Thursday, December 29, 2011

Take Action to Save The Desert

Click here to sign the petition by Solar Done Right calling for a responsible renewable energy future.

As this photo by Chris Clarke shows, energy companies have already begun to bulldoze ecologically intact desert wildlands to make way for massive solar facilities.  Our clean energy future does not need to involve sacrificing more of our natural treasures.
We have a long history of destroying wild landscapes to generate electricity.  Oil spills killing marine life, natural gas wells fragmenting sagebrush habitat and spoiling our groundwater, and coal plants spewing emissions that warm our planet.  We are rightfully looking to renewable energy sources as a better alternative, but we cannot afford to sacrifice more wildlands to energy.  As of December, the Bureau of Land Management had received applications for wind and solar facilities on 1,659 square miles of public land in just California, and yet that would still not be enough to meet the State's energy needs. 

We need a responsible renewable energy policy that prioritizes distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar), energy conservation, and placing the larger facilities on already-disturbed lands.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ivanpah Conservation Initiative Presented to BLM Officials

Basin and Range Watch members met with officials from the Bureau of Land Management's California and Nevada state offices earlier this month to present the proposed Ivanpah Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), which is also supported by the Desert Tortoise Council and Desert Protective Council.  The ACEC is needed to protect biological and cultural resources that would be imperiled by additional solar energy development in the Ivanpah Valley, including a connectivity corridor for the endangered desert tortoise.  As human-induced  climate change challenges desert ecosystems, the genetic connectivity and healthy habitat offered by the Ivanpah Valley will be critical to the survival of many desert species.

The productive meeting with BLM, which took place in Reno,  represents potential reprieve for the beleaguered valley in the northeastern Mojave Desert as a coalition of smaller groups and concerned citizens speak up for a smarter renewable energy policy that does not involve sacrificing desert wildlands.  National environmental groups have not yet spoken up about the two additional solar projects proposed for the Ivanpah Valley--First Solar's Stateline and Silver State facilities--although a Sierra Club representative previously expressed concern to me regarding the potential impacts on rare plants and wildlife.

The Google Earth image above shows the major projects impacting or threatening the Ivanpah Valley, including BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (under construction), the proposed right-of-ways for First Solar's Stateline and Silver State solar projects, the El Dorado-Ivanpah Transmission Line, and the Desert Xpress rail line.

Construction is already underway for BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), which will destroy 5.6 square miles of the valley and has already displaced over 125 desert tortoises.  The sad scale of destruction can be viewed at the Ivanpah website.  An aerial photo of the project taken in March depicts only a third of the planned destruction.

An aerial photo by Erin Whitfield shows an early stage of construction for the ISEGS project.  The bulldozing has already begun on the third block of the facility closer to the mountains in the background.

Monday, December 19, 2011

How Much Land Will We Industrialize?

As of December, the Bureau of Land Management had approved or received applications for utility-scale solar and wind energy facilities on 1,659 square miles of public land in California.  These projects are massive in scale, requiring tons of steel and concrete, and the bulldozing of ecologically intact lands.  Yet if all of the proposals are built they will provide less than half of California's energy demand.  Similar levels of destruction will have to take place in other states to meet their energy demand.

It is hard to imagine all of these beautiful landscapes being destroyed in the name of "green" energy, especially when we have enough rooftops, parking lots, and other brownfields in our cities to support solar panels. What would you rather find beyond coal?  Rooftop solar or industrial destruction of our landscapes?

Just how big is 1,659 square miles?  The red shaded boxes in the Google maps below each show an area 1,659 square miles in size.

View 1,659 square miles in a larger map

View 1659 sq miles over Sierra Nevada in a larger map

View 1659 sq miles over the Bay in a larger map

Once beautiful hillsides scarred by hundreds of wind turbines, which also pose a threat to birds.

