Tuesday, June 28, 2011

New Research Describes Two Distinct Species of Desert Tortoise

It has been 150 years since scientists officially described the desert tortoise as a species.  However, new research published this month indicates that we have actually been sharing the desert with at least two genetically distinct species of the desert tortoise.  Historically, many biologists and wildlife officials assumed the desert tortoise constituted a single species spanning the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in the US and Mexico.  The new research describes genetic, behavioral and physical differences that distinguish the two species of desert tortoise.   According to the research by Robert W. Murphy and Kristin H. Berry, among other scientists, the population of desert tortoise east of the Colorado River (Gopherus morafkai) is genetically distinct from the population to the west (Gopherus agassizii)

Distribution of the desert tortoises aligned with Gopherus agassizii. The light gray depicts the range of the "Sonoran" population of the tortoise (Gopherus morafkai). Map from the research article published on ZooKeys.
The recognition of the two distinct species means that the "Mojave" population (Gopherus agassizii) is actually much more imperiled and occupies a smaller range than previously thought.  This is due to the fact that the "Sonoran" species (morafkai) can no longer be considered a "genetic reservoir" for the Mojave species, and vice versa.  Wildlife officials will have a tougher job on their hands to ensure the recovery of both tortoise populations, and the habitat loss imposed by energy projects will be even more significant as we strive to maintain biodiversity across America's southwestern deserts.
This dude, Dr. James Graham Cooper, first officially "discovered" and described the desert tortoise in 1861 (obviously the tortoise was known to Native American's long before).  Nearly 150 years later, DNA sampling and study of physiological and behavioral differences across the tortoise population revealed that we have been living with at least two different species! Photo from the research article published in ZooKeys, courtesy of the Archives of the California Academy of Sciences.




The desert tortoise is a crucial species in the desert ecosystem, digging burrows that provide homes to other desert wildlife, including the Western burrowing owl, lizards, snakes, and small mammals. 
This desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) found in the western Mojave Desert is now officially different from its relatives across the Colorado River.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Feds Coming Around to Rooftop Solar?

The White House may not have solar panels on the roof yet, but the Department of Energy last week finally approved financing for a plan to install solar panels on industrial warehouses to generate up to 733 megawatts of renewable energy.  The 1.4 billion dollar taxpayer-backed loan is expected to generate one thousand jobs over a four year period. 

More importantly, the money will not be used to destroy pristine public land in America's southwestern deserts.  The Department of Energy has approved other loans for the destructive Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System and the Blythe Solar power projects, which will destroy over 16 square miles of desert habitat and Native American cultural sites.  So, in contrast, the rooftop solar financing seems like a win-win situation.  We can cut down pollution, create truly local jobs (not construction jobs in the middle of the desert), and utilize the untapped potential of rooftops to meet our energy needs.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Solar the Right Way...

In a blog post titled "Every Rooftop Matters," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune explains the important role rooftop solar will play in cutting down harmful greenhouse gas emissions.  The Club's efforts to promote distributed generation are a welcome development given the troubling plans by some energy companies to bulldoze hundreds of square miles of pristine desert for remote projects.  Two of the massive projects have already begun construction, displacing hundreds of threatened desert tortoises and destroying Native American sacred sites.

This photo by Basin and Range Watch shows destroyed Desert Ironwood trees where construction crews have already begun work on the Blythe Solar power project, with protesters in the background. The bulldozers have already destroyed some sites sacred to Native Americans, clearing pristine desert for what will eventually be an 11 square mile industrial area.
In separate news, Google announced its investment of 280 million dollars in SolarCity, a rooftop solar business.  The investment could create 7,000-9,000 solar roofs. The announcement comes on the heels of Google's less appealing investments in the destructive Ivanpah Solar energy project (pictured below) and the Alta Wind Energy Center, a wind project that could result in at least 3,000 bird collisions each year.
In this photo by Erin Whitfield, BrightSource Energy has already bladed the Ivanpah Valley for its solar power project. The picture only shows clearing for one phase of the project--just about a third of the total proposed destruction for the 5.6 square mile site.

