Saturday, March 31, 2012

Desert Skies Deceptively Clear

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a new rule in March that would effectively limit new fossil fuel plants from emitting more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour (MWh) of energy produced.   The rule will impact new coal power plants that are still on the drawing board, and is an important step in limiting emissions from the energy sector, which is the biggest source of carbon pollution.  We still have a lot of work to stop polluters in the desert, however.   Many families moved to the desert regions of California in part to escape the notorious smog of the Los Angeles basin.  But the clear skies are deceptive since there are several industries -- including coal power plants -- spewing millions of tons of carbon and other harmful poisons into the air, hurting human health and contributing to climate change.
The Sierra Club has launched a petition in support of the EPA's proposed rule, which could still be weakened or abandoned since the fossil fuel industry is sure to push back.  You can sign the Sierra Club petition at their "Stop Polluters" page.
Coal on the way out in the desert?
When you take a look at the sources of carbon pollution in the desert, older coal plants are certainly a culprit, such as Nevada's Reid Gardner coal plant.  According to the EPA, the Reid Gardner plant emits around 3.1 million metric tons of CO2 a year.  By my rough calculations, Reid Gardner emits at least 680 pounds of CO2 above the new EPA rule of 1,000 pounds per MWh, and the average coal facility emits 768 pounds over the new limit.    The Navajo Generating Station in Arizona, another infamous coal plant in the southwest, generates up to 2,295 pounds of CO2 per MWh, and its power helps pump water to far flung desert cities dependent on the Colorado River.

The Navajo Generating Station, a coal power plant in Page, Arizona that emits 2,295 pounds of CO2 for every MWh of energy it generates.
Although these older facilities will not be impacted by the new EPA rule, at least one proposed coal plant in California might have a tougher time coming online.  The California Energy Commission is still reviewing the "Clean Hydrogen" facility proposed for Kern County next to the Tule Elk Reserve State Park.  Although "clean" is in its title, the facility would use coal and petroleum coke to generate 390MW of energy, and emit an estimated 3.4 million tons of CO2 each year. 

A review of projects under consideration in the southwest suggest not many other coal plants are being seriously considered, although we will still feel the impacts of coal on our climate as Washington continues to propose and approve new coal mining leases.  In February, the Bureau of Land Management paved the way for a mining company to extract 35.5 million tons of coal in Montana. The coal industry is intent on opening up a western port to export coal to Asia to feed their growing energy consumption, and compensate for any reduction in coal demand here in the US.

Desert left with other polluters
Although coal fired energy generation is the top source for CO2 emissions in the US,  there are other very significant sources of pollution in our southwestern deserts.  Cement and natural gas, which are on the dubious top 5 list of CO2 polluters, according to the EPA's draft 2012 greenhouse gas inventory, have quite a presence in the Mojave Desert.

The natural gas fired High Desert Power Project in Victorville emits roughly 1.3 million metric tons of CO2 a year, while the Chuck Lenzie Generation Station (also natural gas) near Las Vegas produces 2.8 million metric tons.  There are more natural gas facilities proposed for the desert, and utility companies unfortunately are also looking to natural gas plants' ability to quickly fire up to meet energy demand as compensation for the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy.

Cement plants poisoning desert communities
There are at least 5 major cement plants in the western Mojave Desert, emitting about 4,600,000 metric tons of CO2 each year, according to the EPA. Of particular concern to locals, these cement plans are also a major source for mercury emissions.  The Lehigh Southwest Cement plant in 2010 spewed 872 pounds of mercury into our air and water. For comparison,  the Reid Gardner coal plant in 2007 gave off 71 pounds.  It only takes a miniscule amount to have harmful effects on our bodies.

In 2007, the TXI Riverside Cement plant in the small town of Oro Grande next to the Mojave River gave off about 313 pounds of mercury.  Cemex California Cement near Victorville spewed 187 pounds, and the Mitsubishi Cement plant in Lucerne Valley gave the local community 151 pounds of the poison.  The CalPortland Company cement plant was responsible for 81 pounds of mercury emissions in 2009.   Ironically, the wind energy industry has an insatiable demand for cement.   In 2009 alone, the wind energy industry consumed 1.7 million cubic yards (enough to build a sidewalk 4 feet wide, and 7,630 miles long), according to the American Wind Energy Association. The US Geological Survey estimated that we will need another 6.8 million tons of cement if we want wind energy to produce 20% of our energy.  

