Sunday, July 31, 2011

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

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

Although the Department of Interior is developing the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, both plans will likely focus on maximizing industrial development with conservation functions that are unlikely to effectively counteract the ripple effects on natural resources.  The end result will be attempts to salvage what's left and keep surviving species on a lifeline.

The list of proposed solar and wind projects below is just a sample of applications targeting California's deserts, and should not be considered comprehensive.  However, just the projects identified below would affect over 631 square-miles of public land.  Statewide there are nearly 1,000 square-miles of proposed wind and solar projects on public land.

Wind Energy
Jawbone Wind:  A 73 square-mile wind project in the Jawbone Canyon area of the western Mojave Desert. (BLM application # CACA 051454)

Saltdale Wind: This 60 square-mile wind project would be located just north of the Jawbone Wind project.  The developer has is installing wind testing towers.  (BLM application # CACA 049547)

Barren Ridge: A 16.6 square-mile wind facility in the Jawbone Canyon area of the western Mojave Desert near Tehachapi, California.  The BLM initiated analysis to determine if the company could proceed to install test towers. (BLM application # CACA 051016)

Ludlow Wind:  A company received authorization to install 3 wind test towers in the Ludlow area of the central Mojave Desert.  The company is interested in building a 37 square-mile facility.  (BLM application # CACA 048667)

Bristol Wind: The BLM assessed that plans by a wind energy company to conduct wind testing in the Bristol Mountains posed unspecified risks, and de-prioritized this application.  The project would blanket 58 square-miles of pristine desert ridges immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve. (BLM application # CACA 048287)

Pinto Mountains Wind:  This 31 square-mile project would be built outside the northern boundary of the popular Joshua Tree National Park in the Pinto Mountains.  The project developer received authorization in March to begin testing.  (BLM application # CACA 050711)

Silurian Valley/Iberdola Wind:  A 10.5 square-mil facility that would require 15 miles of new transmission lines.  The project would be located north of Baker and the Soda Mountains.  The BLM issued a Finding of No Significant Impact in its authorization of wind testing. (BLM application # CACA 051581 and # CACA 047455)

Graham Pass Wind: The current application involves testing on a couple of square miles in the Chuckwalla Valley,  immediately northeast of the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range.  The project's initial application identified over 40 square miles for the proposed footprint. (BLM application # 052856  previously # 050770)

Eagle Mountain Wind: The BLM is currently considering authorizing wind testing on Eagle Mountain next to Joshua Tree National Park (southern border).  The full project would encompass 4.2 square miles.  (BLM application # CACA 051664)

Riverside Wind Energy LLC:  This company is proposing an 18 square mile facility just south of the proposed Graham Pass Wind project, and is in the very initial stages of applying for permission to install test towers.

Black Mountain Wind: A 3.2 square mile wind proposal southeast of the Chocolate Mountains.  Applicant is conducting biological surveys of the area.  (BLM application # CACA 052078)

Gold Basin Wind: This 13.1 square-mile project is would be built in the same vicinity as Black Mountain Wind.  The BLM was considering authorization of wind testing as of late 2010. (BLM application # CACA 051947)

Ocotillo Express Wind:  This 14 square-mile project would destroy beautiful Sonoran Desert habitat next to Anza-Borrego State Park.  The BLM is currently accepting public comments on the environmental impact statement. (BLM application # CACA 050916)

Ord-Rodman and Stoddard Wells area:  A slew of wind energy applications have been submitted for over 100 square miles of ridges and valleys south of Barstow and Daggett, and north of Apple Valley.  Some of the projects overlap with designated conservation areas.  The following is just a sampling of the applications and proposed sizes: 38 square-miles (Stoddard-Dagget, #049204), 34 square-miles (Lucerne II, #CACA 51772), 6.9 square-miles (Camp Rock), 4.5 square-miles (Sand Ridge), 5.5 square miles (Verde Resources). 

