Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Conservationists Offer Alternative to First Solar Projects in Ivanpah Valley

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Wednesday hosted a public meeting to discuss one of two solar projects that would be built in the Ivanpah Valley by First Solar Inc, drawing concerned citizens who expressed deep frustrations with a misguided renewable energy policy.   Desert experts and conservation advocates in attendance presented an alternative proposal to designate much of the valley as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) in order to protect a crucial genetic linkage for the threatened desert tortoise and habitat for rare plants and other wildlife.   The full ACEC petition can be viewed at Basin and Range Watch's website.   Many citizens at the meeting have long called for distributed solar generation (such as rooftop solar), or placing solar facilities on lands that are already disturbed instead of on ecologically intact areas such as the Ivanpah Valley.

Ivanpah Valley, with the Clark Mountains in the background.
The two projects proposed by First Solar--Stateline and Silver State South--would essentially shut off a wildlife corridor through the valley and decimate approximately 14 square miles of public wildlands.   First Solar's plans would be in addition to projects that the BLM has already approved, including BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), the Desert Xpress high speed rail, and the El Dorado transmission line.   In total, the projects would industrialize over 20 square miles in the Ivanpah Valley, which has been described by the Nature Conservancy as ecologically core and containing an above average richness of rare species.

According to the petition for an ACEC, the Ivanpah Valley has been identified as an area of excellent quality desert tortoise habitat with some of the highest tortoise population densities in the eastern Mojave Desert.  The Ivanpah Valley is one of few places where the tortoise continues to thrive, despite the species' decline throughout most of its range.  The valley provides a north-south corridor that is crucial for genetic diversity in the Mojave desert tortoise populations.  If all of the proposed solar projects are built the connectivity will be lost, isolating and destroying a genetically significant population of tortoises.

The ACEC would preserve foraging habitat for Nelson bighorn sheep and golden eagles, and protect at least 36 special status plants have been identified in the Ivanpah Valley, including desert pincushion and white-margined penstemon.  The petition had this to say about the area's significance for rare plants:
"Ivanpah Valley lies at the hub of a floristic frontier where botanists continue to discover new species to science, and it harbors high concentrations of rare plant species. Twelve rare plants species were documented on the approved Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project site."
The cave-dwelling evening primrose, a plant only recently discovered in the Ivanpah Valley, would be protected if the ACEC is accepted, and destroyed if First Solar's developments are approved.  Photo by James M. Andre, copyright 2008.
You can click on the images below for high resolution illustrations of the Ivanpah Valley, the boundary of the proposed ACEC, and the proposed layouts for destructive solar projects.
Click on the image to expand.  This Google Earth image depicts the boundary of the proposed ACEC (in blue), and also shows the footprints of the most significant approved and proposed projects that could impact the viability of the ecosystem.
Click on image to expand.  This 3D Google Earth View of the Ivanpah Valley shows the footprints of the three major solar projects planned for the area, threatening to industrialize an entire valley of habitat designated by the Nature Conservancy as "ecologically core" to the Mojave Desert ecosystem.  Projects in this image include the Desert Xpress rail, a major transmission line, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), Stateline solar, and Silver State solar.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

National Clean Energy Summit Dismissive of Dangers

Political officials and energy industry executives gathered in Las Vegas today to discuss renewable energy policy at the National Clean Energy Summit (NCES).  Many of the headline speakers at NCES were focused on the country's most vexing issue, jobs, with just a very thin veneer of "green" to make it seem like they were talking about something new.   The overall tone of NCES was disappointingly dismissive of the proven dangers of Big Solar and Wind energy, with few voices reminding the attendees that all Big Energy--even solar and wind--exact a toll on the environment.  The reluctance of national leaders to acknowledge the ecological impact that their policy will have on the land is not much different than political candidates denying the science behind climate change.

The NCES website was adorned with an image of a large transmission line pylon, and the image of a towering white turbine occasionally flashed on the screen for streaming video coverage of the conference, a sad reminder that the conference failed to think beyond an old energy paradigm that requires massive destruction of public lands.  Distributed generation, such as rooftop solar, is a far more efficient and dependable option for meeting our renewable energy demand.

Several transmission lines--a hallmark of the old paradigm of central station energy generation--cross the Antelope Valley in the western Mojave Desert to feed the hungry Los Angeles basin.  Massive wind farms in nearby Tehachapi have spawned new transmission lines, costing ratepayers millions of dollars. One of the wind farms is currently being scrutinized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service after killing at least 6 Golden Eagles.
Blind to the Impacts
At the conference, California Governor Jerry Brown repeated his Qadhafi-esque pledge from July to "crush opposition" to big solar and wind projects, according to a Tweet by San Jose Mercury News reporter Dana Hull.  Governor Brown apparently remains flippant about the dangers of such projects to public lands and wildlife, although his administration is also pursuing rooftop solar initiatives.  Governor Brown went so far as to say that solar panels on public lands could provide shade for desert tortoises, according to another Tweet from Hull, who attended the event.  Apparently Brown has not read the report from his Independent Science Advisors , which warned that large-scale solar facilities could have far reaching negative consequences on desert ecosystems.  Desert tortoises do no coexist with industrial energy sites, despite Brown's off-the-cuff attempt to humor a crowd full of big energy cheerleaders.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that Brightsource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System will kill or displace at least 140 adult tortoises, and probably hundreds of tortoise hatchlings during construction and operation.  The BLM reports that it is processing applications for dozens of solar energy projects in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts that will blanket hundreds of square miles with industrial development on mostly pristine wildlands.
Also at the conference, Chairman Yusuo Wang from Chinese firm ENN had this to say about America's southwestern ecosystems, according to the Las Vegas Sun:  "with most of its land being either desert or sandy wasteland, Nevada holds real potential for solar energy farms."  ENN apparently has its sights set on the exploitation of America's ecosystems at the same time that China is tearing apart countries from Southeast Asia to Africa for coal and oil.

