Sunday, January 30, 2011

Senator Feinstein Reintroduces California Land Management Bill

Senator Feinstein reintroduced the California Desert Protection Act (CDPA 2011, S.138) this month, a necessary step in order to put the legislation back in motion after Congress adjourned last year without putting the 2010 version of the bill (CDPA 2010, S.2921) to a vote.  CDPA 2011 is mostly identical to last year's legislation, except that Senator Feinstein removed provisions seeking to streamline the permitting process for utility-scale solar energy projects, a process she has previously criticized, in particular because she believed projects should be sited on already-disturbed or private land.

CDPA 2011 will create the much needed Mojave Trails National Monument (941,000 acres), and the Sand to Snow National Monument (134,000 acres), and set aside new wilderness areas throughout the Mojave Desert.  The bill would also add land to Joshua Tree National Park, Mojave National Preserve, and Death Valley National Park.   One of Senator Feinstein's motivations in proposing the legislation was to protect hundreds of thousands of acres of land donated to the Federal government for conservation purposes.  The Department of the Interior has considered allowing destructive solar energy development on these lands, dishonoring the donors. 

Perhaps indicative of difficult times ahead for conservation legislation, Senator Feinstein included provisions in the legislation that provide compromises for energy companies and off-road vehicle enthusiasts that could undermine the intent to conserve desert ecosystems for future generations.  The bill would permanently create 5 off-road vehicle recreation areas, mostly in the Mojave Desert, and would permit some off-road vehicle use on designated routes in"special management areas".    Management of the two new national monuments would also permit construction of new transmission lines through existing energy corridors on the land.    The bill's compromises leave open the potential for destructive and intensive uses in the new monuments, off-road vehicle areas, and special management areas.  Without a scientifically-based management plan and adequate enforcement, these provisions could reverse the ultimate intent of the legislation -- to preserve the land for future generations.  

Without the legislation, however, over a million acres of Mojave Desert ecosystem would still be susceptible to solar energy companies, which threaten to fragment and industrialize vast expanses of California's open space.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ridgecrest Solar Power Project Cancelled

Update: Solar Millennium LLC has since revived its proposal to destroy 6 square miles of public land, as of 24 March 2011.

Ending a stubborn and costly effort to destroy public lands in the name of profit, Solar Millennium finally canceled its proposal to build the Ridgecrest Solar power project in the Western Mojave Desert.   The company planned to bulldoze over 6 square miles of desert, but the California Energy Commission (CEC) staff warned the company about its intention not to approve the project.  The site is located on a Mohave Ground Squirrel connectivity corridor that links different populations of the animal, which the US Fish and Wildlife Service may list under the Endangered Species Act.  The site also hosts at least 40 endangered desert tortoises, and local residents expressed concerns about the project's overdraft of scarce groundwater resources.

The CEC's review of the Ridgecrest Solar power project was put on hold in July 2010 after the CEC initially expressed concern.  Solar Millennium then embarked on a plan to study Mohave Ground Squirrel linkages in the area, probably hoping to find a site configuration that would alleviate concerns and allow it to build the project.  However, the CEC expressed continued concern with Solar Millennium's choice of the site, since any industrial development in the area would have significant impacts on the ecological health of an area that inter-agency planning efforts identified as a high priority for conservation.

A photo from the CEC Staff analysis document showing the proposed site of the Ridgecrest solar power project.
A graphic representation of what the site would look like with the solar project.  Screenshot from the CEC staff assessment .
In 2009, Solar Millennium applied to use the site--which is public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management--and hoped to receive taxpayer-backed financing or grants to cover development costs.   After an environmental impact review, the CEC staff concluded that the Ridgecrest Solar Power project would incur damages to the Mojave Desert that could not be recovered or compensated through mitigation.

Solar Millennium is also developing two other massive solar facilities in California's desert that received approval from the CEC -- the Blythe Solar and Palen Solar power projects, which will damage over 22 square miles of desert habitat and cultural sites.  The Department of the Interior's approval of the Blythe Solar power project was challenged in a lawsuit filed in late December.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Not all solar is "green" energy...

Green vs. Greed: More Citizens Take a Stand Against Dirty Solar

Over the past two weeks, a coalition of concerned citizens who live and recreate in California's deserts have filed two legal challenges, one against the US Forest Service's approval of the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line, and the other against the Department of the Interior's approval of the Imperial Valley solar power project.  These two new lawsuits included, there are a total of 6 challenges against State and Federal approval of destructive projects.  In sum, these legal challenges represent a maturing of America's view of renewable energy policy, recognizing that not all renewable energy is "green," especially when large utility-scale projects deprive future generations of America's natural and cultural heritage.   Distributed generation (rooftop solar) is a more cost-efficient and democratic way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

California's deserts were under siege last year by energy companies seeking to build several massive solar energy facilities on public land -- over 50 square miles of mostly pristine desert habitat.  The Imperial Valley solar project would consume nearly 10 square miles, and permanently destroy or harm sites of cultural significance to local tribes.  This new legal challenge represents the third against the project; the first lawsuit was filed by the Quechan Tribe, and the second by another coalition of concerned citizens and Native Americans.  

The Sunrise Powerlink transmission line was billed as a necessary development to bring renewable energy produced in California's deserts to the San Diego area.   This lawsuit represents the first major legal challenge against the project.   The transmission line would cost electricity customers over $2 billion, and would destroy miles of pristine desert, and woodland across Southern California.  Ironically, delivering power that far over transmission lines results in the loss of some of the electricity produced, making it more efficient to generate the energy at the "point-of-use" such as power plants much closer to the city, or better yet, rooftop solar or backyard wind turbines.

