Saturday, November 19, 2011

Energy for the 99%

Tomorrow is 20 November.  A community group called Solar Mosaic declared 20 November as Occupy Rooftops day.  Meaning, find the rooftop of a building in your community where you would like to see rooftop solar, take a picture and send it to Solar Mosaic.  The organization has already used "crowdfunding" to install solar on the rooftop of a community building in Oakland, and is now raising community investment to install solar on other buildings in Oakland and Flagstaff. (I sponsored a solar tile at an Oakland-based food justice organization).

Solar Mosaic is a small slice of the rooftop solar pie, but one that is emblematic of how distributed generation -- also known as local clean energy -- can cut greenhouse gasses without asking giant utility companies to devastate desert habitat or mountaintops for big solar and wind projects that are hundreds of miles away from our cities.

There is room for utility-scale solar on already-disturbed lands (minimizing ecological destruction), such as the Westlands Solar park in California, where the soil and water resources no longer support agriculture, or on brownfields identified in EPA's RE-powering America's Land program.  But the future is going to be distributed, and investors are already catching on. 

As the Carbon War Room stated, "jumbo-sized solar is a jumbo-sized mistake." Solar photovoltaic technology is "not about building massive arrays to feed the GRID. It is about getting off the GRID," according to their recent op-ed.  As the Nature Conservancy of California pointed out, "no single drop of rain believes itself responsible for the flood, and as a whole these individual actions...make a big difference." Rooftop solar is not just some "cute idea":
  • California has already installed 1,000 megawatts of rooftop solar as of October, most of it in zip codes with median incomes.  
  • Solar leasing companies are expanding rapidly, and citizens are pushing for access to their own solar financing, known as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE).  
  • One of the nation's largest home builders is expanding its rooftop solar option because of increased demand.
  • Companies like Wal-Mart, Chipotle, Kohls and Toys-R-Us have been adding rooftop solar to hundreds of their stores, utilizing previously worthless but vast space right over their heads.
  •  Germany -- where their policies are built to benefit individual citizens pursuit of clean energy, and not big utility companies -- has already installed 27,000 megawatts of locally owned clean energy, according to Energy Self-Reliant States
  • A UCLA study found the there is enough suitable rooftop space in Los Angeles County to generate up to 19,000 megawatts of solar energy -- enough to meet the city's energy demands.
Most national environmental groups have adopted a blind "we need it all" approach, however.  They have supported some large destructive solar facilities on intact desert habitat, arguing that we must act fast to cut greenhouse gas emissions (see Environmentalism for the 1%).  We do need to act quickly, but shouldn't we take this opportunity for a positive transformation, instead of asking Wall Street-backed energy firms to shift destruction from coal mines and oil fields to our deserts and mountains?

In his first communication to Sierra Club members as chairman, Michael Brune gave a nod to rooftop solar, but also said we have to "scale up large-scale wind, solar, and geothermal energy."  Oddly, he stated that the Sierra Club has been "organizing in communities" to advance large-scale solar and wind.  What community wants to wake up to the industrial terror of utility companies?  I have only seen the Club re-organize, pushing grassroots volunteers to leave the organization and form their own groups to save their communities from an onslaught of 30-story tall wind turbines, and solar facilities that bulldoze several square miles of beautiful desert and Native American sacred sites.

I welcome more rooftop solar, and even some big solar when it's on already-disturbed lands.  But if the Sierra Club wants me to support more greenwashed ecological destruction on behalf of Wall Street, that is not "community organizing".  That is just doing the bidding of the same companies that have been destroying the planet for the past century.

We need energy for and by the 99%, not energy from the 1%.
The video below shows a machine cutting down yucca plants that are probably hundreds of years old in the northeastern Mojave Desert. They are making way for BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System,  which will earn Wall Street millions of dollars, cost electricity customers more money, and deprive future generations of a beautiful desert valley.  The company received a loan guarantee from the tax payer worth nearly 1.6 billion dollars.  Why are we still financing ecological destruction when we could be financing more rooftop solar?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Environmentalism for the 1%

The departure of the Sierra Club's chairman -- Carl Pope -- comes during a dark moment for environmentalism.  The vanguards of the green movement have compromised their core conservation ethic, forging alliances with corporations and ignoring the grassroots in order to make way for an unchecked renewable energy industry that is more intent on destroying public lands than saving them.

