Sunday, October 30, 2011

All Eyes on Ivanpah: Will Federal Policy Finally Take Notice?

BrightSource CEO John Woolard told the media that his company's Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System (ISEGS)--a 5.6 square mile energy facility being built on public land in the northeastern Mojave Desert--has "the lowest environmental impact of any project in solar." Anybody familiar with the Ivanpah Valley--a beautiful desert landscape blanketed by creosote bushes and yucca, and ringed by rocky spires inhabited by bighorn sheep--knows that his statement simply could not be true.  Mr. Woolard's attempts to conceal the destructive impact of ISEGS are failing since the project has actually become an icon of poor solar siting, representing the dangers of building vast facilities on ecologically intact desert habitatThe Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last week was confronted with this reality when citizens submitted a conservation plan for the area, and Washington announced a draft policy that could discourage solar development there. 

BrightSource Project an Icon of Desert Destruction:
BrightSource Energy's ISEGS project has already begun clearing the last phase of its desert solar project of tortoises and vegetation.  Monthly reports submitted by the company to the California Energy Commission paint a bleak picture for wildlife being displaced by the bulldozers.  A list of hundreds of tortoises displaced or killed by the construction--with each tortoise identified by a number with the prefix "BS" for the initials of the company responsible for their predicament--is maintained by State and Federal officials.  A total of 127 tortoise were being held in pens as of early October, waiting to be relocated to other desert habitat.  Their fate upon relocation is uncertain.  Previous tortoise relocations resulted in almost half of the tortoises dying, unable to adapt to a new home range and more vulnerable to predators.

This photo by Basin and Range Watch shows tractors destroying desert habitat for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) project.  Rare plants, and at least 127 desert tortoises have been displaced or killed for the 5.6 square mile project.
In September, at least four tortoise hatchlings being held in BrightSource pens died of ant-related injuries and exposure to heat (those tortoises were numbered BS232, BS218, BS206, and BS311), suggesting the conditions in the pens are inadequate.
"In addition to BS232 and BS218, four other hatchling deaths occurred. These four were all initially found deceased: BS206 was found dead with significant ant-­‐related wounds at the surface of a nest, BS311 was found dead in the holding pens, presumably from hyperthermia..."
Some tortoises have been found pacing back and forth along the project's fenceline, probably hoping to return to a now-destroyed burrow.  Pacing along the fence exposes them to fatal heat-related stress and predation.  Other  tortoises have been trapped inside the project area because the fenceline was constructed before the habitat was cleared of tortoises living there.  According to the monthly compliance report:
On September 18th and 19th, adult male BS49 was observed pacing the fence along the northeast side of Ivanpah 3 during high temperatures. On the 19th he did not seek shelter as temperatures climbed, so the Designated Biologist decided to place him in a burrow over the fence to the east. 
On September 24th, adult male BS50 was moved from Ivanpah 3 over the fence to the Recipient Site to the north. The tortoise had been pacing the fence for three days.
The number of tortoises found is not a surprise to biologists who warned authorities during the permitting process that the prime habitat here hosted a thriving population of the endangered animal.  The Ivanpah Valley also hosts an unusual richness of rare plant species, according to the Nature Conservancy's Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment.

Scars in Ivanpah Valley inflicted by BrightSource Energy's bulldozers.  The damage in this picture represents only a one-third of the total size of the 5.6 square mile project.
Conservation Groups Step In:
A legal challenge by Western Watersheds Project failed to stop BrightSource's ISEGS after a judge determined that construction was too far along, although the judge acknowledged that the group had raised serious doubts about the adequacy of the government's environmental permitting.  Concerned citizens and conservation groups are now focusing on other major threats to the Ivanpah Valley, including railway, mining claims and, most notably, two more large solar projects being proposed by First Solar Inc.

Basin and Range Watch and the Desert Tortoise Council last week submitted a plan to preserve the Ivanpah Valley's critical natural resources, including a desert tortoise corridor that would be destroyed by First Solar Inc's proposed Silver State South and Stateline Solar power projects.  The conservation groups propose designating the Ivanpah Valley as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).

(Click on image to expand) A Google Earth image showing the Ivanpah Valley with an overlay of the three large solar projects--each one several square miles in size--and an additional transmission line. 
Tortoises are not the only concern.  At least 36 special status plants have been identified in Ivanpah, and the area provides foraging habitat and an inter-mountain corridor for Nelson's bighorn sheep, and at least 7 sensitive bird species use the area, including Golden Eagles and Western burrowing owls.

