

    On another note, and this relates to our discussion in the last post, I want to talk about your use of "should" and where some frustrations might be coming from on my end. You write:

    "We SHOULD be a country of wisdom an ingenuity, not scams and mirages."

    and

    "The case of Tessera Solar and Calico Solar LLC SHOULD be a lesson to the CEC and Department of Interior. Take our public land seriously. Profiteers set on destroying our natural treasures at any cost SHOULD not have gotten as far as they did last year. And they SHOULD not be allowed to profit from misrepresentation, selling permission to build on public land to other speculators."

    Now, I agree full-heartedly with you on what should (or should not) be the case. And it's not that I think you don't see the connection, but what is lacking is an explicit acknowledgment that corporate AND government economic interests are so intwined as to make the distinction obsolete.

    With your own interests in Native American culture and history, you know, whereas we should be a country of wisdom and ingenuity, it is a country founded on scams and mirages, on political misdealings, theft and genocide (and this isn't simply a matter of American past, it's still alive and well today). Similarly, with your interests in John Muir, you know that, whereas we should not allow profiteers to destroy the country's natural habitats, it is something that has been, and continues, to happen - always for the sake of profit, of growth, of a of the human species benefitting at the expense of all other beings (human or nonhuman).

    This is why I found your response in our last discussion unsatisfactory, that of educating policy makers. That just doesn't seem like an adequate enough response to the wanton disregard for these habitats and the beings that occupy them in these violently undemocratic decisions.

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  3. Whoa, realized "unsatisfactory" comes off a bit confrontational. Sorry about that Shaun. What I mean is, given the intimate relationship between corporate and government interests, how can the discussion about environmental activism open up. Like my comment on the last post, I guess I'm wondering where you see Desert activism headed, or where would you like to see it headed, if these projects continue despite public concern.

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  4. no worries, I think I see what you're getting at. And I empathize with the frustration. I'm not sure we'll ever be done protecting our natural treasures from greed, but I do think there seems to be a greater public appreciation for wildlands in general, which is why there is such an urgency to stem climate change.

    I think we gain an edge in the battle, though, when more people are aware of what they stand to lose if the wrong decision or investment is made. People understand this for Yosemite, ANWR, and coral reefs, but they are still laden with misperceptions about deserts. I need to think more about your question on where I see desert activism headed. It's a good question. Where do you think it should be headed?

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  5. oh, and regarding your question about sources, I obtain much of the information on the status of projects by reading the environmental review documents and (even more laborious) the hearing transcripts made available by the Federal and State governments. For this project, you can find the BNSF response to the Calico Solar project at http://www.energy.ca.gov/sitingcases/calicosolar/compliance/index.html. It is quite informative.

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  6. Shaun, thanks for the link and, from one desert lover to another, I can't express how appreciative I am of the amount of work you put into your posts. This is why I didn't want to come off as confrontational. I agree with you that education about the desert is a massive and necessary project and I believe your blog does well to assist in this task.

    As far as where I would like to see desert activism go, I'm a bit green (which is why I like to ask these questions of people like yourself, Chris Clarke, et al), but here are a few things:

    First, I think it's important to articulate the connections between ecological concerns about the desert and other ecological and socio-political struggles. This means finding solidarities. We have a lot to learn from as well as teach groups interested in issues related to indigenous rights, feminism, animal rights, farmers' rights (especially those resistant to GMO agriculture), arts-based communities, student rights, and labor rights (just to name a few).

    Second, and following the first, we need to learn from and elaborate upon the practices of these groups. We can learn a lot from each of them, from occupying territories to halt development (such as the current occupation of Glen Cove by indigenous groups), to questions about industrial sabotage (ALF and ELF), to alternative forms of community, to land management and ecological practice. Some of these topics and solidarities might be politically or legally dangerous, but they at least require our engagement. And this leads me to the next point:

    Those current legal and social restrictions on environmental activism must be engaged at a very rigorous and critical level, particularly those that have placed environmental activists within the domain of 'terrorism.' 'Eco-terrorism' and those cases in which activists like Marie Mason and Eric McDavid - who are spending exorbitant amounts of time in prison for industrial sabotage (Mason) and conspiring to do so (McDavid) - must be explicitly thrown into the debate in order to articulate an alternative to the 'loss-of-profit' narrative of capital.

    Finally, I think at some point we have to stop writing, stop debating, stop educating and put ourselves between a Yucca and Deere Brush Hog.

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  7. I tried twice to post a response to your question about where desert activism could go, it tells me the comment's published and then it doesn't show up :( (and I'm dumb and didn't save the text after I was told it was published)

    Thanks for the link, Shaun. I'll try to write a response in the next few days and post it on my site. Most importantly, I wanted to thank you, from one desert lover to another, for the amount of work you put in to your posts. I agree with you that education is a massive and necessary task and I think your blog is great in aiding in that effort.

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  8. Hey Shaun, I posted a response here:

    http://ageologyofborders.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/one-direction/

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