Granite Wind:  A 3.3 square mile project just east of Apple Valley.  The project was on hold because of potential impacts on Golden Eagles in the area, but the BLM recently resumed the review process to further assess the project's impacts. (BLM application # CACA 048254)

Troy Lake Wind: A 15.8 square mile wind facility just west of the Cady Mountains in the central Mojave Desert.  The are provides key Bighorn Sheep habitat.  As of earlier this year, BLM was consulting with the Department of Defense to determine if there were any conflicts with DOD operations. (BLM application # CACA 048472)

Black Lava Butte Wind This 6.3 square-mile project would be built near the Bighorn Wilderness Area and would likely impact Native American petroglyphs. The BLM authorized the installation of wind testing towers without notice given to the local community of Pioneertown.  (BLM application # 048689)

Solar Energy
Caithness Solar:  A proposal to bulldoze 6.8 square miles of pristine desert in a location identified by the Nature Conservancy as "biologically core."  The project application has been de-prioritized by the BLM due to unspecified conflicts.  (BLM application #CACA 049584)

Troy Lake Solar:  A 6 square mile solar facility that would use photovoltaic panels just west of the Cady Mountains and east of Newberry Springs. (BLM application #CACA 049585)  Another application in the immediate vicinity known as the Newberry Springs Solar project was recently withdrawn, but the BLM approved the nearby 7 square-mile Calico Solar power project last year (#CACA049537).

Siberia:  This project does not yet have a name, but is in an area of the central Mojave Desert known as Siberia, and would build on 21 square miles of public land.  Although the proposal would affect lands identified by Senator Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act of 2011, the company has told the BLM that they are still interested in moving forward with initial planning.  (BLM application # CACA 049421)

Broadwell Solar Energy Generating System: This project would cover 13.4 square miles of pristine desert southeast of the Cady Mountains. The plan of development process was put on hold after Senator Feinstein introduced the California Desert Protection Act, which would set aside lands in the area for conservation and recreation. (BLM application # CACA 048875)

Stateline Solar power project:  First Solar Inc plans to build on 3.4 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.  Plant and wildlife in the area is already in trouble because of the 5.6 square mile Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, which began construction in 2010.  Desert experts are concerned that further industrial development by the Stateline project in this otherwise pristine valley would undermine a biologically core area of the Mojave Desert ecosystem.  (BLM application #048669) 

Palo Verde:  BrightSource Energy, the same company responsible for one of the most destructive solar projects under construction (Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System), is also proposing to build a facility on 19 square-miles of desert east of the Little Chuckwalla Mountains, and south of the Blythe Solar power project, which began construction last year. (Palo Verde BLM application # CACA 051967) 

Mule Mountain:  A 3.2 square mile project in the Chuckwalla Valley, north of Interstate 10. (BLM application # CACA 049488) 

Mule Mountain III:  This project would be just west of the proposed Palo Verde project, and blanket 12.7 square-miles of the Chuckwalla Valley with solar panels, likely impacting habitat for the desert tortoise and Mojave fringe-toed lizard.  (BLM application # CACA 050390) 

Desert Quartzite:  A 11.3 square-mile project proposed by First Solar, also in the vicinity of the proposed Mule Mountain and Palo Verde projects. (BLM application # CACA 049397) 

Desert Sunlight: This nearly 6.5 square-mile facility will be visible to hikers in Joshua Tree National Park, and will displace or kill threatened desert tortoises, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, and western burrowing owls.  The project is in the final stages of the approval process, and will be built by First Solar Inc. (BLM application # CACA 048649) 

Desert Harvest:  A 1.4 square-mile facility proposed for the area north of Desert Center, and immediately adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.  (BLM application # CACA 049491) 

Leopold Solar:  One of the largest solar applications, the Leopold Solar company would build on nearly 55 square-miles of the Ward Valley.  The company was still in the initial phases of the plan of development as of May 2011. (BLM application # CACA 049002)

Johnson Valley Solar Energy Generating System:  This project would involve a mix of BLM and State lands in the Johnson Valley, west of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base.  It would take 2.4 square-miles of BLM land, but probably many more square miles of private and State lands.  The project is being proposed by BrightSource Energy.  (BLM application # CACA 052796)

Superstition Solar I:  Plans to cover 8.2 square-miles of Sonoran Desert habitat south of the Salton Sea.  The project would cover some lands donated for conservation. (BLM application # CACA 049150)

Ogilby Solar: A 11.5 square-mile project proposed for public land southeast of the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range. (BLM application # CACA 049615)

Mapping the solar and wind projects:
You can download the map below from Scribd. The Bureau of Land Management updates the map and makes it available on the California Desert District website (here).

