Monday, April 30, 2012

Industrialization of Western Mojave Desert Continues

Terra-Gen Power has continued its expansive destruction of the western Mojave Desert as it adds nearly 205 wind turbines -- each over 400 feet tall -- replacing and industrializing a Joshua Tree woodland and creosote bush habitat on over 15 square miles.  The expansion adds to Alta Wind Energy Center, which is one of the largest of a slew of wind projects approved or under construction in the area.   Kern County approved the project despite concerns raised by residents and conservationists, adding to over 100 square miles of approved wind projects in the area. The massive wind projects pose a threat to California Condors and Golden Eagles, and require miles of wide access roads carved into the desert, fragmenting and destroying habitat.

The photo below taken by a resident of Mojave, California, shows a Joshua Tree tossed aside by construction activities as new access roads and turbine pads are bulldozed to make way for heavy equipment.
But the impact goes beyond the ecological.  These are landscapes that we cherish and enjoy.  It can be a traumatic experience to see a peaceful stretch of desert transformed into an industrial zone. The desert we love is already under burden by human-induced climate change, but the solution is not to destroy it for wind and solar.  We have not even tapped the potential for more sustainable clean energy options -- energy efficiency programs, rooftop solar, or other solar facilities on already-disturbed lands.  Why are we destroying our wildlands?

Another photo taken by a resident of Mojave, California showing the tragic end of a Joshua Tree for the Alta Wind Energy Center.
A vegetation map, showing the different types of desert habitat that will be affected for just part of the Alta Wind Infill II project in Kern County.
Kern County also approved the North Sky River wind energy project, just north of the Alta Wind Energy Center.  The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife are challenging Kern County and the Department of Interior in court for approving the North Sky River project, citing a faulty environmental review process that downplayed impacts on wildlife. Not far from the site of the North Sky River wind project is the Pine Tree wind energy project, which has already killed at least eight Golden Eagles, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Children's Book Takes on Death Valley

A new children's book by artist and author Janet Morgan -- "Welcome to Death Valley!" -- takes young readers on a colorful journey through Death Valley National Park, exploring its dunes, rocky mountains, critters and wildflowers.  The desert can be a wondrous place, and Janet Morgan's book helps inspire that wonder by taking on what many perceive as a wasteland and revealing its fascinating life story.  Using ravens as guides, the author takes a trip around the desert park, explaining geological formations, the tell tale clues of critter tracks in the sand, the colorful rocks of Desolation Canyon and Artists Palette, and the oasis of Darwin Falls.



I grew up in the desert, and spent my summer breaks and weekends roaming the western Mojave Desert around Victorville looking for lizards (catch and release, of course) and interesting rocks.  I may be biased, but I think the desert is a great place to inspire a kid's respect for nature, to encourage them to appreciate the little things -- animals and plants specialized for arid climates and the exposed geology of a landscape, all on an open range to explore and learn.   Reading "Welcome to Death Valley!" would be a great way for kids to learn and think about the desert in an inquisitive way...perhaps before a camping trip to Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Mojave National Preserve, or any other slice of desert you can find in your backyard or beyond!

The book is available from Art and Adventures at this site.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sentries in the Mojave

Mojave yuccas stand sentry just south of Searchlight, Nevada, with Spirit Mountain in the distance.  Photograph taken at sunset in April 2012.  This desert would be industrialized for 87 wind turbines over 400 feet tall, and miles of wide access roads carved into the landscape if the Searchlight wind energy project is built.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Our Future Should Respect Our Past

"Hearsay." Storytelling.  That is how somebody described Native American history in an attempt to urge approval for a massive solar project in the desert. The individual was urging the California Energy Commission to overlook the presence of sacred sites on the same land where BrightSource Energy plans to build an industrial solar facility near Blythe, California.  But our history is not "hearsay." We are talking about centuries of cultural heritage and tradition.  If you discard that, you have an empty future ahead of you.

A series of articles in the Los Angeles Times has shed light on this tension by covering the mishaps at the construction site of NextEra's Genesis Solar power project in California.  At first, the solar project garnered attention when the eviction of kit foxes from their dens on the site likely led to an outbreak of deadly canine distemper that has now spread well beyond the construction site, which could affect the kit fox population throughout our deserts and upset an ecological balance.