First Solar Inc has promised to develop its own conservation plan for the Ivanpah Valley in an attempt to project a greener image for its projects in the area, but the company's plan is expected to favor its construction plans over sound science.  The locations of its proposed solar projects -- at the chokepoint of the Ivanpah Valley -- make it  unlikely that the project footprint can be reconfigured without having significant impacts on the north-south wildlife connectivity.
This photo by Basin and Range Watch shows the western Ivanpah Valley where First Solar plans to build the 3.4 square mile Stateline Solar power project, just south of the Valley's chokepoint near Primm, NV.
Renewable Energy Policy Identifies Ivanpah as Bad for Solar
Apparently somebody in the Federal government also agrees that the Ivanpah Valley is not a good place for solar facilities.  The Department of Interior last week released the supplement to its Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement analyzing a plan to speed up industrial-scale solar energy development on public lands.  After receiving over 80,000 public comments on the initial draft, Interior decided to revise the solar policy under review to include tools that encourage solar companies to build on desert lands judged to be of lower habitat quality.

One of the policy tools included in the draft supplement would discourage solar energy development in areas identified as desert tortoise connectivity corridors.  One of those corridors is the Ivanpah Valley, which is an ironic contradiction after Interior permitted the destructive ISEGS project last year, and is now considering whether or not to permit First Solar's massive projects in the same area.  According to the proposed policy:
For  all  applications  in  variance  areas  within  the  range  of  desert  tortoise  and  within proposed connectivity  areas  (see  red  hatched  areas  in  Figure  2.2-­2),  siting  will  be discouraged given anticipated  high  conflict.
The map below show proposed tortoise connectivity corridors where solar development would be discouraged (outline in red), including a corridor in the Ivanpah Valley.

Screenshot of the map of proposed tortoise connectivity corridors outlined in red, with the Ivanpah Valley identified in the center. The Department of Interior would discourage solar development in these areas if the policy is adopted. (Fig 2.2-2 in the Supplemental to the Draft PEIS)
A lot is on the line in the Ivanpah Valley.  The Federal government has a choice to make -- preserve a natural treasure that benefits the overall health of the Mojave Desert ecosystem, or sacrifice it to large-scale solar development, industrializing a beautiful landscape with solar panels that could be more efficiently built on already-disturbed lands or on rooftops.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

BLM Begins Supplemental Environmental Review for Calico Solar

Despite opposition from the BNSF railroad, conservation groups, and countless concerned citizens, K Road Solar is still intent on building the Calico Solar power project in the central Mojave Desert.  But first they will need to complete a supplemental environmental impact analysis.  An environmental impact statement was actually completed last year and the project approved, but the project plans were sold to K Road Solar, which then modified them enough to warrant additional impact analysis.

Whether or not the Department of Interior approves the project will be a test for its supposed commitment to more judicious siting of large renewable energy projects on public lands.  Three groups -- Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the NRDC -- sent a notice to Interior in August warning against approving the project and pointing out deficiencies in last year's environmental review.  The groups argue that the project could be sited on lands nearby that are already-disturbed for agricultural or industrial uses.  Another environmental group-- the Wilderness Society -- recently touted Interior's reported commitment to develop a smarter energy policy that avoids destroying ecologically intact lands for solar facilities, although Interior's actions up until this point suggest it will continue to permit proposals on some of the most critical desert habitat.

The creosote scrub habitat above is where K Road Solar is building its Calico Solar power project.  The 7 square mile facility that would stretch almost to the Cady Mountains in the distance.  Dozens of desert tortoises would be displaced or killed.
If approved, the project would destroy up to 7 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat, displacing or killing dozens of the reclusive animals. The southern portion of the proposed project site is noted for its sandy washes where Mojave fringe-toed lizards thrive, along with a pocket of rare desert plants.  The area also provides foraging habitat for a bighorn sheep herd that spends most of its time in the nearby Cady Mountains.

A cactus in bloom on the site of the proposed Calico Solar power project.