All of these policymakers are determined to spearhead the largest and quickest industrialization of public lands our country has ever experienced, and they want to do it under the misnomer title of "green" energy.  As of this summer, the Bureau of Land Management was processing applications for over a thousand square miles of wind and solar facilities in just California.  And these projects would only meet about a quarter of California's peak energy demand.

The red blotches on this Google Earth image show the approximate locations and boundaries of solar and wind applications on public lands in California and Arizona.  I'm working on adding the Nevada projects.  Among these red blotches are over 20 square miles of solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley, over 100 square-miles of wind energy projects near Tehachapi, and massive proposed wind projects just north of the Grand Canyon.  These red blotches will probably need to be multiplied at least 3 or 4 times to meet our peak energy demand.
Betting on the Wrong Horse
Our national leaders continue to beat the drum of large solar and wind energy projects, but distributed generation can create and sustain even more clean jobs in local communities.  The Sierra Club recently teamed up with Sungevity, a successful solar leasing company that makes it affordable for homeowners to go green and install panels on their rooftop.  With proper feed-in-tariffs and legislation to free up Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE)--a means of financing personal solar installations--clean and local energy can be even more accessible to Americans.

As the Independent Science Advisors stated in their report to California, we should seek to avoid a renewable energy policy that will lead to regrets in the future, and instead build our renewable energy capacity in our cities or on land that is already-disturbed.  We did not follow a "no regrets" policy decades ago when America saw a proliferation of hydropower dams--also a form of renewable energy--blocking rivers across the country.  Now we are embarking on ambitious plans to remove these dams to restore ecosystems and bring fisheries back to life.    Desert ecosystems are less forgiving and take much longer to revive, but such science had no place at the conference this week.    

It sounds like the National Clean Energy Summit turned out to be a pep rally for corporate energy, absent any thoughtful consideration of past mistakes and future traps.   One lone tweet of reason came from the Wilderness Society, whose representative was either in attendance or watching the streaming video, stating "how & where we develop renewable energy is key."  Let's hope we figure that out before it's too late.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Upward

Fiddleneck blooms and Joshua Tree limbs reach for the sky at Saddleback Butte State Park in the western Mojave Desert.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Environmental Groups Warn Interior on Calico Solar Project

Three environmental groups--the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and Natural Resources Defense Council--threatened to take legal action in Federal court against the Department of Interior's approval of the Calico solar power project, urging instead that it be built on already-disturbed lands.   The challenge represents the most significant step taken by these environmental groups to establish principles in what has otherwise been a rush by the Obama administration to industrialize public lands in the name of "green" energy. 

The nearly 7 square-mile Calico project would jeopardize key habitat in the central Mojave Desert for several imperiled species, including bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, burrowing owls, and the small-flowered androstephium.  The groups argue that although solar energy is necessary to reduce CO2 emissions, "utility-scale renewable energy sources and related transmission facilities on federal lands can threaten serious and widespread impacts on wildlife, habitat, and ecosystems sustained by those lands" without "smart planning." 
The white-margined beardtongue is another rare plant that is only know to exist in a few pockets in the Mojave Desert, including a population on the site of the proposed Calico Solar project.  Photo by Lara Hartley, from a Sierra Club submission to the California Energy Commission.
The Calico project proposal began with Tessera Solar LLC, which was granted approval by the Department of Interior and California Energy Commission (CEC) last year to proceed with the project despite a contentious environmental review process and concerns that the project would block a wildlife corridor and kill or displace dozens of threatened desert tortoises.  It turns out Tessera Solar never had the ability to build the project in the first place, and sold the project to K-Road Solar.   The new company decided to change the project plans to include more photovoltaic panels (the same technology used for rooftop solar installations).  This change triggered the need for further review, which the Department of Interior has yet to begin.

A sandy wash on the southern edge of the proposed Calico solar site, with desert dandelions in bloom.  The wash provides habitat for the threatened Mojave fringe-toed lizard.  The project would place solar panels all the way to the Cady Mountains in the background, which are home to bighorn sheep that probably forage on the proposed project site.
In a letter addressed to Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the three groups state that Interior's previous environmental review of the project was faulty, that new information and changes to the project since that time would require a new biological assessment, and that the project should be built on  private land nearby that has already been disturbed for agricultural purposes.

The wisdom of relocating the project is even further bolstered by the project's switch to photovoltaic technology.  It's an utterly unnecessary and inefficient waste of public wildlands to carpet the area with photovoltaic panels when the same technology can be placed more cheaply closer to where the energy is used-- such as on rooftops, over parking lots, or on already-disturbed lands.  The Environmental Protection Agency's RE-powering America's Lands program has identified many sites that are ideal for renewable energy but are of little ecological value, for example.