The TXI Riverside Cement plant next to Oro Grande, California, in the western Mojave Desert. In 2007, the facility spewed 313 pounds of mercury.
EPA rules issued in 2006 and early 2011 will force some reduction in mercury emissions from cement plants, although the concentration of so many facilities in the western Mojave Desert probably will ensure an alarming amount of emissions will continue to impact communities there.

The toll of heavy polluting industries is a reminder that we need to take every opportunity to seek meaningful change, and not sidestep our responsibility as stewards of the Earth.  Relying on solutions that require so much destruction of natural resources merely prolongs our journey on an unsustainable path.  Natural gas was believed by some to offer a clean alternative to coal, forgetting that the difference is only marginal as even natural gas pollutes our ground water and air.   Even wind energy has significant shortcomings because of its demand for cement and steel from toxic industries, new transmission lines, and fragmentation of our wildlands.  Local clean energy like rooftop solar is by far the most sustainable solution that can disentangle us from an unhealthy dependence on big energy.  There is no free lunch when it comes to energy, but that doesn't mean that we in the environmental community have to keep ordering from the same menu.

Forget Me Not

A "forget-me-not" (Cryptantha angustifolia ?) only a few centimeters high blooms in the shelter of a giant granite boulder in the Mojave Desert, with lichen adding a dash of color to the granite.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Renewable Energy Industry Ignoring National Environmental Groups

Solar and wind energy companies are seeing their "green" image slip away as they stake claim to large swaths of sensitive wildlife habitat in America's southwest, and balk at conservation groups calling for smarter siting decisions.  Although many in the grassroots conservation community wish the national environmental groups would be more vocal and consistent in their stand on responsible renewable energy standards, even the handful of examples where national groups do demand that renewable energy projects reduce impacts on our ecosystems, the renewable energy industry and even policymakers have resisted.

Calico Solar
The Calico Solar power project is an example of the renewable energy industry watching their "green" image melt away.  National environmental groups gave solar companies and the Federal government a three year opportunity to clean up their act and find a better place to build a 7 square mile solar project.  Neither listened, and now the Sierra Club, NRDC, and Defenders of Wildlife have filed a legal challenge against the Department of Interior faulting gaps in the environmental review process that led to a rushed approval of the project in 2010.  The environmental groups warned Interior to conduct a more thorough review for the project in August 2011, pointing out that the central Mojave Desert location would imperil rare plant and animal species and destroy prime desert habitat on public lands.  The groups noted that nearby disturbed land would be a more ideal place to build such a large facility.

A Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard on the site of the proposed Calico Solar power project. Some of the desert on the site contains sandy washes, which provide ideal habitat habitat for this well-adapted reptile.
In December 2010, the Sierra Club previously filed a challenge against the Calico project in California court, faulting California's hasty approval process that overlooked negative impacts on special status plants and animals,  capping months of efforts by the Sierra Club and other groups during the environmental review process to prevent the project from destroying habitat identified by the Nature Conservancy as "ecologically core" to the Mojave Desert's health.   But that challenge was thrown out by the state court, and the solar project plan was modified after the original company realized it could not afford to build it.   Federal officials must review those modifications, but continue to ignore concerns being expressed by the environmental groups.

According to the environmental groups' press release:
Over the course of three years, the environmental groups met 10 times with the Bureau of Land Management and Calico’s current and former developers, K-Road Power and Tessera Solar (respectively), to urge the developers and Interior to relocate the project to less environmentally sensitive lands. Some of these options included degraded private agricultural lands near the proposed project that would significantly reduce the project’s impacts and bring it more in line with “smart from the start” principles. All these options were rejected.
North Sky River
In addition to the destructive Calico Solar power project, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club are also challenging Kern County's decision to permit NextEra Energy's North Sky River wind energy project.  The nearly 18 square mile project would install over 100 wind turbines in the path of the protected Golden Eagle, and is expected to harm California Condors.  NextEra Energy apparently was unwilling to make changes to the project, prompting the legal challenge filed in the Kern County Superior Court.