Prickly poppies, surrounded by bright yellow desert dandelions in bloom this spring near a sandy wash that cuts across the lower part of the Calico Solar site.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Granite Mountain Wind Energy Project Under Review

The Bureau of Land Management plans to resume environmental review of the Granite Mountain wind energy project proposed by Renewable Energy Systems America (RES).   If the Granite Mountain wind energy project is approved, residents of the Victor Valley are likely to lose the majestic site of a golden eagles soaring above the desert, or the high-pitched tone of bats swooping through the night sky in chase of insects.  The project's environmental review was stalled last year as the Department of Interior basically needed time to figure out how to sneak around a Federal law that prohibits the "take" (harassment or death) of bald and golden eagles.  The spinning blades of wind turbines kill hundreds of thousands of birds and bats each year.   According to the draft environmental impact statement released in 2010 before the project review was halted, several golden eagles are active in the vicinity of Granite Mountain, along with Swainson's hawk, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and various species of bats. 

Despite the project developer's claim that larger wind turbines are less fatal to birds and bats, experiences with other wind projects suggests the Granite Mountain wind energy project could significantly impact the Victor Valley's raptor and bat population.  The Pine Tree wind project near Tehachapi is under investigation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service because it has resulted in at least 6 golden eagle deaths in only 3 years of operation.  Some wind projects kill golden eagles at such a fast rate that the raptor's population cannot sustain itself, and they are extirpated from some areas.

Bat mortality is also a major concern.  The Granite Mountain area hosts canyon bats, Pallid bats, Townsend's big-eared bat, Mexican free-tailed bats, and others.  Offering a stark warning, a study found that wind facilities in the Pennsylvania killed at least 10,000 bats in one year, sending ripple effects into an agriculture sector that depends on bats to keep insects in check.  The draft environmental impact statement for Granite Mountain, however, is vague on the project's potential impact on bats, but admits that other wind energy projects have resulted in high death rates.
However, the High Winds Power Project in Solano County, California contains 90 newer technology turbines and surveys detected 116 bat carcasses during ground searches over 2 years, most of which were Mexican free-tailed bats (Curry et al. 2006). As more wind facilities are developed in the southwest U.S., additional post-construction monitoring data using protocols focused on bats will become available and will aid in impact analysis and risk assessment.
This last sentence from the draft impact statement (emphasis added) is odd.  It basically states that we should continue to build wind energy facilities in America's southwestern deserts so we can kill more bats in order to figure out how to stop killing them.  In the meantime, we will lose the natural balance our desert ecosystems depend on, wiping out predator with far reaching effects.

The image below, pulled from the draft environmental impact statement, shows a map of turkey vulture migrations that have crossed the site of the proposed Granite Mountain wind project, suggesting the project is also likely to have an impact on migrating turkey vultures.  Turkey vultures that frequent the Mojave Narrows Regional Park were not observed transiting Granite Mountain, however.

The You Tube video below shows the consequences of wind turbines placed on hillsides frequented by birds, raptors and bats.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Saga of the Suncatcher

The California Energy Commission (CEC) on 3 October held a hearing to consider whether K Road Solar's planned Calico Solar project would have its permit revoked.  At issue is the 2010 decision by the CEC to permit the project even though Tessera Solar LLC -- the project developer at the time -- told the commission it planned to build the project with 26,000 Suncatchers, a solar technology that was owned by Stirling Energy Systems in the infant stages.  Well, the CEC permitted the project even though some people argued that the technology was unreliable and inefficient, and that the project would destroy essential desert habitat.

Keep in mind, as the CEC begins to review any application for a permit it should consider the following California regulation:
"To prevent any needless commitment of financial resources and regulatory effort prior to a determination of the basic acceptability of and need for the proposed facilities, and the suitability of proposed sites to accommodate the facilities, and to eliminate from further consideration and commitment of resources any site and related facility found to be unsuitable, unneeded, or otherwise unacceptable"
Apparently the CEC does not pay much attention to this requirement.  Tessera Solar abruptly sold the project after receiving the permit to K Road Solar, primarily because it did not have the money or the wherewithal to build 26,000 Suncatcher dishes.  K Road Solar revised the proposal, and is now asking the CEC to expeditiously approve its plans to bulldoze pristine desert for a mixture of technology -- some Suncatcher dishes, but mostly photovoltaic (PV) solar panels.  PV panels are the same technology you can put on your rooftop (no need to kill a bunch of desert tortoises).

But BNSF railroad is pissed off (and so are other concerned citizens!).  They spent over two years following the Calico solar project plans, concerned that the project would endanger a rail link that crosses the site of the proposed project.  It had no choice but to intervene.  If Calico solar project were built, the construction activity, vehicle traffic crossing the railroad, potential flooding, and glare from the solar panels could harm the rail operations.  And now they found out that they spent two years trying to correct a project that could not be built in the first place.  The company that makes the Suncatcher dishes just went bankrupt, and one of the company employees admitted during a court hearing that at the time the CEC handed the company a permit in 2010, there was no way they could build 26,000 Suncatcher dishes. 