The various blue shaded areas are wind energy and wind testing applications, and the red shaded areas are proposed solar facilities. This map is current as of July 2011.
July 2011 Renewable Energy Application Map

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Shout Out to Desert Survivors

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

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

Shameless plug: You can become a member, support desert advocacy, receive the newsletter, and participate in Desert Survivor events that share and celebrate the peaceful beauty of our deserts.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

10 Million Solar Rooftops Act of 2011

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

Local permitting has complicated the deployment of distributed generation in some areas.  For example, a Sierra Club study in Southern California found that some cities charged permit fees that were unreasonable and exceeded the actual cost of administering them.  Cities that had lower permit fees tend to attract more rooftop solar installations (naturally!).

You can sign into POPVOX and express your support for the legislation.  If you register with the site, you can even craft a letter for your Senators.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Governor Brown's Pledge to Crush Democracy

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

These projects affect every community and ratepayer in California because they will wipe out treasured open spaces and increase electricity costs unnecessarily.   So it's disheartening that Brown belittled the voice of voters, lamenting the fact that he had to "talk a little bit," with concerned citizens, but saying "at the end of the day you have to move forward, and California needs to move forward with our renewable energy."  What these citizens are asking for is not a halt to all renewable energy; they want renewable energy where it makes sense, such as on already-disturbed lands or rooftops.  Ironically, Brown spoke these words at a conference for distributed generation, which involves installing solar panels on rooftops and in urban spaces--a more effective and less destructive way to meet our renewable energy goals.

So what kind of opposition is Governor Brown crushing?  Perhaps the Native Americans that protested his backing of the 10 square-mile Blythe Solar power project.   Bulldozers had already barreled through sacred ceremonial sites before Governor Brown flew in to attend the official groundbreaking ceremony for the solar site.  Native Americans and other concerned citizens were there to protest, but Governor Brown did not give them the time of day as he gladly stood next to executives of the German firm Solar Millennium, some of whom are under investigation in Germany for embezzlement
Native Americans protesting the destruction of a sacred site by Solar Millennium.  Not long after, Governor Brown visited the site for the official groundbreaking, rubbing elbows with executives of a scandal-plagued company receiving billions of taxpayer-backed loans and grants. Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
Or is Governor Brown talking about opposition to the Ivanpah Solar power project? Never mind that the Nature Conservancy identified the Ivanpah Valley as "biologically core" to the health of California's desert ecosystems, and biologists have expressed alarm at the potential destruction of a genetically significant desert tortoise population.  What about the Quechan Tribe's opposition to the Imperial Valley Solar project.  Does Governor Brown disagree with the Federal judge who put put the project on hold because the government ignored concerns that the project would destroy Native American burial sites?

What about concerns that all of these solar facilities in the middle of the desert require new or upgraded transmission lines that will cost billions of dollars?  All of those costs will be passed along to electricity customers.
Solar panels in our urban spaces make a lot more sense than placing them in the middle of our beautiful deserts. Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
Blanketing our wild lands with steel and mirrors is not the vision most Americans would appreciate.  That is evidenced by the thousands of comments that the Department of Interior received in response to plans to fast-track solar facilities on pristine public land.  It's evidenced by the nearly 30,000 comments Washington received regarding the enormous toll wind energy turbines have on bird populations.

Let's get serious about distributed generation and abandon the old energy paradigm of bulldozers and transmission towers.

Governor Brown with executives from Solar Millennium during the Blythe groundbreaking ceremony. Solar Millennium will receive 2.1 billion dollars in taxpayer-backed loans and millions of dollars in cash grants to build the massive facility.  Governor Brown avoided Native American protestors during the ceremony, and did not speak about the sacred sites already disturbed during initial construction activities. Photo by Tammy Heilemann, Office of Communications

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Governor Brown Misses the Point on Ivanpah

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

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

According to the Governor's legal brief, "the public's interest here is in the success of responsibly sited renewable energy resources." (emphasis added)  What is so responsible about the siting of the Ivanpah project on pristine public land with an exceptionally biodiverse array of plant and wildlife?  In its ecological assessment of the Mojave Desert, the Nature Conservancy identified the Ivanpah Valley as biologically core, and integral to the ecological health of California's deserts.

