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Showing posts from July, 2011

Death by a Thousand Cuts: Renewable Energy Plans Imperil Desert Ecosystem

Updated information from the Bureau of Land Management depicts the enormous scale of plans to build solar and wind energy facilities on mostly pristine public land, endangering iconic species such as the desert tortoise and golden eagle, locking up prized outdoor recreation areas, and forever changing the character of California's deserts.  The BLM approved a wave of applications in 2010 totaling some 40 square-miles, the most destructive of which continue to face public and legal opposition, and continues to review dozens of additional projects (sampled below) without adequately assessing the cumulative impacts of so much industrial development on desert ecosystems.

Although the Department of Interior is developing the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, both plans will likely focus on maximizing industrial development with conservation functions that are unlikely to effectively counteract the ripple effects on natur…

Shout Out to Desert Survivors

I've highlighted some great conservation groups in previous blog posts that have devoted a lot of time and passion to desert issues.  Desert Protective Council, Basin and Range Watch, Western Lands Project, and Western Watersheds Project, for example.  Another great group to check out is Desert Survivors. This non-profit has been around since 1981, advocating for desert conservation, but also organizing hiking and camping trips throughout the southwest.

They are also one of the many advocates trying to draw attention to the pitfalls of utility-scale solar on pristine public land, and the benefits of investing in distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar) instead.  Most recently they held an educational protest outside the headquarters of BrightSource Energy, which is building a 5.6 square miles solar facility that is expected to displace or kill hundreds of desert tortoises.

Shameless plug: You can become a member, support desert advocacy, receive the newsletter, and participate …

10 Million Solar Rooftops Act of 2011

Earlier this month I wrote about about legislation that could revolutionize the rooftop solar industry, making it much more accessible to homeowners.  The PACE Assessment Protection Act of 2011 (H.R.2599) would allow homeowners to finance a new rooftop solar installation through their property tax assessment, paying for it over time.  Another bill worth calling attention to is the 10 Million Solar Rooftops Act of 2011 (S.1108), which would establish competitive grants to encourage municipalities and local utilities to increase distributed solar generation.  The aim of the grants would be to streamline local permit processes, and also implement interconnection and net-metering, which would ultimately allow a homeowner to sell excess renewable energy generated by rooftop solar panels back to the grid.

Local permitting has complicated the deployment of distributed generation in some areas.  For example, a Sierra Club study in Southern California found that some cities charged permit fees…

Governor Brown's Pledge to Crush Democracy

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California Governor Jerry Brown yesterday told the renewable energy industry he would "crush" citizen opposition to massive solar facilities on pristine wild lands.  When a politician publicly vows to "crush" citizen opposition to the energy industry you have to wonder who they work for.  Governor Brown should not brush off public outrage at plans to industrialize hundreds of square miles of pristine desert as the "kind of opposition you have to crush."America wants more renewable energy, but we do not need to abandon democratic principles in order to achieve that goal.

These projects affect every community and ratepayer in California because they will wipe out treasured open spaces and increase electricity costs unnecessarily. So it's disheartening that Brown belittled the voice of voters, lamenting the fact that he had to "talk a little bit," with concerned citizens, but saying "at the end of the day you have to move forward, and Cal…

Governor Brown Misses the Point on Ivanpah

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California Governor Jerry Brown's office filed a legal brief supporting the destructive Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System in the northeastern Mojave Desert.  The legal brief was filed in response to a lawsuit from Western Watersheds Project seeking to halt construction of the Ivanpah project on the grounds that the Federal government conducted a faulty and hasty environmental review.  Since construction began, it has become clear that the earlier environmental review conducted by California and the Feds vastly underestimated the number of endangered desert tortoises on the project site.

Although the Governor is also seeking to increase distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar), his support for one of the most environmentally destructive solar projects suggests his office does not understand the poor precedent set by the Ivanpah project in destroying pristine desert instead of siting such projects on already-disturbed lands

According to the Governor's legal brief, "…

Legislation Could Revolutionize Rooftop Solar Financing

A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress this month would enable homeowners across the country to install rooftop solar and pay by installments on their local property tax assessment, also known as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE).  The PACE Assessment Protection Act of 2011 (H.R.2599) would cut red tape placed by Federal mortgage lenders (Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac) and free homeowners to take advantage of local PACE programs.  PACE does not involve government subsidies or broad taxes, and at least 27 States have adopted legislation supporting this tool, but are currently held back by the Federal mortgage lenders.

Rooftop solar installations have a positive impact on property values, according to a study by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory,  and paying for an installation over time through PACE makes such upgrades much more accessible to the public.  One pitfall in the legislation is that it may put rural communities or homeowners in lower economic brackets at a disadvantage.  The bill…

Environmental Groups Bow to Wind Industry Pressure on Bird Deaths

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Despite studies that wind energy projects are responsible for at least 440,000 bird deaths each year--a number expected to climb to one million by the year 2030--Defenders of Wildlife and the Nature Conservancy have signaled tentative agreement with voluntary wind energy guidelines that would reverse US Fish and Wildlife recommendations to protect birds, according to E&E news.  The acquiescence of big environmental groups  to energy industry demands is disheartening, underscoring the important role of organizations that work to balance conservation and renewable energy without compromising on core environmental principles, such as Solar Done Right, Western Watersheds Project, and the American Bird Conservancy.