BNSF railroad is not alone.  Many individuals and groups are concerned that the Calico Solar project is being proposed for the wrong place.  Seven square miles of ecologically intact desert land next to the Cady Mountains -- home to desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, and rare desert wildflowers -- would be destroyed for the sake of profit.   K Road Solar doesn't even know if it can acquire the necessary materials, but they want to build it over 150 miles from Los Angeles.  That is 150 miles from where most of the electricity customers live, and where there is ample rooftop space for solar panels, according to a UCLA study.

The CEC is expected to make a determination soon whether or not to revoke the Calico Solar permit based on the allegation that the company misrepresented its ability to build the project.  It is time that the CEC wake up and recognize that not all solar companies have the State's best interest in mind.  The CEC's job is to protect Californians from frivolous business, and to protect the State's natural resources from from "unneeded" destruction.
Pictured above, the proposed site of the Calico Solar project.  Much of the pristine desert all the way to the Cady Mountains in the distance -- 7 square miles -- would be destroyed, even though solar panels can be installed more efficiently on rooftops, or on already-disturbed lands.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Governor of California Underestimates Rooftop Solar in Statement

The Governor of California last week repeated his support for destructive solar facilities on desert wildlands in a statement filed with an inter-agency group tasked with developing a conservation plan for California's treasured deserts.  The paper probably represents the Governor's attempt to argue for large solar in the desert at a time when distributed generation (local clean energy, such as rooftop solar) is making strides as a more efficient and sustainable path.  Although the document was carefully worded not to ignore distributed generation as part of the solution, on balance it implies that large scale projects in the desert are a necessity because distributed generation cannot be deployed fast enough to meet California's renewable energy demand.

The Governor's office subtly distorts the facts in order to exaggerate the need for the controversial destruction of ecologically intact desert lands for large solar facilities.   In a single paragraph describing the future of large solar on desert lands, the document asserts that these projects can be permitted without "undue delay."  Yet the Governor uses nearly 3 pages to describe "hurdles" for distributed generation. According to the statement:
"Utility scale projects, many of them located in the California desert, are likely to provide much of the generation available to meet California's 33% requirement for utility sales of electricity from renewables sources to consumers. "
"Current barriers to DG [distributed generation], while they are surmountable, likely will require a patient and measured timetable for achievement of the Governor's DG goal."
Rooftop Solar Too Slow?
Distributed generation is thriving in California, and across the country, despite the hurdles that Governor Brown uses to justify destroying our desert wildlands.  With the right policies (PACE loans and healthy feed-in-tariffs) this sector can grow even more.  According to the California Solar Initiative, over 600 MW of rooftop solar has already been installed, with hundreds of megawatts of projects in the works.  Sungevity, a California-based company that installs rooftop solar has expanded sales 10-fold since January, and tripled its employment.  Wal-Mart is adding rooftop solar to over 60 stores in California, following the lead of Kohl's department stores (over 100 solar-powered stores nationwide), and Chipotle restaurants.   Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in rooftop solar businesses, according to a renewable energy reporter. 

The Governor's statement goes on to imply that rooftop solar cannot meet all of our renewable energy need.  The paper devotes a whole section to shadows and rooftop angles, concluding that "[m]uch of California's roof area is not available for roof top solar."  Apparently Governor Brown is ignoring a UCLA study that found enough rooftops compatible for solar in Los Angeles to meet the city's demand, or research conducted by Energy Self Reliant States that sees enough room for local clean energy in our cities.

The rooftop solar market is booming, but it is not the only smart solution to cutting greenhouse gasses.  Energy conservation is also making strides, with technology and materials that make our homes and businesses more efficient.  An energy efficiency program in Los Angeles is expected to save the city up to 10 million dollars, create hundreds of jobs, and reduce carbon emissions by 40,000 tons.

Desert Solar More Efficient?
The Governor's office quotes statistics provided by the industry to argue that building solar facilities in the middle of the desert is more efficient.  According to the report, solar panels installed in some cities may be 13% less efficient at generating energy because of lower solar intensity.  The Governor's office copied this argument from testimony written by BrightSource Energy's lawyers to justify a solar facility that has already displaced or killed up to 130 desert tortoises, with that number expected to increase.

