Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Upcoming Hearing on Calico Solar Complaint

The California Energy Commission (CEC) on 3 October will hold a hearing to discuss a complaint by BNSF Railroad that Calico Solar LLC provided false statements during last year's permitting process, and sought approval from the CEC and Bureau of Land Management even though the company never had the ability to build the project in the first place.   BNSF is asking for the original approval for the project to be revoked, which would require the new owners of Calico Solar to complete a new approval process.  The new owners of the project are currently seeking bureaucratic shortcuts to rubber stamp modifications made to the Calico project so that it will meet the 31 December deadline to qualify for Federal subsidies.

The false statements made last year are representative of energy company speculation on public land, proposing solar projects that would destroy critical habitat or--in the case of BNSF--jeopardize rail operations.  The public, other companies, and non-profits expend resources to review and intervene in the permitting process for the destructive projects.  In the case of the Calico Solar power project, the original owners of Calico Solar LLC obtained CEC approval on the basis that they could build the project beginning in 2011.  But the project's plans were sold to K Road Solar because the original owners did not have the capability to build thousands of Suncatcher dishes, a complicated and problematic solar technology.

K Road Solar has modified the project to include more photovoltaic panels -- the same technology used for rooftop solar -- but also plans to also use Suncatcher dishes. K Road Solar is asking for an expedited permitting process using last year's faulty approval as a baseline.  BNSF and environmental groups argue that last year's approval should be revoked.

The CEC is only planning to conduct an incremental review of the modifications proposed by K Road Solar, although it asked K Road to consider a reduced footprint alternative during a 24 Augusts CEC conference.  The alternative layout requested by the CEC would be sited only south of the BNSF railroad tracks, negating some of BNSF's safety concerns, although the project would still destroy pristine desert and habitat for the threatened desert tortoise and Mojave fringe-toed lizard.

This Mojave fringe-toed lizard was photographed on the site of the proposed Calico Solar power project in a sandy wash.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Distracted Washington is Missing an Opportunity

Congress will attempt to grill Solyndra executives today to figure out why the ill-fated company received over 500 millions dollars from the Department of Energy loan guarantee program.  Just yesterday, First Solar Inc announced that it could not receive a DOE loan guarantee for its Topaz solar power project in California, which would destroy over 6 square miles of the Carrizo Plain.  First Solar's stock dropped to record lows as disappointed investors walked away. But First Solar's stock had already been dropping because of worries that the Solyndra scandal and a faulty White House investment strategy would undermine First Solar's other loan guarantees, including one for the Desert Sunlight project near Joshua Tree National Park.  Obama's energy policy has converted our fledgling clean energy sector into a casino, where big rollers can cart off public land and taxpayer money, and losers go bankrupt or watch their stock prices tumble?

The Obama administration chose to back specific projects and companies.  It's not just money for research and development, which would be a wise investment to spur innovation.  The White House is throwing money at specific solar projects and companies that will create specific facilities, but this policy will not create the broader solar market to sustain growth in the solar sector over time. 

If the committee investigating Solyndra has the time, they should walk or bike a couple of miles to the other side of the National Mall, where the DOE's Solar Decathlon is being held this weekend.  Model solar-powered homes show off innovation, efficiency, and design in this competition to create an ideal green home.  Congress and the White House should ask -- what policies do we need to make solar panels accessible to consumers, not just giant corporations dependent on government loans.  Feed-in-tariffs and Property Assessed Clean Energy would be a start  -- paying local green energy producers and letting homeowners and small businesses finance their own energy improvements.

Wal-Mart recently announced plans to install rooftop solar on over 130 stores in California by the end of 2013.  The company has already reduced expenses by a million dollars with its solar program.  This savings and efficiency is scalable to smaller business and homeowners.  Maybe someday Wal-Mart will not just have solar panels on its roof, but on its store shelves, as well, feeding a bigger market for clean energy.  And then we can leave the desert alone, sparing its beauty and solitude for future generations.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

BLM to Host Public Meetings on Off-Road Plan

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is holding two public meetings to gather information on issues to consider and evaluate as it develops a new off-highway vehicle (OHV,  off-road vehicle, ORV) management plan for the western Mojave Desert.  You can find more information about the meetings by visiting the BLM announcement, but they will be held on 27 and 29 September.
  • Ridgecrest, 6:30-9:30PM, 27 September 2011, Kerr McGee Center, 100 W. California Ave., Ridgecrest, CA 93555 , phone: (760) 499-5151   
  • Barstow, 6:30-9:30PM, 29 September 2011, Hampton Inn, 2710 Lenwood Road, Barstow, California   92311, phone: (760) 253-2600
Hikers, rock hounds, OHV riders, campers, photographers, and people just looking to escape from the daily grind expect the BLM to maintain the desert's natural qualities while providing us access to the places we love, which is a difficult task.  Without a proper management plan and sufficient law enforcement, the desert ecosystem would not be able to sustain the multiple uses currently taking a toll on the Mojave. 