The battle against the poorly sited Calico solar power project has been a long one.  The Sierra Club challenged the California Energy Commission's (CEC) approval of the project in the California Supreme Court, but the challenge was thrown out in April.  The Sierra Club persisted, and sought to halt the CEC's attempt to hastily re-permit K Road Solar's altered plans.   Another opponent of the project, BNSF railroad, has been calling attention to the potential danger to a railway that passes through the middle of the proposed project.  Damage to the rail line or an accident could shut down one of the few major cargo arteries to the Los Angeles basin and result in significant economic impact.
The footprint of the project overlayed on Google Earth imagery hardly captures the scale of the potential destruction.  Miles across, an entire landscape would be industrialized, and the movement of wildlife severely restricted.
In the grand scheme of things, the Calico Solar power project is one of many destructive solar facilities being proposed for ecologically significant wildlands, perplexing many environmentalists and local residents.  In addition to Calico, two solar projects proposed for the Ivanpah Valley would decimate an otherwise thriving desert tortoise population and occurrences of rare plants.  An abundance of empty rooftops and already-disturbed lands remains untapped by solar developers, but the Obama administration has been slow to tap these wiser alternatives.  Among the billions of dollars of Department of Energy loan guarantees--mostly awarded to projects on public lands--only one loan was granted to a rooftop solar initiative.

Building in the middle of the desert is not only environmentally destructive, it is economically inefficient.  The projects often require new or upgraded transmission lines, sometime costing billions of dollars.  This cost is passed on to the electricity customers.  Solar developers may argue that the sun's radiation (known as "insolation") is stronger in the desert valley's, making the solar panels more efficient.  The benefit is only marginal, however, especially since transmission lines will lose anywhere from 7-15% of the electricity transported from far away.

There are many reasons why solar panels where we live are better than putting solar panels on public lands, but the least tangible are probably the most compelling for me.  Stumbling on a visual cacophony of wildflower blooms and admiring the dogged persistence of life in the desert.  Watching bare desert mountains cast shadows over creosote bushes and cactus during sunset.  Waking up to the yip and yelp of coyotes across a desert valley, or just coming across a solitary and stubborn desert tortoise, slowly digging a new burrow to call home.  These are the experiences I want to protect from global warming, and from an industrial rampage that misuses the notion of "green" energy in the interest of corporate profit.  Hopefully the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and NRDC prevail in preserving the natural treasures threatened by Calico, if not the many other desert cathedrals we stand to lose to poorly sited renewable energy projects.

This adult desert tortoise was photographed near the site of the proposed Calico solar power project.  Photo by Basin and Range Watch.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wise Words

Chris Clarke at Coyote Crossing recently published a great piece on KCET looking at what we will lose when the majestic Carrizo Plain is industrialized for the sake of large-scale renewable energy projects.  While writing the piece he came across a passionate letter written by long-time public servant and friend of the environment Peter Douglas, who recently retired from the California Coastal Commission. 

Mr. Douglas wrote the letter urging policymakers to reconsider plans to build massive solar power projects in Carrizo Plain, which will threaten endangered species in an area called "California's Serengeti".  You can read the full letter on the Carrizo Commons website, but I've included some particularly inspiring excerpts below.

I sense in pockets of our political, economic and civic world of leaders, a need to be seen as progressive facilitators and not as obstructionists in the way of new centralized industrial development of renewable energy.  This is an alarming and, in the long view, a self-destructive, tragic trend because it is unnecessary and erosive of community wellbeing.  Cities and Counties are entirely capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating clean, renewable, affordable energy for their regions with existing technologies without destroying vast swaths of critical habitat and celebrated public lands. All that is needed is political will, courage and progressive vision. 

In our headlong rush for renewables, I respectfully urge you and all those in positions of influence to hit pause, step back, take stock of our human and environmental condition, and envision what we will have saved for the seventh generation of our kin.  It would be a travesty were we to destroy rare, irreplaceable public places in nature and deprive unborn generations the blessings of what should rightfully be their natural heritage.  I have no doubt, that if the proposed industrial solar projects are built on the Carrizo Plain the essence of this National Monument will be destroyed.  I am not saying don’t build industrial scale solar complimented by distributed small scale energy production and distribution (e.g., solar on rooftops, built and degraded lands coupled with robust fiscal incentives).  I am saying there are alternative locations that won’t destroy the Monument and that avoid major ecological damage.  We must tell applicants to find better locations.  Clearly, we can both save precious places and dramatically reduce green house gases:  This is not an “either or” situation.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Take 2: Death by a Thousand Cuts

I posted in July about hundreds of square-miles of wind and solar projects that threaten to transform Southern California's deserts and mountains into a giant industrial zone.  Included in that was a BLM map showing those project locations, but I felt that map was missing the landscapes and lifestyles that will actually be impacted by the proposed projects.  I put together my own version of that BLM map, which depicts the same projects and impacts, but with Google Earth you can see the mountains and valleys that will be interrupted by towering wind turbines and the tarps of steel and glass we call renewable energy. 

My map does not pretend to follow exact boundaries, but each project is roughly the size depicted on the BLM map.  Wildlife, travelers, naturalists, tourists, hikers, campers, and rock hounds wont notice a 20 meter difference in the boundary when a project is several miles across.  The result is a sick sort of art, showing the planned destruction of "God's cathedrals."

Hundreds of square-miles of planned wind and solar projects, and this is just the beginning:


View Solar and Wind in CDD in a larger map


The BLM wind and solar project map as of July 2011:
July 2011 Renewable Energy Application Map



Saturday, August 20, 2011

Indigenous America Asks Questions About "Green" Policies

Film maker Robert Lundahl captures Native American concerns regarding the destruction of sacred sites during the initial construction of Solar Millennium's Blythe solar power project. Ironically, the bulldozers already cleared an ancient geoglyph known as "the sun."  The solar project is being delayed since Solar Millennium's switch to photovoltaic panels will require approval, and the company is also attempting to secure financing.  If the company clears these hurdles, construction could resume next year and destroy up to 11 square-miles of historical sites and desert habitat.