Calico Solar Right of Way In Jeopardy

Last month I wrote about the Calico Solar power project because the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) granted Tessera Solar LLC permission to build a solar facility on pristine desert that Tessera never had the capacity to build in the first place, according to information put forward in legal proceedings.  Tessera Solar then sold its permission to build on 7 square miles of public land--called a "right-of-way" grant (ROW)--to a company called K Road Sun.  The BLM now considers the Calico Solar ROW to be "inoperative," and will not allow construction to proceed on the pristine desert until a new environmental analysis is completed, according to information provided by the BLM to the US District Court on 6 June.

Prototype SunCatchers in Arizona in a photo provided by the CEC.  K Road Sun would have to procure thousands of these, but the provider is not clear about its ability to build them, and is currently facing financial difficulties.
K Road Sun modified Tessera Solar's original plans to include a different mix of solar technology, but still planned to use Tessera's "SunCatcher" dishes.  The SunCatcher technology is a major sticking point --if the SunCatchers cannot be mass-produced, then the proposal to generate and sell energy from the site is hypothetical.

I cant blame the BLM for taking a more cautious approach.  BLM rushed to approve the project for Tessera Solar last year, and then watched as Tessera admitted that it could not build the SunCatchers and sold the ROW to another company.  Now K Road Sun is asking for a repeat of last year -- a speedy approval by Federal and State officials ignoring the environmental damage and the fact that SunCatcher technology poses significant hurdles to the viability of the project.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) is still attempting to accommodate the amended application despite continuing concerns about K Road Sun's ability to build the project.  

The Calico Solar power project should never have been approved in the first place.  The site is home to a thriving desert ecosystem, with dozens of endangered desert tortoises, a rare desert wildflower, and bighorn sheep.
A photo of desert blooms with much of the proposed project site in the background.  The creosote bush scrub habitat is home to a robust tortoise population, and one of the last remaining pockets of a rare desert plant known as the white-margined beardtongue.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Your tax dollars at work...

Photo by Tammy Heilemann, Office of Communications.
Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar and California Governor Jerry Brown stand with executives from German firm Solar Millennium during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Blythe Solar power project.  Even though Solar Millennium's board is under investigation for misappropriation of funds and embezzlement, Mr. Salazar ok'd the project and over 2.1 billion dollars in taxpayer-backed loans and grants for the company.  Initial stages of construction have also destroyed part of a Native American sacred site.

According to the Department of Interior, these massive solar power projects on public land are called the "New Energy Frontier" --seems like just another version of corporate greed, scandal and disrespect for the public's land and money.   Perhaps they are ignoring the real energy frontier-- the untapped potential of rooftop solar, which energy experts assess can meet much of our energy demand in the southwest without sacrificing public land.

Ridgecrest Site Still Targeted by Solar Millennium

According to information obtained by Basin and Range Watch, the German energy firm Solar Millennium LLC and its US front company, "Solar Trust of America," are proposing a reconfigured facility for the Ridgecrest Solar power project.  The new site would use all photovoltaic panels, instead of thermal solar technology.  Check out the Basin and Range Watch update here.

The facility was opposed by the California Energy Commission (CEC) staff last year because the site chosen by Solar Millennium would cut off a Mohave ground squirrel corridor and destroy a robust desert tortoise population.   The company's board is currently being investigated for misappropriation of funds and embezzlement in Germany, but the US government is moving forward and issuing the company over 2.1 billion dollars in taxpayer-backed loans and 18 million dollars in grants for the Blythe solar power project.

a desert calico flower blooms on the site of the proposed Ridgecrest Solar power project.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Scandal-Plagued Company Holding Ceremony; Governor and Salazar to Attend

German company Solar Millennium LLC and its American front "Solar Trust of America" are holding a groundbreaking ceremony for the Blythe Solar power project tomorrow, which California Governor Jerry Brown and Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar plan to attend.  Their attendance is surprising since the 11 square mile project is under scrutiny for financial misconduct and destruction of sacred Native American sites.  

Germany began investigating Solar Millennium after uncovering reports that an executive was paid 9 million Euros (about 12.5 million dollars) after working only 74 days at the company, and other board members are under investigation for embezzlement Despite the scandal, Solar Millennium's project is still on track to receive over 2.1 billion dollars in loans and an 18 million dollar grant from the Federal government (courtesy of the taxpayer).