Just a fraction of the devastation of desert habitat for BrightSource Energy's solar facility in the Ivanpah Valley.  This desert landscape once hosted a robust desert tortoise population before BrightSource Energy bulldozes began clearing up to 5.6 square miles.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Raw Materials: Hidden Carbon Costs of Utility-Scale Renewable Energy

No energy source is without its impacts, but considering how much steel and concrete is needed to construct utility-scale solar and wind facilities, we may be adding more greenhouse gas emissions than necessary.   When most people in the United States think about clean energy, they picture facilities that are inherently not green -- solar facilities in the desert or gigantic wind turbines on hillsides tethered to our cities by hundreds of miles of costly transmission lines.  These industrial facilities require amounts of materials and construction processes that make them unsustainable choices to replace dirty coal.  When it comes to clean energy, nothing beats the efficiency and "green" of distributed energy, such as solar panels on rooftops or over parking lots, which require less of the materials that require carbon emissions to produce and transport.

Take a look at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the northeastern Mojave Desert, over 140 miles from any major city in California.  After bulldozing 5.6 square miles of pristine desert, the company now has to drill thousands of steel poles into the ground to mount mirrors that will reflect light on three central power towers.  Each tower will be built with tons of concrete and steel.  In order to get that electricity to customers in California's cities, the utility companies are building new transmission lines, requiring more steel and concrete.

In the video above, BrightSource Energy uses a "brush hog"to mow down several square miles of vegetation -- some of the shrubs are hundreds of years old -- to make way for thousands of steel poles and mirrors at its Ivanpah project site.

The Environmental Protection Agency calculated that the production of a ton of cement produces .97 tons of CO2 emissions.  Depending on the source, steel manufacturing can result in 2.8 tons to .6 tons of CO2 per ton of steel produced. The US Geological Survey estimated that meeting 20% of our energy needs with wind energy would require 6.8 million tons of concrete, in addition to 1.8 million tons of steel, and 40,000 tons of copper.  The American Wind Energy Association reported that in 2009 alone, wind energy construction consumed 1.7 million cubic yards of concrete (enough for more than 7,630 miles of 4-foot wide sidewalk). These raw materials are transported to the remote areas on large diesel guzzling trucks, and workers also commute long distances to reach the project sites each day.

A photo from California Energy Commission showing early stages of construction for one of three giant steel and concrete towers for BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.
Miles of dirt roads carved into the hills for a wind project near Tehachapi, California.  The roads have to be wide enough to accommodate trucks and cranes to install each turbine on top of a steel tower nearly 400 feet high. Each tower is anchored into the ground with truck loads of concrete.
Transporting the electricity to the cities requires mile upon mile of copper transmission lines, strung along on either steel lattice towers or concrete poles.  Copper mining is notoriously destructive, and one copper company reported 3.1 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in just 2010.  Transmission lines introduce another climate-killing substance into the mix.  A gas called Sulfur Hexafluoride (SF6) is used by utility companies to insulate components and lines.  SF6 is a potent greenhouse gas that has global warming potential 22,800 times greater than carbon dioxide. 

A mix of pole and lattice tower transmission lines stretch across the Antelope Valley in the western Mojave Desert, some of them newly built to bring wind energy to Los Angeles.
All of these materials and transmission requirements not only make utility-scale energy more expensive to the ratepayers, it is most harmful to the environment.  This is why our clean energy future should be focused on distributed generation, where we use spaces already available to us in our cities -- rooftops, parking lots, and brownfields -- where solar panels can be installed with minimal steel, concrete, copper, vehicle trips, and harmful transmission lines.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Desert Astronomy is Unbeatable!

Not long after I started this blog I came across a photographers amazing catch of a Geminid meteor streaking across the Mojave Desert's night sky in 2009.  The photograph was taken in 2009, and can be viewed at this link.  A year later,  a videographer captured some amazing scenes of the Geminid meteor shower over America's desert landscapes, including Joshua Tree National Park.


