Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A contrast of energy choices

Congratulations to Solar Mosaic and Navajo Nation artist Shonto Begay for taking a step into a clean energy future that does not involve the destruction of wildlands.  Solar Mosaic successfully "crowd-funded" enough money to install solar panels on the home of Shonto Begay, who lives near the Peadbody Coal Mine in Arizona.  Shonto's new solar panels will represent democratic energy -- clean and local -- generated at the point of use.  No need for massive new power plants on desert habitat, or expensive transmission lines across beautiful wildlands.  The Peabody Coal Mine  -- like any other large corporate power plant that disrespects nature -- is a destructive relic of an old energy model.

You can read more about Solar Mosaic's success here, and check out Shonto's art here.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Put a Halt to Illegal Dumping

Illegal dumping is a problem on desert lands, especially those close to the urban areas throughout the southwest.  Growing up in the western Mojave, I know the areas around the Victor Valley and Antelope Valley have dealt with illegal dumping for a while.  Instead of taking trash to a landfill or other materials to proper recycling centers, a small minority of people would rather trash our open space, often taking a pick-up full of trash a half-mile or so down a dirt road to discard their waste in the desert, showing complete disrespect for the desert and their neighbors.  You can report illegal dumping to county authorities (Los Angeles County, San Bernardino County, or Kern County.)  You can also contact municipal code enforcement offices that might have jurisdiction over parcels of land within city limits, such as this site for Apple Valley Code Enforcement.

This illegal dump site was discovered northeast of Saddelback Butte State Park in the western Mojave Desert between Palmdale and El Mirage.
There are consequences for those who get caught.  In addition to being cited and fined, in some towns you can have your vehicle confiscated. If the illegal dumping is being committed by a business or contractor, they can probably say goodbye to their business license. Neighbors reporting illegal dumpers have helped capture illegal dumpers throughout the Victor Valley, and investigators have used surveillance, and clues in the discarded trash to identify culprits in other cases.   If stopping people from trashing our lands is not incentive enough, folks in San Bernardino County can get up to $1,000 for tipping off authorities.

Death Valley Jim--a fellow friend of the desert with a beautiful website that focuses on the history of the region--brought attention to specific cases of dumping in California City, which is just north of Edwards Air Force Base and near the Desert Tortoise Natural Area.  His photos can be viewed on his facebook page.

Other than reporting illegal dump sites, there is another thing we can do -- participate in community clean-ups.  Check with your local code enforcement or public works office to see if they are organizing one.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sierra Club Starts Local Clean Energy Campaign in Southern California

The Sierra Club initiated a  Local Clean Energy Campaign to encourage public policies that promote investment in distributed generation and energy efficiency programs, which is seen as a positive sign by activists seeking a clean energy future that does not involve the destruction of ecologically intact wildlands for large-scale solar and wind projects.  The nascent effort is currently focusing on coalition building, but intends to reduce barriers to distributed generation and support the Governor of California's goal to build 12,000 megawatts of local renewable energy.  The Sierra Club's campaign adds to a growing chorus of groups and citizens seeking policies that have successfully ramped up local clean energy installations quickly in other countries, such as Germany.

The Local Clean Energy Campaign will advocate for feed-in-tariffs and net metering that fairly compensate rooftop solar owners for the energy they feed back into the grid.  Net-metering is currently capped at 5% of peak demand, and the Sierra Club is asking to increase the cap in order to expand on the success of net-metering.  This will require legislation that benefits citizens and communities, but may irk utility companies who profit the most from destructive large-scale facilities (big solar, wind, natural gas, and coal facilities), and costly transmission lines.

Distributed generation not only helps communities generate clean energy free of the pollution emitted by natural gas or coal plants, but it invests in the community, and brings a new perspective to energy use and efficiency to residents.  Just as community gardens and farmer's markets can encourage healthier eating and smarter agriculture, distributed generation and net-metering can raise awareness about our energy habits and where that energy is coming from.  We can also create a sustainable source of local jobs and increase home values, according to a study by Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.