The North Sky River Wind project would be built near the Pine Tree Wind project, pictured in the image above, which has already killed several protected Golden Eagles.
Rio Mesa Solar
And even for projects at early stages of development, solar and wind companies would rather maximize profit than minimize impact.  BrightSource Energy learned the hard way that the environmental review process should be thorough and accurate so the public and the company can understand the environmental costs of their choice in locations.  BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar facility was rushed through environmental review so it could meet Federal loan and grant deadlines in 2010, but in 2011 the company and the Bureau of Land Management realized that there were far more tortoises on the site than estimated during the review process.  The Ivanpah Solar facility has garnered national attention for taking its toll on California's official state reptile, which also happens to be Federally listed as a threatened species.  

Instead of learning its lesson, BrightSource officials are now asking the California Energy Commission (CEC) and Department of Interior to speed up review of its proposed Rio Mesa Solar project, according to the transcript of CEC's 19 March status conference.  BrightSource wants to build the facility on nearly 9 square miles, while the Center for Biological Diversity has pointed out that more studies are needed to estimate the number of birds that will be killed when colliding with any one of the thousands of giant mirrors, or burn to death in super-heated air reflected by those mirrors.  The facility would be built near the Colorado River and a wildlife refuge that provide a migrating corridor for thousands of birds each year.

The profit motive for all of these companies clearly overrides any desire to provide sustainable clean energy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

California Governor's Office Silences Public Employees

Germany added over 5,000 megawatts of rooftop solar in one year without sacrificing any natural treasures.  Sacramento has spent nearly two years planning to destroy pristine desert for a 465 megawatt wind energy project.  And apparently they had to silence the stewards of our lands in order to get it done.

California Governor Jerry Brown's office may have ordered state employees to suppress concerns about the environmental damage of a wind energy project, according to an East County Magazine and 10 News investigative report.  Stewards of California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park planned to submit comments on the draft environmental impact statement for the Ocotillo Express wind energy project, but the Governor's Office reportedly called them and ordered them not to submit comments.  Biologists and conservationists have raised concerns that the project, which the Pattern Energy Group will build on nearly 20 square miles of public land, threatens habitat for raptors, bats, Western Burrowing Owls, and the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.  Opponents of this industrial project have noted that rooftop solar projects, or larger clean energy projects on already-disturbed lands would be a more sustainable solution to climate change than the destruction of ecologically intact desert wildlands.

This Google Earth image shows the proposed layout of the Ocotillo Express wind energy project.
For comparison, the footprint of the Ocotillo Express wind energy project is transposed on an image of the city of San Diego, to show the scale of the massive facility.
The Ocotillo Express wind energy project would involve 155 wind turbines, standing nearly 450 feet tall.  For comparison, the Statue of Liberty, from ground to torch, is only 305 feet tall.  The 20 square mile area impacted by these turbines would engulf most of the city of San Diego.

The Governor's Office denies the accusations, but last year Governor Brown did say that "some kind of opposition you have to crush," referring to his hard line against citizens expressing concern over industrial facilities like the project proposed by Pattern Energy Group.  Is this what the environmental community expects from the renewable energy industry? This is the same "drill, baby, drill" attitude that has led us to unnecessary destruction with fossil fuels. Many wind and solar energy companies show little regard for the ecosystems they purport to save from climate change, exposing the fact that the bottom line will always be profit.

We need to change our energy model from the foundation -- increase energy efficiency and promote a distributed energy model that spares our wildlands for future generations.  Germany, in just one year, added over 230,000 rooftop solar panels, amounting to over 5,000 megawatts of clean energy. That's enough to replace a few fossil fuel plants.  And yet, here we are, bulldozing pristine desert in the name of "green" energy.  Somehow corporate interests redefined "green" to earn a few extra bucks.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sierra Club: Make Up Your Mind on Ivanpah

Will we listen to biologists, or First Solar's corporate executives? It seems like the obvious choice for an environmental organization would be to listen to the scientists that have declared Ivanpah Valley too ecologically important to bulldoze for additional solar projects.  For the Sierra Club, I'm still not sure which path we have chosen.

