Thursday, February 16, 2012

Beyond the Reid Gardner Coal Plant

Leaving Las Vegas is easy when you love the Mojave.  Once you escape the maze of billboards, glitzy hotels, and miles of stucco-clad houses, you'll cross some wide open desert that will liberate you from an otherwise hurried existence.  As the city guzzles water and cranks up massive air conditioners, the desert's incredible array of life -- tortoises, kit foxes, jackrabbits, owls, hawks, eagles, Creosote,  Mojave yucca, blackbrush, white bursage, and countless wildflower species -- have endured the test of time.

You have to appreciate the small stuff in the desert.  The signs of life that betray the ignorant notion that this place is a wasteland.  Narrow pathways well worn into the desert ground by rodents scurrying to and from shrubs and burrows.  A wren's nest deep within the spiny arms of a cholla cactus.  A loggerhead shrike perched on a Mojave yucca that may not be much taller than a human but probably more than 300 years old.  All of these forming an intricate web of relationships spanning across beautiful valleys and mountain ranges.

If you look closely, a pathway has been carved into otherwise rocky ground, leading to a rodent burrow at the base of a creosote bush.  Many of the desert's mammals are nocturnal, so you're less likely to catch a glimpse of them unless you catch the early risers at dusk.
Even for those that do not traverse the desert on foot, I like to think that the  peaceful expanse of the desert floods into passing cars, capturing the distant gaze of travelers and providing them with a canvas for thought and emotion free from the clutter of material life.

Along the Muddy River
If you keep driving northeast of Las Vegas, you'll pass north of the stunning Valley of Fire and reach the Muddy River.  A subtle flow of water almost 32 miles long, the Muddy meanders its way through Creosote bush scrub habitat and provides a home for the endangered Moapa dace and Virgin River chub.  A river has a funny way of fitting in with the desert.  You would expect the thirst of desert plants and wildlife to have overrun this resource long ago.  Instead, there is a balance of life that allows the water to find its way south. 

What is piercingly out of place along the Muddy River are four coal-fired boilers and tall smokestacks, surrounded by large wastewater ponds and coal ash piles. The Reid Gardner coal plant was built in 1965 along the Muddy and next to a small town that the Moapa band of Paiute Native Americans call home.  The coal is brought in by rail from afar.  Perhaps Wyoming, Montana, or West Virginia?  The stacks belch out a cocktail of poisons each year, including 4,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, 1,200 tons of sulfur dioxide and more than 3 million tons of carbon, according to the EPA.  The roughly three-quarter square mile facility also includes wastewater ponds and ash landfill that continue to contaminate the local groundwater supply. What we get in return are 557 megawatts of power surging along copper power lines carried along by hundreds of steel lattice transmission towers stretching across the landscape for miles until they reach out cities.

The Reid Gardner coal plant, built right along the Muddy River in Nevada, about 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas.  It's clear that in 1965, when the plant was built, there was little regard for the ecology of this desert river, lacing its way through the Mojave Desert creosote bush scrub habitat.
We also pay the utility company that built all of this wonderful infrastructure so we can plug in our TiVos, cell phone chargers and air conditioners.  We are complicit.  We own those greenhouse gas emissions that upset weather patterns, thereby stressing the ecological rhythms and forcing plant and wildlife to adapt or die.   Extreme weather is pushing Pinyon-Juniper woodlands, Joshua Trees, and even the hardy Creosote bush to their limits.  It is unsettling to think about how much these beloved landscapes could be impacted by climate change

Beyond Reid Gardner Coal
Our consumption of fossil fuels like coal or natural gas is unsustainable for our ecosystems and our health.  But what is next?  Our plug and play society has spoiled us, and many environmentalists think the solution is to unplug a coal power plant, and put in a field of massive wind turbines taller than Reid Gardner's coal stacks, or an expansive solar facility that would blanket an area five or six times bigger than the coal plant and all of its wastewater ponds and ash landfills.  This is renewable energy.

We've been here before.  We keep looking out beyond our cities for new resources to plunder.  In 1935 we completed construction of a renewable energy project with the generation capacity four times greater than Reid Gardner.   The Hoover Dam sits just beneath the confluence of the Colorado and Virgin rivers.  Over 2 million cubic yards of concrete form a wall to hold back water from all over the Great Basin to form the Lake Mead reservoir.  Somewhere in that massive reservoir is the modest contribution of water from the Muddy River, which empties into the Virgin River, which then meets the Colorado and Lake Mead. The water will eventually be allowed to flow through one of 17 turbines in the Hoover Dam, creating electricity carried by those same steel lattice transmission towers you can find outside Reid-Gardner to cities far away in Arizona, Nevada and California.

The Hoover Dam taps the "renewable" hydropower energy of the Colorado River, passing water through up to 17 turbines to generate over 2000 megawatts of electricity.
But Hoover Dam was not enough. In 1956 the United States embarked on another massive renewable energy project.  The Glen Canyon Dam was built upstream on the Colorado River, just before those wild waters carve their way through the Grand Canyon. When construction was finally completed in 1966 -- one year after Reid Gardner opened -- the dam altered the flow of the river so much that water temperatures changed and micro-habitats along its banks were upset all throughout the Grand Canyon ecosystem.   In Phoenix or Farmington, though, you could plug in that fancy new refrigerator.