What the Governor fails to mention is that facilities built in the middle of the desert require upgraded transmission lines to carry the electricity to the cities.  Not only does this cost the customer (you) more money (one new transmission line will cost $2 billion dollars), it ensures that anywhere from 7-15% of the electricity generated at the facility disappears before it reaches your home in a phenomenon known as transmission line loss.

What the Governor Did Not Mention
You can still build large solar facilities without destroying beautiful desert wildlands.  The Governor's office has not appreciated this distinction in the past, as evidenced by its legal support for BrightSource Energy's solar project in the Ivanpah Valley -- one of the most destructive so far -- and his comments about "crushing" opposition to destructive large solar.  The Westlands area of California consists of already-disturbed land -- previously used for agriculture -- that could support up to 2,700 MW of solar energy.  Solar projects by Beacon Energy and Abengoa are being built on already-disturbed land in Southern California.

The bottom line is that the Renewable Energy Action Team -- the inter-agency body tasked with developing the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan -- should not be fooled by the false dilemma put forward in Governor Brown's statement.  We can generate renewable energy, save money, and create jobs without sacrificing our open spaces in the desert. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

First Ivanpah Tortoise Released; Future in Doubt

According to the Press-Enterprise, a female desert tortoise was released back into the wild last week after repeatedly attempting to escape from her cage on the site of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project, where 127 tortoises remain in captivity after they were cleared from desert that has since been destroyed for the energy facility.  The Press-Enterprise journalist accompanied Federal officials during the release of the tortoise near Clark Mountain in an area north of the solar project.  The remaining 127 tortoises probably will be released after winter.  The negative impact on tortoises is expected to increase, as BrightSource Energy has begun clearing more tortoises from ecologically important desert habitat ahead of the bulldozers.

Unfortunately, many tortoises relocated from their original homes are unlikely to survive. Tortoises relocated from a military training site in the Mojave Desert were monitored by biologists, and nearly half of them perished within two years. Tortoises become very familiar with necessities available in their home range, such as good shade spots, and depressions in the ground where they can drink after a thunderstorm.  Removing them from their home range probably adds a lot of stress and makes them more vulnerable to predators.  In fact, tortoises displaced from the BrightSource Energy project site but not placed in captivity have been found wandering along the fence line, probably seeking to return to a burrow that has since been destroyed.  At least one tortoise died of exposure after wandering along the fenceline, according to a California Energy Commission compliance report.

Despite warnings from desert biology experts and concerned citizens, BrightSource Energy was adamant about building its solar project in the Ivanpah Valley, which hosts a robust and healthy desert tortoise population on relatively undisturbed habitat.  Another solar company, First Solar, is now proposing to build two other massive facilities despite ongoing concerns and opposition.  The companies should consider already-disturbed lands, or investing in rooftop solar programs, instead of building on ecologically intact wildlands.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Desert Liberation

It is a liberation of the soul to see for miles in each direction; to feel your insignificance in a desert expanse, surrounded by life so much stronger than you; to relish a cloud's shadow and accept with humility the sun's rays. The desert will wrestle with your demons and free your calm. The desert's silence and beauty will lure peace back into your heart.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Mohave Ground Squirrel Denied Protection

The US Fish and Wildlife Serve announced this week that the rare Mohave Ground Squirrel (MGS) does not qualify to be listed as an endangered species. The MGS is only found in the western Mojave Desert, which has already been fragmented by urban development, military bases, and off-highway vehicle routes.  In its ruling, the US Fish and Wildlife Service assumes that the Bureau of Land Management is effectively managing off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation, and that at least 40% of solar energy applications will not succeed.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service:
"Based on this information, we conclude that the cumulative impacts of urban and rural development, OHV recreational use, military operations, energy development, transportation infrastructure, grazing, agriculture, mining, and climate change do not currently constitute a significant threat to the Mohave ground squirrel in relation to the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range, nor do we anticipate that they will pose a threat in the future."
This is a very confident statement given that:

1.) The Department of Interior already lost a court cause in part due to its inability to properly manage OHV recreation and the creation of hundreds of miles of illegal routes in the MGS' habitat.

2.) The cities of Victorville and Helendale are both seeking to expand their incorporated areas and develop these lands for residential and commercial use, which would affect the MGS' habitat.