The word "transformation" is used in the Governor's legal brief as a euphemism for irresponsible sited destructive solar projects.  He ignores the 30,000 acres of empty and disturbed lands offered by the Westlands Solar Park, and the thousands of acres of disturbed lands offered by the EPA's RE-powering America's Lands Program.
The Governor's brief also proclaims that the Ivanpah project is an "important part of California's overall efforts to transform its energy future."  For crying out loud, scientists have found ways to print solar cells on paper and fabric (see cool videos here), and Germany has installed several gigawatts of distributed generation, far outpacing California.  What is so transformational about steel and glass replacing pristine wildlands as is happening at Ivanpah?  That is the energy model we have been following for decades.  It's time to get serious about distributed generation and, when we do build large scale solar facilities, put them on lands that are already disturbed, such as 30,000 acres of disturbed land in central California (see here) or any of the thousands of acres identified by the EPA's RE-powering America's Lands program.

We need to increase renewable energy generation, but let's face it, the Ivanpah solar project embodies the worst qualities in energy generation that we are seeking to escape from in coal, oil and gas: corporate greed, government waste, and ecological destruction.  Solar is a flexible technology; there is no need to lose more precious natural resources for the sake of a technology that works even more efficiently when it's right in our backyard or on our rooftops.

Legislation Could Revolutionize Rooftop Solar Financing

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

Rooftop solar installations have a positive impact on property values, according to a study by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory,  and paying for an installation over time through PACE makes such upgrades much more accessible to the public.  One pitfall in the legislation is that it may put rural communities or homeowners in lower economic brackets at a disadvantage.  The bill's language currently restricts property assessed financing to 10% of a home's value.   For homes in economically depressed areas, or in communities where property values are generally lower, this could be unnecessarily prohibitive.  The legislation already requires that PACE programs to ensure recipients are not in danger of default and are current on tax and property payments.

If this legislation is successful, there could be a tide of new rooftop solar installations, underscoring the obsolete nature of massive and expensive solar facilities on pristine desert habitat.  Those projects, which receive billions in Federal grants and loan guarantees, are no less environmentally destructive than a hydropower dam.

You can register your support for H.R. 2599 on the POPVOX site.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Environmental Groups Bow to Wind Industry Pressure on Bird Deaths

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

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has registered its concern with the draft guidelines, which cut out recommendations by scientists working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the insistence of the wind energy industry.  “Given the Administration’s commitment to scientific integrity, it’s hard to understand why the peer-reviewed work of agency scientists was dismissed in favor of text written by an industry-dominated Federal Advisory Committee,” said Kelly Fuller, Wind Campaign Coordinator at ABC. “ABC would like to see the next draft include more of what the agency scientists wrote.”

“ABC supports bird-smart wind energy development in which birds can co-exist with wind energy. America must avoid repeating the mistakes we made with hydropower half a century ago, when we built dams without careful environmental review or consideration, necessitating spending millions of dollars today to remove them. We must likewise steer clear of the mistakes we are making today with coal, which result in costly impacts to public health and wildlife. These new guidelines are not bird-smart,” she added.

Recommendations on wind energy were developed over a two-year period by an industry-dominated, 22-member Federal Advisory Committee and forwarded to the Secretary of the Interior in March 2010. Over the next year, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists made a series of changes to those recommendations to improve protection for birds. Those revised guidelines were then published for public comment in February 2011 (an overwhelming number of the comments called for the guidelines to be strengthened, not weakened). They also underwent scientific peer review. Last week, FWS re-issued a new draft of those guidelines, that removed many of the key bird protection elements following pressure from industry.