Fleeting Light: The High Desert and the Geminid Meteor Shower from Henry Jun Wah Lee on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

BLM Continues Review of Searchlight Wind Project

The BLM later this month may release a preliminary environmental impact review for Duke Energy's proposed wind project near Searchlight, Nevada, according to Basin and Range Watch.  The project's monstrous proportions would industrialize 38 square miles of desert landscapes with up to 140 wind turbines.  Each turbine would be over 400 feet tall -- that is over 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.  The turbines would pose a threat to hawks, eagles and other bird life in the area, and would require miles of new roads etched into the valleys and hillsides.   You can find beautiful photos of the area, including wildlife and landscapes, at this website put up by Basin and Range Watch.

This graphic shows the height of the Statue of Liberty compared to a wind turbine that is roughly the same size as proposed for the Searchlight Wind project.  Graphic from windfarmfactsutah.
The amount of land that will be transformed by the project is difficult to fathom.  The Google Earth image below shows an overlay of the proposed project footprint on Las Vegas.  If the same project were built in Las Vegas, it would stretch from McCarran International Airport in the south to North Las Vegas, dwarfing the Las Vegas strip.  If the wind project is built, the small town of Searchlight will have more structures over 400 feet high (a total of 140 wind turbines) than all of Las Vegas (which only has 42 buildings over 400 feet hight).   It seems unfair that the citizens of Searchlight will have their landscape changed so dramatically by a single company's project.
Click on image to expand. Blue lines show the borders of the project.  Red dots show locations of wind turbines.
(Click on image to expand) This 3D Google Earth image shows the Las Vegas Strip would be dwarfed by the footprint of the Searchlight Wind project.  There will be 140 of the wind turbines (red dots), each over 400 feet high.  For comparison, Las Vegas only has about 42 buildings taller than 400 feet.

A simple overhead shot of the wind project boundary super-imposed on the City of Las Vegas, Nevada.

(Click on image to expand.)  The small town of Searchlight (upper left quadrant) would be surrounded by an industrial landscape.
When the BLM issues the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project, it should be available at the BLM website for review and public comment.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Photos of Solar Done Wrong

Despite a UCLA study indicating that the County of Los Angeles has enough suitable rooftop space for solar panels to meet local energy demand, the State of California and Bureau of Land Management are permitting unprecedented destruction of America's desert landscapes for utility-scale solar facilities hundreds of miles away from urban areas.   One of those projects is First Solar's Desert Sunlight facility that will cover nearly 6 square miles of ecologically intact public lands right next to Joshua Tree National Park.

The Desert Sunlight project would generate about 500 megawatts (MW) of electricity.  For comparison, California's peak electricity demand has reached nearly 52,800 MW.  Meeting our energy needs with projects like Desert Sunlight would require over 100 more of such destructive facilities. And then repeat this destruction in every other state to meet their energy demands.  This is madness and simply unsustainable.

Author Chris Clarke recently had the opportunity to fly over and photograph the early stages of Desert Sunlight's construction.  The photo below shows land bulldozed for the project.  I have added red lines along the contours of the project site and a nearby mountain to compare to a zoomed out Google Earth image that shows how much bigger this destructive project will get:

(Click on image to expand) Photo by Chris Clarke.  Bulldozers have only cleared a fraction of the land required by First Solar's Desert Sunlight project. I added the red lines to compare to the Google Earth image below.

This Google Earth image shows the overall size (white and black image overlay) that the Desert Sunlight project will eventually reach.  The lines in red show the area of construction visible in Chris Clarke's photo, with other lines following the contours of the mountain also visible in Chris' photo.  Much more desert will be flattened as construction continues.