A recent Los Angeles Times article highlights how Pope may be a casualty of this attempt to gain influence in Washington and Wall Street, but his approach has been practiced by other national environmental groups,  including the Wilderness Society, NRDC, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife.  These groups have desperately sought acceptance among business and political elites, painting themselves as job creators by selling out America's landscapes to big wind and solar firms, and then bragging about the jobs they have supported.  What have they gained? Loss of respect among the grassroots and a Democrat-controlled White House and Senate that is still willing to undermine the Endangered Species Act and open the Arctic to oil drilling.

In the LA Times article, Pope defended his ties to big business and support for large solar facilities in the Mojave Desert as necessary, despite the ecological toll.  "If we don't save the planet, there won't be any tortoises left to save," Pope said, referring to the impact of big solar on desert tortoise habitat.  This statement is indicative of Pope's dismissive attitude toward distributed generation -- such as rooftop solar -- which would give the 99% the ability to generate their own clean energy.  Pope's statement is also indicative of his faith in Wall Street to save the planet at a time when most people are waking up to the reality that Wall Street only knows how to save itself.

A flood of Big Wind and Solar projects backed by firms like Goldman Sachs, Chevron, and Morgan Stanley are tearing apart America's deserts and forests from Vermont to California, but publishing the images of this destruction is considered heretical by large environmental organizations that have developed close relationships with the companies building the projects, and with the politicians who need to parade themselves as "job creators."

Native American protestors in the distance, with a heap of destroyed desert ironwood trees in the foreground. These trees and nearly 10 square miles of desert habitat will be destroyed for the Blythe Solar power project, which was approved after a backroom deal struck between the project developer and the Sierra Club, NRDC, Wilderness Society, and Defenders of Wildlife.  Some of these trees are probably hundreds of years old, tapping ancient water sources deep beneath the desert. Photo by Basin and Range Watch. 
Solar and wind companies have proposed to destroy nearly 1,000 square miles of public land in California alone, and thousands more in other southwestern states (see map at bottom).  National environmental groups have declared opposition to a couple of projects, such as the Calico Solar power project in the central Mojave Desert, but have otherwise turned a blind eye to the scale of proposed destruction.  In fact, a Sierra Club article in January 2011 asked the group's members to roll over and accept the destruction as a new way of life:
"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.," according to Paul Rauber, the editor of Sierra Club's magazine.  "...[I]t 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."
Why is the Sierra Club -- "the largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States", according to its website -- asking its members to accept the old energy paradigm, instead of advocating for local clean energy (i.e. solar on rooftops and other places in our cities)?  They claim that the deployment of local clean energy would be too slow, even though places like Germany have already installed nearly 27,000 megawatts of local renewable energy.  Many national environmental groups have instead given destructive solar and wind projects the stamp of approval and asked the White House and Congress to provide corporate projects with subsidies and cash grants.  Subsidies for solar and wind companies are earning Wall Street millions of dollars in extra profit, according to the New York Times, even as a California ratepayer advocate warned that large renewable energy projects in the middle of the desert have increased the cost of electricity.
An executive for NRG,  a large energy firm, had this to say about the benefit of government subsidies his firm received for large solar facilities on pristine desert habitat: “I have never seen anything that I have had to do in my 20 years in the power industry that involved less risk than these projects,” he said in a recent interview. “It is just filling the desert with panels.”
Instead of slowing the subsidized onslaught, environmental groups are encouraging it.  The Sierra Club recently circulated a petition supporting the American Wind Energy Association's request to maintaining the "production tax credit," which has made the destruction of mountains and desert landscapes and bird life a lucrative cash cow for investors. The Club's petition never mentioned that the tax credit would support wind facilities in California Condor habitat or next to a large population of Mexican free-tailed bats.