Federal and State authorities blessed both projects late last year despite Americans' concerns that the projects would spell ecological doom for the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, and wipe out sites of cultural significance.  The environmental review process for the solar power projects was rushed in what the Department of the Interior called a "fast track" process, with the aim of helping private companies qualify for taxpayer-backed loan guarantees and grants.   With no other recourse, these citizens and organizations have begun to take the only step left in order to correct a misguided and inadequate environmental review process that put a political agenda ahead of the long-term care of America's natural and cultural resources.

The plaintiffs in the two new legal challenges include the Backcountry Against Dumps organization, the Protect Our Communities Foundation, the East County Community Action Coalition, and the Chairwoman of the County of San Diego Boulevard Planning Group.  These lawsuits allege faults echoed by other lawsuits, highlighting the rushed and segmented review process.  Interior reviewed and approved the Imperial Valley solar project without including a review of the transmission project.  Operation of the Imperial Valley solar project would not be possible without the Sunrise Powerlink or similar transmission upgrade, so it was improper to review the Imperial project without consideration of all associated impacts.  The approval of the Imperial Valley solar project was also granted without a complete review of the historical resources that would be destroyed, including Native American spiritual and burial sites.

Also over the past two months, Western Watersheds Project filed a challenge against Interior's approval of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System in the Northeastern Mojave Desert, and the Sierra Club challenged California's approval of the Calico Solar power project.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Gone fishing...

A fishhook cactus near the Cady Mountains in the Central Mojave Desert.  This cactus is found on the site of the proposed Calico solar power project, which would destroy over 7 square miles of pristine desert.  The site may be saved by the Sierra Club, which filed a legal challenge against the State of California for conducting an inadequate environmental review of the proposed project.  The site hosts an abundance of diverse plant and wildlife, including the endangered desert tortoise.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pop Quiz on Solar Siting

What would "clean energy" look like in the wrong place?

  • A.)  Hydropower dam on the Colorado River (yes, hydro is renewable).
  • B.)  Wind farm in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
  • C.)  Solar energy facility in the middle of desert tortoise habitat.
  • D.) All of the above

Answer: D.) All of the above.

Not all renewable energy is green.
Keep solar on rooftops.  Save our desert for future generations.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reintroducing the California Desert Protection Act of 2010

Now that the 111th Congress has come and gone, legislation that was not passed last year must either be reintroduced in the 112th Congress or it will never see the light of day.  Senator Diane Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (CDPA 2010) was introduced last year but because of a busy legislative calendar it was never passed.   We want Senator Feinstein to continue working as an advocate for the conservation of California's pristine desert lands, so we are urging her office to reintroduce CDPA 2010 this year.

If reintroduced and passed, the bill would create two new national monuments in California's desert, and set aside or expand wilderness areas throughout the Mojave and Sonoran Desert.  The legislation is necessary now more than ever given the threat of rapid energy development, and the decline of the threatened desert tortoise.

Take Action:
  • Send an e-mail (sample below) thanking Senator Feinstein for her support for desert conservation, and requesting that she reintroduce the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 in the new Congress.  
  • Alternatively, you can send Senator Feinstein a letter (sample below) to her California office at:
The Honorable Dianne Feinstein
United States Senate
11111 Santa Monica Boulevard
Suite 915
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Copied below is a sample letter that you can draw from, provided by the California Wilderness Coalition.  To learn more about the legislation, you can visit a website set up by the Coalition dedicated to the California Desert Protection Act.  There is also an overview of the legislation on this blog.

----Sample Letter---- Feel free to add personal stories or photos-

Dear Senator Feinstein,
I am writing to thank you for your long standing commitment to preserving California's wild desert lands for future generations. Your leadership in the 111th Congress with the California Desert Protection Act of 2010 was deeply appreciated. I strongly urge you to please reintroduce this important bill in the new Congress as soon as possible to protect the incredible array of beautiful desert lands for wildlife and people.

As you know, the California desert is under great pressure from renewable energy, irresponsible off road vehicle use, and military base expansion. Please act quickly to preserve our wilderness.
In particular, please include in your legislation:

The Avawatz Mountains as wilderness. This magnificent mountain rage is home to herds of bighorn sheep and colorful canyons. It is a great place for backcountry hiking and camping. Nine natural springs can be found throughout the area and in the springtime, wildflowers emerge along the many washes.

The Soda Mountains as wilderness. This beautiful area includes the Cronese lakes, a pair of Pleistocene lakebeds with ancient Native American village sites. The lower elevations include prime desert tortoise habitat and elegant sand dune formations.

The additions to the Kingston Range wilderness. This area contains one of the highest concentrations of endangered species and unusual plant assemblages in the California desert, due to its extremely varied terrain and unusual mineral formations.

The additions to the Golden Valley wilderness. This picturesque valley is flanked by hills that appear "painted" due to black rocks that form streaked lines along the hillsides. Desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel abound throughout the valley floor and in the Spring Golden Valley lives up to its name with a floral carpeting of Desert Sunflowers, California Poppy, Mariposa Lilly, Bluebell and Mustard.

The Great Falls Basin as wilderness. This unique natural rock catchment basin collects the water from springs high above the desert floor. Water gurgles and flows down through enormous rock slabs into the desert sands below. Plants including yucca, mountain mahogany, pinyon pine and juniper are scattered throughout the upper reached of the basin.