Another photo by Chris Clarke shows what this site looked like from the ground (before construction) -- desert washes wind their way through creosote bush scrub and microphyll woodland habitat where one could find desert tortoise, burrowing owls, foxtail cactus, and Swainson's hawks.
Photo by Chris Clarke

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Story of Love and Disappointment

John Muir, frustrated by plans in the early 1900s to inundate a beautiful valley for a large reservoir far from its future customers in San Francisco, warned that people were susceptible to view nature as a resource to be plundered, instead of something to be cherished:
"...robbers of every degree from Satan to Senators, city supervisors, lumbermen, cattlemen, farmers, etc., trying to make everything dollarable, oftentimes disguised in smiles and philanthropy, calling their plundering "utilization of natural beneficent resources," that man and beast may be fed and the Nation allowed to grow great."
John Muir would ultimately be disappointed when close friends he once counted as allies betrayed him and permitted the beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley to become a reservoir. His friend Andrew Carnegie said:
"John Muir is a fine Scotchman...but for all that it is too foolish to say that the imperative needs of a city to a full and pure water supply should be thwarted for the sake of a few trees or for scenery, no matter how beautiful it might be."
Muir had this to say in his book "The Mountains of California":
"But the darkest scriptures of the mountains are illumined with bright passages of love that never fail to make themselves felt when one is alone."
I think about Muir's struggle with the destruction of cherished landscapes. We find ourselves in similar quandaries today, and the next generation certainly will face the same problems. If we are so fortunate, we can all carry Muir's same passion and devotion to nature.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Luxury of Thinking Locally

I have never met Carl Zichella of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), but I'm sure he has a history of standing up for what's right for our environment.  But after reading the Desert Sun article on the Department of Interior's plans to allow solar energy companies to bulldoze hundreds of square miles of desert wildlands, I'm convinced Mr. Zichella got lost somewhere on his journey.

In a comment meant to belittle concerned citizens and defend renewable energy companies that are destroying our desert landscapes,  NRDC's Mr. Zichella said the following:
“There is no impact free energy source,” he said “We need to look at the best sites regardless of ownership.We don't have the luxury of looking at this from a local perspective. Ignoring the best resource areas in the world is not a way to show leadership.”
We don't have the luxury of looking at this from a local perspective, he says.  I know he's talking about the urgent need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, but the irony in his statement is glaring.  He's defending the wish of big corporations to bulldoze Mother Nature's graceful desert valleys and hillsides for a solar technology that can be installed on our rooftops more efficiently and for less cost to society.  Solar affords us the luxury of local clean energy.

Mr. Zichella, we don't have the luxury of sacrificing more natural resources to corporate greed. So why don't you become a leader and stop ignoring the best resource areas in the world -- our own cities, rooftops and parking lots.  And if you think rooftop solar is to slow to meet the crisis of climate change, think again.  While you have been busy cheerleading for companies that want to destroy nature, hundreds of thousands of homeowners have installed solar panels on rooftops.

Local clean energy installed over an existing parking lot.  Instead of destroying desert wildlands far away, somebody was thoughtful and wise enough to put the solar panels where it makes more sense. Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
The NRDC's preferred alternative is to destroy ecologically intact desert wildlands.  The photo above shows just a fraction of the clearing conducted by BrightSource Energy for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the northeastern Mojave Desert.  Instead of tearing open mountains for coal, we are ripping up desert for the same sunshine that can be found in our cities.  Photo by Erin Whitfield.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Big Solar Seeks Path of Least Resistance

The California Energy Commission (CEC) on 14 December will meet to consider a proposed decision that would allow solar companies to select whether to submit to local or State (CEC) review when building large photovoltaic solar facilities on public land.  This is important in the near term particularly for the Ridgecrest Solar power project, a proposed facility that would decimate a Mohave ground squirrel connectivity corridor and a robust desert tortoise population.  In the long term, the rule change would give big solar companies the ability to choose what they think will be the path of least resistance to build projects that destroy vast swaths of public land.    Although the CEC has previously opposed the Ridgecrest project, it's approval of several other projects has earned it a reputation as the place where solar companies go for fast-track approval that often ignores environmental and cultural destruction.  It's this reputation that makes people nervous about a regulation that let's solar companies choose the path of least resistance.