Department of the Interior's approval of the Blythe Solar power project allows the company to bulldoze about 11 square miles of public land, and clears the way for them to receive taxpayer-backed financial assistance.
Solar Millennium began initial construction on the site earlier this year, destroying some sacred geoglyphs (rock formations depicting deities) and prompting demonstrations form concerned citizens.  The California Energy Commission and Department of Interior approved the project last year, acknowledging the significant impacts the project would have on cultural resources, but deciding that the benefits of the project were necessary.  Citizens have asked the government to focus renewable energy efforts on rooftop solar, instead of destructive projects such as Blythe.

Desert Ironwood trees, some as old as 1,000 years old, thrive on the site.  As of June, some have already been bulldozed to make way for construction access roads. Photo by Basin and Range Watch.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

BLM Lifts Hold on Ivanpah Construction but Hurdles Loom

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lifted a stop-work order on BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System last week, but a legal challenge still hovers over the solar project.  BLM halted work on most of the site in April after new estimates showed that the project could kill or displace hundreds of tortoises on the 5.6 square mile site and adjacent lands.  According to government documents:
"We anticipate that construction of the [Ivanpah] project site is likely to take, in the form of mortality or injury, between 405 and 1136 desert tortoises... We anticipate that the vast majority of these will be individuals of smaller size or desert tortoise eggs that are difficult to detect during clearance surveys and construction monitoring; therefore, we are unlikely to find carcasses of these individuals."

After reissuing the biological opinion, the BLM determined that despite the project tortoise deaths, the project will not "jeopardize" the threatened desert tortoise.  Desert biologists disagree, and are concerned that the Ivanpah Valley's robust and healthy tortoise population will be critical to the species recovery throughout its range.

Legal Challenge on the Horizon
BrightSource Energy is still facing the repercussions of its decision to build on pristine habitat.  Western Watersheds Project filed a legal challenge against the Federal government's faulty environmental review of the project, and the court is expected to rule soon on a requested injunction that would halt construction.

Other solar power projects face similar challenges.  A Federal judge already halted plans to build the Imperial Valley Solar power project in December, finding that the government's hasty review process lacked appropriate consultation with the Quechan Native American tribe.  Also, the Calico Solar power project in the central Mojave Desert proposed by K Road Sun has drawn the ire of the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and BNSF Railroad.  BNSF filed a strongly worded complaint with the California Energy Commission (CEC), asking them to revoke approval of the project, alleging that the solar company misrepresented facts to gain approval and apply for Federal grants and loans.
"BNSF has been harmed and prejudiced by Applicant's submissions based upon a technology that is not now commercially viable and available. BNSF has expended and continues to expend substantial resources, both human and monetary, and to incur expert and legal fees to address significant health, environmental and operational concerns arising from the Commission's processing and approval of the Calico Solar SunCatcher Project. BSNF should not be required to take actions to ensure the safety of its employees, agents and operations against the effects of a hypothetical solar generation facility dependent upon a technology that is not commercially viable or available, even as we speak."
Both the CEC and the Federal government approved the 7 square mile Calico proposal last year even though the company never had the ability to build the project in the first place, and it chose a site that provides critical habitat for rare species of plants and wildlife.  If built, the project's mirrors could blind train engineers crossing the remote desert, and create other hazards to the daily operations of the railroad.

Both the Ivanpah and Calico Solar projects are projected to have major impacts on desert tortoise, and deprive them over several square miles of prime habitat.

Feds Balk at $125 Tortoise Website; Spend Billions to Kill Tortoises

As I wrote about yesterday, the White House announced its Campaign to Cut Waste and highlighted the DesertTortoise.gov website as a prime example of the sort of "waste" the government hopes to eliminate.  Chris Clarke over at Coyote Crossing learned from someone familiar with the website that it costs approximately 125 dollars, and a few hours of labor to upload new information each year.  The site received 49,000 visitors from January through April this year.  That's less than a penny per visitor, and we can expect tens of thousands of more visitors by the end of the year.  Also, the White House apparently did not bother giving the wildlife officials that maintain the website (as one of their many tasks) any advance notice that they would target the effort as an example of "waste."

So the White House does not want to spend 125 dollars a year to educate tens of thousands of people about the best way to share an environment with a threatened species, but the White House has no problem spending billions of dollars a year on misplaced solar projects that are projected to kill hundreds of desert tortoises.