As a Sierra Club member, I am frustrated that my organization remains irresolute regarding the future of the Ivanpah Valley.  The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign has recognized the ecological significance of Ivanpah, and earlier this year encouraged members nationwide to submit comments on  the Department of Interior's Solar Programmatic EIS supplement that mentioned Ivanpah as an area not suitable for additional solar projects. Yet the Club now appears to be working to find a way to permit more large solar projects in this treasured place.

On 21 March, the Sierra Club's Toiyabe Chapter met with First Solar, probably giving their blessing to the Silver State South solar project, and a "conservation" plan for what is left of Ivanpah that is likely to be heavily influenced by First Solar's corporate lawyers and not biologists.  If built, Silver State South would obstruct one of the narrowest parts of the Ivanpah Valley wildlife corridor. The Sierra Club may think it is trying to "mitigate" the impacts of Silver State South, which is the much larger second phase to First Solar's Silver State North project, but any further industrial development in this narrow strip of desert habitat will have significant harmful effects, according to biologists.

This Google Earth image shows the approximate project right-of-ways for the solar projects proposed or under construction in the Ivanpah Valley
The US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended in 2011 that the Ivanpah Valley be off limits to more solar development, Basin and Range Watch submitted a proposal in August to manage this land for conservation, and hundreds of citizens expressed their support for saving Ivanpah in a petition.   If more desert habitat in Ivanpah is destroyed, biologists assess that a critical desert tortoise linkage will be lost, essentially isolating tortoise populations and depriving this threatened species of much needed resiliency.  How do we expect our desert ecosystems to survive climate change and other man-made challenges when we ignore science and smooth the way for habitat destruction?   We applaud NASA climate scientists for pointing out the impacts of fossil fuels, yet we dismiss the concerns raised by biologists regarding the Ivanpah Valley. This is selective hearing, and sets a bad precedent if we want to lead the country to a more sustainable energy future.

The desert tortoise needs creosote bush scrub habitat at lower elevations to maintain habitat connectivity. The First Solar right-of-way (in purple) would destroy much of the suitable habitat at one of the narrowest points in the Ivanpah Valley linkage.  This is simply not the right place for a solar project.
There seems to be a disconnect at the local level of Sierra Club's membership. The Toiyabe Chapter seems intent on allowing additional solar development in Ivanpah, while the Sierra Club's Desert Committee voted to support the Ivanpah Area of Critical Environmental Concern proposal put on the table by Basin and Range Watch.  The Sierra Club's leadership, meanwhile, has not weighed in with a specific position on First Solar's projects (Silver State South or Stateline).  After facilitating First Solar's massive projects near Joshua Tree National Park and in California's Carrizo Plain, one would think that Sierra Club leadership has the leverage to dissuade First Solar from pursuing projects in Ivanpah.

We have to be resolute in protecting our most ecologically sensitive places from any energy development.  The Ivanpah Valley is one of those places.  Working with the solar industry to keep projects away from such treasures is one thing, but now that First Solar has proposed destroying Ivanpah, any agreement with First Solar will give them the "green" stamp of approval they need to sail through BLM review.  There is no more margin of error afforded to us in Ivanpah. 

At the very least we should be vocal and consistent in our opposition to such poorly sited projects.  Telling members nationwide to urge Interior to keep Ivanpah off limits to industrial energy development, and then turning around to help First Solar earn a "green" stamp of approval for bulldozing that same land is misleading.  The Sierra Club has taken positive steps by encouraging distributed generation, and urging mandatory guidelines for the wind energy industry, but we are missing an opportunity for leadership in Ivanpah, since each of the projects proposed there will set a new precedent for access to some of our most ecologically sensitive desert wildlands.   If we are not willing to protect Ivanpah, then we have lost sight of our conservation ethic, and I am left wondering at what point in time the renewable energy industry began to redefine our values.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Oil Industry to Profit from Ivanpah Solar Project

Enbridge -- Canada's largest transporter of crude oil with projects in the infamous tar sands -- will now profit from a solar project in the Ivanpah Valley, according to Reuters.  Enbridge is buying First Solar's Silver State North project, which destroyed nearly a square mile of ecologically intact desert habitat that serves as a critical genetic linkage for the threatened desert tortoise and other species.  First Solar is also proposing to expand this project with a much larger second phase known as Silver State South.  These facilities use the same type of solar panel that can just as easily be installed on rooftops or on already disturbed lands.