Rooftop solar is sometimes perceived as a luxury, even though median income zip codes areresponsible for the highest adoption of rooftop solar installations in California.  Rooftop solar is about energy democracy, and the goal is to make distributed solar generation accessible to all.  With that, the Sierra Club campaign intends to involve low-income and people of color communities.  The rooftop solar installations at the Maplewood Homes -- affordable housing provided by the Housing Authority of the County of San Bernardino  -- will save residents there nearly 30% a year on electricity costs, for example.  Renters may also have an opportunity to tap into local clean energy sources with solar gardens, or other types of community choice aggregation.

A solar panel installation atop Maplewood Homes in San Bernardino, California.  Photo by HelioPower.
Another example of solar for the people and by the people that I love is Solar Mosaic.  One of their current projects is to fund and install solar panels on the home of a Navajo artist, whose home overlooks the Peabody coal mine in Arizona.  What an ironic contrast of energy models -- a coal mine destroying the beautiful Black Mesa in Arizona's wildlands, going out of style as solar panels make energy clean, local, and democratic.

Distributed generation is our energy future. We may have some barriers to take down, but other municipalities and countries have already shown the way.  Germany installed over 7500 megawatts of mostly distributed solar last year alone, and the cost per watt of local clean energy there has come down so much that the per watt price would make solar cheap enough for 47 million Americans to afford, according to Energy Self-Reliant States.  Italy is quickly outpacing Germany in their rate of solar installations, and there are over 500,000 homes with solar panels in Australia.  Utility companies should smell trouble, and ordinary citizens should see opportunity.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kingston Range

Mojave yucca and Creosote bush silhouetted against a backdrop of early dawn light and the Kingston Range in northern Mojave Desert.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Saving Ivanpah

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 2011 recommended that no further large-scale development be permitted in the Ivanpah Valley, warning that destroying more desert habitat in the area could sever or impair a critical linkage between desert tortoise populations, according to its Biological Opinion.  According to the FWS:
If development in the Ivanpah Valley severed population connectivity, it would essentially isolate the Eldorado Valley population from the rest of the recovery unit.
We recommend that the Bureau amend the necessary land use plans to prohibit large- scale development (e.g., solar energy facilities, wind development, etc.) within all remaining portions of the Ivanpah Valley to reduce fragmentation within the critical linkage between the Ivanpah Critical Habitat Unit and the El Dorado Critical Habitat Unit.
This recommendation was issued after the Department of Interior approved two large solar projects (ISEGS and Silver State North) and a high-speed rail line for construction in Ivanpah, pushing the viability of the tortoise linkage to the limit.  In addition to the FWS biological opinion, the revised desert tortoise recovery plan issued last year indicated that connecting blocks of desert tortoise habitat, such as tortoise conservation areas, was necessary in order to maintain gene flow between populations.  The Department of Interior also identified Ivanpah as a "desert tortoise connectivity corridor" in its draft supplement to the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.  And a panel of independent scientists advised the Renewable Energy Action Team in 2010 to adhere to a strategy of "no regrets" in the near-term, since the rush of solar and wind projects in the desert was outpacing our ability to understand the impacts on the desert ecosystem.

The overwhelming array of recommendations and guidance underscoring the importance of protecting Ivanpah has yet to actually change the way we manage the land there, and saving Ivanpah from further industrial development takes on added significance this year as Interior continues to evaluate two proposals by First Solar to build the Stateline and Silver State South solar projects. The projects would destroy several more square miles of habitat in Ivanpah and almost certainly jeopardize the critical genetic linkage.
A photo by Basin and Range Watch showing rich Mojave Desert scrub habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.
Many citizens and environmental groups are now backing a proposal to designate the Ivanpah Valley as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) that I posted about previously on this blog.   A coalition of groups already back the ACEC proposal, including: Basin and Range Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Desert Biodiversity, Desert Tortoise Council, and the Desert Protective Council.   Earlier in February, the Desert Committee of the Sierra Club's California/Nevada Regional Conservation Committee voted unanimously to support the ACEC proposal. Although the tortoise linkage is probably the most well-known aspect to Ivanpah,  the healthy tortoise population there undoubtedly benefits from a rich assemblage of other plants and wildlife, some of which are rare in their own right, including White-margined Penstemon, Mojave milkweed, Gila Monster, and Western Burrowing Owl.