The additions to Indian Pass wilderness and Buzzard's Peak. Many desert creatures make their home among the cholla and beavertail cactuses, ocotillos, palo verdes, acacias, ironwood trees and the rare California ditaxis. Desert Tortoise, Yuma king snakes, Colorado River toad, Great Plains toad, tree lizard, burros, mule deer, and mountain lions all thrive in the rocky outcroppings and sandy washes.
The Milpitas Wash as wilderness. Milpitas Wash supports the largest Sonoran Desert woodland in the North America. Most of the trees are legumes: mesquites, acacias, palo verdes, and ironwoods; and there are also desert willows. The abundance of old-growth trees, with most standing over 15 feet high, gives the area a lush character rarely found in the desert.

The additions to the Palo Verde wilderness. These striking mountains provide habitat for Desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, coyote, dove, quail, mountain lions, and diamondback rattlers. In lower elevations, Palo verde trees, mesquite, and ironwood can be found. Saguaro cactus, rarely seen in California, grow along the south eastern margin of the wilderness.

Thank you in advance for your vision and dedication to the California desert.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Western Watersheds Project Stands Up Against Ivanpah Project

The non-profit Western Watersheds Project (WWP) filed a legal challenge against the Department of Interior's approval of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.  The challenge is the second lawsuit to be filed against Interior's approval of Ivanpah, a project currently under construction by BrightSource Energy on over 5 square miles of public land and pristine Mojave Desert habitat.  According to WWP's Michael Connor: “No project can be considered clean or green when it involves destruction of habitat for a species listed under Endangered Species Act on this scale.  The Department of Interior is tasked with siting energy projects in an environmentally sound manner. Instead it is allowing thousands of acres of important desert tortoise habitat to be bulldozed when there are alternative ways of generating power.”

Western Watersheds Project points out that the Department of the Interior's "fast-track" approval of the Ivanpah Solar project resulted in several shortcomings in the project's environmental review process.  Among the complaints, Interior failed to fully identify and consider mitigation measures to off-set the ecological damage that would be done by the project.  BrightSource Energy recently announced its proposal to mitigate the loss of endangered desert tortoise habitat by purchasing land near the Castle Mountains.

Several utility-scale solar projects were approved on the assumption that the impacts could be off-set by purchasing suitable desert tortoise habitat elsewhere, although citizens routinely voiced concern that the scale of land purchases necessitated by the massive projects would not be feasible.   BrightSource Energy recently announced its proposal to mitigate the loss of endangered desert tortoise habitat by purchasing land near the Castle Mountains.  Confirming WWP's concerns that Interior's responsibilities under Federal law--the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act--were improperly deferred,  preliminary observations suggest the proposed mitigation area is unlikely to support a robust tortoise population.

The creosote scrub habitat on the Ivanpah site supports a robust and reproducing population of desert tortoises.  The numbers of tortoises found on the site already speak to the ecological significance of the Ivanpah Valley.
The Ivanpah site is located in the Northeastern Mojave Recovery Unit and supports a dense tortoise population, as made evident by the 50 tortoises already counted on or near the site during construction activities.  The proposed mitigation land near the Castle Mountains appears to be at an elevation that tortoises typically do not inhabit, and a recent survey of the area did not locate any live tortoises. The proposed mitigation area also does not fall within the Northeastern Mojave Recovery Unit, and will not contribute to the health of the evolutionary significant unit being displaced or killed by the BrightSource Energy project.

View Untitled in a larger map
The map above depicts the Castle Mountains area of the Mojave Desert.  Although certainly a site worth restoring and preserving, preliminary analysis suggests it does not have the characteristics of high quality tortoise habitat.   It may be disingenuous for BrightSource Energy to pretend that the site satisfies requirements to conserve tortoise habitat. 

The WWP challenge also takes issue with the Department of the Interior's decision to treat each of the "fast-track" projects individually in the review process, even though Interior's policy to promote solar energy on public lands would have tremendous cumulative impacts that were not properly evaluated in any of the individual environmental reviews.  Interior's "fast-track" policy in conjunction with the Department of Energy's offer of financing and grants for "fast-track" projects essentially constituted a new programmatic policy that had not been reviewed for its environmental impact.

Also of significance, the WWP complaint alleges that the Department of Interior unlawfully "segmented" its environmental review of the Ivanpah project from its review of the El Dorado-Ivanpah Transmission Line.  It was well known that if the Ivanpah solar project were to be approved, it would require an upgrade to the transmission lines to carry the energy it produces.   That transmission line would have to cross through critical habitat for the desert tortoise.  According to previous case law, the National Environmental Policy Act does not allow government agencies to "segment" consideration of related actions.  Because Interior's approval of Ivanpah would require approval of a transmission project, the government failed by not evaluating the impacts of both segments in the same review.

The lawsuit's challenges under the Endangered Species Act call out Interior's inadequate surveys of the project site prior to approval, leading to an underestimate of the number of tortoises that would be impacted.  As noted previously on the blog, the initial phase of the project estimated that only up to 38 desert tortoises would have to be displaced.  However,  the initial construction clearing amounting to just 32% of the site has already displaced 30 tortoises, according to the challenge.  Others familiar with the project note that at least 50 tortoises have been handled by project workers, although not all of the tortoises are counted as "displaced" if the tortoises are assessed to live outside of the project boundary.  Since it is difficult to know where an encountered tortoise lives when it is found by construction crews, even the total of 30 tortoises counted as "displaced" is likely an underestimate.