Photo by Basin and Range Watch of the Silver State North project, which bulldozed nearly a square mile of intact desert habitat.
Enbridge is proudly touting its purchase of Silver State North as a "green" badge of honor.  It appears to be lost on Enbridge that they are profiting from the isolation of desert tortoise populations and destruction of prime Mojave Desert wildlands. But then again, what would Enbridge care? They are responsible for a good share of the carbon emissions that also have a tight vice on our natural treasures.  This is the new energy frontier -- big corporations making money by bulldozing public lands.  Sound familiar?

Photo by Basin and Range Watch of a swath of desert that is now being targeted by First Solar for its Silver State North project, over the objections of conservationists and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Speak Up for Local Clean Energy

Here is another opportunity to remove barriers to local and democratic clean energy, so get ready to fire off an e-mail to Uncle Sam no later than 26 March.  Instructions below.

What is PACE?
So far, 27 states have approved Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs, which allow homeowners to improve energy efficiency or install rooftop solar panels and pay the costs over time through their own property tax assessment.  PACE is similar to other "special assessment" programs that have been used by municipalities for decades to finance public or private property improvements that benefit the community.  Since energy efficiency and distributed generation reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create local jobs,  and are better alternatives than building expensive new power plants and transmission lines that destroy wildlands, PACE is certainly in the public's interest.

Who is Blocking PACE?
Despite Washington's rhetorical support for clean energy, it is a Federal agency that is standing in the way of PACE.  In 2010 the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) issued an order to banks that prevented the implementation of PACE programs, seeking to protect big banks from exaggerated financial risks.  FHFA has never challenged any other special assessment programs, and arguably it does not have the authority to do so. In January 2012, the courts ordered FHFA to reconsider its position on PACE and solicit public comments.

How Can I Support PACE?
The FHFA is accepting public comments by e-mail through 26 March.  Feel free to use the talking points below to craft your personal comments.

E-mail comments to and include "RIN 2590–AA53, Mortgage Assets Affected by PACE Programs" in the subject line.
  • I request that the FHFA rescind its opposition to PACE programs that are necessary tools for communities to pursue more sustainable energy use and generation.
  • PACE programs help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, promote clean air, and lower our utility costs over time. Energy efficiency and rooftop solar installations also improve property values.
  • PACE programs are also in the public's interest because energy efficiency and distributed generation are cheaper than building expensive new power plants and transmission lines that require the destruction of natural resources and cherished wildlands.
  • Municipalities have a well-established history of using special assessments similar to PACE to finance community benefits, including improvements to personal property. FHFA has not challenged these other special assessment programs, nor does it have authority to do so. 
  • A pilot PACE program in Colorado generated over one hundred jobs and nearly $20 million dollars in economic activity and over one hundred jobs in just one year, according to the Department of Energy.
  •  The White House has called for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and generating distributed clean energy.  The FHFA's position against PACE programs is inconsistent with national and local policy goals.
More information?

Federal Register entry soliciting public comments

Solar Done Right


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sierra Club Joins Call for Mandatory Wind Energy Guidelines

The Sierra Club informed the Department of Interior in January that it supports mandatory guidelines for the wind energy industry that would protect wildlife,  strengthening its previously expressed position that only favored voluntary guidelines, according to the March issue of the Desert Report.  The move is a positive sign that the Sierra Club hopefully recognizes that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the destructive potential of any energy source -- whether that is coal, natural gas, wind or solar -- and that the conservation community should protect our natural resources instead of facilitating their destruction for the benefit of corporate profit.  The Sierra Club's letter  follows a petition submitted by the American Bird Conservancy in December asking Washington to establish a mandatory permitting system that will hold the wind energy industry accountable to environmental law.