In addition to killing special status birds such as golden eagles, sandhill cranes and red-tailed hawks, wind turbines also pose a severe danger to bats.  According to a recent news article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,  Pennsylvania wind farms killed nearly 10,000 bats last year, sending ripple effects through local ecosystems.  Another wind facility proposed for Nevada is expected to inflict extensive casualties on a migrating population of over 1 million Brazilian free-tailed bats that roost in a nearby cave, according to Basin and Range Watch.   Similar impacts can be seen with many wind projects throughout the US.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Caithness Solar Threatens Heart of the Mojave Desert

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

The BLM probably should conduct a more thorough plant and wildlife survey before supporting industrialization of this habitat, since the project could block wildlife migration corridor linking the central Mojave with areas to the west, according to a review of the Nature Conservancy's Mojave Deser Ecoregional AssessmentIt's possible the BLM has already clued in on the dangers of this particular proposal, since the land record available for the application notes that the Soda Mountain solar project has been "de-prioritized" due to unspecified conflicts. 

This screenshot of the Nature Conservancy's ecoregional assessment for the Mojave Desert shows critical connectivity corridors (purple outlines) and "biologically core" areas (dark green).  The Soda Mountain energy project would be located in a biologically core area and restrict the connectivity area southwest of Baker.
The Plan of Development also states that the project would pump over 1.75 million gallons of groundwater each year, mostly  to wash solar panels.  The depletion of groundwater supplies could affect phreatophytes, such as the honey mesquite or ironwood, which are highly adapted desert plants that have "tap roots" that can reach deep groundwater supplies.

More information, photos of the area, and a link to the BLM plan of development is available at the Basin and Range Watch website.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Department of Interior Announces New Mission

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

The new Department of Interior seal, realigned to match the agency's new mission.  Department of Interior abandoned the iconic bison that graced its emblem for decades.
The Department's new mission statement, "Powering Our Future With America's Great Outdoors by Making them Less Great," has drawn concerns from renewable energy experts and taxpayers,.  Interior is already reviewing energy company requests to use over 1,000 square miles of public land in California for wind and solar facilities.  "Are you kidding me? This much destruction is likely to drive several species of plants and wildlife closer to extinction," said one resident who enjoys rock climbing in the Mojave Desert.  A Nevada resident upset with multi-billion dollar Federal grants and loans for solar energy companies said "it makes no sense to subsidize these energy companies when we could invest it back in our local communities with rooftop seems like Washington is missing out on a win-win situation." 

When asked about Salazar's new mission, Secretary of Energy Dr. Chu said "Department of Energy has funded research that makes homes more energy efficient, and makes it possible to put solar cells on everything from rooftops to windows.  Salazar's plans are obsolete...I think he just doesn't like nature.  Last time we went camping he ended up at the Hilton."  Salazar declined to comment on the redundant missions of his agency and the Department of Energy.

One reporter asked Secretary Salazar what prompted him to alter the agency's seal, which was once adorned with the iconic American Bison.  "Let's get real.  Bison burgers just don't sell like regular hamburgers.  What's the point of saving that beast from extinction?  Our new seal is photorealistic, bringing it up to the standards of the modern age.  We also want to sensitize people to what our lands should look like -- towers of steel carrying megawatts of electricity from fields of glass mirrors and spinning wind turbines.  We are already soliciting contracts for companies that want to collect birds killed in collisions with wind turbines.  The New Energy Frontier is creating layer upon layer of green jobs."

Craig Zweibel, a worker building the new Joshua Tree Solar Project on 7 square miles of public land was agnostic about his new green job. "I guess it's okay, but I had to drive for two hours from Barstow to get to the construction site.  I think I might have run over one of those desert tortoises on the way out here today. My commute wouldn't be so bad if we were installing these solar panels on houses in my neighborhood."

A representative for Acme Solar and Wind, the German firm that received Federal grants to build the Joshua Tree Solar Project, was more ecstatic.  "We couldn't pass this opportunity up.  American taxpayers take up most of the financial risk, and Secretary Salazar is making sure the Endangered Species Act doesn't get in the way of our business."

