Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kit Foxes Die After Solar Developer Evicts Them From Dens

NextEra Energy began construction last year on the 2.8 square mile Genesis Solar power project in California's Chuckwalla Valley.  The desert habitat was home to kit foxes, a mostly nocturnal animal that feeds on insects and small reptiles. According to the California Energy Commission (CEC), 65 active and inactive kit fox burrow complexes were found on the project site.
This image was captured by a camera trap monitoring a kit fox den on the site of the Genesis Solar power project. Image from the CEC's Monthly Compliance Report for the Genesis Solar power project.
Since construction began, at least seven kit foxes have died of distemper, a canine virus that is spread through bodily fluids, including urine.  The virus is not known to be a prevalent problem for wild kit foxes, and the death of the animals on the project site came as a surprise to wildlife officials.  In an article written by Chris Clarke on KCET, he investigates the possibility that the foxes were infected by the virus after the solar company attempted to haze them from their burrows using urine from coyotes--the foxes' top predator.   Despite the construction activity going on around them, the foxes were reluctant to leave their burrows.  Coyote urine was poured in relatively small amounts near the burrows in an attempt to scare them away. As Mr. Clarke points out, the source of the coyote urine is unknown, and it is entirely possible that the supply is tainted by the virus. 

Construction has been halted on the Genesis Solar power project site, according to the KCET article, until the California Department of Fish and Game determines the cause of the distemper outbreak.  If the virus spreads beyond the area of the solar project, there could be profound impacts  to the kit fox population in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  I strongly agree with Mr. Clarke's recommendation that the California Department of Fish and Game end its practice of evicting kit foxes form dens using coyote urine.
A kit fox found dead near the Genesis solar power project site after they were evicted from their dens. Image from the CEC Monthly Compliance Report for November 2011.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Citizens Urge Interior to Stop Solar Chaos

Conservation groups and concerned citizens submitted comments last week on the Department of Interior's proposed policy to guide the siting of utility-scale solar on public lands.  Although the policy represents an improvement from an earlier draft,  the common denominator among the comments was that the proposed policy is still too weak to prevent industrial solar development from inflicting irreparable harm on our desert ecosystems.  In the meantime, we continue to face a status quo where the solar industry has unfettered access to bulldoze some of the most treasured public lands in America's southwestern states, ignoring a more efficient alternative of installing solar panels in our cities.

In the video above, a contractor for BrightSource Solar destroys desert vegetation, including a cluster of Yucca that are probably 400-800 years old.

Interior's Supplement to the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement attempts to encourage industrial solar development in identified "solar energy zones" (SEZs) totaling over 1,057 square miles,  but Interior's preferred alternative would still allow solar developers to build facilities on over 31,000 square miles of other lands (known as "variance areas") if they meet certain requirements.  But 1,070 square miles of solar applications would be exempt from the requirements because they were filed before the policy was proposed last October.  Many worry that the policy still leaves many of our public lands vulnerable to destructive projects, resulting in continued significant environmental impacts, uncertainty for citizens that cherish public lands, and solar projects being challenged in court.

Partial Map of Lands Targeted for Solar Development

Some national environmental groups -- including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife -- responded to the proposed policy calling for stricter requirements to keep solar development in the SEZs and adding widlife corridors to a list of areas where solar development would not be allowed (known as "exclusion areas").  Interior is under pressure from industry, however, to allow wide access to public lands.  The industry's record so far shows little respect for environmental concerns, as some companies continue to propose large projects in ecologically core areas.

Solar Done Right and a coalition of other groups argued that the solar siting policy still seeks to maximize the industrialization of public lands, ignoring more efficient priorities.  Solar Done Right's comments explain that our clean energy future should focus on energy efficiency, incentives for distributed generation (such as solar on rooftops or over parking lots), and utility-scale solar on already-disturbed lands, such as those identified in the EPA's RE-powering America's Land initiative.

Solar panels using space that is otherwise wasted, providing the double benefit of generating clean energy, and shade for the parking lot.  Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
The miracle of solar allows us to fit panels on spaces that otherwise have no use in our cities.  A UCLA study found that Los Angeles County has enough idle rooftop space suitable for solar panels to meet the cities clean energy demand.  A separate study by UC Berkeley found that a feed-in-tariff for distributed generation projects in California would generate would generate 3 times as many jobs as without, and generate $2 billion dollars in tax revenues and tens of billions in new investment.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

State of the Union

The President spoke of our public lands only in the context of industrial energy exploitation in his State of the Union speech.  I truly hope he realizes that these lands are cherished for their beauty, solitude, and peace.  "From sea to shining sea" was not inspired by the sight of transmission lines, natural gas fracking, oil rigs, and massive bird and bat-killing wind turbines.  "God's cathedrals" -- our natural wonders -- cannot be taken for granted.  And clean energy is not about jobs, it is about our health, and living in harmony with nature without destroying it.