According to the Sierra Club letter to Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar:
"...the wildlife values embodied in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other statutes should be protected by the full weight of the enacted laws and strong enforcement thereof."
Perhaps most appropriate considering the wind energy industry's efforts to undermine environmental guidelines as enumerated in the American Bird Conservancy's petition, the Sierra Club in its letter asserts that "the industry must display exemplary responsibility on a consistent basis," while the US Fish and Wildlife Service should show "aggressiveness" in its planning and "make real the threat of sanctions and prosecution."

The wind energy industry has some unscrupulous actors hiding behind a green facade, and they are demanding wide access to our public lands, threatening to fragment habitat and kill birds and bats that play crucial roles in maintaining balance in ecosystems throughout the southwest.  In early March, the California Wind Energy Association argued to State and Federal officials that it should be allowed to build on over 1,500 square miles of California's desert, with options to build on thousands more square miles.  Much of that land is home to rare plants, bighorn sheep, Golden Eagles, and the occasional California Condor. On a less quantifiable level, the construction of hundreds of wind turbines -- each towering 420 feet over the desert landscape -- would alter the character of our wildlands, depriving many of the natural escape they seek when they go to the desert.

In this screen capture of a map including in the California Wind Energy Association's presentation to the Renewable Energy Action Team, the industry is demanding access to the desert and mountain lands shaded in browns and blue, totaling thousands of square miles.
In the western Mojave Desert, NextEra Energy is planning to install over 100 wind turbines for its North Sky River project, despite citizen concerns that those turbines will kill Golden Eagles and California Condors. The wind project would be built just north of the Pine Tree Wind Energy project, which is under investigation by wildlife officials for killing at least eight Golden Eagles.  The Sierra Club and Center for Biodiversity have filed a legal challenge against Kern County for authorizing the North Sky River project.

This heap of Joshua Trees was left behind by construction crews destroying the desert to install wind turbines for the Alta Wind Energy Center, south of where NextEra Energy plans to build the North Sky River wind project.  Photo by Friend of Mojave.
In the eastern Mojave Desert, the Bureau of Land Management plans to let Duke Energy (which operates many coal-fired power plants) build 87 wind turbines on public lands near the small town of Searchlight, Nevada.  For this quiet stretch of desert, 87 structures taller than 420 feet will shatter the desert solitude.  Consider the fact that not even Las Vegas has as many man-made structures of similar height.  But beyond the loss of a wild characteristic, the ecosystem will suffer in other ways.  During surveys of the proposed project site, 122 desert tortoises were spotted.  The desert habitat around Searchlight is known to contain abundant populations of the tortoise's preferred food, including globe-mallow and desert marigold, according to a study conducted for the project's environmental impact statement.

As we find ourselves in a protracted battle to free ourselves of fossil fuels, we should not lose our conservation ethic.  The lands we cherish, and the plants and animals we have pledged to protect for future generations to enjoy should not be sacrificed to the renewable energy industry when better alternatives exist, including energy efficiency, distributed generation, or siting larger solar facilities on already-disturbed lands.  To welcome the most destructive forms of renewable energy -- industrial facilities on pristine wildlands -- is to abandon the core values that led us into the long battle we are fighting against coal and oil today.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Nopah Range

The Nopah Range at sunrise in the Mojave Desert, east of Death Valley National Park.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

BrightSource Energy Complains About Due Diligence

BrightSource Energy, while receiving bad press for displacing or killing over 160 desert tortoises at its Ivanpah Solar project, is now complaining that the California Energy Commission (CEC) and US Fish and Wildlife Service are requiring it to conduct thorough bird and bat surveys for its proposed Rio Mesa Solar project.  BrightSource on 27 February filed a document with the CEC objecting to the avian surveys, part of its ongoing protest of the environmental review process.   Officials and citizens have expressed profound concern because the Rio Mesa Solar facility would be built along the Colorado River in a key bird migration corridor known as the Pacific Flyway.  The facility would also be located near the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts 288 species of birds.  A past study has indicated high rates of avian mortality at power tower solar facilities, and State and Federal officials are keen to understand whether or not Federally protected raptors and migratory birds fly over or forage on the site.