Here are my proposed additions to the Campaign to Cut Waste:
  • The 1.6 billion dollar taxpayer-backed loan given to BrightSource Energy LLC's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System.  The facility will destroy 5.6 square miles of public land and displace or kill hundreds of tortoises according to the Bureau of Land Management.  As one energy executive is on record saying, such projects would are not financially sustainable without government assistance.
  • The 18 million dollar grant and 2.1 billion dollar taxpayer-backed loan given to Solar Millennium (and partners NRG and Solar Trust of America) for the 11 square mile Blythe Solar power project, which will destroy tortoise habitat and sacred Native American cultural sites.
What would I do with the savings?  Give that money back to the taxpayer so they can install rooftop solar panels, cutting their own electricity bills and preserving our open space.

Monday, June 13, 2011

White House Wants to Crush Tortoise Website

The Obama Administration launched its Campaign to Cut Waste today and, among other things, singled out the DesertTortoise.gov website as an example of "waste."   Cutting government waste is an admirable task.  But we should not slash with abandon and end up cutting what could be the most cost-effective form of government transparency and education.  The White House's decision to highlight the tortoise website as an example raises questions about their criteria for defining "waste."

There are certainly examples of unnecessary government websites. One of the examples given was the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission website (the Centennial was in 2003).  Information on aviation history is highly available on other websites, school libraries, and television.  Shutting down the Centennial website is unlikely to deprive the American public of a critical source of information on this topic.

But is the DesertTortoise.gov website a waste?  The tortoise is a threatened species across the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, and its population has declined by as much as 90% in some areas.  Recovery of the desert tortoise will require education and collaboration among a very broad population of citizens across four states.  Biologists and land managers, local elementary school teachers,  off-highway vehicle users, and just about anybody else who plans to visit the desert and wants to learn more about this amazing species (California's deserts see about 6.7 million visitors, per year, according to the California Wilderness Coalition).  Encouraging public education about the species ensures that we know how to share the tortoise habitat in a sustainable way.

Is there a better alternative for sharing information that can enable the recovery of this species? 
 
There are some questions that remain to be answered.  How much does the DesertTortoise.gov website cost to maintain?  How many people use the site? What other alternatives are there for disseminating so much information to such a broad audience?  Could the functions of the DesertTortoise.gov website be merged efficiently into another relevant website?

We may receive some answers to these questions soon, but hopefully the White House is not trying to turn off the lights on environmental education.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sierra Club Steadfast Against Destructive Calico Solar

The Sierra Club asked the California Energy Commission (CEC) to halt its review of K Road Sun's revised proposal to build the Calico Solar power project, but the CEC dismissed the Club's challenge.  The project will destroy nearly 7 square miles of pristine desert on public land, and displace or kill many rare plant and wildlife species.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the CEC permitted the Calico Solar power project under a different owner last year, even though that company did not even have the financial or technical ability to build the project.  The new company, K Road Sun, is also of dubious pedigree, and is rushing the CEC for approval so that it can receive loans and grants from the taxpayer. 
The Sierra Club told the The Sun newspaper:

"The Sierra Club is very much in favor of renewable energy but this is a bad location ...," adding that the area is "important habitat for the desert tortoise and the big horn sheep."
The Sierra Club is not alone in opposing the destructive solar project.  Defenders of Wildlife filed a brief in support of the Sierra Club's opposition.   Also, BNSF Railroad opposes the project and filed a complaint with the CEC on Wednesday, according to the Daily Press.  The company operates a rail line through the site and is concerned that glint and glare from the solar panels could blind its train engineers. 

Prickly poppy and desert dandelions bloom on the site of the proposed Calico Solar power project in the central Mojave Desert.
Why should California electricity customers and American taxpayers pay for K Road Sun's plans to destroy pristine desert habitat on public land?  We need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and increase renewable energy generation, but companies like K Road should not be given a free pass to destroy our natural resources when there are better places to put solar panels, such as rooftops and parking lots.  In fact, a CEC working group studying options to increase distributed generation reported in May that California's infrastructure is capable of more rooftop installations with relatively minimal hassle, which would spare our wildlands for future generations.