But then the construction disturbed something more sacred to society.  A Native American burial site and other artifacts were found during construction, probably because the presence of such sites was dismissed during the environmental review process. Even the California Energy Commission (CEC) acknowledged that the rushed review and approval process for the initial pipeline of massive solar facilities in California is partly to blame.  At an informational meeting for another massive solar facility currently under review, the CEC Staff Counsel explained that a review of cultural resources would be delayed because a CEC expert was "off to fight fires at Genesis on the cultural resources there that, by the way, grew up because of, I think, you know, the rush-rush with that project in getting it sited without actually analyzing the cultural resources on the site."

The result is that NextEra is impatiently waiting to finish construction of its solar site, while Native American tribes rightly want to treat their ancestor's remains with respect.  But the commentary that has ensued is indicative of a society that is willing to jettison Native America cultural history as if it were never a part of this land's history.  Public comments posted in response to an LA Times article regarding the presence of Native American burial sites show disgusting disregard, using slurs and stereotypes to slander Native American concerns, some going so far as to call the Native Americans "savages".

But we have not only seen this ignorance expose itself in the context of the Genesis solar project.  That individual that reduced Native American history to "hearsay" -- a labor representative showing support for BrightSource Energy's Rio Mesa solar power project -- claimed that we have "had ample time" to record those sacred sites "on paper".

No.  We have not had "ample time" to record, let alone appreciate, our heritage.  It was only in the 1800s that we relegated the Native America tribes of the southwestern deserts to reservations, and we have very little recorded history of their cultural traditions.  We have so much to learn about their, and by extension, our history.

In another example of ignorance, an editorial printed in the Imperial Valley Press unabashedly exclaimed that Native American concerns about Pattern Energy's Ocotillo Wind Energy project in California were irrelevant today, because "aspiring to something greater did not exist in Indian societies, at least not in the way it did in white societies."  Essentially, the writer proclaims that Native Americans are now a stumbling block to progress, at least the way the writer defines progress -- massive industrial facilities consuming wildlands.

This greed-driven discrimination is unfortunate, and the hypocrisy is evident when you look at how we treat other aspects of our history.  We protested the planned destruction of a town's old cemetery in West Virginia that was threatened by coal mining.  In California, we made the Mojave Cross -- memorializing the sacrifice of an earlier generation in World War I -- the focus of political bickering.  In the eastern Mojave, dozens of artifacts from a not so distant era of blood, sweat, and tears shed by miners and other pioneers in our deserts adorn the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association (MDHCA) site, where the Goff's schoolhouse was rebuilt, and a replica of the Goff's train station now stands.  Elsewhere, we covet our Civil War battlegrounds, historical slave sites, and the places where Presidents, authors and musicians lived and died.   So why do we slander Native Americans when they object to bulldozers pushing around the remains of their dead to make way for a solar project?

Our history is not always convenient, but there are reasons the CEC and Department of Interior were supposed to conduct thorough surveys of the Genesis site and the locations of other energy projects.  At some point we wrote our laws to ensure that we cherish our cultural and natural heritage.  This idea may seem incongruous to a society with heads bent down to smartphones and tablets tweeting about what a drunk celebrity did on TV the night before.  But whether you like it or not, knowing and respecting our history does make us richer and better as a society.  Those bones found on the site of the Genesis Solar project are a part of our history.  We call this land home, and we have to learn to understand and respect its heritage. Rushing to destroy that history -- and the places we still find sacred -- is a tragedy that we will forever regret.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Creosote at Sunset

The fading light of the setting sun behind a creosote bush, just south of Searchlight, Nevada. This desert would be industrialized with dozens of wind turbines over 400 feet high for Duke Energy's Searchlight Wind Energy Project.


Monday, April 16, 2012

Take Action on the Searchlight Wind Energy Project

The BLM is currently accepting public comments on the draft environmental impact statement for the the Searchlight Wind energy project, which would industrialize nearly 30 square miles of ecologically intact desert habitat in southern Nevada.  The wind turbines will pose a risk to raptors and migratory birds, the construction of new roads will kill or displace dozens of threatened desert tortoises and pose a continuing risk to the species through increased off-road vehicle activity.