Solar Trust of America -- the front company for German firm Solar Millennium -- initially proposed the Ridgecrest solar power project in 2009, but the CEC staff assessment in March 2010 recommended against certifying the project because of its impacts on biological resources, including over 40 desert tortoises, Western burrowing owls, Mohave ground squirrel, and kit fox.  After some flip-flopping, Solar Millennium decided it wanted to make some marginal modifications and pretend that a redesigned project would not be as harmful.  The firm, which received approval for other solar projects in California and Nevada, also decided to switch from solar thermal technology to photovoltaic (PV) panels -- the same panels used more wisely on rooftop installations in cities.  PV panels are much cheaper than the solar thermal technology.

The CEC's founding legislation, however, is widely interpreted as not giving it authority to license PV projects, only thermal energy.  This put Solar Millennium in a bind.  It's projects already approved by the CEC as solar thermal projects would need to be submitted for additional review if they changed the technology to PV.  California's State legislature made this easy by passing a law that said any solar thermal projects approved by late 2011 that later wanted to convert to PV could stick with the CEC process.
Desert wildflowers in bloom on the site of the proposed Ridgecrest solar power project.
But this legislative fix  did not apply to Ridgecrest because that project was never approved.  So Solar Millennium identified a clause in the original legislation that it believes allows it to "opt-in" to CEC review even though it plans to use PV technology.  Why would they want to stick with CEC when it was the CEC that initially told them they didn't like the project?  It could be administrative ease -- the CEC is already familiar with the project and has on file the studies and proceedings, so the company should not have to re-create the wheel. 

Folks have a reason to be nervous about this solar project proposal, which Solar Millennium sold to German firm Solarhybrid along with its other projects.  The CEC staff stuck to their guns throughout the earlier review, noting the irreparable harm that industrial-scale development of these lands could do to Mojave Desert wildlife.  But solar companies have proven persistent and stubborn in attempts to get their way with public lands.  What these solar companies do not understand is that they have stumbled clumsily onto ecologically intact habitat that are vital to the health of our desert lands and provide enjoyment to citizens who prefer solar panels be installed on rooftops instead of on beautiful landscapes.

The hard-nosed and blind persistence by for-profit companies is what worries me about the CEC's proposed decision to let companies "opt-in" to CEC review.  Ridgecrest is one of the only large solar projects that the CEC has opposed, but several others were approved following a faulty environmental review process that underestimated presence of threatened species and ignored cumulative impacts.  Hopefully the CEC will follow a policy of "no-regrets" and stay true to its duty to protect our natural resources from unnecessary harm in the case of the Ridgecrest project.  By allowing PV projects to opt-in to CEC review, a dynamic may arise where companies seek to avoid local government regulations that may be more representative of local concerns and value placed on natural resources.   The CEC cannot ignore recent history -- it has earned a reputation for fast-tracking unnecessary destruction of public lands, using "override" designations to ignore significant impacts on threatened species and cultural resources.  Even if it has opposed Ridgecrest, it has taken several other steps in the wrong direction by approving Ivanpah, Imperial Valley and Blythe solar power projects.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Elden Hughes

The Los Angeles Times published an article on the passing of long time desert conservationist Elden Hughes.  He worked with others in the Sierra Club to advocate for the California Desert Protection Act in the early nineties, and supported the Wildlands Conservancy's purchase and protection of hundreds of thousands of acres in the Mojave Desert, which are now at the center of new desert legislation.  More recently he brought attention to the destruction of desert habitat by large solar facilities.  Mr. Hughes spoke up against BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.  He was no stranger to Ivanpah.  In 1998 he brought attention to destructive plans to build an airport in the remote desert valley to serve the ever-expanding Las Vegas.