Two Reports Highlight Ecological Importance of Ivanpah Valley

Two separate reports from the Nature Conservancy and the Renewable Energy Action Team indicate that the Ivanpah Valley is important to the ecological health of the Mojave Desert, suggesting the area is not suitable for destructive solar facilities.  The Ivanpah Valley is currently the focus of concerned citizens since at least three massive solar facilities could destroy over 20 square miles of pristine desert in the area, and displace or kill hundreds of endangered desert tortoises.  Many argue that rooftop solar installations--not remote facilities on public land--should be the centerpiece of renewable energy policy.
Solar facilities targeting the Ivanpah Valley:
  • Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System: Under construction by BrightSource Energy LLC, NRG, and Bechtel, with financing from Google. (5.6 square miles)
  • Stateline Solar power project: Proposed by First Solar LLC (3.4 square miles)
  • Silver State North and South: Proposed by First Solar LLC. BLM approved a portion of the project. (12 square miles)
The Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT)--a joint Federal and State policy working group--is developing the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).   The DRECP has incorporated some information from the Nature Conservancy's Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment, and determined that much of the Ivanpah Valley hosts an above average richness of rare species.  On one map in the Nature Conservancy's assessment, most of the Ivanpah Valley is labeled as "ecologically core" and "ecologically intact."  This has been confirmed by subsequent surveys showing the BrightSource Energy solar project is likely to displace or kill hundreds of desert tortoises, a species that has been in decline throughout its range since the 1980s.

The dark green signifies "ecologically core" areas, and light green indicates ecologically intact areas.  The Ivanpah Valley is in the center of this map selection, bisected by Interstate 15.  Screenshot taken from The Nature Conservancy's Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment.
It is perplexing that the Department of Interior's leadership in Washington has approved solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley even though its field offices participating in the Renewable Energy Action Team have identified the area as "ecologically core."  In a twist of events pitting government against government,  REAT had to remind Washington to do a better job of coordinating with its field office when developing solar policy, according to a document made available earlier this month.

In this map segment taken from California agency comments on the Department of Interior's proposed solar energy policy, the brown and green hexagons represent ecologically important and sensitive areas in the Ivanpah Valley (center).  The blue swaths represent areas considered by the Department of Interior for solar energy development.
The larger map developed by the REAT shows conflict between Washington's proposed solar energy zones and important desert habitat.
The desert tortoise population has declined by nearly 90% over its entire range according to studies, making the Ivanpah Valley's thriving population even more remarkable, and worth preserving.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Progress for the Lane Mountain Milkvetch

I wrote about the efforts to designate critical habitat for the Lane Mountain Milkvetch (Astragalus jaegerianus) in an earlier blog post.  In a success due largely to the efforts of the Center for Biological Diversity, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed its final ruling last month declaring over 14,000 acres as protected land for the rare plant.
Lane Mountain milk-vetch flowering in the Mojave Desert. (Credit: Cynthia Hopkins, USFWS)
The primary opponents of the critical habitat designation were some off-highway vehicle (OHV) users who complained that the new protected status would deprive them of recreational activities.   However, thousands of miles of open routes remain available to OHV users on public land, in addition to the El Mirage, Stoddard Wells, and Johnson Valley Off-highway vehicle areas.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Destruction of Ivanpah Valley

Bechtel, one of the investors in BrightSource Energy LLC's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, released photos of the project construction.  Remember, the photographs so far only show about a fraction of the total proposed project since phases 2 and 3 were halted by the Bureau of Land Management since the project's impact on the endangered desert tortoise are much higher than expected.  A revised biological assessment indicates that as many as 162 adult tortoises may be displaced or killed, and hundreds of smaller juvenile tortoises could be killed.

This photo was obtained by GreentechSolar from Becthel's website:

Photo from Becthel and BrightSource Ivanpah website. Photo shows just a fraction of Phase 1.  Less than one-third of the total destruction this project will cause.
Becthel is partnering with BrightSource and energy firm "NRG" to build the Ivanpah Solar site.  Ironically, Bechtel was also a partner in the construction of the Hoover Dam, which submerged 247 square miles of America's southwest in 1936 to quench our energy thirst.  What a shame that we have the opportunity to avoid destroying public land by choosing rooftop solar instead of ecosystem-destroying projects like Ivanpah.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Angry Birds in Northern California

Following up on a previous post regarding Google's plans to invest millions of dollars in a massive field of wind turbines in the western Mojave Desert, the Los Angeles Times ran a great article today on the dangers of poorly sited wind energy facilities on birds. Google's wind energy projects is one of several proposed for the Mojave Desert, and are expected to have similar impacts as the Altamont Pass project featured in the LA Times article.   A video accompanied the article and is also embedded below.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Is Washington Creating a Big Solar Bubble?