Designating an Ivanpah ACEC makes sense considering the sweeping negative impact that could befall long-term tortoise recovery efforts if the linkage is cut off.  Preventing further destruction of Ivanpah by large-scale solar facilities also makes sense, considering that permitting the two additional First Solar projects would set a new precedent of ignoring science-based recommendations and go against the wisdom of a zone-based approach to renewable energy siting advocated by national environmental organizations.

Ivanpah simply is not a suitable place for industrial scale energy development.  We learned that the hard way with BrightSource Energy's ill-sited Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.  It's time to correct course and designate remaining habitat there as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

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.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Center for American Progress Endorses Destruction of Public Lands; Wilderness Society Distributes Piece in Social Media

The Wilderness Society appears to support the destruction of public lands, as long as the diesel-guzzling bulldozers are clearing the way for a shiny new solar or wind energy facility.  That is the bottom line of a blog piece written by the Center for American Progress writers Jessica Goad and Joe Romm--and posted by the Wilderness Society on its facebook and twitter accounts--in which Center for American Progress also suggests that Americans do not cherish their desert open spaces. The Wilderness Society's willingness to disseminate the blog piece without raising concerns for the content suggest they find merit in the article.

The Center for American Progress is protesting an article by the Los Angeles Times that sheds light on the destruction of the Ivanpah Valley by BrightSource Energy for its 5.6 square mile solar facility.  The LA Times also draws attention to a land rush by solar developers proposing to destroy hundreds of square miles of desert wildlands throughout America's southwestern states.   For some environmental organizations, any criticism of the renewable energy industry is tantamount to heresy.

Let's be clear:  Climate change has already harmed our desert ecosystems, and our shift from fossil fuels is long overdue. We can do this by focusing on energy conservation and efficiency, distributed solar generation (i.e. solar on rooftops or over parking lots), and larger solar facilities on already-disturbed lands.

The Center for American Progress writers--and apparently the Wilderness Society-- are clearly ashamed of the truth exposed by the Los Angeles Times article, but instead of championing smarter alternatives to the destruction of desert wildlands, they state that bulldozing the desert is all bet inevitable:
"So California and the Mojave (and civilization as we know it today) can’t be saved without significant solar energy in the desert. So we need to move beyond the issue of whether we will be deploying solar in the desert to how we can do it in the most responsible fashion, which  appears to be the process that has now begun." --Joe Romm, Center for American Progress
The Center for American Progress is wrong, and is presenting a false dilemma. According to a UCLA study, there are enough empty rooftops in Los Angeles County to generate 5,500 megawatts -- enough clean energy to meet the city's typical energy demand.  Deployment of rooftop solar has been rapid in Germany and Australia -- one cloudy country, and another with more desert wildlands than the USA.   We can match or beat these countries with the right policies, such as Property Assessed Clean Energy and feed-in-tariffs.  Even as we push for policies that make us competitive with these countries, California has already installed 1,000 megawatts of rooftop solar, and there are over 4,500 buildings in San Diego with solar panels.  We can generate solar energy where we live and work without sacrificing the desert.

Even if the Center for American Progress were correct, destroying the desert would not save the world, or California.   As of February, there are 22 solar and 12 wind energy applications pending on public lands in California, according to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).  Combined, they would industrialize over 328 square miles of public lands and generate 10,223 megawatts, which is less than 25% of California's peak energy demand.  We would need facilities on well over 1,000 square miles of public land to meet a single state's energy demand.  We are supposed to repeat that scale of destruction in the other 49 states, according to the Center for American Progress, instead of focusing on energy efficiency and solar panels on buildings and already-disturbed lands.