The BLM last published a west Mojave plan in 2006 designating OHV routes throughout the area,  but they added OHV routes that were not in existence in 1980, when the California Desert Conservation Area was approved.  The total amounted to 5,098 miles of routes, a number that grows over the years as a result of the illegal creation of new trails by irresponsible users. Veering off a designated route onto fragile desert soils easily creates the beginnings of a brand new route that will be followed by subsequent OHV riders who may not be aware that they are on an illegal trail.  The scars etched into the desert cannot sustain insect, plant and wildlife that keep the desert healthy.

A court ordered the BLM to redo its 2006 analysis of the OHV routes, and the public meetings this month are the initial step in developing a revised OHV route management plan.

The screenshot above was taken from an Environmental Impact Assessment considering usurping portions of the Johnson Valley OHV area for Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base.  The study showed that some areas of intense OHV uses had badly damaged soils and reduced vegetation, which has ripple effects on other plant life, insects, reptiles and birds.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Salazar Visits Ivanpah

Secretary Salazar today visited the Ivanpah Valley to view the construction of First Solar's Silver State solar project.  Department of Interior has only approved the first phase so far -- little less than a square mile -- but First Solar has asked for Secretary Salazar's blessing to expand the project to over 10 square miles in a second phase. If this is approved,  First Solar's project would kill or displace endangered plant and wildlife, and block a north-south wildlife corridor connecting desert habitat in Nevada with the Mojave National Preserve to the south in California.  First Solar also wants to build another facility in the Ivanpah Valley -- the Stateline solar project -- which would decimate up to 3.4 square miles of habitat for the threatened desert tortoise.

It's unfortunate that Secretary Salazar and First Solar think they are doing the country a favor by destroying beautiful public land when we can generate clean energy and create green jobs much more efficiently with spaces available to us in the cities.  Conservationists have proposed designating some of the Ivanpah Valley as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, in order to preserve an important wildlife corridor and one of the most successful remaining desert tortoise populations.

Click on image to expand.  This Google Earth image shows the three solar projects proposed or under construction in the Ivanpah Valley.  First Solar is building the first phase of Silver State North (upper right), which Secretary Salazar visited today.  First Solar plans to expand that to over 10 square-miles, as depicted in the image. Just left of the dry lake bed is First Solar's proposal for the Stateline solar power project, which would destroy another 3.4 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat.  Further west is the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), which is being built by Brightsource Energy on 5.6 square miles of public land, and is projected to kill or displace hundreds of tortoises since it is high quality habitat.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Green Jobs

Let's face it.  Building solar facilities on public land in the middle of the desert is not "green".  Bulldozers destroying shrubs and trees that have lived for hundreds of years, crushing the burrows of desert tortoises, and shattering once-beautiful vistas is unnecessary.  There are plenty of opportunities to build solar in our cities -- they are more efficient, create truly green jobs, and save public land for future generations.  If you want to see local solar in action, check out this 90 second video of workers installing solar panels over the parking lot of a football stadium in Washington DC.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Desert Tortoises Love Thunderstorms

Desert Tortoises spend the vast majority of their lives underground in the coolness of their burrows.  In the cool hours of the morning or evening they may come out to browse the vegetation.  They will also be lured outside during thunderstorms to visit spots where they know the water will form puddles.  These are the times to exercise the most caution when you're on the road.

This adult tortoise was spotted in the middle of the road in the Mojave National Preserve about an hour after a thunderstorm passed through.  It was moved safely to the shoulder of the road.  It's difficult to spot tortoises when speeding along, especially since their low profile and color blends in with the road.
This female desert tortoise was sunning herself on a dirt road in the Mojave National Preserve near Kelso Dunes.  She later found refuge in the shade of a desert plant.

If you come across a tortoise, do not disturb it.  But if you find it in the middle of a well traveled road where it is in jeopardy, follow these instructions from the tortoise experts:
Carefully pick up the tortoise using both hands and hold it upright in its normal walking position. Carry it carefully across the road in the same direction it was heading, and take it no more than a few hundred yards into the desert. Place the tortoise in the shade.
Tortoises play a vital role in the desert ecosystem. Their burrows give shelter to other animals that are less capable of doing the digging on their own, such as snakes and burrowing owls.  The burrows also increase percolation of the deserts limited rainfall into the soil to benefit desert plants and wildflowers, which in turn generate meals and shelter for a host of other desert species.