Indigenous America Asks Questions About U.S. "Green" Policies from Robert Lundahl on Vimeo.

Escape to Reality

A poem about the desert by Ruth Nolan, a desert resident and artist who has a blog with even more poetry over at Phantom Seedlings.  I came across this poem while reading James Goebell's A Geology of Borders blog.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Solar Where We Live

A recent article in Sierra Magazine praised the benefits of rooftop solar leasing programs, which allow homeowners to install solar panels with little or no up front costs.  These programs and other policies can revolutionize the way we obtain our energy, and erode the old paradigm of destroying wildlands to power our refrigerators and microwaves. 

As renewable energy expert John Farrell told Sierra Magazine, "[o]ur policy is favoring Big Solar—or Big Anything, really—at the expense of the small stuff." We need to pay more attention to the solution right in front of us.  Parking lots, rooftops, reservoirs, and so on.  Solar panels can make use of these spaces as "distributed generation".

In addition to the solar leasing programs identified in the article, we need policies like feed-in-tariffs and Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE).  PACE programs enable homeowners to pay for rooftop solar installations through installments on their local property tax over time.  Legislation introduced earlier this year (H.R. 2599) would cut red tape that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have placed on PACE programs.

We can build more momentum behind distributed generation, and cut CO2 emissions without industrializing our open spaces and desert wildlands.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Solar Millennium Uncertain About Destructive Blythe Project

According to Forbes, German firm Solar Millennium and its American front company - Solar Trust of America - have announced that they will not accept the 2.1 billion dollar Federal loan guarantee for the Blythe solar power project, and they are now going to use photovoltaic technology (the same panels used on rooftops!).  The company switched to photovoltaic (PV) technology from the antiquated solar trough design because PV is much more cost efficient.  However, the company's change in technology represents a significant departure from its original project application and may require additional environmental review.  The abrupt change in plans may have been the reason the company abandoned the Federal loan, which was granted based on its original solar trough plans.  The company will have to compete for private investments as the markets are taking an ugly turn.

Initial construction for the 11 square-mile Blythe solar project has already destroyed sites considered sacred by Native Americans, and wrecked desert ironwood trees that are hundreds of years old.  Now that Solar Millennium will be using PV technology, it adds insult to injury that these solar panels cannot be installed in our cities instead of on desert habitat and sacred sites.

Native Americans protest the destruction of sacred sites by Solar Millennium construction crews.  Photo by Basin and Range Watch.

Governor Jerry Brown attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the Blythe solar project in June and stood alongside Solar Millennium executives that are under scrutiny in Germany for embezzlement.   This would not be the first time that shady solar companies leave Sacramento in the dust after the State bends over backward to permit their ecologically damaging projects.

Governor Brown with Solar Millennium executives. Photo by Office of Communications
The California Energy Commission is still figuring out how to re-permit the Calico Solar power project.  California approved the project last fall after a contentious environmental review, only to find out that the developer never had the capability or wherewithal to build the project in the first place.  That company sold the project plans to K Road Solar, which plans to use a mix of SunCatcher dishes and PV technology, but K Road still cannot prove that it can actually build the hundreds of SunCatcher dishes it is promising. The uncertainty prompted a legal complaint by BNSF railroad that the project developer committed perjury about its intentions.  BNSF has opposed the project since last year because the danger the project poses to a major rail artery that crosses the site.

Scandal, lies, and uncertainty.  It almost feels like we're back in California's gold rush days when prospectors were swindled by unscrupulous characters; a free-for-all on public lands that made a few people rich, but left most with empty pockets.   Leave the desert for future generations to enjoy solitude and open space, and put the solar panels on our rooftops.

Unsustainable Jobs

A pre-construction marker photographed in Ivanpah, March 2010.
Brightsource Energy is well into the construction phase for its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), with over one-third of the 5.6 square-mile site scraped of vegetation and wildlife.  BrightSource Energy touts the construction jobs it has created, in part funded by a 1.6 billion dollar taxpayer-backed loan guarantee under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

No doubt the workers receiving a paycheck from the company are in a better financial position for as long as the construction activity lasts.  Once the project is completed, only a small fraction of the current workforce will support plant operations. A solar facility in Nevada employed 350 construction workers, but only supported 5 permanent jobs afterward.  The project required millions in taxpayer funding.

Central station solar on public lands is, at best, a stop gap economic measure that will not sustain economic growth for the working class.  It is also not sustainable from an environmental perspective.  If we continue to fast-track the destruction of public lands, America's hasty plans to create short-lived jobs will also create an ecological disaster, with over 1,000 square-miles of wildlands targeted for energy development in just California.

We can create jobs on the path to our renewable energy future, and they do not need to involve bulldozing pristine lands and jeopardizing our natural heritage.  Building on already-disturbed lands identified by EPA's RE-powering America's Land program can achieve the same economic goals without ecological devastation.  Better yet, encouraging rooftop solar installations would create small businesses, construction and maintenance jobs in our towns and cities that would last long after Ivanpah is built and decommissioned.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Public Encouraged to Comment on Stateline Solar Project

The Department of Interior initiated the environmental review process for First Solar's 3.4 square-mile Stateline solar power project, which would further jeopardize rare plant and wildlife in the beleaguered Ivanpah Valley.  The public is encouraged to attend a meeting on 31 August (details below) or contact the BLM with concerns (POC: Mr. Jeff Childers, jchilders@blm.gov).