3.) Solar companies continue to seek and receive approval for destructive facilities in the MGS' range. Solar Millennium's Ridgecrest Solar power project, if approved, could obstruct a critical MGS connectivity corridor.

A recurrent theme in the listing decision was that most of the MGS' range was under Federal control -- either through the military of Bureau of Land Management.

The MGS is listed as threatened under California law, and the Department of Defense and Bureau of Land Management are  cooperating in research efforts to preserve the MGS' habitat.  An effort coordinated through the Desert Managers' Group has resulted in some photo-detection surveys to identify areas for future trapping efforts.   These studies are intended to build a better understanding of the MGS' range, habitat, and population.

Hopefully the participants of the Desert Managers Group are  aware that even with so much of the MGS' range under Federal jurisdiction, a poorly sited energy project or increased OHV activity on Federal lands could fracture the MGS' habitat in irreparable ways.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Silver State South Begins Environmental Review

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) started the environmental review of the Silver State South solar project, which would destroy or fragment up to 20 square miles of desert habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.  Silver State would be built by First Solar Inc, which has also proposed constructing the 3.4 square mile Stateline solar power project nearby.

The BLM is accepting public comments and issues to consider as part of its initial scoping period until 31 October 2011.  You can email comments to .

Points the BLM should evaluate in its environmental review include:
  • The Silver State South solar project could block a wildlife corridor through the Ivanpah Valley, and particularly cut off an important genetic linkage for the threatened desert tortoise. Maintaining habitat connectivity is an essential element of the recovery plan for the desert tortoise.
  • The project would destroy desert habitat identified by the Nature Conservancy as "biologically core" and noted for hosting an above average richness of rare species, a testament to the high quality of the habitat.
  • The area provides foraging habitat for Golden Eagles and desert bighorn sheep, and probably hosts burrowing owls and rare plants species. 
  • The BLM should evaluate alternatives to this destructive project, such as siting it on already-disturbed lands or consider rooftop solar.
    The Google Earth image below shows the Ivanpah Valley in the northeastern Mojave Desert.  The proposed Silver State Solar project is shown on the right.  First Solar's Stateline solar project is near the center (pink and blue outline), and Te white outline on the far left is the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), which is already under construction.

    The Silver State solar project right-of-way would be bigger than some cities.  The Google Earth images below show how big the Silver State solar project is when compared to other cities.  More comparative images can be viewed here and here.

    The outlines of the Silver State solar project transposed on downtown San Francisco. (Click on image to expand)
    The Silver State South solar project may produce about 340 MW of electricity if it is built.  But a study by UCLA found that the rooftops in the City of Los Angeles could hold enough solar panels to generate 5,500 MW.  The rooftops throughout the county of Los Angeles could produce up to 19,000 MW.

    Although First Solar may not install solar panels on the entirety of its 20 square mile right-of-way (13,043 acres), its proposed location at the choke point of the Ivanpah Valley will ensure that any habitat destruction has significant impact on the viability of the area to serve as a functional wildlife corridor. The environmental review will assess the impacts of Silver State South, which is the larger second phase of the project.  Silver State North was approved last year.
    This photo shows some of the prime desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.  The Clark Mountains in the background.

    Sunday, October 2, 2011

    Sizing up Ivanpah Valley Destruction

    The desert will make anything seem small.  Consequently, I think we have a hard time grasping the enormity of the destruction solar and wind companies are proposing when they choose to bulldoze intact ecosystems instead of building on already-disturbed lands or investing in distributed generation.

    If you walk across a Mojave Desert valley and find a nice perch on one of the surrounding mountains, you'll overlook a vast expanse of creosote bushes, blackbrush, yucca, and Joshua Trees.  The ecosystem may look harsh, but it is teeming with life -- desert tortoises, bobcat, burrowing owls, bighorn sheep, horned lizards, sidewinder snakes, and kangaroo rats, bees, and specialized moths.

    When energy companies show up, they see that expanse of nature as a bank account.  The more they build on it, the more money they can put in their pockets.   So when First Solar announced plans to build in the Ivanpah Valley of the northeastern Mojave Desert, it was obvious they had no appreciation for the fragile ecosystem, and simply saw a desert valley that could earn them money.  There are plenty of areas throughout Nevada and California with already-disturbed lands, and there are millions of empty rooftops waiting for solar panelsBut First Solar is ignoring these alternatives, and its two Ivanpah Valley projects -- Stateline and Silver State -- will permanently shut down a wildlife corridor, kill dozens of threatened desert tortoises, and imperil rare desert plant life.