For me, tortoises are therapeutic.  How can one not admire an animal that can go years without a drink of water, endure sweltering temperatures, and enjoys rare meals of wildflowers?  In our age of smart phones, OHV lanes, food courts, and vending machines, we could all take a step back and appreciate the strength and beauty of a tortoise.

Mission Accomplished...

Secretary of Interior Salazar is going to visit First Solar's Silver State solar project in Nevada on 20 September to tout "green" jobs and economic recovery. About 200 workers busily installing solar panels on once-pristine desert will provide Salazar with a backdrop that is sure to make headlines.  If the reporters bother to come back next year, the construction workers will have melted away, leaving no more than 10 permanent jobs.  And unless the Obama administration focuses on solar policy that creates a sustainable consumer-based market for solar in our cities, those reporters will still be covering contentious projects on public land that require large subsidies.

First Solar began construction earlier this year on the first phase of the Silver State project, which will destroy a 1 square mile of desert habitat in the Ivanpah Valley, but they are applying to expand the project to well over 10 square miles in the second phase.    Notice that Salazar isn't going to visit an even bigger and busier solar site just a few miles across the Ivanpah Valley.  Perhaps it is because that other project--Brightsource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS)--is receiving 1.6 billion dollars from the Department of Energy's (DOE) beleaguered loan guarantee program? 

If Salazar thinks he can escape poor choices and bad investments, he's wrong.  First Solar may not be getting a taxpayer-backed loan for the Silver State project, but they are receiving 4.5 billion dollars in DOE loan guarantees for other projects, including a 1.88 billion dollar loan for the Desert Sunlight solar project next to Joshua Tree National Park. 
 Ecologically intact desert wildlands pictured above would be destroyed for First Solar's Stateline solar power project.  Further in the distance on equally important habitat, First Solar is building its first phase of the Silver State project, with plans to build at least another 10 square miles in the second phase.  Biologists expect First Solar's projects to doom the threatened desert tortoise and several rare plant species.  Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
First Solar's approved and pending solar projects will destroy over 30 square miles of public land in California, Arizona, and Nevada (Silver State, Stateline, Desert Sunlight, Topaz and Agua Caliente solar projects).   All told, First Solar will receive at least 4.5 billion dollars in DOE loan guarantees for various projects.   Some of it's projects will require new transmission lines that will cost electricity customers more money.   Anywhere from 7-15% of the electricity generated by First Solar's projects in the middle of the desert will seep out of the transmission lines along the way, robbing those customers of even more value.

Maybe Salazar will peer out of the airplane window as his plane lands at Las Vegas McCarran airport and witness the sea of empty rooftops baking in the desert sun.  America is still waiting for a real solar policy, and it does not involve destroying public lands.  We can keep shoving industrial development onto once pristine valleys in the meantime, but we'll regret the loss of wildlands and wildlife.  America is still waiting for policies like PACE and feed-in-tariffs to encourage a rooftop solar market that creates even more jobs, costs less money, and preserves our natural heritage.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Getting Solar Right

Today's hearing on Capitol Hill regarding the Obama administration's ill-fated investment of taxpayer money in the solar company Solyndra is an expected outcome from a misguided policy focused on creating quick jobs rather than smart investments.  That does not mean that solar is dead, and it does not mean that we should stop supporting innovation and development in our solar industry.  We need to look at our renewable energy needs and ask ourselves what will be driving investment and public support 20 years from now and what policies will get us there, not just what can make headlines tomorrow.

What has been unfolding in America's southwestern deserts since 2009 -- rushed approvals for destructive solar facilities on public land creating only a handful of permanent jobs -- were symptoms of the same political myopia and hasty decisions that came back to bite administration officials at today's hearing.  Obama's footprint in the desert is a clear sign that the White House wants quick wins, no matter the financial or ecological cost.  And the White House's solar policy is not about being "green," as its simultaneous reversal of clean air regulations and approval of coal and oil leases this year indicate a lack of commitment for a healthy environment. 

White House officials throw money at the renewable energy industry to create grand stages for ribbon-cutting ceremonies-- wind turbines up to 30 stories high on our hillsides and massive solar facilities on once wild public land -- but they have ignored policy opportunities to create a foundation for a sustainable renewable energy future.  As the Nature Conservancy of California pointed out, bigger is not always better, pointing to rooftop solar or installations on already-disturbed lands as the best places for renewable energy.