Acme Chief Financial Officer Franz Gurten said "if we don't start producing more green energy, climate change is going to destroy the environment.  We only need to bulldoze 3,000 square miles to supply California with solar and wind energy.  You can kiss those California condors and desert tortoises goodbye, but at least polar bears stand a better chance at survival.  Oh yeah, once we start building in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona, we might also need to get rid of those whooping cranes, golden eagles, bighorn sheep, and pygmy rabbits.  But damn those polar bear cubs are so cute."

Salazar promised to complete the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, which assesses the ecological impacts of Interior's plans to open up millions of acres of public land--mostly pristine desert habitat--to renewable energy companies.  Members of the public were invited to comment on the plan. "The impact statement will evaluate all of the negative environmental impacts of these projects," Salazar said. " I probably wont read it, but at least the process will let the people feel like we listened to their concerns."

(The article above is a satirical interpretation of Department of Interior's New Energy Frontier slogan and renewable energy siting plans.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

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

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

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Stephen Colbert Takes on Natural Gas Fracking

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

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

Monday, July 11, 2011

Rare Earth Mining Claims Loom Over Eastern Mojave

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

The only major mine that came of that rush in the 1950s was Molycorp's Mountain Pass mine on the west side of the Ivanpah Valley, which began producing rare earth minerals in 1952 and has expanded greatly since then.  Mountain Pass--and its history of damage to public land--may not be alone for much longer.  Elissa Resources has consolidated nearly 200 claims and announced positive results after analyzing mineral samples, signalling an intent to propose a major mine in the area.  Elissa Resources was born out of the merger of two giant coal companies -- Red Hill Energy and Prophecy Resources.  Elissa's rare earth mining claims, totaling approximately 4,460 acres (7 square miles), still appear under "Red Hill Energy" on BLM land records.

The map below depicts the approximate location of Elissa Resources mining claims next to the Ivanpah Valley.

View Elissa Resources REE Mine Claims in a larger map

Although the mines could produce wealth for the corporations and gadgets for consumers, they can also bring environmental doom to the fragile desert ecosystem.  The Mountain Pass mine was closed down for a period in 1994 after a Federal investigation found that approximately 600,000 gallons of radioactive wastewater spilled into the Ivanpah Valley over several years.  Rare earth mines also scar mountain tops, require increased traffic of heavy equipment, new power lines, gas lines, and access roads.  Elissa Resources mining claims are adjacent to critical habitat for the desert tortoise, and could disrupt the nearby Piute-El Dorado Valley Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

Desert plant and wildlife in the Ivanpah Valley is already under threat since BrightSource Energy LLC began constructing a 5.6 square mile solar facility, which is expected to kill or displace hundreds of threatened desert tortoisesAnother energy company, First Solar Inc, is proposing to bulldoze nearly 15 square miles of pristine desert habitat in the Ivanpah Valley for its Stateline and Silver State projects.   Desert biologists have expressed deep concern with development plans in the area. Not only have surveys uncovered a thriving tortoise population (a rare occurrence for a species in decline throughout much of its range), but rare and newly discovered plant life is also abundant in the area.  Many citizens argue that distributed generation, such as rooftop solar, is a more economically efficient and less destructive path for clean energy.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Destructive Ridgecrest Solar Project in Limbo

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

Solar Millennium is desperately trying to fit a square through a round hole with the Ridgecrest project.  After the CEC staff announced last year that impacts on the threatened Mohave Ground Squirrel and desert tortoise would preclude it from recommending certification, the company decided to commission a biological study of ground squirrel connectivity so that it could find a way to still build the project in the middle of a corridor linking core populations of the Mohave Ground Squirrel.  However, the CEC staff warned that the environmental impacts would still be too great, and the company abandoned its ground squirrel study.  In January, the company filed a document with the CEC giving up on the certification process.  However, not long after, the company's lawyers indicated that the filing was a mistake, and revived the certification process.  

Wildflowers in bloom on the site of the proposed Ridgecrest Solar power project.  The site hosts an active Mohave Ground Squirrel corridor and a robust desert tortoise population.
The company apparently decided that the project could still be profitable using PV technology, so they proposed modifying the original proposal from concentrating solar thermal (using mirrors to heat up fluid to power generators) to PV (the same technology on a solar-power calculator or watch).   The CEC's decision to dismiss the project and hand it off to another authority (probably the California Department of Fish and Game) is likely to complicate Solar Millennium's application process.