We all know what happened when Wall Street and Washington both looked the other way in the name of corporate profit as banks and insurers inflated housing prices, and encouraged unstable investments.  But will Americans be stuck with the cost of another over-hyped investment?

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has smoothed the way to permit hundreds of square miles of solar energy facilities on public land in America's southwestern deserts.   In California alone there were 20 solar applications in line for public land, totaling over 200 square miles.  The Obama administration asked the BLM to work with the Department of Energy (DOE) to decide which projects can receive taxpayer-backed financing and grants.  Massive solar projects have already been approved for over 4 billion dollars in government loans, and millions of dollars in cash grants.
A subsidiary of energy firm "NRG" was awarded over 18 million dollars in grants (free cash), and 2.1 billion dollars of taxpayer-backed financing for the  Blythe Solar power project, according to the Departments of Treasury and Energy.  The public land they are building on is also home to sacred Native American sites and pristine desert habitat.  According to SEC filings, NRG had 2.9 billion dollars of its own cash and equivalents available as of December. 
Another company, First Solar, is seeking public financing for its large solar projects in California, which are expected to kill or displace dozens of desert tortoises and scar desert land just outside Joshua Tree National Park.  According to its SEC filings, First Solar had over 765 million of cash on hand in 2010, and hired a new Chief Financial Officer with a starting salary of 435,000 dollars, a signing bonus of 262,800 dollars, and stock valued at 2,340,000 dollars.  First Solar's CEO receives total annual compensation of over 3 million dollars, according to Reuters.
Banks and insurers don't trust the utility-scale solar projects enough to invest their own money.  The technology is relatively unproven on a mass scale, and the projects are as destructive as other unpopular energy sources (such as hydropower or off-shore drilling) because of the immense land requirements.  That leaves some solar companies with Uncle Sam as landlord and financier.

Government policy is surely a major driver behind the solar industry's growth.  This is not a bad thing when we end up with more efficient photovoltaic cells developed by NREL or growth in rooftop solar installations.  But it's a dead-end road for utility-scale projects that will leave the taxpayer holding the bill

The Demand:
The "solar rush" that is gobbling up so much open space in America's southwestern deserts is 45% the fault of the states, and 55% the fault of the Federal government.  Let's take California for example.  Sacramento passed a law requiring that 33% of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020, called a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).  This puts public utilities (such as Southern California Edison or San Diego Gas and Electric) under the gun to sign power purchase agreements (PPAs) with energy plants that can supply wind, solar or geothermal energy.  California's RPS ignores energy produced by privately owned distributed generation, such as a homeowner that installs a solar panel on their rooftop.   This is significant because the the best aspect of solar technology is that it can be used anywhere, but the law makes it difficult to fulfill the RPS without destroying public land.   It's also unpopular since it costs more to generate solar power in the middle of the desert, and those costs will be passed along to the customer.

The Obama administration has been the biggest national proponent of utility-scale solar projects, clearing two of the biggest hurdles for any major solar power project--land and money.

The Land:
If you are going to profit from producing renewable energy, it helps to do it on a massive scale.  The biggest landholder in the West is the BLM.  This is important for utility-scale solar projects, which can be as "small" as 3 square miles, or as big as 11 square miles.  There are private parcels of land big enough to accommodate solar power projects, but you need cash on hand if you're going to get in the door.  Not so with public land.  Although its not free, just about anybody can submit an application for a right-of-way grant. When the project is underway you will pay rent.  But it's public land.  Who cares if you foreclose on land that's not yours, right?  You may lose your right-of-way grant, but you won't be indebted to a bank.

The Financing:
Big projects require big bucks.  While some of these solar companies (NRG and First Solar) have lots of cash, it's a matter of risk to sink all of that into a project that has a decent chance of failing.  So a bulk of the money needs to come from someone with deep pockets who does not care if the money vanishes.  That is where the Federal government steps in (again).  The Section 1603 Treasury Grant Program provides cash credits to eligible solar power projects (no strings attached), and the Department of Energy issues loans under Section 1705.

BrightSource Energy LLC received a 1.6 billion dollar DOE loan for its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, and then raised cash from NRG (same company that also received grants and loans for a separate project) and Google to start building its solar facility in the northeastern Mojave Desert.  NRG plans to give 300 million over three years, and Google plans to give 168 million.  That leaves the taxpayer with the greatest risk, at 1.6 billion dollars in loans and 5.6 square miles of public land. 