Keep in mind that in addition to these 328 square miles of proposed projects, there are also solar projects already approved, as well as wind testing applications -- the public lands where wind companies are exploring the possibility of building facilities.  Those wind testing applications target over 1,400 square miles of public lands in California, according to the BLM.

The Center for American Progress also says deserts are fragile and inhospitable, disparaging their biological value and implying that they are not treasured by Americans:
"Deserts are certainly fragile, inhospitable ecosystems — a key reason that nobody should want them spreading over one third the planet or the entire U.S. Southwest..."--Joe Romm, The Center for American Progress
It seems the Center for American Progress used the term "inhospitable" in a relative sense.  There are millions of Americans living in the arid southwest, and they are neighbors with a very diverse array of plant and wildlife.  If the Center for American Progress had bothered to read the Los Angeles Times article they were criticizing, they would have already been enlightened to this fact.   But if the Center for American Progress wants to jettison our deserts on the grounds that they are harsh environments, why are we fighting to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?  Perhaps because it is a beautiful landscape, teeming with life, and no matter how harsh the climate, industrial destruction of such natural treasures is unnecessary when we have smarter alternatives. 

The Center for American Progress also says that there is no land rush in the desert because the Department of Interior is proposing a new policy that will guide those projects to special solar energy zones.  This provides a false sense of assurance to its readers, but conservationists familiar with utility-scale renewable energy projects know that the land rush is in full effect.  The draft policy being crafted by Interior would still allow solar energy companies to build outside of the solar energy zones.  And clearly demonstrating that the solar and wind energy industry puts profit above sustainability, many companies continue to target some of the most ecologically important habitat in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.  Furthermore, the policy does not address the hundreds of square miles of proposed wind facilities, which threaten to fragment habitat and imperil raptors and migratory birds.

Finally, the Center for American Progress links to BrightSource Energy's own blog response to the Los Angeles Times article.  In its response, BrightSource claims that its facility is environmentally responsible:
"It is false to state that all of the areas used for large-scale [solar] will be scraped. Contrary to the article, only a small fraction of the land at Ivanpah is graded, and the rest allows vegetation to remain in place." -- BrightSource Energy
This is grossly misleading.  Even in the areas not "graded", BrightSource Energy mows down old growth desert vegetation.  The whole project is fenced off, and the desert ecosystem on these 5.6 square miles is essentially dead.  The fact that the Center for American Progress linked to this sort of propaganda is appalling.

The video below shows a "brush hog" clearing Mojave yucca, which can live for hundreds of years, for BrightSource's Ivanpah solar project. This is the model of "green" energy that the Center for American Progress, and the Wilderness Society are promoting.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pressure Mounts on First Solar Projects as Ivanpah Recognized As Crucial Tortoise Habitat

More conservation groups have expressed support for preserving desert wildlands in the Ivanpah Valley, an early warning signal that First Solar should back away from their ill-sited solar projects there.  Located in the northeastern Mojave Desert and spanning the California/Nevada border, the Ivanpah Valley hosts a robust population of desert tortoises and provides a critical wildlife corridor for this species whose population has declined nearly 90% since the 1980s.  Biological surveys and US Fish and Wildlife Service findings increasingly indicate that First Solar is proposing to build in one of the most ecologically sensitive areas of the Mojave Desert, and threatens a level of damage that it cannot buy its way out of with "mitigation" as it did with its other projects.

In this photo by Basin and Range Watch, a cluster of Mojave yuccas grow in the Ivanpah Valley where First Solar is proposing to build its massive Silver State South solar power project.
Basin and Range Watch and a coalition of other desert conservation groups submitted a petition to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on 23 October asking that much of the Ivanpah Valley be designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).  The ACEC proposal argued that additional industrial energy development--including two projects proposed by First Solar--would jeopardize cultural resources as well as important habitat for bighorn sheep, Golden Eagles, several species of rare plants and cut off a corridor that maintains genetic diversity for the threatened desert tortoise by linking different populations. 