A rendering of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System project.  Only initial phases of bulldozing have been completed so far, but if the project is allowed to proceed it could irreparably fragment a significant population of desert tortoises.
The legal action by Western Watersheds Project is a crucial step in preventing energy companies from destroying America's natural resources under the false pretenses of "green" energy.  We need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and limit greenhouse gas emissions, but there is no need to sacrifice so much public land in order to do so.   Distributed generation--commonly referred to as "rooftop solar"--could meet much of our renewable energy needs without driving desert tortoises and other fragile desert species closer to extinction.
The iconic Desert Tortoise was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990.  Interior currently considers the species' prospects for recovery as "low" due to the threats to its habitat.  Utility-scale solar energy installations could destroy hundreds of square miles of pristine tortoise habitat if approved and constructed.  Photo from Basin and Range Watch.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Desert Tortoise Monitoring Report Available

The Desert Tortoise Recovery Office released the draft Range-wide Monitoring of the Mojave Population of Desert Tortoise: 2010 Annual Report.   The surveys of key desert tortoise habitat revealed higher densities of tortoise in some areas than were observed in previous years, although the report judges that for 3 of the monitored areas, the densities are consistently high.  However, because of refinements in the survey techniques and resources available for the surveys, accurate population trends cannot be established from the surveys yet.

According to the draft report, tortoise density in the Ord-Rodman critical habitat unit was 7.5 animals per square kilometer.  The surveys in 2008 and 2009 noted a density of 6 per square kilometer.   Surveys in the Ivanpah critical habitat unit observed only 5 tortoises, resulting in an estimated density of 1.1 tortoise per square kilometer.  This is significant because construction crews for the nearby Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System--being built by BrightSource Energy--have already displaced at least 50 tortoises in the initial phase of the project.  The tortoise density at the BrightSource site is a testament to the relative health of the Ivanpah Valley ecosystem, which could be crucial to the future recovery of the desert tortoise if it is not destroyed for the sake of energy development.

Desert Tortoise on the site of the proposed Calico Solar power project.  Photo from BLM Environmental Impact Statement.
A separate document released in September 2010, the "Status of the Species and Critical Habitat Range-wide" details key principles that should be adhered to in order to enhance the prospects of the desert tortoise's recovery.  Among the principles, the report encourages the conservation of large blocks of habitat, avoidance of habitat fragmentation,  distribution of conservation areas across the species' range, and low edge-to-area ratio for protected land, which is intended to avoid urbanization and industrialization along the edge of preserved habitat from impacting the interior.

The report notes that the tortoise faces increased threats from development, invasive plant species that are less nutritious and encourage wildfire, human activity that has increased the raven population (which have been known to hunt tortoises), and continued problems with an upper-respiratory tract disease.  The report judges that the desert tortoise currently faces a "low potential for recovery, adjusted based on current uncertainties about various threats and our ability to manage them."

A map from the Desert Tortoise Recovery Office depicting critical habitat units where the populations were surveyed.

Solar PEIS Public Meetings Announced

The Department of the Interior and Department of Energy have announced a series of public meetings during which concerns about the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement  (Solar PEIS) can be expressed.   The Solar PEIS outlines Washington's plan to site renewable energy development on public lands throughout the American southwest.  The plan could impact hundreds of square miles of pristine desert habitat, including large plots of land in the Mojave Desert.  You can access the State-specific chapters for the PEIS at the Desert Protective Council website or the Solar PEIS website.

Below is a list of the public meetings.

  • Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 1:00pm:  Hilton Garden Inn Washington DC Downtown, 815 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005
  • Monday, February 7, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Imperial County Admin. Center, 940 W. Main Street, Suite 211, El Centro, CA 92243
  • Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Hyatt Grand Champions Resort, 44-600 Indian Wells Lane, Indian Wells, CA 92210
  • Tuesday, February 15, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Ramada Las Vegas, 325 East Flamingo Road, Las Vegas, NV 89169
  • Wednesday, February 16, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Esmeralda County School, 270 N. Euclid Avenue, Goldfield, NV 89013
  • Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Caliente Elementary School, 280 Lincoln Street, Caliente, NV 89008
  • Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 7:00pm: Hilton Sacramento Arden West, 2200 Harvard St., Sacramento, CA 95815
  • Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Holiday Inn Express, 2700 Lenwood Road, Barstow, CA 92311
  • Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Sheraton Crescent Hotel, 2620 W. Dunlap Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85021
  • Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Pima Community College, 4905 E. Broadway, Building C, Room 105, Tucson, AZ 85709 (LOCATION TENTATIVE)
  • Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces, 705 S. Telshor Boulevard, Las Cruces, NM 88011
  • Monday, March 7, 2011 at 7:00pm:  San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center Education and Conference Center, 1921 Main Street, Alamosa, CO 81101
  • Wednesday, March 9, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Crystal Inn Hotel & Suites, 1575 West 200 North, Cedar City, UT 84720
  • Thursday, March 10, 2011 at 7:00pm:  Hampton Inn & Suites – Airport, 307 N. Admiral Byrd Road, Salt Lake City, UT 84116
The meeting site in each city will open one hour prior to the official start time of the scheduled public meeting, and will be closed after all individuals who wish to speak have been heard. Transcripts of public comments will be made.

You can register to speak at the meeting by going to the Solar PEIS website -- there is a registration link beneath each listed meeting.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Endangered Lane Mountain milk-vetch: The Push for Critical Habitat

The US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed designating critical habitat for the rare Mojave Desert plant--the Lane Mountain milk-vetch (Astragalus jaegerianus)--although off-highway vehicle enthusiasts have protested the move.   If the proposal is enacted, it would be the final stretch in a long road by conservationists to win critical habitat protection for the Lane Mountain milk-vetch.  The plant occurs in only 4 places, and it can survive for years underground thanks to a taproot that extracts whatever moisture is available deep underground.  According to the USFWS, two of the 4 known populations are in decline, and all of the remaining plants are threatened by overlapping demands for the habitat.