Public comments are due no later than 18 April to the BLM.  For guidance and suggested talking points to use to craft your own comments, check out Basin and Range Watch's page here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ask EPA to Hold Reid Gardner Coal to a Higher Standard

As I mentioned in my last post on this, the EPA decided that clean air and health in desert communities and wildlands is less important than the profit margin of the coal industry.  Instead of selecting the best available technology to reduce emissions from the Reid Gardner coal power plant northeast of Las Vegas, the EPA's proposed rule would let it use a less effective means primarily to reduce Reid Gardner's cost of compliance.

The EPA published the proposed rule in the Federal Register (here), which means you have until 14 May to submit your comments to Webb.Thomas@epa.gov.  Here are some points to use to craft your own comments:
  • The EPA should require Reid Gardner coal power plant to adopt the best available technology to reduce emissions, which in this case would be the selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology.
  • The EPA's proposed rule does not properly address the impacts of its decision on the health of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, who live next to the power plant and are subjected to toxic emissions, including nitrogen oxides, mercury, and carbon dioxide. 
  • SCR technology would be three times more effective than EPA's proposed solution at reducing haze.
  • EPA's analysis on the "cost of compliance" for the Reid Gardner coal facility to adopt the most effective technology -- SCR -- should take into account long term health costs and benefits, which argue in favor of more effective technology.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Cactus Cannot Outrun Bulldozers


A cactus in bloom in the Pisgah Valley of the central Mojave Desert.  This cactus and the ecologically important desert habitat here would be destroyed by bulldozers if K Road Power begins construction of the Calico Solar power project.  The solar facility would destroy nearly 7 square miles of desert.  The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and NRDC have filed a legal challenge, suggesting the project should be built on already-disturbed lands.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Another Solar Mosaic Victory

Solar Mosaic has done it again!  The organization successfully raised enough money through "crowd funding" for a rooftop solar installation in Flagstaff, Arizona.  The solar panels will adorn the top of the Murdoch Community Center, saving them over $73,000 and cutting over 347,000 pounds of CO2.  Solar Mosaic has completed funding for other rooftop solar installations in Oakland and the Navajo Nation.
Photo from Solar Mosaic website.  The Murdoch Community Center in Flagstaff will soon have its own solar panels!
Solar Mosaic's model is the perfect reminder that rooftop solar is an accessible option that spares our climate and wildlands from further destruction.  In addition to Solar Mosaic's victory, the City of Los Angeles also approved a feed-in-tarrif (FiT) for up to 150 megawatts of rooftop solar.  Although the FiT is focused on larger rooftop solar installations, the city will hopefully expand the program in the coming years to benefit smaller installations.  Rooftop solar is taking off, and California has already surpassed its 1,000MW rooftop solar goal.  But we have a long way to go if we are going to catch up to countries like Germany and Australia. In just 2011,  Germany installed over 5,000MW of rooftop solar, and over 500,000 Australian homes have solar panels.

BrightSource IPO: Smoke and Mirrors

BrightSource Energy is planning its initial public offering (IPO) in NASDAQ this week.  This company touts itself as a green messiah bringing us energy from the future, yet its business model is simply unsustainable because it requires vast tracts of land and amounts of water in an ecosystem that already shoulders many public burdens.  And it does not help when they are running into conflict with State and Federal officials.

Outdated Way to Harvest Clean Energy
Unlike Solar City or Sungevity, BrightSource did not get the memo that the sun shines on rooftops and cities as much as it does on remote deserts.  Investing in BrightSource is like investing in a company making gramophones.  BrightSource Energy's facility design -- thousands of large mirrors focusing the sun's rays onto central power towers that heat up and generate energy -- is an archaic and destructive way of harvesting solar energy that requires years of planning, legal challenges, and new transmission lines.  Although the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts may look like a wasteland to some big solar companies, the desert's open spaces and water are already sought after by a myriad of other users, including off-highway vehicle riding, agriculture, mining, grazing, hiking, camping, rock climbing, and rock hounding.  This Tragedy of the Commons is partly to blame for the Federal listing of the desert tortoise -- California's state reptile -- as a threatened species, and many other desert plant and animals having special conservation status.