What has the White House's policy on renewable energy accomplished up to this point?:
  • Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar issued Internal Memorandum 3285 in March 2009, ordering Interior employees to speed up the environmental review process for large solar facilities on public land.  The order put the cart before the horse and skipped over still-nascent attempts to study the cumulative ecological impacts that could be caused by bulldozing hundreds of square miles of desert habitat for remote solar facilities.
  • Interior employees receive unofficial guidance that projects will receive green lights regardless of expert concerns. 
  • Salazar signed a memorandum of understanding with the Governor of California in October 2009 to further speed up review of solar facilities in the State, paying lip service to "proper siting."  The order encouraged construction of facilities in "solar energy zones" that were still being evaluated for their ecological importance.
  • Department of Interior completes environmental review for several solar projects by late 2010.  Despite analysis that the projects would displace or kill many endangered species, push some rare plants closer to extinction, and even desecrate Native American sacred sites, the projects are approved and recommended for DOE loan guarantees and Treasury grants.
  • Obama's "fast-track" policies were dealt their first blow in December 2010 when a Federal judge casts doubt on the legality of Interior's review of the Imperial Solar power project in California.  The 9 square mile facility would have destroyed Native American burial sites, as well as habitat for imperiled species.  The insincerity of Obama's "green" agenda began to shine through the cracks of broken facade. 
  • The Department of Interior rolls out its Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement in late 2010.  The document evaluates a proposal to make over 32,000 square miles of public land available to solar companies, drawing criticism from conservation groups.
  • The Sierra Club began its legal challenge of the Calico Solar power project in January 2011, targeting the State of California's own rushed review of the project.  By August, the Sierra Club found itself in a coalition with other environmental groups threatening action at the Federal level against Secretary Salazar's approval of the project, citing the project's likely harm to a number of threatened species and a wildlife corridor.  The groups suggest the project should be sited on already-disturbed land.
  • Construction of Brightsource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) was halted in March 2011 when the Department of Interior realizes the death toll for threatened desert tortoises will be much higher than estimated during the rushed environmental review process.  Western Watersheds Project warned of potential faulty tortoise surveys in January when it filed a legal challenge against Interior's approval of ISEGS.  Construction resumes in June, and a judge dismisses the legal challenge on technical grounds, but acknowledges that the challenge raises "serious questions" about the environmental review process.
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) experts proposed wind energy guidelines in February 2011 to minimize the threat spinning turbines pose to wildlife, including Golden Eagles, Sandhill Cranes and bats.  But the Department of Interior decided that industry preference trumped science when they weakened the guidelines in July, according to the American Bird Conservancy.
  • The vast majority of DOE loan guarantees and Treasury grants have gone toward vast projects on public land, including 1.6 billion dollars for the ISEGS project in Ivanpah, and 1.88 billion dollars for First Solar's Desert Sunlight project, which will both destroy over 11 square miles of public land but create only a handful of permanent jobs. These projects will feed energy into expensive new transmission lines.  Transmission lines typically lose 7-15% of the energy they carry, stealing value from the ratepayers.
What should Washington be doing for our renewable energy future? 

As Todd Woody at Forbes lays out, what is missing is a broader policy framework that establishes a market for renewable energy.   Some of the policy tools to consider include:
  • Feed-in-tariffs:  European countries have used feed-in-tariffs (FiTs) to encourage renewable energy generation.  The good thing about FiTs is that they can also be structured to pay home and small business owners for excess energy that they generate with rooftop solar installations.
  • PACE:  I've mentioned this before on the blog, but Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) can go a long way toward creating green jobs, and giving homeowners a means to finance their own rooftop solar installations.  At least 33 states have PACE programs in place, but they are constrained by Federal Housing Finance Administration (FHFA) regulations.  PACE allows homeowners to finance solar installations through their own property tax assessments over time.  Legislation or executive decisions are needed to reverse the FHFA red tape.
  • Instead of the wholesale destruction of public lands proposed by the Department of Interior, the EPA's RE-powering America's Land program should be a key element in siting larger solar installations on already-disturbed lands.  Rooftop solar and facilities on already-disturbed lands are necessary to sustain renewable energy into the future.  Meeting our renewable energy demand with facilities on public land will require thousands of square miles, cost us more in the long run, and destroy the natural resources we hope to save from climate change.
If we're going to continue throwing cash at the problem, Washington should focus on distributed generation efforts that promote a nationwide market and expertise base to install solar panels on rooftops.  We have a lot of urban spaces where solar panels can be built, cutting the need for transmission lines and avoiding the destruction of wildlands. The Department of Energy has now backed two such projects-- Project Amp and Solar Strong -- that are expected to create hundreds of jobs and generate over a gigawatt of energy.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Desert Treasures