Creating Value from Nothing
Solar energy companies end up with a boost in value when they get to announce the approval of a major project on public land.  They get another boost when investors hear that the project is eligible for taxpayer-backed financing.  But what exactly have they done? Solar facilities built in the Mojave so far have not been much of a success story.  Sand flows scratch mirrors and solar panels, reducing efficiency.  Storm runoff can erode already fragile soils holding mirrors and towers in place.  The per kilowatt price of solar is already high enough -- they cant afford many additional operational costs if they want to be competitive.  Some technologies have their own pitfalls, such as the clumsy SunCatchers, which increase project risk.

BrightSource Energy has already begun bulldozing pristine desert habitat for about a third of the total proposed Ivanpah project.  The project was halted earlier this year by the BLM because of higher than expected impacts on the threatened desert tortoise.
Deserts Under Strain
Even though Wall Street thinks America's deserts are a vast wasteland, there are actually a lot of demands on these lands.  Americans seek recreation here--hiking, camping, off-road vehicle use, mountain biking, photography, and plain old road-tripping.  Over 1.25 million people visit Joshua Tree National Park each year.   Death Valley, a far more remote National Park, received over 770,000 visitors in 2006.

Americans also simply appreciate having open space.  A land of peace and solitude, warmth and splendor where wildflowers bloom in the spring, coyotes howl and night, and jackrabbits abruptly bound from creosote bushes as you stroll through their home.  But desert habitat is already under strain.  Off-road vehicle usage, urbanization, military training, and transportation growth have pushed the US Fish and Wildlife Service to consider or designate several desert species as threatened or endangered.

So when energy companies want to bulldoze hundreds of square miles, they are certain to run into trouble.  Several have already faced legal challenges in State and Federal courts.  Utility-scale solar on public land is simply not a wise use of resources, and it's not sustainable.   Washington has oversold these projects as the solution to America's economic woes and climate change.  We are playing with fire, and resting our hopes on the wrong path.

Instead, the Obama administration should increase tax incentives and facilitate financing for individual citizens and small business to install rooftop solar panels.  You can give taxpayers a tangible asset, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.  Some argue that rooftop solar cannot be deployed fast enough, but Germany has installed gigawatts of rooftop solar panels over the past couple of years.  Such installations, known as distributed generation, also eliminate the need for costly new transmission lines (one transmission line is expected to cost over $2 billion), and have been known to increase home values.

Even NRG executive David Crane recognized that time is running out for Big Solar projects, and forecasts greater (and smarter) emphasis on distributed generation.  According to his comments during a fourth quarter earnings call (emphasis added):

"Ultimately, however, we fully recognize that the current generation of utility-sized solar and wind projects in the United States is largely enabled by favorable government policies and financial assistance. It seems likely that much of that special assistance is going to be phased out over the next few years, leaving renewable technologies to fend for themselves in the open market.

We do not believe that this will be the end of the flourishing market for solar generation. We do believe it will lead to a stronger and more accelerated transition from an industry that is currently biased towards utility-sized solar plants to one that's focused more on distributed and even residential solar solutions on rooftops and in parking lots."
It's time for Washington to stop subsidizing needless destruction of public lands, and propping up a market that cannot fend for itself.  We should focus on putting taxpayer money back in taxpayer pockets through distributed generation incentives.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sun Bath

A lizard keeps an eye on the blogger as it bathes in the sun in Grand Canyon National Park.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

No Free Lunch...

...Unless you are a solar company. 

A quote by the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) land program in USA Today does not sound like it came from a conservation organization.
"There's no free lunch when it comes to meeting our energy needs," she said. "To get energy, we need to do things that will have impacts."
She was encouraging fellow environmentalists not to worry about the negative impacts of the Obama administration's renewable energy policy, which will destroy thousands of square miles of wildlands.  I'm sure coal and oil executives have used the same "no free lunch" argument about offshore drilling, mountaintop removal mining, and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Yes.  Everything we do will have impacts.  But aren't we supposed to try to minimize those impacts? Isn't that what "environmental organizations have been saying for decades? I would have expected a more sophisticated statement from an organization committed to conserving natural resources and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Isn't turning a blind eye to the pitfalls of utility-scale solar energy development much like ignoring the science behind climate change?  If we consider ourselves conservationist, environmentalists, or greens, does that mean we must become cheerleaders for the renewable energy industry no matter what its impacts are?