The Department of Interior later recognized that the Ivanpah Valley serves as an important desert tortoise connectivity corridor when it circulated a draft of its supplement to the solar programmatic environmental impact statement.  Under one of the policy options being considered, the Department of Interior would discourage all solar energy projects in areas identified as desert tortoise connectivity corridors. If a company insists on proposing a project in such a corridor, they could not disturb tortoise habitat hosting more than 2 tortoises per square mile, and must maintain habitat connectivity at least 3 miles wide.
In this screen capture, the proposed desert tortoise connectivity areas are bordered in red and shaded in blue.  The entire Ivanpah Valley is considered a desert tortoise connectivity corridor, according to this map from the Department of Interior.
First Solar has two projects pending environmental review that fall within the Ivanpah Valley desert tortoise connectivity corridor, and the borders of the proposed ACEC -- the Stateline Solar power project and the Silver State North solar project.
This Google Earth image shows the outlines of the solar projects pending and under constructions in the Ivanpah Valley. Note that the Silver State project outline actually consists of two separate projects, Silver State North and South.  The small Silver State North project began construction last year.  Two projects are still pending review -- Silver State North and the Stateline Solar project.
Both First Solar projects would violate the best conservation practices being proposed by the Department of Interior in its policy draft:   

Three mile wide connectivity corridor:   The Silver State South project would be built at one of the narrowest points of the Ivanpah Valley, with less than 3 miles of suitable desert tortoise habitat.  Building this solar power project almost certainly would limit the corridor even further, probably to much less than a mile.   The Stateline project would also impede the wildlife corridor.  The BrightSource project already constrained north/south connectivity on the west side of the Ivanpah Valley, so the negative impacts of the Stateline solar project would be even more profound.

Green measurements display the general width of desert tortoise habitat allowing a north/south genetic linkage through the Ivanpah Valley, connecting tortoise populations in the south (Mojave National Preserve) to populations in the North.  The proposed Silver State project (purple outline), would be built where there is a corridor less than 3 miles between the rugged mountains and the freight rail line.
Two or fewer tortoise per square mile:  The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that an early footprint design of the Silver State South solar project would displace or kill up to 88 tortoises on less than 5 square miles.  For this reason, the Department of Interior only approved the smaller Silver State North project in 2010, sending First Solar back to the drawing board for the larger Silver State South.  The Stateline Solar power project would pose a similar threat to a currently healthy tortoise population.  Stateline solar would be built just north of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System -- a 5.6 square mile behemoth that began construction last year.  At least 125 desert tortoises were displaced or killed at the BrightSource project, which is far more than 2 tortoises per square miles.  An initial survey filed in the Plan of Development for the Stateline project indicates at least 69 adult tortoises are active on the site. 

Additional Groups Recognize Value of Ivanpah, but silent on First Solar Projects
Other environmental groups weighed in on Ivanpah in January, agreeing that the area is important for wildlife and conservation, although they have stopped short of opposing the First Solar projects that are still pending.  The Sierra Club encouraged the Department of Interior to add the Ivanpah Valley to a list of "exclusion areas" that would be off limits to future solar project applications, according to public comment guidelines published on its website in January.  The comments did not mention the pending First Solar projects

Other environmental groups signed a joint letter with solar and electric utility companies (posted on the Wilderness Society's website) where the parties -- including First Solar, BrightSource Energy, NRDC, and Southern California Edison--agreed that there should be no future solar project proposals in the Ivanpah Valley.  For obvious reasons, the parties do not stipulate in the letter what should happen to the pending First Solar applications, and other language in the letter favors continuation of applications already in process.

The Road Ahead
First Solar should take notice that it chose poorly when it proposed the Stateline and Silver State projects.  Attempting to reconfigure the project boundaries or promise "mitigation"-- conserving tortoise habitat elsewhere as compensation -- simply cannot replace or avoid the fragile connectivity corridor that the Ivanpah Valley offers for the threatened desert tortoise.  Furthermore, the abundance of tortoises found in the Ivanpah Valley is a testament to the biodiversity found on this healthy desert habitat.  Several species of rare desert plants, raptors, and bighorn sheep  -- a richness of rare species assembled in one place that is not found in too many other places in our beleaguered deserts.