A Sierra Club petition, asking its membership to support production tax credits for a wind industry already flush with public land and money.

Bulldozers clear an intact desert ecosystem, including hundreds of old Joshua Trees to make way for the Alta Wind facility in the western Mojave Desert.  Google invested in the poorly-sited facility, which is sure to reap a handsome reward thanks to the production tax credit.  Photo by Friends of Mojave.
The Sierra Club under Pope's leadership claimed to support the Occupy Wall Street movement -- tired of greedy corporations spoiling our natural resources -- a sentiment echoed by other green groups.  Actions speak louder than words, however, and these groups still paved the way for destructive energy projects.  Hopefully the Sierra Club under new chairman Michael Brune will recognize the miracle of solar energy; the ability to encourage policies that make rooftop solar accessible to everyday people, and dismantle the old energy paradigm.
  • The Sierra Club's leadership never informed its members that it voted to let BrightSource Energy build one of the most ecologically destructive solar energy projects on public land in the Ivanpah Valley, displacing or killing hundreds of desert tortoises, and rare plants.  Smaller conservation groups -- Basin and Range Watch and the Desert Tortoise Council -- are the only groups so far asking for the remaining habitat in the Ivanpah Valley to be managed for conservation instead of industry.
  • Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, and Audubon joined the American Wind Energy Association in a letter requesting the Department of Interior water down regulations on the siting of wind turbines, putting more rare bird species at risk.  Only the American Bird Conservancy and the US Fish and Wildlife Service's own scientists advocated for smarter policy.
  • NRDC, the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, and Sierra Club brokered an opaque deal with Solar Millennium, clearing the way for the company to build the nearly 10 square mile Blythe Solar power project, despite the objections of Native American's concerned about ancient geoglyphs on the project site.  This deal came to light after the Department of Interior provided documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
  • Several national environmental organizations, including the Wilderness Society struck a deal with First Solar Inc. to pave the way for the company to destroy several square miles of desert habitat adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park for the Desert Sunlight Solar project.   The Department of Interior redacted legal documents requested by the Mojave Desert Blog pertaining to this deal. 
Environmental groups should not be advocating more subsidies for Wall Street-backed firms to destroy our way of life and landscapes when solar technology allows us to generate clean energy at the point of use -- on rooftops, over parking lots, and other spaces in our cities.  We should instead focus on clean energy incentives (feed-in-tariffs and PACE) that give homeowners and businesses a credit to install solar panels on their rooftop or provide them with the means to finance and pay for it themselves.  Jigar Shah of the Carbon War Room, penned an op-ed recently asserting that "jumbo-sized solar is a jumbo mistake."  As he put it, photovoltaic (PV) solar technology is about "getting off the grid":
"Solar photovoltaic technology, at its core, is about distributed energy generation; each module is less than 400 Watts.  It is not about building massive arrays to feed the GRID. It is about getting off the GRID."
Solar panels where they belong -- over the built environment instead of on ecologically intact desert habitat.  Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
Local clean energy is about generating electricity where we live, cutting our dependence on big firms and utility companies.  It is energy for the 99%.  Big solar and wind ("utility-scale", or "central station"), on the other hand, will not take us "Beyond Coal," but simply open up another phase of regrettable dependence on energy companies that sacrifice natural resources for profit.  The fossil fuel industry has not gone away, either.  While environmental groups drew the nation's attention to their justified opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the Obama administration was quietly opening up more public lands and waters to the usual players in the coal, oil and gas industry, including drilling in the Arctic and offering new mining leases for hundreds of millions of tons of coal in Wyoming and Montana.