In this photo by Basin and Range Watch, tractors have cleared much of the vegetation around just one of three towers for the Ivanpah Solar facility.
Greenwash Wearing Away
BrightSource Energy started out with green credentials by default as a solar energy company, but the greenwash on its surface began to quickly wear away with its first project.  The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the northeast Mojave Desert has already displaced or killed over 130 desert tortoises, creating much publicized delays in construction.  Although the company tells the public it's mirrors allow native vegetation to grow underneath, that is like a housing developer saying that ants and mice will return to areas where it builds new homes.  The shrubs and cactus are mowed down (see video here) and most are unlikely to grow back, habitat is fenced off, most wildlife is kicked out of the area or killed, and the ground is so disturbed by construction that invasive plant species are likely to impact the surrounding desert.
This Google Earth image shows the scars carved in the desert by bulldozers for BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project.  the image only shows about one-third of the planned destruction.
Project Pipeline On Bumpy Road
So BrightSource Energy's first project turned out to be a bad idea.  Maybe their next choice of location won't be so problematic?  Don't hold your breath.  The company's proposed Rio Mesa Solar project would be built near a wildlife refuge and along the "Pacific Flyway," a major bird migration path. Federal and State officials are concerned that migratory birds could collide with the thousands of mirrors, or incinerate in the superheated air near the tower.  BrightSource's proposed Hidden Hills project would deplete groundwater near the Amargosa River, home to many special status bird and plants and animals, and cost Inyo County millions of dollars to improve public services in a remote stretch of desert east of Death Valley National Park.

BrightSource is developing another project in the Siberia region of the central Mojave Desert, which could impact lands donated to the Federal government for conservation purposes, and would be built along a stretch of historic Route 66 treasured for its scenic desert vistas.  In Nevada, the company wants to build massive facilities in the Sandy Valley and near the Valley of Fire, just outside of Las Vegas, but California's utilities have a long backlog of power purchase requests for clean energy, and the Governor of California is reluctant to import clean energy that can be generated in the state.

BrightSource Energy is sure to pump up its green image to attract green investors, but if you truly want to make an impact, find solar companies with a more sincere green ethic. Rooftop solar installers like Solar City, or companies building facilities on already-disturbed lands.  If you want to make a difference in communities -- providing clean energy, local jobs, and sparing our wildlands from destruction -- check out Solar Mosaic.

Friday, April 6, 2012

EPA Gives Coal Plant a Pass

Update:  You can view the proposed rule here, and send comments by 14 May to
Webb.Thomas@epa.gov. You should indicate your support for the more effective "selective catalytic reduction" technology, which would help keep poisons out of the nearby community of Moapa and improve visibility in our wildlands.
The Reid Gardner coal power plant casts a shadow over the Moapa Band of Paiutes, along the Muddy River in the eastern Mojave Desert.  On an annual basis, the coal plant spews three million tons of CO2,  nearly four thousand pounds of nitrogen oxides and, 71 pounds of mercury (a miniscule fraction of which is considered deadly).  Reid Gardner is a dangerous neighbor to this small community northeast of Las Vegas.  The tribe is fighting vigorously to put an end to this toxic industry, but the EPA recently proposed a rule that would permit the plant to continue operating with only marginal reductions in pollutants.  According to the EPA ruling, the costs of the most effective emission controls would not be "justified," passing up an opportunity to use the best available technology to protect our community and environment.

The EPA's proposed rule is primarily focused on controlling the "haze," or visual impacts, of the coal plant's toxic cocktail, and so the EPA determined that weaker and less effective emission controls -- despite being three times less effective at reducing haze than the best available technology -- would be enough to be in compliance with EPA regulations.  According to the EPA proposal, the "cost of compliance" was the primary basis for the decision.  The EPA's preferred technology would reduce nitrogen oxides (NOx) at a rate of approximately $1,100 per ton, whereas a more effective technology was assessed at $3,600 per ton.  No matter how much each ton of NOx costs to remove, it is still equally harmful to our health.  Our health is apparently worth no more than $1,100 per ton of visual and toxic blight.