Fort Irwin (National Training Center) expanded southward in 2001, so two primary pockets of the plants are on land managed by the US Army.  Fort Irwin has implemented an integrated land management plan that sets aside areas of the base for conservation, keeping them safe from training maneuvers that would otherwise destroy the fragile desert ecosystem in which it is found. 

Another two core populations are found outside of Fort Irwin lands, which have attracted illegal off-highway vehicle use.  According to public comments submitted to the Fish and Wildlife Service, fencing off the nearly 14,000 acres proposed for the Lane Mountain milk-vetch critical habitat would deprive off-highway vehicle users of recreation area.  The El Mirage, Stoddard Wells, and Johnson Valley Off-highway vehicle areas would not be affected by the critical habitat listing, however, and remain available for recreation.

Lane Mountain milk-vetch flowering in the Mojave Desert. (Credit: Cynthia Hopkins, USFWS)
The Lane Mountain milk-vetch was listed as an endangered species in 1998, although the US Fish and Widlife Service has waffled on granting the species critical habitat.  Such a designation would limit incompatible uses of the land that could undermine the species' survival.  The Service proposed critical habitat in 2004, but in a surprise move the Service decided to abandon the proposal in 2005, leaving the plant without habitat protections.

The Center for Biological Diversity protested the 2005 decision not to designate critical habitat, resulting in the Service's reversal last year and proposal to designate over 14,000 acres as critical habitat.  The agency completed economic impact analysis and finished an extended public comment period in early December 2010.  When the Service makes a final decision on the proposal later this year, you will get the update here.

The proposed critical habitat areas for the Lane Mountain milk-vetch in the western Mojave Desert.  A final decision on the proposal is expected from the US Fish and Wildlife Service later this year.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

There is an alternative to bulldozing pristine desert...

Someone responded to my last blog post with concern that I did not identify alternatives to utility-scale (large) solar power facilities in the middle of the desert.  Although I did try to explain the optimal solution (distributed generation, using rooftops, installing panels over parking lots, or using other spaces in our cities), there is a paper that discusses this solution in-depth (and with much more expertise!).  The paper, "Community Power: Decentralized Renewable Energy in California," was written by energy expert Al Weinrub, in collaboration with the Sierra Club and the Local Clean Energy Alliance. 

Community Power by Al Weinrub

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Green vs Greed: Disentangling Environmentalism from a False Dilemma

The Sierra Club's legal challenge against the Calico Solar power project drew some criticism, with many describing the situation as "Green vs. Green."  This is not a surprising reaction since the headlines depict the situation in simple terms: environmentalists opposing the solar energy they have been demanding.  Although the Sierra Club's petition in California's Supreme Court represents the first serious challenge from a national environmental organization against a solar energy project,  environmentalists have opposed other forms of renewable energy in the past.  The difference between renewable energy and "green" energy has become ambiguous as many corporate and political interests begin to don green masks and demand unwavering support from Americans looking for a solution to our world's environmental woes.   Distinguishing between green and greed is crucial if environmentalists want to adhere to their basic principles--advocating for a clean environment and the conservation of natural resources.

An excellent cartoon from Basin and Range Watch satirizes the companies rushing to take advantage of taxpayer-backed grants and loan guarantees offered by the Department of Energy.  The funds have aided the development of renewable energy, but many companies have sought to build on pristine public land, ignoring alternative sites in cities or on already-disturbed land.
Green vs. Green?
Solar energy companies looking to build on public land in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts are exploiting political and economic trends that favor renewable energy development, but what many of them are offering is not "green" energy.  But this is a difficult message for national environmental organizations to convey.   A picture of a massive solar energy facility is bound to provoke a positive response from most Americans.  Many of us equate energy with utility-scale facilities and transmission lines, and solar energy and the desert seem to be a logical fit.  Environmentalists saying no to big solar in the desert may seem like a trick-or-treater saying no to candy on Halloween. It's baffling to most people.  But it is not "green vs. green."

Solar Power In the Desert: As "Green" as Hydropower Dams
There is another form of renewable energy that much of the country has forgotten about that offers a helpful prism to use while examining the current solar rush.  Hydropower dams used to be all the craze -- not because America cared about global warming (many were built in the middle of the last century when DDT seemed as wholesome as apple pie), but because we thought it was wasteful to let all of those rivers run out to sea without putting them to use.  Many of our rivers ended up with at least one, if not several large hydropower dams to feed our country's appetite for energy.  Hydropower, just like solar and wind, takes a renewable natural resource and turns it into energy without emitting much carbon pollution.

So why aren't we building more hydropower dams to stop global warming? The answer: because hydropower dams are not "green" energy.  When you block a river's flow to tap the energy potential, you infringe upon fish migration and spawning, change downstream erosion patterns, and water temperature.  And some dams create unnatural reservoirs that wipe out public land.  Lake Mead, the reservoir created by the Hoover Dam, drowned nearly 247 square miles of desert.  All of this alters and fragments ecosystems, just like many of the proposed utility-scale solar facilities.