Public Meeting to discuss Stateline Solar power project:
Where: Primm Valley Golf Club
1 Yates Well Road
Nipton, CA 92364
When: 31 August, 6-9 pm
POC: Jeff Childers, jchilders@blm.gov
More info: BLM press release, click here.

Some issues of concern to consider:
  • The Ivanpah Valley's habitat supports a robust and healthy desert tortoise population, which is special since the desert tortoise is in decline throughout its range.
  • The Stateline project will put additional stress on a tortoise population already displaced and jeopardized by the construction of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS).
  • The Ivanpah Valley hosts a number of rare plant species that cannot simply be relocated and are only found in a few other places in the desert.
  • The area provides foraging habitat for Golden Eagles and Bighorn Sheep.
  • First Solar is also proposing to build the 2nd phase of the Silver State Solar power project, also in the Ivanpah Valley.  Silver State would destroy nearly 10 square-miles of desert tortoise habitat.
  • Both the Stateline and Silver State projects would constrain wildlife movement in the area. 
    The Google Earth map above shows the footprints of three solar power projects proposed for the Ivanpah Valley.  The ISEGS project (5.6 square-miles, already under construction), the Stateline project (3.4 square-miles, proposed), and the Silver State Solar power project (approx 10 square-miles, second phase proposed).  The cumulative impacts of all three projects on such pristine wildlands would be immense.

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Worshiping Technology, Not Nature

    How often have you read environmental magazines and websites rave about "green" technology? This is man's solution to man's problems--air pollution, oil spills in the seas and the removal of nature's mountain tops for coal.

    Many national environmental groups urge followers to think "Beyond Oil." I am thinking "Beyond Oil," but I'm not sure they have taken their own advice.  Many in the self-appointed environmental elite have become cheerleaders for a neutral, amoral man-made beast of steel and glass that they are convinced will solve the world's problems--renewable energy.  Speaking against this beast is blasphemy.  Don't remind them that some of the worst (ongoing) ecological disasters in America are the the fault of hyrdopower dams--also a form of renewable energy.  Don't tell them that 30-story tall wind turbines can kill up to 14 birds per megawatt generated.  Don't tell them that even a thousand square-miles of public land will be carpeted with solar panels and wind-turbines before you even reach 25% of California's energy demand.  They won't hear it.

    Environmentalism has lost sight of what John Muir called "God's cathedrals," referring to nature's majesty  What I fear today is that elite environmentalists are beholden to the technology that will beat their opponent.   Environmental groups are becoming more familiar with the landscapes and lexicon of government policy and markets than with "God's cathedrals." Determined to protect some, and wreck the rest of them with something of their own creation. "Clean" Industry.

    Look at how a Grist article started on new wind turbine technology:
    "Is there any image that represents a renewable energy future better than a stately white wind turbine turning on a hillside?"
    What about this Sierra Club blog that suggests we better get used to industrialization of our landscapes:
    "Producing 10 percent of the energy the United States used in 2009 from wind farms, for example, would require turbines covering an area the size of New Hampshire. Meeting global energy demand from solar power would mean covering 1 percent of the earth's surface with solar panels....it won't be an easy transition. But having taken the position that it is a necessary one, it's something we need to start envisioning now."
     The Natural Resources Defense Council boasted about it's support for a...
    "...transmission line that will bring renewable resources from the east Mojave desert to the Los Angeles metro area along the Interstate 10 corridor."
    Keep an eye on any of the major environmental group's facebook pages, and you'll see frequent and jubilant updates about increased profit for the solar sector, rising production of wind energy in the Midwest. Sometimes you feel like your on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

    A representative of the Wilderness Society told me during an open house for the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement--a Federal plan to bulldoze thousands of square-miles of pristine desert to make way for solar facilities throughout America's southwest--that "polling" showed the desert was not popular with the Wilderness Society's followers.

    When did John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, David Brower, or just a younger version of that Wilderness Society representative ever give a sh!t about "polling"?

    Wake up!  Think "Beyond Oil," but don't be fooled into thinking industry will save the planet.  That's nature's job.  The kindest solutions may also be the simplest.  Shutting off the lights when you leave a room.  Encouraging rooftop solar where we live.  Switching from incandescent to LED bulbs.

    Protecting nature is every individual's responsibility.  Don't outsource that to Wall Street.

    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    Groups form to Oppose Industrialization of Wildlands

    At least three groups have formed to fight back against energy company plans to industrialize wildlands in the Mojave Desert. All told, dozens of square miles are at stake as developers seek to install wind turbines as tall as 30 story buildings across hillsides, and blanket other open spaces with solar panels.  Unfortunately, renewable energy policy has encouraged an industrial solution that threatens the same ecosystems we seek to protect against climate change.  But groups like Solar Done Right are advocating for distributed energy generation, where we generate renewable energy at or near the point of use (such as rooftop solar panels).  Instead of giving companies taxpayer money to mow down public land, citizens are asking for a more reasonable solution.
    •  Friends of Antelope Valley Open Spaces:  I wrote about this group earlier (see this post) and its efforts to stop massive wind and solar developments on pristine ridges and wildflower fields that Californians have cherished for over a hundred years.
    • Friends of Sand Canyon:  Organizing against Helo Energy's plans to park wind turbines in the western Mojave Desert near Tehachapi.  Wind projects in this area have already killed Golden Eagles and industrialized entire viewsheds.  The energy company offered the concerned citizens new mailboxes in return for their silence.  The offer was refused.
    • Save Our Desert:  Citizens of Pioneertown are organizing against the Black Lava Butte wind farm, which would destroy nearly 6.3 square-miles of this remote desert, and probably jeopardize ancient Native American petroglyphs.
    This photo, from the website of Friends of Sand Canyon, shows some of the devastation already wrought on the valleys and hillsides near Tehachapi, California.  The energy is shipped to residents of Los Angles by expensive transmission lines.  All of these wind turbines, and yet they still only meet a small fraction of LA's energy demand. How many empty rooftops are there in Los Angeles, waiting for solar panels?