We can meet our energy demands with increased energy efficiency and clean energy at the point of use -- such as rooftop solar.  We cannot afford to sacrifice more wildlands to energy exploitation when we are being handed this opportunity to change.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Solar Company Targets Proposed Desert Monument for Industrial Development

BrightSource Energy is considering another solar thermal facility in the Mojave Desert that, if approved, would fall within or immediately adjacent to the boundaries of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.  The Monument was introduced in the California Desert Protection Act of 2011, and endorsed by the Obama Administration as lands deserving protection.  The project would be built on ecologically important desert habitat within view of the iconic Amboy Crater and Historic Route 66, and impact lands conserved and donated to the Department of Interior by the Wildlands Conservancy.
The area of BrightSource Energy's proposed solar project.  The right-of-way application includes lands within and immediately adjacent to the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.
According to an interview with the Press-Enterprise, BrightSource Energy has already entered into talks with a utility company that would buy the electricity if the project is built.  The Bureau of Land Management, however, has not begun the environmental review process for the solar project, and as of late 2011 was under the impression that the project would be withdrawn.

A red outline showing the proposed right-of-way for BrightSource Energy's Siberia solar project, next to Route 66.
BrightSource Energy's right-of-way application targets over 21 square miles of land, although the company told the Press-Enterprise the final footprint of the project would be about 10 square miles. BrightSource Energy is reportedly in talks with Oak Creek Energy Systems, which has applied for a right-of-way on nearly 32 square miles, some of them overlapping with BrightSource's right-of-way proposal.  According to BLM records, the wind company submitted a modification in December to remove 6,365 acres from its proposal, which is approximately the amount of overlap with BrightSource's solar proposal.

If BrightSource only develops the western portion of its right-of-way, the project may fall outside of the proposed Mounument, but the industrial development will impact an area identified by The Nature Conservany's Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment as "ecologically core"and critical to the long-term conservation of the desert's biodiversity. The project would still have negative impacts on the neighboring habitat inside the proposed Monument and the scenic values along Route 66.

The BLM document embedded below contains the general details of BrightSource Energy's Siberia solar right-of-way application.  BrightSource is submitting the application using a limited liability company called Solar Partners V.
Siberia Solar Record

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.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tarantula Hawks

Tarantula Hawks descend on what I think is a milkweed plant blooming in the Mojave Desert last fall.  These insects normally prey upon tarantulas in the desert for their larvae.  They are not easily provoked, but don't get too friendly with them -- their sting is rated as one of the most painful of all insects! (although, not life threatening)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Citizens Oppose Urban Encroachment on Red Rock Canyon

A grassroots effort is under way in Las Vegas to stop urban development from encroaching on one of the city's most popular outdoor respites -- Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.  The beautiful yucca and blackbrush scrub habitat gives way to unique geologic features that attract hikers, bicyclists, rock climbers, photographers, and anybody else that wants a breath of fresh air and a break from the city.  But now a housing developer wants to build up to 4,500 homes just south of the open space, which would probably affect wildlife linkages and also greatly increase vehicle traffic on otherwise quiet roads.

The group Save Red Rock Canyon has organized rallies to bring attention to some of the developments threatening the surrounding desert habitat and recreational space.  The effort has even encouraged a normally apolitical rock band to speak up.  Locals (and rockers) concerned with the threat to Red Rock plan to attend an 18 January Clark County Commission meeting.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, just outside Las Vegas, Nevada.

This map from the Save Red Rock Canyon website shows an earlier version of the development plan in blue, just south of Red Rock Canyon.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How Many Plants Species in the Desert?

Would you expect that California's desert hosts gives the redwood forest a run for its money when it comes to plant biodiversity?  It's easy to take the desert for granted when all you want to do is zoom through it on the highway and get to your destination. But you are passing by an amazing and biologically diverse ecosystem.  There are at least 2,450 native plant species found in California's desert, according to a great article by Chris Clarke on desert life, posted at KCET.

If you want to learn more about our amazing deserts, join Desert Biodiversity, a new organization dedicated to exploring, respecting and defending the deserts.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

American Bird Conservancy Seeks Enforced Permit System for Wind Energy

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) formally petitioned the Department of Interior to establish and enforce a permit mechanism that would regulate the wind energy industry's impacts on birds.  The petition provides insight into a cavalier energy industry that has shown little regard for wildlife conservation, and Federal agencies ignoring their responsibilities under two major laws -- the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Acts. 

