Wednesday, November 28, 2012

BrightSource Energy Distorting Reality

BrightSource Energy recently submitted another petition to change conditions of certification set forth by the California Energy Commission (CEC)--which spell out what steps the company must take to  make up for ecological damage caused by the company's Ivanpah Solar project.  This time BrightSource is seeking to take advantage of a desert habitat conservation program administered by the California Department of Fish and Game, probably because the company is unable to secure quality desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley area.

In its petition to the CEC, BrightSource Energy argues that conserving habitat in the Ivanpah Valley is not worthwhile because human development has limited the value of the area to serve as desert tortoise connectivity.  BrightSource, however, has a record that disqualifies it from making authoritative statements on wildlife issues.
  • Firstly, the company ignored wildlife biologists and built a 5.6 square mile industrial facility on prime desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley, stumbling upon (read: killed or displaced) hundreds of desert tortoises.  
  • The company has tried to convince policymakers and the general public that its facilities are wildlife friendly because they let plants grow beneath the mirrors, but forget to tell people that mowed and crushed desert vegetation is unlikely to support wildlife, the mirrors will kill or burn birds, and the entire project is fenced off.  
  • BrightSource has also begun describing the project as located on "Ivanpah Dry Lake," perhaps to distract from the fact that the Ivanpah Solar project is actually being built west of the dry lake on what was once intact creosote bush and Mojave yucca scrub habitat. If it were built on the dry lake, they would have spent a lot less money on injured and displaced tortoises.
What counts as fragmented?
The petition correctly notes that the Ivanpah Valley is already home to Interstate 15, the Union Pacific Railroad line, a golf course, and the small gambling outpost of Primm, Nevada. But this development alone has not stopped the ecosystem from thriving, as BrightSource found out when it started stumbling on so many tortoises and rare plants.  In fact, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated in official comments to the Bureau of Land Management that the Ivanpah Valley serves as a critical linkage for the endangered desert tortoise, connecting different populations, hence the controvery over another proposed solar project by First Solar.

But let's take a close look at BrightSource's definition of fragmented.  A railroad, highway, small gambling outpost, and golf course. No doubt that these developments took their toll on the ecosystem, but in terms of the overall size of the Ivanpah Valley, they account for less habitat destruction than the Ivanpah Solar project itself.  The gambling outpost of Primm (hotels, parking lots, fast food restaurants and gas stations), is less than one-third the size of BrightSource's project.  The golf course could fit inside the first phase of the massive energy project.

(Click on image to expand) A Google Earth shot of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project (outlined in red).  To the right of the project you can see the relatively small Primm Golf Course, and further to the right, the actual Ivanpah Dry Lake bed. 

But let's think about other places with human development.  The Yosemite Valley, which is roughly 8 square miles in size, contains two hotels, parking lots, a general store, and restaurants.  Are we arguing that Yosemite Valley is no longer valuable to wildlife or worth protecting from further development?  The South Rim of the Grand Canyon also has roads, a heliport, gas station, hotels, and a railroad.  Should we just give up on that land?

(Click on image to expand) For comparison, the outline of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project is depicted as an overlay on the Yosemite Valley. BrightSource depends on vast swaths of wildlands to sustain its business model, unlike other solar companies that install solar panels on rooftops or on already-disturbed lands.

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