The Glen Canyon Dam (bottom left) is dwarfed by the reservoir it created in the 1960s, destroying beautiful habitat for dozens of plant species, and at least 184 bird and 34 mammal species.
Plug and Play
The shortcut answer to climate change that has been advocated by the Obama administration, energy companies, and some in the environmental community is the construction of utility-scale solar and wind facilities to generate renewable energy.  (Let's set aside the fact that the Obama administration also continues to expand oil, gas and coal mining throughout our public lands and waters, and pretend that solar and wind will instantly replace dirty fossil fuels.)   If you drive southeast of Las Vegas, the opposite direction from Reid Gardner, you'll come across the Ivanpah Valley, where BrightSource Energy is constructing its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS).

Like the Glen Canyon Dam, BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is already visible from space.  The Google Earth image above shows a little over a third of the grading and mowing taking place in the desert during early stages, destroying otherwise ecologically intact desert.
Stretching across the Nevada-California border, Ivanpah serves as a critical linkage for the Federally listed desert tortoise, connecting populations in the north, to those in the south. Dotted with creosote bushes and Mojave yucca, and a plethora of wildflowers waiting for the right conditions to bloom, Ivanpah is under siege.  ISEGS will destroy 5.6 square miles of the Valley, and generate a little more than half of the electricity that Reid-Gardner generates.  Although without the toxic ash and mercury you can ingest by Reid Gardner, ISEGS requires massive amounts of steel, concrete and glass that somewhere along the line required some of the same toxic emissions.  The expensive power lines that will carry its electricity to the cities along the West Coast are made of copper.  There is no "green" method of producing any of these raw materials.

This photo by Basin and Range Watch shows the early stages of construction for BrightSource Energy's solar facility in the Ivanpah Valley. 
The construction is not even finished and over 130 desert tortoises have been displaced or killed.  Counting hatchlings and eggs that are difficult for construction workers to spot, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 405-1136 tortoises will die so BrightSource can build this project.

In this aerial photo by writer Chris Clarke, you can see the initial bulldozing by First Solar for its Desert Sunlight solar project. Located just outside Joshua Tree National Park, the facility will ultimately destroy nearly 6 square miles of desert habitat and also require transmission line upgrades.
If our solution beyond Reid Gardner is to stick to this plug and play paradigm, we will lose much more than just Ivanpah, the Glen Canyon, or the Muddy River.  As of February, there are applications for solar and wind projects on over 328 square miles of public lands in California alone.  There is a rush of interest from other companies, and wind energy firms are exploring the idea of installing 425 foot tall turbines on over 1,400 square miles of California wildlands, according to BLM figures

Revolution or Acquiescence?
For this era in which we idolize revolutionary thinkers and demand freedom from corporate rule, we have taken a much different approach to our fight against fossil fuels.  We are looking to Goldman Sachs and Warren Buffet to finance solar and wind facilities throughout our southwestern deserts.  When concerned citizens advocate for policies to advance energy efficiency programs or distributed generation -- such as rooftop solar -- some in the environmental community dismiss that as insufficient, and "small stuff".  Rather than change the way we look at energy, they would rather remain subservient to a system that has proven unsustainable since water began filling in the reservoir behind the Hoover Dam, and long before the Reid Gardner smokestack rose above the town of Moapa.  If these environmental leaders were in charge of Apple, they would have fired the developer of the Ipod and instead work with the record companies to design a compact phonograph player. 

Roofop solar is "small stuff," they say.  Well, individuals -- not corporations -- are responsible for nearly 20,000 megawatts of local clean energy generation in Germany, largely thanks to the country's feed-in-tariff that encourages rooftop solar installations.   That is the equivalent of 35 Reid Gardner coal plants.  Similar policies in Australia have led to over 500,000 residential rooftops covered with solar panels.  Even though America has a less mature posture on rooftop solar, we have still made some notable strides.  In California we have installed over 1,000 megawatts of rooftop solar, and two solar leasing projects plan to put solar panels on warehouses and homes throughout the country for an additional 1,052 megawatts.  Together, that is another 3 or 4 Reid-Gardner coal plants.

Energy efficiency and distributed generation is also about an awakening.  Recognizing that we have the power to change our energy demand.  Making our homes and work places more energy efficient, turning off computer monitors before heading out of the office, or unplugging your cell phone charger.  A single new law in California will require battery chargers to waste less energy.  This single technological change will have a cascade effect and save enough energy to power 350,000 homes for a year, and save consumers $306 million a year.  Just imagine what that will mean nationwide if the same technological fix becomes universal. Millions of small cell phone chargers add up.

Every rooftop, and every power outlet in your house can play its part.  Appreciate the small stuff, and maybe in 20 years we will be able to drive out past a demolished Reid Gardner coal plant and go hiking in a desert valley free of industrial-scale energy.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this beautifully written virtual walk through of our energy conundrum. I'm in the "small is beautiful unplug and save camp" and hooray for Energy Democracy!

    ReplyDelete