A sketch published in the Los Angeles Times in 1921 shows the Hoover Dam site, and a depiction of the reservoir it would create.  The fact that the Hoover Dam produced renewable energy did not matter when it opened in 1936, and you will never hear many support more dams today as a response to global warming.
The disruption of our rivers during the last century sent several species into decline, and many are on the endangered species list as a result.  Today, fisherman, environmentalists, local, state, and the Federal government take any opportunity to remove hydropower dams.  Nobody questions the removal of this carbon-free renewable energy source, because the environmental consequences of their construction and operation are considered too high.

Climate Change Extortion
Unlike our majestic rivers, pristine desert is being treated differently in the energy debate.  In the desert, wildlife and ecosystems are getting in the way of an agenda train that carries the urgent call to reduce greenhouse gasses, but zooms past much more sensible options for doing so, such as distributed generation, or building facilities on already-disturbed land.  Energy companies and government officials portray America's southwestern deserts as the only place to build our country's renewable energy future. As the former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it."

The urgency of climate change helps energy companies steamroll environmental standards that should apply to solar facilities as equally as they do to coal mining and natural gas drilling.   Government approvals for solar facilities on pristine desert frequently tout the benefits of renewable energy to justify the environmental destruction.   In order to approve the Calico Solar power project despite the project's serious threats to endangered species, California issued a document basically saying that the State had no other option but to approve the project in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  According to the "override findings":
We further find that the project is required for public convenience and necessity and that there are no more prudent and feasible means of achieving such public convenience and
California, in all of its wisdom, assessed that a project on pristine desert habitat was absolutely necessary--no matter the costs--to stem climate change.  The State did the same for several other projects that threaten to fragment rare plant and wildlife populations.  Never mind that there are better locations to put solar panels, and that putting a solar facility in the middle of the Mojave Desert would incur massive economic costs for the citizens of California.

The White-margined beardtongue, a rare desert plant that could be driven closer to extinction if the Calico Solar power project is built.  The site is home to one of the few remaining pockets of this plant in the Mojave Desert.
A False Dilemma Presented by a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
Solar energy developers proposing projects on pristine desert benefit from solar energy's positive public image, one that has not been tarnished like other energy sources--such as hydropower and nuclear--and the industry and its investors have shrewdly sought to project an image of moral supremacy, believing that their product that should be excluded from most environmental standards.   As one frustrated commenter on this blog remarked, the world's wildlife would perish under global warming because of parochial concerns for one habitat (the desert).  Describing a site he had chosen for a solar facility, one solar executive said that "God made this to be a solar farm."  Individuals and organizations that sponsor legal challenges to poorly sited solar power plants are criticized as unwilling to give up a slice of land to stop global warming, echoing the false logic of California's override findings.

What is left unsaid by utility-scale solar advocates is that meeting all of our energy needs through utility-scale development is unrealistic.  Just to meet all of California's energy needs alone would require over 600 square miles of land.  That's just one state.  Is America willing to give up thousands of square miles to solar energy facilities?  Are we ready to sacrifice the ecological health of America's southwestern deserts?  It is implied in the arguments of utility-scale solar advocates that their companies are entitled to so much of our public land.  If we grant solar companies access to the best of our desert ecosystems, we are saying that there is no environmental hurdle too high to stop their profiteering.

Another cartoon from Basin and Range Watch depicts the future of America's deserts if energy companies have their way -- the fragmentation of desert wilderness by a wave of utility-scale energy projects.
Bribing the Taxpayer with Borrowed Money
Perhaps recognizing that the green veneer they have attempted to paint over their destructive facilities is too thin, solar companies have argued that utility-scale facilities in the middle of the desert can also change America's economic fortunes.  When a judge ordered a halt to Tessera Solar's Imperial Valley solar project, the company balked that the site could have provided much needed jobs to the area.  But the company is not offering "green" jobs, and the cost of the added payrolls probably will fall back on the taxpayer.  

Most of the projects proposed for pristine desert--including the Imperial Valley project--require taxpayer-backed financing and grants in order to get off the ground.  The technology they would use would produce electricity at a cost per unit that is higher than most other forms of generation.  And then they will need to build new transmission lines that add to the environmental destruction, and add to your electricity bill.  The Sunrise Powerlink transmission line that would connect Tessera's Imperial Valley project to San Diego will cost at least $2 billion dollars.  Power companies would pass this cost along to customers.  Charging the taxpayer to create jobs seems more like a temporary welfare solution than an economic rebound.

But don't we need to build up our solar and wind energy industries? Yes.  But we can do that without destroying fragile ecosystems.  An article published in Reuters ironically applauds China for an aggressive solar construction plan that sees "good done by solar plants" as outweighing "any damage they may do to the environment, and concerns about plants and animals are minimal."  The comparison to China suggests this is not about climate change but economic competition.  China continues to construct coal power plants, flooded an ecosystem with the Three Gorges River Dam, and sends us toys coated in lead.  We do not need to congratulate China for prioritizing destructive industrialization over natural resources.  That comparison alone should give us pause before handing over America's deserts to solar companies.