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    New Energy Frontier: A Five Step Plan

    What a week for solar companies!  They've developed a great process for profiting from one of the most destructive uses of public lands, and looking good in the process.  How did we end up with a renewable energy industry that jeopardizes more of our natural resources than it will save?  And how did the Obama Administration come up with the Cheney-esque phrase "New Energy Frontier"? Read on...

    Here is the secret to Big Solar success:
    • Step 1.) Propose bulldozing pristine public lands to make way for solar panels. 
    • Step 2.)  Come to an agreement with national environmental groups to make it all look "green".
    • Step 3.) Win approval from Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar.  This is all "green" energy, so that should be easy.  Destroying hundreds of square-miles of public lands, putting up miles of new transmission lines, and funneling billions of dollars to energy companies is part of the Obama Administration's "New Energy Frontier".  (I'm so glad we're done with the Bush/Cheney model of destroying public lands, putting up miles of new transmission lines and making energy companies even richer.)
    • Step 4.) Fire up those diesel guzzling and tortoise crushing bulldozers and start making "green" energy!
    • Step 5.) Repeat steps 1 through 4 as many times as you want.  Our government doesn't give a damn what you do with public land.  You're a "green" energy company!
    The plan worked for former CEO of First Solar Inc. Michael Ahearn.  This week he sold off 90% of his stock holdings in the company (FSLR), and made 68.5 million dollars, according to Reuters. The stock prices received a bump in value after Obama announced approval for one of the company's projects.  Now THAT is "green" energy!

    Please ignore the efficient use of space and resources in the photo above.  This is not the "New Energy Frontier." It's just a parking lot that is also generating energy, without destroying more public land. Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
    Step 1.) The Vultures Circle
    A couple of years ago, First Solar Inc. and other energy companies saw an opportunity to profit from public land.  Western states wanted to combat climate change and demanded that utility companies buy more electricity from renewable sources, and the Obama Administration set aside billions of dollars of taxpayer money to support solar and wind projects.  Cheap money, cheap land, and ample demand for renewable energy projects.  Although studies show that rooftop solar can play a big role in meeting our renewable energy demand, governments are looking past this opportunity, distracted by the big shiny object that Wall Street (and political donors) put in front of them.   First Solar did what any oil or coal company would have done.  They submitted applications to build massive projects on public lands.  It just so happens that they chose lands that provide amazing habitat for desert plant and wildlife, and are prized for outdoor recreation. 

    Here is where First Solar staked their claim:
    • The 5.5 square-mile Topaz solar project in the Carrizo Plain, "California's Serengeti."
    • Desert Sunlight, a 6 square-mile project next to Joshua Tree National Park.
    • Stateline Solar power project, a 3.4 square-mile project in the Ivanpah Valley, deemed to be a "biologically core" in a Nature Conservancy study.
    • Silver State North and South, a nearly 8 square-mile behemoth on the Nevada side of the Ivanpah Valley, which hosts amazing habitat for desert tortoises and rare plants.
    Step 2.) Greenwash
    Now that First Solar picked some of the most ecologically sensitive places to build its projects, it has to find a way to maintain its "green" image.  As Mary Poppins once said, a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.  First Solar has lots of sugar.  Announced earlier this week, First Solar negotiated a deal with the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife to win approval for the Topaz solar power project.  The company made peace with national environmental groups on Desert Sunlight, as well.

    To be fair, the Topaz deal involves setting aside other land in the Carrizo Plain for conservation. But with hundreds of square-miles of projects in the pipeline--each one having significant impacts on ecosystems--how much longer can environmental groups sustain these compromises?  The cumulative impacts on our open spaces and ecosystems are simply too large for land managers and environmental groups to contemplate.

    The backroom deals also test the credibility of environmental groups in ways they probably should think twice about.  First Solar is reportedly working with NatureServe, a "non-profit" led by a Goldman Sachs partner, to build a conservation strategy for the Ivanpah Valley, where the company plans to build about 10 square miles of projects.  First Solar knows that the ecological impacts will be immense,  so it needs to present a plan that can convince people that steel, glass and tortoises can coexist.  Time will tell what plan NatureServe will come up with, but how can we trust whatever plan it proposes? Goldman Sachs has been a strong proponent of First Solar, telling its investors to buy First Solar stock. 

    We look to these groups to act as an independent voice of the people and lead government and industry to a wiser solution (distributed generation).  Hopefully they find the strength to stand up to an administration they helped elect, and an industry they have encouraged.

    Step 3.)  Check the box, move along
    First Solar and other companies will not have a hard time charming the Obama Administration.  The Department of Interior is slobbering all over Big Solar, and the environmental review process that is supposed to inject reason in decision-making has become a mere formality.  President Obama is approving large renewable energy projects on public lands with blind faith and certitude, while only one Federal loan guarantee has been given to a rooftop solar project as of August.  Secretary Salazar calls solar on public lands the "New Energy Frontier".  He is planning to designate nearly 1,000 square-miles as "solar energy zones" on mostly pristine desert habitat. But that's not all.  Salazar has already approved several other large projects that are not even located in those zones.  The fun doesn't stop there.  Wind projects will blanket even more land, with hundreds of square-miles of wind energy applications in just California.