In addition to the migratory birds and raptors, biologists believe that the special status Gila Woodpecker may inhabit palo verde and ironwood woodland on the site, in addition to Western Burrowing Owls and Desert Tortoise.  Apparently BrightSource Energy feels that it should be allowed build a 9 square mile facility that creates super-heated air where thousands of birds pass each year without proper review.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

More Hurdles for First Solar

Before First Solar commits to building solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley, they should take a close look at BrightSource Energy's experience there.  The Los Angeles Times today posted an insightful article on the costs of building a solar energy project on some of the best desert tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert.  Focused on BrightSource Energy's solar project in the Ivanpah Valley, the LA Times describes communications in which BrightSource Energy complains about the costs of relocating tortoises, saying "[t]his truly could kill the project".  Yet it was BrightSource's choice to ignore the warnings of biologists and build on a site noted for the relative abundance of tortoises.

The alarm bells are still ringing and the red lights are flashing, but First Solar is proceeding defiantly with the environmental review process for the Stateline and Silver State South solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley.  Conservationists warn that those project sites also contains prime tortoise habitat, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service even recommended that no further solar projects be approved here.

In addition to this looming hurdle, First Solar recently took a hit in the stock market.  The company announced higher warranty costs on its solar panels because they are under-performing in hotter climates, according to the Arizona Republic.  It's not clear how much efficiency the panels lose in hotter temperatures, but the warranty commitments have cost the company millions of dollars. This would seem to spell a problem for a company preparing to build multiple large projects in America's southwestern deserts.

Secondly, the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the company for the release of information regarding a Federal loan guarantee that may have benefited private investors, according to the Phoenix Business Journal.   Fair disclosure rules require that publicly traded companies that release information to market professionals also ensure the information is disclosed to the public.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Student Art Project Depicts Unwise Burden on Desert Wildlands

Biologist have expressed concern that the scale of proposed utility-scale renewable energy development in America's southwestern deserts could push various species of plants and wildlife to the brink by destroying or fragmenting large swaths of otherwise ecologically intact wildlands. This energy model ignores the opportunities to build on already-disturbed lands or focus on distributed generation -- such as rooftop solar -- and will ironically compound the challenges wildlife will face as a result of human-induced climate change.  The desert tortoise is an icon of this quandary, and it caught the attention of high school student Halle Rayn Kohn.  In a mixed media piece of art using acrylic paint, sandpaper, and a collage of pictures and magazine cut-outs, Halle's art depicts a species burdened by human energy demands.

An image of the original art work, used with permission from the artist.  The piece was part of an AP Studio Art project in California.
The piece was displayed at a high school art gallery, accompanied by a statement that explained the urgent threat of the solar land rush that is threatening to destroy hundreds of square miles of tortoise habitat, including the projects being constructed in the Ivanpah Valley, and pointing to distributed generation as a wiser clean energy solution.  Copied below is the statement that accompanied the art:

The fragility of desert ecosystems and their sensitive inhabitants is too often overlooked. This habitat and its animals, having delicately evolved over billions of years, are desperately in need of our protection and respect. Unfortunately, because of the many misconceptions about these lands, many view the desert as a dumping ground – useless for anything other than fulfilling superficial human needs. If our perception of this beautiful and one-of-a-kind environment does not soon change, it can easily slip through the cracks of our fingers and be gone forever, as if to have ceased to exist completely; unable to be viewed nor admired by future generations. This may seem unthinkable, but is sadly quite possible – consider the events unfolding in Ivanpah, CA. Endangered desert tortoises have been removed from their burrows and forced to live in captivity, so that solar panels could be erected in the sand which they once depended on for a home and security. It is a drastic mistake for our society to approve of such measures to be taken for our own lifestyles, when we could be placing these panels upon our rooftops and no longer put this species existence into jeopardy. This is why I decided to have my piece portray an aged, wise desert tortoise carrying solar panels upon her shell, to convey the metaphorical weight that we are placing on this species as a whole. After all, why is it okay for them to be deprived of their homes for us to receive such a luxury as power in ours?

Thank you, Halle, for this wonderful piece and for raising awareness about the value of our desert wildlands.