This dark moment in environmentalism has sparked a budding awakening, with an opportunity to return to its grassroots, cutting both greenhouse gas emissions and unnecessary utility-scale energy.  Groups across the country have formed to call for local clean energy and to fight back against big wind and solar developments that threaten their way of life, and the landscapes they cherish.  In the Mojave Desert alone these groups include Save our Desert, Friends of Antelope Valley Open Space, Friends of Mojave,  and Friends of Sand Canyon. In Colorado the Renewable Communities Alliance is pushing back against attempts to industrialize their area, and advocating instead for rooftop solar incentives.  Solar Done Right has spoken up for legislation that could promote rooftop solar financing. 
A pile of once-majestic Joshua Trees, cut down by Terra-Gen Power for the Alta Wind Energy Center.  Photograph by Friends of Mojave.

I'll leave you with the words of Peter Douglas, a former member of the California Coastal Commission, public servant, and citizen conservationist:
"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."

The red spots in the map below depict some of the proposed wind and solar projects in Southern California.  Keep in mind that a UCLA study found that Los Angeles County has enough suitable space for rooftop solar to meet the city's energy demand -- no need for costly and destructive imports from the deserts hundreds of miles away.


View Solar and Wind in California and Arizona in a larger map

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Policy for Rooftop Solar, Not Desert Destruction

An excellent op-ed published in the Sacramento Bee explains what California should do to encourage rooftop solar and other forms of local clean energy.  At the heart of the debate is the San Diego Gas & Electric company's proposal to charge rooftop solar owners a superfluous "transmission" charge.  You can think of this as equivalent to Bank of America's ridiculous plan to charge its customers $5 a month to use their debit cards. 

Solar technology makes utility companies seem as outdated as record companies and paperback book publishers in an age of MP3s and Amazon Kindles.  Even Bloomberg agrees. Solar gives everyone the opportunity to generate their own energy.  No need to bulldoze deserts for solar facilities.  No need to install wind turbines on beautiful mountains.  No need to blast open mountains in West Virginia for coal.  It's time that the California Public Utilities Commission appreciate the true value of rooftop solar.

According to the Sacramento Bee op-ed:
"It is time for California to evaluate the real value of rooftop solar if we are serious about reducing pollution, creating jobs in one of the only growing sectors and meeting California's ambitious clean energy goals."
Read the op-ed here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Western Mojave Offers Warning on Wind Energy Impacts

Several wind energy projects are in the early phases of planning and development throughout the Mojave Desert, including Granite Wind in the Victor Valley and Black Lava Butte near Joshua Tree National Park.  Citizens and conservationists that care for their way of life and land may want to pay attention to what is happening to the desert habitat near Tehachapi and the town of Mojave, California.  Terra-Gen Power LLC is installing over 300 wind turbines -- each nearly 30 stories in height -- across ecologically intact desert lands. The project is known as the Alta Wind Energy Center

Friends of Mojave, a group of concerned citizens, formed to raise awareness about the impacts of the projects on the once quiet rural lifestyle and beautiful desert landscapes.  They have documented the destruction with the photos below:
A pile of Joshua Trees destroyed by crews constructing the Alta Wind Energy Center.  These trees can live for hundreds of years, and some specimens have lived for thousands of years, enduring the rigors of the desert.  This wind energy project destroyed them in a matter of moments. Photo by Friends of Mojave.
Joshua Tree woodland and creosote bush scrub habitat being destroyed to make way for the Alta Wind Energy Center. Photo by Friends of Mojave.
Wind turbines pose a serious threat to birds and bats once in operation, and wind farms in West Virginia and Pennsylvania have killed thousands of birds and bats.  The nearby Pine Tree Wind project has even killed at least 6 Golden Eagles in just three years.  That's probably faster than the birds can reproduce to sustain a local population.

You can view more photos of the destructive potential at the Basin and Range Watch website, and read more about the impacts of wind energy near Tehachapi at the Friends of Mojave website.  If you have photos of wind energy destruction near you, email them to Basin and Range Watch.