    The images below show the size of the proposed First Solar projects relative to familiar places.  At the very bottom of this post is a map of the Ivanpah Valley depicting the actual locations of the proposed solar projects.

    (Click on image to expand) This Google Earth image shows the outlines for the Stateline solar (left) and Silver State solar projects (right) relative to the city of San Francisco.
    (Click on image to expand)  This 3D Google Earth image shows the outline of the proposed Silver State solar project right-of-way relative to downtown San Francisco.
    (Click on image to expand) This  3D Google Earth image shows the outlines of First Solar Inc's proposed Silver State solar project right-of-way transposed over the city of Los Angeles,  That's the LA Memorial Coliseum in the forefront, the skyscrapers of downtown LA further in the background, and way back in the hills is Dodger Stadium.  First Solar's project would destroy and fragment desert habitat of this proportion in the Ivanpah Valley of the northeastern Mojave Desert.
    Now let's compare the energy generating potential of our cities and the solar facilities in the middle of the desert.  First Solar's Silver State solar project would generate approximately 340 MW, according to the Bureau of Land Management website.  The footprint of the project relative to downtown Los Angeles is depicted in the image above. According to a UCLA study, however, the city of Los Angeles has the potential to generate up to 5,500 MW of solar energy by placing panels on rooftops.  The County of Los Angeles has even more rooftop solar potential -- 19,000 MW.  That rooftop alternative -- a form of "distributed generation" -- makes destructive projects like Silver State unnecessary.

    An outline of First Solar's Stateline solar power project relative to downtown Sacramento.  The project would blanket nearly 3.4 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley with photovoltaic (PV) panels.
    (Click on image to expand) If First Solar's Silver State solar power project were put in the Grand Canyon, it would fill almost the entire vista from the Grand Canyon village on the South Rim, all the way to the North Rim.

    (Click on image to expand) This Google Earth image shows the Ivanpah Valley in the northeastern Mojave Desert.  The white outline on the far left is the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), which is already under construction.  The other two are First Solar Inc's Stateline and Silver State projects (center, and upper right).  All three projects will have enormous cumulative impacts on the desert ecosystem.

    Saturday, October 1, 2011

    Wind Energy, Waste, Wildlands

    The Ocotillo Express Wind energy project threatens the fragmentation and destruction of over 23 square miles of public land adjacent to Anza-Borrego State Park in the Sonoran Desert of California.  The swath of land -- as big as the city of San Diego -- is a beautiful desert vista ringed by mountains near the small town of Ocotillo, but the project would etch miles of wide roads into the desert and build over 150 wind turbines that are equal in height to 30-story skyscrapers. The project would require tons of cement and steel, and the spinning blades will pose a danger to threatened bird species.  The project would be owned by Pattern Energy Group.  Renewable energy does not have to be so destructive-- solar panels on rooftops, over parking lots, and on already-disturbed lands can meet our energy needs without destroying wildlands.

    (Click image to expand) If the Ocotillo Express Wind project is built, it will industrialize a pristine desert landscape the size of San Diego.  The Google Earth image above shows the project footprint overlayed on the San Diego metro area.  It will consist of nearly150 wind turbines, standing 30 stories tall.  That is more tall structures than most American cities have.
    The Bureau of Land Management is currently considering the proposal, and has published a draft environmental impact statement.   The deadline for public comments is Thursday, 6 October 2011.
    Comments may be sent to Cedric Perry, Project Manager, by mail: 22835 Calle San Juan De Los Lagos, Moreno Valley, CA, 92553; phone: (951) 697-5388; or email .
    Basin and Range Watch has some great photos and a description of the plant and wildlife on their website.  The project would destroy habitat for the Western Burrowing Owl, foraging area for the Peninsula Bighorn Sheep and further endanger the flat-tailed horned lizard.  Golden eagles have also been active in the area, and could be killed by the turbines, as has occurred with other wind projects in California.

    Send your public comments today to express your concern that the Ocotillo Express Wind project will have irreparable negative impacts on our wildlife and landscapes that are not acceptable and -- considering the more efficient alternative of distributed generation -- are unnecessary.  Tell the BLM to select the "No Action Alternative" to save these lands from unnecessary industrialization.

    The Google Earth image below shows the Ocotillo Express wind energy project at its actual proposed site, just south and east of Anza-Borrego State Park.  You can view and download the project description and other maps from the BLM's website.