    First Solar Inc. received approval this week from Secretary Salazar to bulldoze nearly 6 square-miles of pristine public lands less than 2 miles from Joshua Tree National Park.  Hikers will be enjoying a beautiful day in the wilderness and stumble upon a field of glass and steel, never mind that those same hikers probably drove past 25 miles of empty rooftops perfectly suited for their own solar panels.  Now you can escape the city for a weekend of camping and hiking among bird-killing wind turbines and lifeless solar panels.  Thanks Obama! I love what you've done with the place.

    This aerial photo shows just a third of the damage that will eventually be required to build the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.  The project, in the northeastern Mojave Desert, is expected to kill or displace hundreds of desert tortoises and jeopardize pockets of rare plants. The scars etched into the desert will soon be filled with circles of glass mirrors pointing at a tower in the center. Two more of these formations will be bulldozed into the desert, for a total of 5.6 square-miles.
    Step 4.) Cover your eyes
    If solar companies could put up a curtain around their construction sites, they would.  But the projects are so large it would cost way too much money.  Instead, we get to absorb the very depressing reality of utility-scale energy.  Biologists fan out across the area and pick up endangered wildlife and put them in pens while bulldozers tear up desert shrubs and trees--some hundreds of years old--that survived drought, heat, flash flooding, grazing, and off-road vehicles.  But they can't survive "green" energy.  When you hear Obama and Salazar talking about creating "green" jobs, that's what they're talking about.  A flurry of wilderness-removing construction will support hundreds of jobs. But once the facility is completed, they will only have a handful of permanent staff.

    A pile of destroyed desert ironwood trees on the construction site of the Blythe Solar power project. Some of the trees likely lived for hundreds of years before they met their fate.  Governor of California Jerry Brown inaugurated the construction site not far from here, standing next to executives from a German solar firm that are under investigation for embezzlement.  Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
    Step 5.) I wish it were hyperbole
    First Solar and other energy companies have found a treasure trove, and they will not give up until our political and environmental leaders demand sanity in public land policy.  Most press articles on solar and wind projects focus on specific local opposition to a single wind or solar project, framing the opposition as NIMBYs.  But what the press and most environmental groups have failed to convey to the public is that in 20 years renewable energy companies will have vastly transformed many of our open spaces into industrial zones.   This is a local issue that will play out so many times that it will become national, much like natural gas frackingAs of this summer, there are proposals to develop over a thousand square-miles of hills and valleys in the State of California for wind and solar projects.  For a sampling of the projects and their locations, you can visit my blog post on "Death by a Thousand Cuts."

    Smoke and Mirrors
    While Obama is touting all of these shiny new "green" energy projects, he also approved plans to mine 2.3 billion tons of coal in Wyoming, most of which will be shipped to China.  Burning coal across the Pacific Ocean still sends tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, further aggravating global warming.  Apparently the Obama Administration just doesn't get it. 

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    Solar Project to be Built Just Outside Joshua Tree

    The Department of Interior today approved the Desert Sunlight solar power project, which will destroy nearly 6 square-miles of public land less than two miles from Joshua Tree National Park.   Initial biological surveys counted at least 22 active desert tortoise burrows, but desert biologists are concerned that the surveys may have underestimated the number of tortoises on site.

    Ironically, Secretary Salazar announced the project on the 75th anniversary of Joshua Tree National Park, a shameless disregard for the legacy desert conservation.  Joshua Tree National Park may be further encircled by industrial development if the Department of Interior continues its policy of favoring energy companies over wildlands.  Additional proposals for large wind and solar energy applications just outside the Park's boundary include Desert Harvest solar project, the 31 square-mile Pinto Mountain wind project, and the 4.2 square-mile Eagle Mountain wind project.

    Monday, August 8, 2011

    Stateline Solar Begins Environmental Review Process

    The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has begun reviewing the proposed Stateline Solar power project, which is expected to destroy at least 3.4 square-miles of the Ivanpah Valley.  First Solar Inc. has been considering whether or not to move forward with this controversial project since the nearby Brightsource Energy solar project (ISEGS) has made headlines for its unprecedented impacts on the threatened Desert Tortoise.

    This map, obtained by Basin and Range Watch, shows the projected footprint of the photovoltaic panels that will carpet excellent desert habitat with steel and glass.  The desert habitat to the west of the Stateline project is already being bulldozed for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) by Brightsource Energy.
    Probably seeking to shield the company from expected opposition, First Solar is reportedly looking to strike a deal with NatureServe, a non-profit with Wall Street ties,  to draw up a conservation plan for the the Ivanpah Valley in an attempt to ease concerns.  However, desert biologists are alarmed by the scale of proposed solar and mining development in the area, which could jeopardize a robust tortoise population and pockets of rare plants. 
    • The relocation of dozens of tortoises from the adjacent Brightsource Solar project site during construction has already placed stress on the Ivanpah tortoise population.  The Brightsource project is expected to displace or kill up to 140 adult tortoises, and over a thousand hatchlings during construction.  Some of the displaced animals may have adopted new homes in the same place now being eyed by First Solar for the Stateline project.
    • The tortoises in Ivanpah are considered genetically significant by biologists, and the Ivanpah Valley was identified in the Nature Conservancy's Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment as "biologically core".
    • Other proposed projects in the Ivanpah Valley include transmission line upgrades, a natural gas line to serve the Mountain Pass rare earth minerals mine, the Silver State solar power project, and additional rare earth mining on the eastern edge.
    It's not clear how NatureServe plans to justify an additional 3.4 square miles of destruction in the Ivanpah Valley, especially when the Stateline project's footprint would essentially destroy and constrict some of the best remaining tortoise habitat in the area.  In the interest of transparency, one of NatureServe's chairpersons is a partner in Goldman Sachs, which recently recommended investors buy First Solar Inc stocks, and has invested in utility-scale solar projects in the desert. 