Solar Millennium should consider investing in distributed generation--solar panels on warehouse rooftops or over parking lots.  You might have to pay some nominal fees at city hall, but at least you won't be driving plant and wildlife into extinction.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Congress Wants to Gut Conservation...Again

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

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

Here is the provision from page 8 of the draft bill that would bring the Endangered Species Act to a halt, preventing any funds from being used to add new plants or wildlife to the list. 
That none of the funds shall be used for implementing subsections (a), (b), (c), and (e) of section 4 of the Endangered Species Act...
The bill's sponsors proudly note that they rejected a proposal to raise fees on oil and gas companies extracting resources from the land.   Nevermind that those companies are ending each year with billions of dollars in surplus.  The bill would also overturn a ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, which mostly affects foreign companies shipping the product overseas.

This is not a sustainable proposal.  If we cannot balance demands on natural resources with conservation, we end up with a classic Tragedy of the Commons.

Hopefully our elected "representatives" show some Pride in America and come back with a more sensible proposal.

If you want to give them a nudge, look up your Representative (here) and give them a call or email.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Top 10 Myths Renewable Energy Companies Want You to Believe

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

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

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

10.) Bulldozing the land to build massive solar or wind farms may have local impacts, but it will save the rest of the world from global warming.
Big Solar and Wind facilities will require so much land to meet our energy demands that we will ultimately lose many of the places and wildlife we want to protect from global warming.  In California alone, energy companies have submitted applications to destroy over 1,000 square miles of public land--mostly pristine wildlands--for solar and wind projects, according to the Bureau of Land Management.  Those projects would supply less than 25% of California's energy needs, but they would industrialize many of the remaining valleys and hillsides in the state.  If we apply this math to meet even more of our energy needs in every state, we lose many more thousands of square miles to industrialization.
9.)  Wind farms are better than solar facilities because they do not have to scrape as much of the land.
It is true that wind farms have a smaller footprint on the land than solar facilities, but they do carve miles of access roads and flatten the area around the wind towers.  The proposed Searchlight Wind project in Nevada will carve 38 miles of roads into hillsides.  The most damaging aspect of wind farms are the spinning blades, which kill thousands of birds and bats every year.  According to industry estimates, wind turbines can kill up to 14 birds, per megawatt, per year, and a median rate of 2.2 birds per MW, per year.  The Alta Wind Energy Center in the western Mojave Desert is likely to kill anywhere from 3,300 to 21,000 birds every year.
8.) If you let us build the solar farm in the middle of the desert, the solar panels can create shade for the desert tortoise, helping the species recover.
Solar projects will create massive dead zones, and almost certainly will introduce non-native plants that are less nutritious for desert animals, such as the tortoise.  Tortoises have lived without human-provided shade for centuries, and they can do this best when their habitat remains intact -- they dig burrows, and find shelter under desert shrubs.  If a tortoise finds itself in the middle of a 7 square mile solar facility, it will be feeding on sparse non-native plants, and under threat of being run over by vehicles used to wash the solar panels.
7.) Don't worry, our construction technique only mows desert shrubs so they can grow back around the solar mirrors after construction.
A couple of solar companies have touted their "mowing" (check out this video) technique as an environmentally responsible way to build a solar facility.  But desert shrub and trees are not like your front lawn.  Many are hundreds of years old--yes even those plants that only come up to your waist.  They will not just bounce back a couple of months after the company chops them down.  Also, the solar facilities will require miles of access roads between all of the mirrors or panels to wash them on a regular basis.  All of this activity and the water running off the mirrors will erode any topsoil or biotic crusts that provide nutrients for native plants.
6.) Rare plant and wildlife will be okay because we will relocate the animals and build around the rare plants.
Relocating tortoises will still result in high mortality rates. When hundreds of tortoises were relocated from a new military training area in the central Mojave Desert, at least half died within two years of being moved.  Solar companies have also proposed building around spots where rare wildflowers occur, but isolating patches of vegetation will disrupt the ecosystem functions the plants depend on and the runoff from the nearby solar panels could still cause harmful soil erosion.