No Regrets
The Independent Science Advisors for California's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) suggested a policy of "no regrets" when it comes to building solar power plants.   In other words, do not rush into a policy that ends up fragmenting ecosystems and driving species closer to extinction.  We can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without destroying our natural resources, and we can work with the urgency necessary without falling into the trap set by solar energy developers eager to bulldoze pristine desert.   But we have been sidetracked by the corporate interests proposing utility-scale solar facilities in our deserts.  The truly green solution to climate change--generating clean energy from our cities--is being neglected.
  • Governor Jerry Brown has proposed implementing feed-in-tariffs, which rewards consumers with rooftop solar when they feed energy back into the grid.  Encouraging feed-in-tariffs in all of our states could yield a boom in rooftop solar, creating jobs while preserving open space for future generations.
  • The California Solar Initiative has installed over 700MW of solar in our cities--healthy progress for a new program--but it could benefit from more funding and public awareness. 
  •  Los Angeles recently sought to cut its rooftop solar incentives because the program was running short of money.   This received little attention while the national press was fixated on the Department of the Interior's approvals for several facilities in the desert last year, many of which requested billions of dollars in Federal funds and financing.
  •  Congress has not yet passed legislation to clear the way for a PACE program.  PACE, property assessed clean energy, would allow homeowners to receive low-interest financing to build rooftop solar.  The financing would be paid back over time through an assessment on their property tax, and the solar installation adds value to the home and cuts the owner's electricity bill.
Utility-scale solar in the middle of our public lands is a dangerous distraction.  Solar companies present themselves as false prophets who promise an unrealistic and destructive solution.   If the solar energy industry is serious about presenting a "green" solution, then it is up to them to make smarter siting decisions.  Until then, it is our responsibility to distinguish between green and greed, and start making progress on real solutions.

Where can you put solar panels?  Look around you -- rooftops, parking lots, and already-disturbed land.  Above, Governor Schwarzenegger announces plans to clear pristine desert to make way for utility-scale solar facilities in the desert, as he stands amidst a rooftop solar array in Los Angeles. It's cheaper and its green to build solar in our cities.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why Solar Power Does Not Belong in Pristine Desert

Mr. Conrad Kramer wrote an excellent op-ed in the San Diego Tribune explaining why putting massive solar power facilities in the middle of the desert does not make sense.  The piece draws from examples of poorly sited project in the Mojave's sister, the Colorado Desert to the south.  It's worth a read.
The argument that solar energy projects should be sited in the desert where there is more sun does not hold water. Electrical transmission of power from the distant desert to the urban areas is a highly inefficient process. Ten to 15 percent of the electricity will be lost, offsetting any slight increase in solar power from the desert sun over San Diego sun.

From the San Diego Union Tribune

Why not solar power in the desert? Here’s why

Thursday, January 6, 2011 at midnight

We’ve all grown up in love with the idea of renewable energy helping to reduce our negative impact on the planet. So now that renewable energy projects are being proposed in high numbers out in the desert, many people wonder what all the controversy is about. After all, the desert is where the sun shines brightest. So why are the environmentalists still not happy?

Recent controversy over the location of renewable energy projects in the desert includes lawsuits filed against Tessera/NTR’s Imperial Valley Solar Project by the Quechuan Tribe and a separate suit against the Imperial Valley project and five others by La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, Californians for Renewable Energy and six individual Native American plaintiffs. These lawsuits come just as the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is contemplating the Eurus solar facility in Borrego Springs, which would require transmission through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the California Public Utilities Commission are also proposing a wind energy project abutting the park.

Why the controversy? What is not to love about renewable energy? After all, California utilities are under mandate to use larger proportions of renewables in the energy they distribute in order to move away from coal- and oil-fired plants that produce greenhouse gases. But the rub is the location.
Many renewable energy projects are being proposed for far-flung and pristine desert areas, requiring devastation of undisturbed plant and animal habitats, and destructive and inefficient transmission lines to bring the electricity back to the urban areas.

Take, for example, the proposed Eurus project on undisturbed land in the community of Borrego Springs. Any electricity generated there needs to be transmitted through the park in order to reach the San Diego area. The Eurus project alone would take up all the existing capacity on the transmission lines. Yet the county has active applications for more generation projects within Borrego Springs. The transmission lines for all these projects will have to go through the park, just like the recently defeated proposed Sunrise Powerlink northern route project. It appears that this battle will have to be fought all over again.

In a separate proposed project, BLM’s Tule Wind Energy project, wind turbines would loom over Anza-Borrego’s scenic McCain Valley, destroying its viewshed. In addition to threats to endangered species, such as the Peninsular Bighorn sheep, the Tule Wind Energy project poses a threat to birds, such as the Golden Eagle, and also to bats.

Scientists are discovering that desert soils are actually great storehouses of carbon, a contributor to greenhouse gases associated with global climate change. New evidence by UC Riverside professor Michael Allen suggests that the destruction to desert soils caused by renewable projects, and the subsequent release into the air of carbon, may actually increase greenhouse gases more than the renewable facilities would decrease them.

The argument that solar energy projects should be sited in the desert where there is more sun does not hold water. Electrical transmission of power from the distant desert to the urban areas is a highly inefficient process. Ten to 15 percent of the electricity will be lost, offsetting any slight increase in solar power from the desert sun over San Diego sun.

The San Diego region can be the leader in renewable energy, but renewable facilities should be sited where the electricity is needed. There is no need to have a huge environmentally destructive downside to renewable energy. There is no need to sully our wonderful shared dream of green power.
Our local cities, school districts and water districts are taking the lead by installing photovoltaic panels on rooftops and over parking lots. We urge the County of San Diego and the BLM to follow suit. Imagine the county’s buildings and parking lots covered in photovoltaic panels that not only generate clean energy but shade county facilities as well, reducing county operating costs. Imagine all our large urban facilities covered with solar panels, leaving the wilderness intact and our dream of a green future alive.