    This photo by Basin and Range Watch shows the creosote-bursage desert habitat, much of which would be destroyed by First Solar's Stateline project.
    The BLM is currently seeking scoping comments for the Stateline solar project.  The BLM's site for the project is here.  The Federal Register notice is published hereYou can send scoping comments by 6 September 2011 to statelinesolar@blm.gov .

    A photo of the cavedwelling evening primrose (Oenothera cavernae) in bloom, a rare desert forb discovered in the Ivanpah Valley in 2006.  Photo by James M. Andre, copyright 2008.

    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    Vanishing Flowers

    Spring blooms in the Antelope Valley, in the western Mojave Desert.  The Antelope Valley is also famous for the iconic California poppy (official State flower).  Unfortunately, the proposed Blue Sky wind energy project and "Wildflower Green Energy Farm" would industrialize several square-miles of these fields around the famed California Poppy Reserve, adding wind turbines and solar panels.

    You can visit Friends of Antelope Valley Open Space for more information.


    A map of the "Wildflower Green Energy Project" (in red), aptly named for the natural beauty the project will destroy.  The project would surround the California Poppy Reserve. The project would include wind turbines and solar panels, and require heavy ground disturbance.
    A map of the "Blue Sky" wind power project near Portal Ridge in the Antelope Valley.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011

    Tehachapi Wind Project Under Scrutiny for Eagle Deaths

    Update: The tally of known Golden Eagle deaths at the Pine Tree wind project site has risen to eight as of early 2012.

    A massive wind energy facility in California's Tehachapi Mountains has killed many migratory and special status birds, including at least 6 golden eagles, according to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.  The bird mortality has prompted an investigation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service since the facility's bird mortality is far higher than most wind projects, according to the LA Times, and may result in prosecution if the inquiry finds violations of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

    The 12 square-mile Pine Tree Wind Project has only been in operation for 3 years in the mountains bordering the western Mojave Desert, and its unforeseen destructive impact on bird life should be a warning sign for local and Federal officials considering applications for several more facilities in the area.

    The environmental impact study for the Pine Tree Wind Project conducted before construction began had this to say about estimated bird mortality at the site:
    Based on a comparison of the use of the Pine Tree project site by birds relative to other existing wind developments, fatalities are predicted to be at the low end of that quantified elsewhere for both raptors and songbirds.
    How exactly did we end up estimating low impacts on special status birds and golden eagles in the environmental impact statement, and end up with a US Fish and Wildlife investigation a relatively short time later?  Since the opening of the facility, the Bureau of Land Management has received proposals for projects that would add approximately 200 square-miles of additional wind turbines in the area, including the Jawbone, Saltdale, and Barren Ridge wind projects.

    A representative of the Los Angeles Audubon told the LA Times that “[w]e must deal with the problem right now because Pine Tree is only one of several industrial energy developments proposed for that area over the next five to 10 years. Combined, they have the potential to wipe this large, long-lived species out of the sky.”

    Hillsides in the western Mojave Desert pictured above before the construction of 80 wind turbines for the Pine Tree Wind Energy project.  Photo from the LADWP EIS.
    After construction.  Each blade is 123 feet long, and the turbines are as tall as a 30 story building.
    Such massive industrialization and resulting bird deaths will have ripple effects on surrounding ecosystems--hundreds of square miles of desert and mountainous habitat--that we are only just beginning to understand.  Yet, the Department of Interior seems to be intent on fast-tracking environmental review and weakening guidelines for the wind energy industry. 

    With research indicating that wind turbines currently kill at least 440,000 birds each year, a number expected to climb to 1 million birds per year by 2020, shouldn't we be taking a smarter and less regrettable renewable energy path, such as distributed solar generation?

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    The Value of Rooftop Solar

    Even though California Governor Brown thinks it is wise to "crush" the opposition against utility-scale solar power projects (does he realize that energy companies have plans for over a thousand square miles of wind and solar...that could require a lot of crushing!), I can say I do agree with his efforts to encourage more distributed generation.  Sacramento set a goal of generating 12,000 megawatts of distributed renewable energy, such as rooftop solar, by 2020.  There are a lot of local hurdles to the development of rooftop solar, such as sometimes arduous or expensive permitting processes at city halls across the State, as pointed out by this study by the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club.  Many consumers may also not be aware of the savings and benefits of owning their own rooftop solar installation.

    The California Energy Commission announced two new tools to advance distributed solar generation in the State.  The first is a new calculator called "SAVE" (Solar Advantage Value Estimator) that allows homeowners to calculate the value of a solar (photovoltaic) system on a new or existing home, including the amount of energy savings.    The second development is the CEC's support for Department of Energy's Sunshot Initiative, which seeks to achieve measurable improvements in market conditions for rooftop photovoltaic across the United States, with an emphasis on streamlined and standardized permitting and interconnection processes.  The CEC is offering letters of endorsement for applications in California, which I believe is mostly geared toward municipalities, utility companies, or solar installation companies.  You can contact John Nuffer at jnuffer@energy.ca.gov for more information.


    Keep up the rooftop solar revolution!