The Reid Gardner Coal Plant in Nevada.
Our Environmental Protection Agency should be protecting our communities and our natural resources, and not allowing one of the oldest coal power plants to poison a Native American community and pollute our air

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wind Energy

Wind energy destroys land, kills birds and bats, and requires immense amounts of steel and concrete, both of which are intense polluters.  And because wind energy is so intermittent -- an unreliable source of power -- utility companies have to contract with natural gas "peaker" plants to generate energy during the times when the wind is not blowing. This means that wind energy is not an efficient means of cutting carbon emissions.  There is no free lunch when it comes to energy, but we do not have to keep ordering from the same menu.  Invest in rooftop solar and energy efficiency, and we can sharply reduce our demand for destructive energy sources like coal, and natural gas, and wind.

A giant bulldozer cuts into eastern Oregon land to make way for a single wind turbine.  Photo from DOE.

Construction crews cut into Joshua Tree woodland habitat in the western Mojave Desert for the Alta Wind Energy Center. Photo by Friends of Mojave.
A heap of destroyed Joshua Trees left by construction crews clearing desert habitat for the Alta Wind Energy Center. Photo by Friends of Mojave.
Wind energy is not the answer. It is another corporate juggernaut with an insatiable appetite for our natural resources. Wake up, environmental community. Energy efficiency, and rooftop solar is where are efforts should be focused if we are going to defeat coal without regrets.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Peter Douglas

Mr. Peter Douglas, a long-time advocate for the environment and former Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission, passed away after a fight with cancer.  I wanted to share again something he wrote in 2009 as industrial-scale solar development threatened the Carrizo Plain and other beautiful landscapes.  He advocated for a focus on distributed generation, and siting larger facilities to avoid ecological destruction. From Mr. Douglas' letter to the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors:

I sense in pockets of our political, economic and civic world of leaders, a need to be seen as progressive facilitators and not as obstructionists in the way of new centralized industrial development of renewable energy. This is an alarming and, in the long view, a self-destructive, tragic trend because it is unnecessary and erosive of community wellbeing. Cities and Counties are entirely capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating clean, renewable, affordable energy for their regions with existing technologies without destroying vast swaths of critical habitat and celebrated public lands. All that is needed is political will, courage and progressive vision.

In our headlong rush for renewables, I respectfully urge you and all those in positions of influence to hit pause, step back, take stock of our human and environmental condition, and envision what we will have saved for the seventh generation of our kin. It would be a travesty were we to destroy rare, irreplaceable public places in nature and deprive unborn generations the blessings of what should rightfully be their natural heritage. I have no doubt, that if the proposed industrial solar projects are built on the Carrizo Plain the essence of this National Monument will be destroyed. I am not saying don’t build industrial scale solar complimented by distributed small scale energy production and distribution (e.g., solar on rooftops, built and degraded lands coupled with robust fiscal incentives). I am saying there are alternative locations that won’t destroy the Monument and that avoid major ecological damage. We must tell applicants to find better locations. Clearly, we can both save precious places and dramatically reduce green house gases: This is not an “either or” situation.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

First Solar Meddling in Riverside County Election?

First Solar is putting its money behind a candidate running for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors who has a long record of turning a blind eye to toxic chemicals in our community and environment, according to campaign finance records.  First Solar almost certainly is trying to position itself to influence Riverside County policies after the current Board of Supervisors instituted a per acre fee on industrial scale solar facilities in the desert region.  The Board in November approved the fee for solar projects larger than 20 megawatts because such large facilities in remote areas incur substantial burden on county services and also are a cause of visual blight with new transmission lines.  The fees can be offset by various incentives if, for example, the solar developers do not require new transmission lines or if they hire local workers.

The costs of providing county services to industrial solar projects can be substantial.  Inyo County calculated that BrightSource Energy's proposed Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System would impose approximately $11,000,000 of extra burden on county taxpayers during construction, and $1,700,000 in annual costs during operation, according to documents submitted to the California Energy Commission (CEC).