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has registered its concern with the draft guidelines, which cut out recommendations by scientists working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the insistence of the wind energy industry.  “Given the Administration’s commitment to sc…

Caithness Solar Threatens Heart of the Mojave Desert

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A project proposed by New York-based Caithness Energy could degrade or destroy up to 6.8 square miles of public land identified by the Nature Conservancy study as "biologically core" to the health of the Mojave Desert.  The Soda Mountain Solar Project would be built on pristine desert habitat--mostly creosote scrub--and would likely disrupt an essential habitat connectivity corridor.
Desert experts fear that the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) initial review of the site does not adequately describe the importance of the area and biological resources that likely exist there.  According to the BLM Plan of Development for the project obtained by Basin and Range Watch,  the special status plant survey carried out for the plan of development was only cursory in nature and conducted in December when the extent of botanical resources are less apparent.  The plan of development also reports finding no desert tortoises on the project site, despite the relatively intact tortois…

Department of Interior Announces New Mission

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Secretary of Interior Salazar announced a dramatic change in the Department's mission today, complete with a new look for the government agency's seal.  Looking over a map of America's southwestern States, Salazar said "it's time to step into the New Energy Frontier," referring to large-scale solar and wind energy facilities.  "We've blasted mountain-tops in West Virgina for coal mines, and fracked groundwater with natural gas wells in Wyoming," he said, "but until now we have not found ways to industrialize the deserts in the southwest."  Interior's new focus is to cover as many hillsides and valleys with massive fields of wind turbines and solar panels to reduce the need for destructive gas, oil, and coal exploration, according to Salazar.

The Department's new mission statement, "Powering Our Future With America's Great Outdoors by Making them Less Great," has drawn concerns from renewable energy experts and taxp…

We Can Print Solar Cells on Paper (But We Still Bulldoze Pristine Desert?)

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Scientists at MIT have developed a way to print solar cells on paper or fabric.  Other projects have produced solar cells embedded in roof shingles and windows.  Why are we proposing to bulldoze hundreds of square miles of pristine desert and public land for archaic fields of steel and glass when we can put solar cells just about anywhere else? In our cities, over parking lots...on paper and fabric.


Stephen Colbert Takes on Natural Gas Fracking

Extracting energy resources is taking its toll on all of America's natural resources, including the Mojave Desert.  While Big Solar projects destroy pristine desert habitat and deplete ancient groundwater aquifers in the southwestern deserts, natural gas exploration is poisoning water supplies elsewhere.  Solar panels on rooftops and a clean glass of water never sounded so good.

Stephen Colbert explains (in his own special way), what a joke Big Energy can be when it tries to pretend that it does not come with any negative impacts on the environment.


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Rare Earth Mining Claims Loom Over Eastern Mojave

A review of BLM records and industry reports indicate that at least one company is consolidating old mining claims near the beleaguered Ivanpah Valley in the eastern Mojave Desert and preparing plans to start major operations.   Most of the claims being acquired date back to the 1950s, when prospectors rushed to the hills skirting the Ivanpah Valley in search of Thorium and Uranium, radioactive elements they obviously anticipated to reap financial rewards in the new nuclear age.  Thorium happens to be an element often associated with deposits of rare earth elements (REE), which are used in many of our modern luxuries, including batteries, LED lighting, solar panels, magnets, etc.

The only major mine that came of that rush in the 1950s was Molycorp's Mountain Pass mine on the west side of the Ivanpah Valley, which began producing rare earth minerals in 1952 and has expanded greatly since then.  Mountain Pass--and its history of damage to public land--may not be alone for much longe…

Destructive Ridgecrest Solar Project in Limbo

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German firm Solar Millennium LLC, and its American front company ("Solar Trust of America") recently decided to change the proposed Ridgecrest Solar power project from all concentrating solar thermal mirrors to photovoltaic panels (PV), a more economically efficient technology.  However, when Solar Millennium asked the California Energy Commission (CEC) for permission to modify its Ridgecrest project to PV technology,  the CEC staff declined to continue certification for the project and is likely to relinquish jurisdiction to another authority.  The CEC only reviews and certifies thermal energy projects, and PV technology is not classified as thermal.  The legal snag is likely to further delay consideration of the project, which the CEC staff previously assessed to be poorly sited and likely to have significant negative impacts on desert wildlife. 

Solar Millennium is desperately trying to fit a square through a round hole with the Ridgecrest project.  After the CEC staff an…

Congress Wants to Gut Conservation...Again

Here's a shocker.  The US House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations released a proposed budget for the Department of Interior that would halt new endangered species listings and gut the US Fish and Wildlife Service budget by 21%.   The National Park Service would also see a cut of 129 million dollars from last year's budget.

Bottom line: The spending bill would weaken most functions of the government that prevent the extinction of America's natural heritage and destruction of the public's land, while opening the gates to special interests that want to ravage wildlands for private profit. 

Here is the provision from page 8 of the draft bill that would bring the Endangered Species Act to a halt, preventing any funds from being used to add new plants or wildlife to the list. 
That none of the funds shall be used for implementing subsections (a), (b), (c), and (e) of section 4 of the Endangered Species Act...The bill's sponsors proudly note that they rejected…

Top 10 Myths Renewable Energy Companies Want You to Believe

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Big Solar and Wind companies still pretend they can do no harm to the environment, projecting a misleading image that glosses over the damage their projects cause.  We have to face the facts if we're going to chose the right renewable energy path--which is distributed generation (such as rooftop solar), or projects on already disturbed land (such as those identified by the EPA's RE-Powering America's Land program). 

Before I break into the list, I will say that coal and oil companies are also guilty of misinformation, and there is no doubt that their products damage the environment and our health.  But if we are going to prevent renewable energy from taking a path that also destroys our open spaces and wildlands, we need to distinguish between fact and fiction.

Here are the Top 10 myths you will hear from Big Solar and Wind energy company executives:

10.) Bulldozing the land to build massive solar or wind farms may have local impacts, but it will save the rest of the world…