Conservation Groups Weigh in on Destructive BrightSource Projects

The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and NRDC have expressed concerns about BrightSource Energy's choice of project sites on desert habitat, recommending that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) reject power purchase agreements (PPA) between BrightSource and Southern California Edison (SCE), according to letters filed with CPUC.  The CPUC was already looking into concerns that BrightSource's projects would sell electricity to the utility company at highly uncompetitive prices when compared to other renewable energy options. BrightSource Energy, which is responsible for displacing or killing hundreds of desert tortoises for its Ivanpah Solar project in the northeastern Mojave Desert, may have trouble financing and building two of its projects if CPUC rejects the PPAs.

Rio Mesa Solar Project Would Batter, Blind and Burn Birds
The Sierra Club's submission to the CPUC expressed concern that BrightSource Energy's proposal to build  the massive Rio Mesa solar project within a significant migratory bird corridor along the Colorado River (known as the Pacific Flyway) will pose a significant risk to birds, which can die in collisions with the thousands of "heliostat" mirrors, be incinerated in super-heated air generated by the facilities, or go blind from exposure to "radiant flux".  The Sierra Club's submission notes that the ecological risks of Rio Mesa Solar could delay the project and make it less viable, and Rio Mesa's highly uncompetitive costs make it less attractive than other clean energy projects that have fewer impacts on desert habitat. According to the Sierra Club's submission, "there continue to be competitive, well-sited renewable energy projects which will not be developed so long as SCE’s portfolio is filled with less-viable, poorly-sited projects."

A screenshot from Avian Mortality at a Solar Energy Power Plant, a study by Michael McCrary and others at a solar power tower plant in California that found these birds burned by the super-heated air generated by the mirrors focusing the suns rays at central points above ground.  The study also found that most birds probably died from collisions with the mirrors.  The study focused on a small 10 megawatt solar power tower project on 72 acres near Barstow, CA.  BrightSource's Rio Mesa project would be many times larger.
According to the California Energy Commission preliminary staff assessment,  CEC staff are very concerned that up to 86 birds could die every week from collisions with mirrors at the Rio Mesa Solar project site based on a study conducted at a smaller solar power tower project that once existed near Barstow, California.  That study was conducted at Solar One, which was not along a major bird migratory corridor.  Rio Mesa would be built along the Pacific Flyway, and would host a mirror surface area 36 times larger than the deadly Solar One project.  The preliminary staff assessment also highlights the risk that birds flying over the Rio Mesa project will suffer eye damage or blindness since the project will create "radiant flux" far above the "maximum permissible exposure" that would damage eyes in less than a quarter of a second. 

A computer rendering of the proposed Rio Mesa Solar project.  The project would destroy about 5.9 square miles of desert habitat in California, not including the additional desert destruction to build new transmission lines and roads for the project.
The CEC also found that the Rio Mesa project would destroy over a square mile of rare microphyll woodland habitat - prime habitat for the rare Gila woodpecker and Elf owl.  This impact is particularly significant because the company is unlikely to find sufficient microphyll woodland habitat to purchase as a mitigation or offset measure.  According to the CEC preliminary staff assessment, the microphyll woodland habitat type "support[s] 85 percent of all bird nests built in the Colorado Desert, despite accounting for only 0.5 percent of the desert land base (McCreedy 2011). "

Siberia Solar Project on Critical Desert Habitat
In a separate letter submitted jointly by the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and NRDC, the groups singled out BrightSource's proposed Siberia Solar project as not viable, in part because of the company's decision to build the project on ecologically intact desert habitat that hosts a number of protected species.   Quoting a US Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion and the Nature Conservancy's Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment, the joint letter noted that "[t]he Siberia Project would disrupt an area that falls within a wildlife movement corridor that connects Desert tortoise recovery units located in the Western and Eastern Mojave Desert regions." The letter also cites concerns that the project and its associated transmission facilities would negatively impact foraging habitat for desert bighorn sheep and raptors.  In addition to the threat to birds posed by BrightSource technology at other projects (collision, burning, blinding), the Siberia Solar project would be built adjacent to the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, which aims to protect sensitive habitat and iconic desert landscapes along the historic Route 66.

It is not clear why Defenders of Wildlife and NRDC did not also sign the Sierra Club submission expressing concern about the Rio Mesa project's environmental impacts.

Wide open desert with the Bullion Mountains in the background, where BrightSource proposes  building its Siberia Solar project.
Industry and Military Also Express Concerns
BrightSource is also receiving push back from the Department of Defense, which is concerned that the Siberia Solar project would curtail training operations at the nearby Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, since the solar power towers could interfere with live fire training exercises.  Separately, the California Wind Energy Association and Western Power Trading Forum expressed opposition to the Siberia and Rio Mesa Solar PPAs, citing the highly uncompetitive costs of the projects and negative impacts on clean energy options that are less costly.

CPUC Deliberations Continue
The CPUC has been deliberating the Rio Mesa and Siberia PPAs throughout the summer and into the fall, and last decided during its 11 October meeting to hold off on a decision pending further review, according to the CPUC website.  The CPUC agenda at the 11 October meeting considered two alternatives, both of which would reject some (but not all) of the Siberia and Rio Mesa PPAs. One of the alternatives under CPUC consideration would approve just half of the Rio Mesa PPA, meaning BrightSource could only afford to build one of the two Rio Mesa solar power towers, and reject the entire Siberia Solar PPA.  

CPUC seems eager to approve at least one BrightSource PPA so the company can develop its molten salt storage capability, which would allow the company to feed a more consistent stream of energy into the grid even after sunset or during cloud cover. BrightSource argues that in order to eventually build the molten salt storage capability it needs to build at least part of Rio Mesa Solar project (even though the Rio Mesa project would not incorporate molten salt storage technology).  Regardless of the molten salt storage capability, BrightSource chose a very bad location for the Rio Mesa and Siberia Solar projects given the anticipated impacts on wildlife, setting the company and ratepayers up for complications during permitting, construction and operation. BrightSource Energy's projects are destructive and more expensive than most other renewable energy projects.  Why should we pay for such inefficiency when there are more environmentally friendly (and cheaper!) renewable energy options?

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