5.) Rooftop solar panels cannot generate enough energy to meet the demand for clean energy, which is why we need huge facilities on public land.
This is not true.  There are many opportunities to place solar panels in the urban environment, making them serve as shade structures for parking lots, on schools, homes, small businesses and warehouses.  A study by UCLA found that Los Angeles rooftops alone could support enough solar to generate 5,500 megawatts.  In 2009, Germany had already reached 9 gigawatts of solar generation, most of which came from rooftop systems.  Utility companies are also afraid of rooftop solar.  If you lease or own a rooftop solar system on your house or business, that's less money going into utility company pockets.
4.) If you are against Big Solar or Wind, you must be a coal or oil industry supporter.
Yes, I have been accused of being in bed with the coal or oil industry because I am against solar and wind projects that destroy America's southwestern deserts.  The last thing I want is another new coal plant, or a repeat of the 2010 Gulf oil disaster.  But the damage done by Big Solar and Wind is going to catch up with us. 
Why should we continue down the wrong path when we know we will ultimately regret it, and when we know the miracle of solar and wind technology is its versatility.  Wrist watches and calculators have integrated solar technology on a miniature scale for years.  One company is developing windows with embedded solar cells.  There is no reason solar facilities cant find another home and leave public land for other uses.
3.) More birds are killed each year by pet cats than wind turbines.
So this is actually true.  There are nearly 90 million pet cats in the United States, according to the American Bird Conservancy, which kill millions of birds ever year.  Supporters of big wind energy facilities frequently cite this statistic in defense of the 440,000 birds killed by turbines every year (this number will reach 1 million birds per year in 2030, when over 100,000 wind turbines are expected to be in operation).   There are two things wrong with this defense: 1.) It's like the oil industry saying more fish die in fishing nets than in oil spills.  These are two separate problems, and the magnitude of the other problem does not excuse you from fixing the one you have. 2.) Snowball the neighborhood cat will not kill a Golden Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Whooping Crane, or a Mexican free-tailed bat--but wind turbines do it all the time.
2.) Big Solar and Wind facilities create much needed "green" jobs.
Building a 392 MW solar power facility in the middle of the desert will support hundreds of constructions jobs.  But once construction is finished, facilities usually only have a small permanent staff.  The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California will employ 86 permanent staff, but the project will depend on a 1.6 billion dollar taxpayer-backed loan guarantee.  That's over 18.6 million dollars of taxpayer risk per permanent job for a project that is not even "green."  Ivanpah is projected to displace or kill hundreds of desert tortoises, thanks to the company's decision to build on some of the best habitat in the eastern Mojave Desert.  Since when did creating "green" jobs involve destroying pristine habitat for an endangered species?  Distributed generation projects can create just as many jobs, but they will be local.  Instead of workers driving an hour and a half from the nearest city to reach the solar facility, installing rooftop solar means they can work in their own neighborhood.
1.) The desert is the most efficient place to build solar facilities because of the higher insolation.
The desert does have higher insolation, which is the measurement of the sun's radiation that actually reaches a given surface area.  But any efficiency gained by building in the middle of the desert is lost when the electricity seeps out of the transmission lines.  Transmission lines can lose anywhere from 7-15% of the electricity.  Not to mention, transmission lines are expensive to build or upgrade, and those costs are passed along to the customer.  For example, the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line being built in Southern California will cut through national forest and pristine desert, but it is expected to cost 2 billion dollars.  This will ultimately be passed along to the ratepayer.
The other problem is water.  There's not much water in the desert, but a water-cooled facility like the Beacon Solar power project will require 456 million gallons per year.  Air-cooled facilities can use less, but the 11 square mile Blythe Solar power project will still require 195 million gallons (600 acre-feet) per year for cleaning mirrors and other operations.  All of this is going to be pumped from dwindling groundwater supplies.
We have a lot to learn about our renewable energy choices, but energy company propaganda does not help support informed decision-making.

Wildflowers in bloom on the site of the proposed Ridgecrest Solar power project in the western Mojave Desert. The site is home to an abundance of desert tortoise, and the threatened Mohave ground-squirrel.