Without regulation, the wind energy industry will push already-imperiled birds and bats into further decline, including the Golden Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Whooping Crane, Cerulean Warbler, Hawaiian Goose, and California Condor.  Our efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions should not involve such widespread destruction of natural resources.
  • Currently, it is only voluntary for wind companies to apply for a "take" permit when wind turbines are expected to kill protected birds, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to enforce two key conservation laws.   The result is a wind energy industry that repeatedly ignores advice on how to minimize impacts on wildlife.
  • The United States will likely have installed 100,000 wind turbines by 2020, which are expected to kill one million birds each year.  In 2009, 22,000 turbines killed approximately 440,000 birds, according to research on bird mortality at wind facilities.
  • The US goal of generating 20% of our electricity demand with wind facilities is expected to impact nearly 20,000 square miles of terrestrial habitat and 4,000 square miles of marine habitat.  That is an area the size of West Virginia, or nearly three times the size of New Jersey.
Wind Industry Not Cooperative
The Department of Interior's current guidelines for the wind energy industry are only voluntary, and ABC has documented several cases in which wind energy companies patently ignore concerns by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that a wind project will illegally kill raptors and migratory birds.   One wind energy company began construction of their facility despite FWS concerns that the project would pose a serious threat to Bald Eagles.  Representatives from British Petroleum are proceeding with plans to build a wind facility in Nebraska that would pose a major risk to the endangered whooping crane, despite repeated objections from the FWS.   Another wind developer has ignored requests by FWS for information that could help determine risks to Golden Eagles in western Nevada.

The FWS has also become frustrated by confidentiality agreements imposed on biological consultants hired by the industry, and a federal district court in 2009 tossed out surveys provided by an industry-hired environmental consultant because the information was found to be intentionally skewed to protect company interests.  The wind industry's silence and skewed information compounds the problem of overall under-reporting of bird mortality at wind energy facilities.

This map put together by the American Bird Conservancy shows proposed wind turbines and testing towers in black, critically important bird areas in red, and orange shading represents key bird migration corridors.
Department of Interior Leadership Looking the Other Way
The wind energy industry may be one of the only sectors of its size allowed to ignore environmental law,  despite clear legal authority granted to the FWS to enforce the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Action (BGEP).   In one e-mail discovered by ABC, a Fish and Wildlife Service official captured Washington's willingness to ignore its responsibilities, telling officials at the Maine Department of Conservation that "bird and bat issues are flying under the radar screen (pun intended) for USFWS."

The FWS -- almost certainly at the direction of Department of Interior leadership -- has simply failed to institute a mandatory permitting mechanism that would require the wind energy industry to evaluate and limit its impacts on birds. The voluntary guidelines "are designed to allow project developers to obtain assurances for non-prosecution in exchange for merely documenting FWS recommendations and developers’ reasons for “disagreeing” with the Service to show “adherence” to the Guidelines,"  according to the ABC petition.
"Thus, despite being well-aware that wind energy projects will invariably take migratory birds protected under the MBTA, FWS has embarked on an approach that merely provides voluntary guidelines in lieu of mandatory obligations for wind energy developers, and that affords developers little incentive to abide by the determinations of FWS biologists as to which sites pose unacceptable risks to migratory birds."
Despite letting the wind energy off the hook and turning a blind eye to the thousands of illegal birds deaths, FWS has fined other industries for environmental impacts under the MBTA.  According to the ABC petition, the FWS electric utility PacifiCorp for impacts on Golden Eagles, hawks, and ravens in violation of the MBTA.  In 2009, the FWS fined ExxonMobil for the deaths of migratory birds at one of its petroleum facilities.

Alarming Impacts
Wind turbines in wildland areas are responsible for killing majestic raptors at an alarming rate. Wind turbines in California's Altamont Pass are estimated to have killed 54-94 Golden Eagles since 1998, while the Pine Tree wind energy project has killed at least six Golden Eagles in the first three years of operation.  At one geographic region in Wyoming the mortality rate is one Golden Eagle death per 13 wind turbines per year; at another it is one Golden Eagle death per 39 wind turbines per year, according to an FWS study.  At least 484 migrating birds were killed in once incident after becoming disoriented by unnecessary lighting at the Mount Laurel wind facility in West Virginia, while 52 birds were found dead around meteorological test towers at a wind facility in California.

The vast array of giant structures not only pose a direct threat through potential collision, they may also create barriers to birds that have followed the same migration route for centuries and deprive others of essential habitat.  BP is proposing a wind facility in South Dakota that would construct 2,000 turbines in the middle of the whooping crane's Aransas-Wood Buffalo migration corridor.  In Idaho, Greater Sage-Grouse abandoned habitat after a wind energy company installed testing towers, since the birds avoid areas with tall structures.

Many Americans probably do not understand just how large wind turbines have become.  Many facilities now feature turbines over 400 feet high -- much taller than the Statue of Liberty. The blades of these massive turbines spin up to 180 mph, and sweep an area greater than a football field.  By 2015, the Department of Energy expects the average turbine height to reach 700 feet.

Graphic from: Virginia Wind, Turbine Size, http://www.vawind.org/#javascript
Destructive Wind Energy in the Mojave Desert:
There are hundreds of square miles of wind energy facility proposals targeting the Mojave Desert region, including Granite Wind near Apple Valley, the Alta Wind Energy Center near Tehachapi, Searchlight Wind project,  Black Lava Butte, and several others

Take Action:  
You can sign the American Bird Conservancy's petition in support of their efforts at this website.

You can download and read the American Bird Conservancy's petition to the Department of Interior by following this link.