We urge the people of San Diego to make sure that policymakers hear this message. Comments to the county Board of Supervisors can be sent to with information located at Tule Wind project information may be found at, including information about two upcoming public meetings, and comments may be sent to
Kramer is executive director of the Anza-Borrego Foundation, which works to support Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Sierra Club Lawsuit Targets Calico Solar Power Project

The Sierra Club filed a legal challenge against California's approval of the Calico Solar power project, arguing that the California Energy Commission (CEC) rushed the environmental review without full consideration of the impacts on wildlife and without identifying adequate mitigation measures.   The petition--filed with the California Supreme Court on 30 December--represents the first legal challenge by a national environmental organization against a destructive solar facility, setting a precedent that utility-scale solar facilities should not be exempted from the same standards environmental organizations apply to other forms of energy -- wise use of public land and preservation of fragile ecosystems.  The petition lays out arguments that could easily apply to other solar projects proposed for pristine desert habitat in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

Tessera Solar LLC recently sold its development rights for the Calico site to K Road Solar LLC,  but the Sierra Club's action may at least delay construction on the site until a more thorough environmental review is conducted, and hopefully encourage future developers to more carefully consider where they build new energy facilities. 

Here is a summary of the charges laid out in the petition, as applicable under California's environmental and administrative laws:
  •  The CEC proceedings failed to document the risks and impacts associated with the translocation of desert tortoises (relocating them from the project site to other habitat), and relied upon translocation to "fully mitigate" the project even though testimony indicates that translocation is not supported by scientific evidence as a successful mitigation measure.  Furthermore, the petition noted that even though the CEC relied upon translocation of tortoises to justify its approval, it did not even have a final translocation plan to review.
  • The CEC approved the project relying upon the potentially infeasible purchase and conservation of desert tortoise habitat to offset the impacts of the Calico solar power project.  The petition points out that a.) the CEC had not identified any suitable land that was available for purchase, and b.) promoted restoring acquired mitigation land with measures that are not feasible.  The challenge also takes issue with the in-lieu fee program--a fund established for solar developers to pay into in order to meet mitigation requirements.  The CEC assumes that the fund managers will be able to fulfill CEC responsibilities under California environmental law, even though mitigation land had not been identified.
  • The CEC acknowledges the cumulative impacts of all of the solar projects, which would destroy tens of thousands of acres of desert tortoise habitat, yet contradicted itself by ruling that the cumulative impact of the Calico project would not be significant.  The CEC also approved the Calico Solar power project before regional mitigation planning under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan had been completed, which would have sought to address the significant cumulative impacts.
  • The CEC failed to mitigate impacts on the threatened Mojave Fringe-toed lizard and rare white-margined beardtongue desert wildflower, and its proceedings were inadequate in identifying the impacts of the Calico Solar power project on these species.
  • The CEC did not fully consider how to protect special status birds from the development before approving the project.  Most significantly, the CEC did not sufficiently consider impacts on the Golden Eagle, which Federal law mandates that projects cannot "substantially interfere with the breeding, feeding, or sheltering behavior of a Golden Eagle."
  • The CEC's analysis did not adequately address the potential impacts of the project on Nelson's bighorn sheep movement corridors through the nearby Cady Mountains.
The Sierra Club should be applauded for taking action against a solar energy siting process that threatens to destroy vast swaths of California deserts and wreak ecological havoc, as noted in the petition.   The need for increased renewable energy generation does not grant solar energy companies a free pass to ravage pristine desert habitat under the false claim of "clean energy."  There is plenty of solar potential on already-disturbed land and rooftops that can be tapped so we can save our desert ecosystems for future generations to enjoy.

The lower portion of the Calico Solar project site just before it received winter rains. Cady Mountains in the distance.
Close-up shot of a "Calico cactus" found on the site.
Desert tortoise roaming the Calico site.  Photo from BLM biological assessment.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Senator Feinstein Vows to Continue Desert Conservation Efforts in 2011

Even though Senator Dianne Feinstein's (D-CA) proposed California Desert Protection Act 2010 (CDPA 2010 or S.2921) did not pass this year, her office plans to continue efforts to push the legislation through this year.  According to a Press-Enterprise article, the Senator concluded last year's Congressional session by stating "I have had a 20-year vested interest in the desert -- in seeing that it's protected and that what solar is there is appropriate for the area and does not destroy the flora, the fauna, the beauty...I am steadfast in that regard." If passed, the legislation would create two new national monuments, and set aside thousands of acres of additional wilderness areas.

The Senator's legislation (S.2921) was a welcome ray of hope in an otherwise grim outlook for desert conservation in 2010.  During the frenzy of final business in Congress, there was a possibility that CDPA 2010 would find its way into the now-doomed omnibus lands legislation or even into the budget, but the year closed with little to brag about for conservation advocates.  California's deserts are under siege by hundreds of applications for proposed energy facilities that could destroy over 500 square miles of pristine desert habitat.

The biggest hurdle for Feinstein's bill last year was a busy legislative calendar.  The Senate put conservation on the back burner as it addressed health care, immigration, taxation, etc.  The Desert Protection Act may not have an easy time this year, as a Republic-dominated House looks to set their own agenda and members of the Republican Party--such as Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma--have spoken up against the bill.  Most opponents fear that the legislation will lock up too much land from future development, including for solar energy.  Senator Feinstein's office, however, points out that the legislation would not affect any of the proposed solar energy study zones, and the BLM approved several massive solar energy facilities that would not be affected by the bill.

Thanks to those who heeded this blog's call to urge the Senator to take action on the legislation last year.  As the Press-Enterprise article notes, desert conservation is no easy task, and the last major desert protection legislation that passed in 1995 was years in the making.   We will continue to advocate for this legislation this year.

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.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Joshua Tree...

This photo was taken in the Western Mojave Desert near the city of Adelanto.