I never got to meet Mr. Hughes, but I feel humbled by his tenacity and commitment to desert conservation.   I'm feeling grateful for the efforts of Elden Hughes and others over the years to protect our desert wildlands.  It's so easy to be down about the struggle to save such beautiful places, but reading Mr. Hughes' story is a reminder that the struggle is not a new one, and that it will require dedication and resolve to keep it going.  In the Los Angeles Times article, Mr. Hughes' passion and deep conservation ethic shine through in this exclamation as he toured desert lands being acquired by the Wildlands Conservancy:
In an interview at the time, Hughes, an honorary vice president of the Sierra Club, stood on a ridgeline high above a patch of former railroad property, breathed reverently and reached out with his hands to embrace the vistas of gleaming ancient lava flows, dry washes pocked with cactus and a lone mountain where a blue bird flitted from smoke tree to creosote bush.

"My god, this landscape is grand," he said. "I'm going to encourage folks to go out and see it, walk it, drive it and photograph it."

Images of Desert Sunlight Project Don't Lie

The news website posted a video tour of First Solar's Desert Sunlight project under construction.  Once the project is finished, nearly 6 square miles of creosote bush scrub habitat for desert tortoises, kit fox, burrowing owls, and Mojave fringe-toed lizard will be destroyed just outside Joshua Tree National Park.  The Sierra Club and other national environmental organizations approved of the project, even though the photovoltaic solar panel technology could have been installed on rooftops or already-disturbed land without destroying wildlands.

Although the First Solar employee interviewed in the video feeds company talking points to the reporter, the images in the background cannot lie.  What was once ecologically intact desert on public lands has been bulldozed and flattened.   Here are some of the screenshots from the video, with the video embedded below.  The pictures show thousands of steel poles drilled into the ground. The loss of topsoil and native vegetation will take centuries to recover once the project is long gone.  And now First Solar wants to repeat this destruction in the Ivanpah Valley for two more projects?

First Sunlight could have built this project on land that was already-disturbed.  Instead they found pristine desert next to a Joshua Tree National Park.  This is not green energy, and shame on the Sierra Club for pretending that this is a sustainable energy future. Image from "Tour of First Solar's Desert Sunlight Solar Farm" video.
Nearly 6 square miles will be graded, and new transmission lines will need to be installed, leading to rate increases for electricity customers. Image from "Tour of First Solar's Desert Sunlight Solar Farm" video.
Thousands of steel poles driven into the desert soil will soon be topped with photovoltaic panels.  The same panels could have been placed on rooftops or on land that was already-disturbed. Image from "Tour of First Solar's Desert Sunlight Solar Farm" video.

Barbed-wire fences installed to keep citizens and wildlife off what used to be public land. Image from "Tour of First Solar's Desert Sunlight Solar Farm" video.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Update on the California Desert Protection Act of 2011

With over 1,000 square miles of destructive renewable energy projects proposed for public lands in California -- mostly in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts -- the California Desert Protection Act of 2011 (CDPA 2011, S.138) appears to be the most extensive proposal to spare desert lands from the prospect of unnecessary industrial development.   Senator Dianne Feinstein actually first proposed the legislation in 2010, but Congress was mired in protracted debate on other issues that year, including health care legislation and last minute deals to put in place a stop-gap budget deal.  Feinstein reintroduced CDPA in January this year, but we are days away from the end of another legislative calendar and the bill still has not moved beyond the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and Congress is still deadlocked on spending issues.

For perspective, it took two years for Feinstein to get her last desert protection bill passed, which was signed in October 1994, and that was with a relatively more functional Congress.  That proposal was preceded by years of citizen advocacy.

But CDPA 2011 is far from a dead idea.  In a nod to the Senator's efforts, the Obama Administration testified in support of the proposal in May 2010, and in November 2011 the Department of Interior identified lands in multiple states deserving conservation, including the areas proposed in Feinstein's CDPA 2011. Interior's proposal was submitted to Congress in the hopes of spurring a lands conservation bill.   I would not hold my breath for legislative action given the gridlock in Congress, but it's a good sign that the administration still backs the idea, which the President could ultimately support with an Antiquities Act directive.

The map below shows the wilderness areas and two new monuments that would be created by CDPA 2011.

California Desert Protection Act 2011