Warning: The following video shows a vulture being struck by a wind turbine.  Thousands of rare birds and bats have met the same fate.  The American Bird Conservancy estimates that by the year 2030, about 1,000,000 birds will be killed by wind turbines each year.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Vermont Wind Facility A Perfect Example of Greenwashing

Wind turbines are not green, and the video below shows the ugly side to this utility-scale energy behemoth that is altering thousands of square miles across the country.  Not only do they require massive amounts of steel to produce, they are transported by diesel guzzling trucks for hundreds of miles, tons of concrete is needed to pour their foundations, and wide access roads are bulldozed into the land and mountain ridges where they are installed.  Once the blades are spinning, they become a huge threat to rare wildlife, such as golden eagles, hawks, owls, bats, sandhill cranes, etc.  Research indicates that at least 440,000 birds are killed each year by wind turbines, and that number is expected to climb to 1,000,000 per year by 2030 as more wind facilities are constructed.

The video below shows scenes of destruction in Vermont as a mountain ridgeline is blasted away to make way for wind turbines.

This is Green Energy? from Catamount on Vimeo.

But most big environmental organizations have turned a blind eye to this destruction.  They're busy fighting another destructive form of utility-scale energy -- coal -- and they need you to feel nice and warm when you see an image of a wind energy turbine (because that's what is "Beyond Coal", right?). Nevermind that utility-scale wind and solar facilities destroy precious habitat, kill wildlife, and ruin rural communities

The Mojave Desert is also facing an onslaught of wind energy facilities.  Most of the current construction is taking place in the western Mojave near Ridgecrest and Tehachapi -- threatening California Condors and beautiful creosote bush scrub habitat -- and more facilities are proposed for the Victor Valley.  Another massive facility is proposed for the desert near Anza-Borrego State Park that would be bigger than downtown San Diego.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Signing off on Desert Destruction

Before BrightSource Energy could begin bulldozing 5.6 square miles of ecologically intact desert habitat, Secretary of Interior had to sign a record of decision approving the project's use of public land and resources.  Department of Interior ignored its responsibility to act as a responsible steward of public lands, and instead catered to BrightSource Energy's desire to build the project on some of the most important habitat for the threatened desert tortoise, despite calls for the government agency and solar company to consider alternative locations.  Your government knew this was the case, but approved the energy facility anyways.

According to a July 2010 analysis by the Department of Interior preceding Salazar's decision obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request:
"Although the proposed project would achieve all project objectives, and generate the maximum amount of beneficial socioeconomic, greenhouse gas, and air pollutant impacts, it would also result in the greatest number and magnitude of adverse impacts. These would include impacts to Biological Resources, Soil and Water Resources, and Visual Resources that could not be completely mitigated."
Arguably the Ivanpah Solar project does not achieve maximum greenhouse gas reductions. Four the past year, hundreds of workers drive hundreds of miles each day to reach the remote site, and the concrete and steel requirements to build the power tower undoubtedly cause more emissions that installing an equal amount of photovoltaic solar panels on brownfields or on rooftops in the city.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Occupy Rooftops!

Thousands of protesters plan to encircle the White House this weekend to speak up against the destructive Keystone pipeline, which would pump hundreds of thousands of barrels of tar sands oil into the US from Canada. Opposition to the Keystone pipeline echoes themes in the Occupy Wall Street movement, which opposes the government's catering to the needs of Corporations at the expense of the public's well-being.  The truest form of energy independence -- loosening the grip of massive utility companies and Wall Street backed energy firms -- comes in the form of distributed generation, such as rooftop solar.  And Solar Mosaic, an innovative marketplace that brings community donations to local solar installations, is sponsoring Community Solar Day on 20 November, asking communities to identity rooftops they want to occupy with solar panels.

From the southwestern desert perspective, Community Solar Day is representative of a clean energy future that does not involve sacrificing public lands to corporate interests.  Not all forms of clean energy actually serve the 99%.  Big Solar firms--like BrightSource Energy and First Solar--make their money by bulldozing vast swaths of intact desert habitat.  A single project in the northeastern Mojave Desert is destroying 5.6 square miles of ecologically important desert habitat, while dozens of other proposals for Big Solar and Wind in just California would destroy over 1,000 square miles of beautiful mountains and desert valleys.  This destruction simply is not green, and it is not necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions when we have space in our cities, our backyards, and rooftops that can generate the clean energy we need.