Saturday, January 21, 2012

BrightSource Balks at Environmental Concerns

BrightSource Energy is on the defensive as wildlife officials express valid concerns that its proposal to bulldoze 9 square miles of California desert will kill protected raptors and migratory birds, in addition to concerns about other wildlife and rare plants.  BrightSource proposes to build two new projects that involve thousands of large mirrors called "heliostats" that focus the sun's rays at a central point on top of a 750 foot tall "power tower" to heat a steam generator.  The super-heated air around the top of the tower is likely to "incinerate" eagles and other birds that fly above the facility, according to communication between the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).  The other major threat will be the thousands of heliostat mirrors that reflect the sky and cause bird collisions.

This artist rendering of the BrightSource Energy's proposed Rio Mesa Solar Electric Generating System shows the three large fields of heliostat mirrors.  Each field focuses the sun's rays on a 750 foot tower in the center.  Image from documents submitted by BrightSource to the CEC.
The Rio Mesa solar project would be built on nearly 9 square miles of public and private lands in a migratory corridor for waterfowl known as the Pacific Flyway. The project is proposed for a site south of Blythe, California.  The second project, Hidden Hills solar project, would be built on approximately 5 square miles of private land in Inyo County, east of Death Valley National Park.  New transmission lines would cross public land to ferry electricity hundreds of miles back to "load centers," or cities where electricity customers live.

Rio Mesa Project Would Imperil Protected Birds
BrightSource Energy, which touts itself as a "green" company, balked when wildlife officials asked them to conduct more studies on the birds in the vicinity of its proposed Rio Mesa project.  Previous studies found active and inactive Golden Eagle nests within foraging distance of the site, while Western Burrowing Owls,  Gila Woodpecker, Prairie Falcon, Swainson's Hawk, Northern Harrier, Vaux's Swift, and Crissal Thrasher have been observed on or very close to the proposed project site.
A study from 1982 showed that at least 70 birds died in a 40 week period at a similar solar thermal facility from collision and burning.  That facility was only about 80 acres in size.  Rio Mesa Solar would be much larger -- 11,000 acres.
In addition to these desert natives, migratory birds taking advantage of the nearby Colorado River are also at risk.  Initial studies observed white pelicans flying over the project site, and many other bird species that follow the Colorado during migration are likely to be impacted.

FWS has asked that BrightSource revisit the Rio Mesa site and follow recently updated protocol surveys that are required to provide an accurate assessment of the risk to migratory bird species. BrightSource Energy does not want to conduct surveys that are as extensive as those requested by FWS, and proposed conducting a limited scope of studies this spring.  BrightSource's proposed studies avoid assessing the potential impact on birds following the Colorado River, probably in an effort to avoid exposing the greater impacts feared by FWS.
This blurry image shows a red-tailed hawk (center) nesting in the Mule Mountains, close to the Rio Mesa project site. These raptors are not so easy to spot when they're not flying overhead, but many raptors utilize the desert's rocky cliffs as nesting spots. This image was part of a biological study submitted by BrightSource Energy to the CEC for the Rio Mesa proposal.
According to a memo submitted by FWS to the CEC, the glut of wind and solar projects proposed for the California desert region poses a substantial cumulative risk to many rare plant and wildlife species.  Birds are of particular concern in the case of BrightSource's two new project proposals, and the risk of the "power tower" technology requires further study.   The memo pointed out the significance of the 2,237 acres of palo verde and ironwood woodland habitat existing on the Rio Mesa site.  This type of habitat may only constitute 0.5 percent of the desert land base, but hosts 85% of all bird nests built in the Colorado/Sonoran deserts, according to the FWS memo.

This photo from the biological report submitted by BrightSource to the CEC shows the palo verde and ironwood woodland habitat found on the Rio Mesa site.
Hidden Hills Solar Under Scrutiny
BrightSource Energy's other proposal is also being studied for potential impacts on birds.  Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Prairie Falcon and a Golden Eagle have been observed on or over the Hidden Hill site.  But perhaps one of the impacts lesser known to the public is the diversity of rare plant species that would be eliminated by the solar project.

This computer model shows the roughly 5 square mile proposed Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System.  The image was submitted by BrightSource Energy to the CEC.
The Pahrump Valley buckwheat is considered rare by the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), but they are found in abundance in this particular area.  Wheeler's skeletonweed, Preuss' milkvetch, and Tidestrom's milkvetch were also found on the site, and have been considered uncommon in California. 

A photo of the Preuss' milkvetch found on the site of the proposed Hidden Hill Solar Electric Generating System.  This photo was submitted as part of BrightSource Energy's Application for Certification (AFC) to the CEC.




A photo of the shadscale scrub habitat on the site of the proposed Hidden Hill Solar project.  Photo from BrightSource Energy's AFC submission to the CEC.

Both the Rio Mesa and Hidden Hills project sites host desert tortoises, although impacts on tortoises are not expected at the same levels as occurred at BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS).  The ISEGS project is expected to displace or kill hundreds of the threatened species.

This desert tortoise was photographed by biologists surveying the Rio Mesa solar project site.  Photo from BrightSource Energy's submission to the CEC.
More Information?
You can find more information about the Rio Mesa and Hidden Hills projects at the Basin and Range Watch site:  Rio Mesa; Hidden Hills.

You can also follow the California Energy Commission proceedings for the projects: Rio Mesa; Hidden Hills.

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