First Solar representatives from Oakland apparently traveled down to Riverside for the board meeting in November to voice opposition to the project fees, according to county records.  Before Riverside County voted to approve the fee in November,  First Solar's lawyers (San Francisco-based firm Morrison/Foerster), sent a letter threatening the County that such fees were against the law, and that the County would be held accountable for any delays in its 6 square mile Desert Sunlight project. The Desert Sunlight facility will be built on ecologically intact desert habitat just outside Joshua Tree National Park, and will require a transmission line interconnection through the town of Desert Center.

First Solar Puts Money Behind a Walking Environmental Disaster
Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries
In an attempt to bully its way into Riverside politics, First Solar in November gave $1,000 dollars to Kevin Jeffries, a candidate for Riverside County District 1 Supervisor (Lake Elsinore area).  Jeffries is running against incumbent Riverside County Chairman Bob Buster (District 1), who supported the fee on industrial-scale solar projects as "the responsible thing to do," according to the Desert Independent.  Kevin Jeffries currently serves in the California Assembly, and in 2011 and 2010 he voted against bills (AB 1319, SB 797) that would prohibit bisphenol-A (BPA) in plastic baby bottles and sippy cups.   In 2009 he voted against a California bill (AB 920) that allowed utility companies to pay rooftop solar owners for surplus electricity given to the grid.  So we're supposed to bend over backwards for industrial solar, and say no to compensating homeowners and keeping carcinogens away from babies?  Mr. Jeffries voted against a long list of other bills that would ensure clean air and water in a rather extensive voting record that shows more respect for corporations than people.  Jeffries' voting record was given a score of 11% by the California League of Conservation Voters.

First Solar Contributions

Other County Recipient Not Influenced by First Solar Cash?
Before Riverside County voted on the industrial solar fee, First Solar also provided $1,000 to Jeff Stone, who currently serves as Riverside County Supervisor for District 3.  Mr. Stone, however, approved of the industrial solar fee at the November vote.  Regarding the fee on industrial solar, Mr Stone told the press that "[o]ur citizens should be compensated for the ambiance of the desert being forever scarred," said Supervisor Jeff Stone. "The demand for this electricity is being created by the coastal communities. We're sacrificing the desert for the benefit of the coast."  Mr. Stone is also a supporter of more sensible and efficient local clean energy, and has argued in favor of Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), which would allow homeowners to finance energy efficiency improvements and install solar panels on rooftop through their own property taxes.

In this aerial photo taken by Chris Clarke, you can see the desert bulldozed by First Solar for just a fraction of its 6 square mile Desert Sunlight solar project in Riverside County. Much more of the desert habitat has probably been bulldozed by now.
First Solar Lurking in Sacramento
Of further concern for California residents, First Solar appears to be on a campaign to win influence over policymakers in the California state legislature.  Campaign finance records show that the company has donated to California legislators that are assigned to committees responsible for regulating the utility industry and adjusting environmental review for industrial-scale energy projects.  The company gave $3,900 to John Perez, who is the speaker of the California Assembly and has substantial control over the legislative agenda.  Nancy Skinner, who is a member of the California Assembly's Utilities and Commerce Committee, as well as Natural Resources Committee, received $3,500.  Michael Rubio, a California State Senate member, received $2,000 and has introduced legislation (SB 16) that would rush the environmental review process for industrial scale renewable energy projects (a recipe for disaster).

The Large Scale Solar Association Political Action Committee (PAC), of which First Solar is a member, has also been busy lobbying state lawmakers.  The PAC has given money to many of the same legislators already reached by First Solar, including Skinner and Rubio.   The PAC also donated to a fundraising committee established by Assembly Member Felipe Fuentes.  In September Fuentes received $1,000 from the PAC, and in February he introduced emergency legislation that helped clear a bureaucratic roadblock for K Road Power's Calico Solar power project.  The Calico Solar power project is opposed by many conservation groups because it would destroy nearly 7 square miles of ecologically important desert habitat.

I guess solar energy corporations are people.  I just wish I had won the lottery so my elected officials would listen to me, too.