Get out of your car, and take a closer look at the desert and you'll be amazed and inspired by the life here.  Each plant is a triumph of life's persistence and adaptability.  Lizards, snakes, tortoises, moths, butterflies, beetles, kangaroo rats, shrews, raptors, vultures, owls, bobcats, bighorn sheep.  I wish I could spy them all, but mother nature does not make it easy.  Even in the heat of the day, though, all of the telltale signs are there -- tracks in the sand, burrows big and small, the withering remains of a spring bloom, scat, and owl pellets.

A great blog that captures the beauty and elusiveness of some of the desert's majesty is The Rare Plant Treasure Hunt.  Check it out for some great photos and adventures!

This photo by Amber Swanson at The Rare Plant Treasure Hunt blog shows a bear poppy (Arctomecon merriamii) in the eastern Mojave Desert. What a beauty, and its scarcity must have made it all the more joyous to stumble upon!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Obama Retreats on Clean Air -- Surprised?

The White House announced today that it would retreat on its pledge to implement clean air rules, and will revisit the idea of healthy breathing in 2013.  The media has characterized the reaction from environmental groups as surprised and appalled.   However, looking at Obama's record--even his support for clean energy--shows he is following an "all of the above" policy that maximizes the exploitation of natural resources for profit.
  • Obama's Secretary of Energy this week signaled his tacit support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, carrying some of the dirtiest crude from tar sands in Canada straight to the United States. 
  • In August, The President approved the sale of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, just over a year after the horrible BP oil spill there.  Those leases could produce more oil than the Keystone pipeline could carry in one year.
  • In March, Obama approved the sale of coal leases in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming.  Four large tracts of land are expected to produce 758 million tons of mineable coal.
What's the point of the White House's investment in clean energy if its own policy also unleashes greenhouse gas emissions?   Take a closer look at the solar and wind projects Washington has supported and you'll notice that it's not about protecting natural resources, but clearing the way for industry.  The Secretary of Interior has pushed solar and wind energy projects and policies that will destroy thousands of square miles of public land--much of it pristine ecosystems and prized recreation areas.

Concerned citizens and environmental groups have urged the Obama administration to adopt a smarter path with clean energy, such as encouraging distributed generation (i.e. rooftop solar), or putting solar facilities on land that is already-disturbed.  Just last month three major environmental groups warned the administration to reconsider its support for a destructive 7 square mile solar facility.  The groups asked that the administration and solar company to consider using nearby fallow agricultural land instead. 

Washington is not getting the message.  Federal and State officials gathered in Las Vegas earlier this week to discuss clean energy investments and were dismissive of the ecological damage large scale solar and wind development can impose on our wildlands.  The White House has been quiet on distributed solar generation, the most efficient and least destructive form of clean energy.  The Federal Housing Finance Agency has been blocking property assessed clean energy (PACE), a vital program that would enable most homeowners to finance their own rooftop solar installations.

Even through all the smog, it's clear that the Obama administration does not respect nature.  On one hand it proudly announces its efforts to stem greenhouse gas emissions by bulldozing 10 square miles of pristine desert for a solar facility as if it should earn them an environmental badge of honor.  The next press release from Washington announces plans to open up the same amount of land to produce millions of tons of coal.   Obama's environmental credentials should not be measured by his support for clean energy.

Americans need a clean environment just as they need good jobs, and Obama is certainly a smart enough President to meet the challenge of governance in this regard.  This President is capable of bringing complicated issues to the public, and infusing policy with ingenuity.  If Obama cared, he would be leading the country in a way that balances economy and the environment.  His "all of the above" approach, however, just does not reflect any interest in taking that wiser path. 

Just like its position on coal and oil, the White House is taking the "all of the above" approach with solar and wind energy, instead of charting a bolder and more sustainable path with distributed generation or facilities on already-disturbed land.  This administration is stuck in an old energy paradigm that requires massive destruction of natural resources to meet human needs, even when clean energy technology now makes it possible to leave that behind.  The map above shows proposals for massive wind and solar facilities on public land (in red) for Arizona and California.  Projects in Nevada have not yet been added to this map. Click on image to view in higher resolution.