Saturday, July 28, 2012

Understanding the Scale of Destruction

The Ivanpah Solar project being built in the northeastern Mojave Desert will destroy nearly 5.6 square miles of desert habitat when it is completed, an swath of previously pristine desert that is difficult to fathom.  Thousands of creosote bushes, Mojave yucca, cholla cactus, and rare wildflowers. Cactus wrens, thrashers, and burrowing owls.  Kit foxes, and jackrabbits. Rattlesnakes and desert iguanas. And a thriving population of desert tortoises.  All of this is lost in our quest to generate 392 megawatts of solar energy -- electrons that could have been produced more efficiently and responsibly with rooftop solar.

[click on image to expand]  The Ivanpah Solar facility creeps across once pristine desert in the northeastern Mojave Desert. Built in three phases, this photo was taken when desert for only two of the phases had been cleared and bulldozed.

[click on image to expand] A fraction of phase 2 is visible in this photo, identifiable by the missing vegetation. Further in the background, access roads were being carved before vegetation is mowed for phase 3.  A large tractor is difficult to spot in the vast expanse of desert to be destroyed.

[click on image to expand] This photo shows only part of phase 1, with the "power tower" rising in the middle, and thousands of solar mirrors -- each the size of a garage door -- beginning to blanket the naked desert floor.

The Ivanpah Solar project is just the beginning.  Several other large solar projects are destroying desert ecosystems, and the Department of Interior expects to approve the equivalent of 58 more Ivanpah Solar projects, according to its "reasonably foreseeable development scenario," for a total of over 334 square miles of destruction of ecologically intact desert wildlands.   Wind energy projects could destroy and fragment even more wildlands in America's southwestern deserts.  Yet rooftops and parking lots across our cities make much better places to generate clean energy.

Solar panels cover a parking lot in southern California.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Desert Solar Policy to Create Key Exclusion Areas -- With a Catch

As part of the Department of Interior's proposed Solar Energy Development Program, some lands outside of the solar energy zones and variance areas will be identified as "exclusion areas" where solar applications will no longer be accepted.  These exclusion areas include some key conservation battlegrounds, including the Ivanpah Valley, lands within the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, and lands outside of the proposed Monument that were donated or acquired for conservation purposes.  From section ES. of the proposed policy:
Under the program alternative, the BLM proposes to exclude specific categories of land from utility-scale solar energy development. Right-of way exclusion areas are defined as areas that are not available for location of ROWs under any conditions... The identification of exclusion areas allows the BLM to support the highest and best use of public lands by avoiding potential resource conflicts and reserving for other uses public land that are not well suited for utility-scale solar energy development.
This is good news and a marginal victory for conservationists, but there is fine print -- any solar energy projects proposed for these lands before October 2011 will still be processed under the normal policy, and precedent has shown that they will likely be approved.  There are still two pending solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley -- First Solar's Stateline and Silver State South projects -- and several solar and wind projects pending on lands within the boundaries of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.  The exception for pending applications will ensure continued destruction of ecologically and culturally important lands.

Another class of land designation will be specific desert tortoise habitat connectivity areas, but these areas will apparently still be open to receive energy applications.  According to the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement:
Developers that propose utility-scale solar energy projects in variance areas that overlap priority desert tortoise connectivity habitat identified on USFWS maps will be required to meet wit the BLM and USFWS early in the process as part of the previously mentioned preliminary meetings to receive instructions on the appropriate desert tortoise survey protocols and the criteria the BLM and USFWS will use to evaluate results of those surveys.
As noted in my previous post, the protections for desert tortoise habitat have been significantly weakened from the earlier draft of the proposed solar energy policy, which would have barred developement that would leave this protected species with a corridor less than 3 miles, or on land that hosted more than two tortoises per square mile.  The policy now leaves the conservation standard unclear, and open to definition by political appointees and corporate interests, which is essentially the status quo we faced before this policy was drafted.  Here are some of the passages in the final policy that leave much more to be interpreted (section
The project can be sited and constructed to allow for adequate connectivity corridors as determined by the BLM and USFWS that ensure that the project does not isolate or fragment tortoise habitat and populations;
The project will result in minimal translocation of adult and sub-adult tortoise to acceptable locations (>160 mm Midline Carapace Length) as determined by the BLM and USFWS

A closer look at the design features for projects within the proposed Solar Energy Zones suggest wildlife protections there are even less defined.   Many of the recommendations are worded very passively, urging companies "monitor" or "consider" impacts on wildlife.  These design features are generally not a departure from current standards employed during the siting and construction of solar energy facilities on desert habitat, which have  already resulted in dust control issues, spreading of diseases to wildlife, and increased threats to endangered species. 

Of course, as with any policy, so much rests on how it is interpreted and enforced at the local level and in Washington.  If I were reading this Solar Energy Development policy without the context provided by the past few years of solar energy siting, review, and approval, perhaps the policy would seem more constructive -- a step in the right direction.  But with the built in ambiguity and exceptions for pending project applications -- which can be sold from one company to another -- I only see more years of worry and destruction of our desert wildlands. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Clark Mountain

Clark Mountain is an impressive mass towering over the desert, and visible from many parts of the Mojave National Preserve. This photo was taken from the New York Mountains, with Clark Mountain in the distance, across the Ivanpah Valley.

Time for a Change

How much has changed since Michael Jackson's Earth Song video was released in the mid-1990s? 

The most sustainable change starts from the grassroots. Not from slogans, mass e-mails, glossy PR campaigns, or Wall Street.

Respect the Soil Crust

Of all nature's wonders that capture our attention, it's easy to take our soil for granted. But a new study reaffirms the importants of cryptobiotic soil crusts.  As the study explains, "organisms fuse with soil particles, stabilizing desert crusts and forming fragile peaks in the soil that influence a variety of processes to allocate important resources."

KCET published a great article on these crusts and explaining the important functions they play in desert ecosystems.  These layers take many years to form, and are very fragile.  As we disturb and destroy desert soils, we are turning back the clock on an ecological fabric that could take decades to repair itself.
The dark striations on the soil in the center area of the photo is a patch of cryptobiotic crust in the Ivanpah Valley, where First Solar plans to build its Silver State South solar power project.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Desert Solar Policy Codifies Status Quo

The Department of Interior today released the final version of a policy that will smooth the way for industrial-scale solar energy development on public lands throughout America's southwestern deserts.   Even though Interior weakened environmental protections seen in earlier drafts, and crafted the policy to meet industry demands--essentially putting on paper what is already Interior's de facto policy of allowing solar companies to bulldoze wherever they please--several national environmental groups still applauded the announcement, including the Sierra Club, NRDC, the Wilderness Society, and the national Audubon Society.  Their statements of support for the policy probably represent efforts to put positive spin on what is ultimately an environmental catastrophe for the renewable energy industry and our public lands.

Corporate Giveaway of Public Lands
The final policy--which is expected to be signed by Secretary Salazar later this year--designates nearly 30,000 square miles of desert habitat as suitable for industrial-scale solar energy development. About 445 square miles will be designated as "solar energy zones," where companies will be encouraged (but not required) to build their facilities.  Some national environmental groups initially supported a policy that would only allow energy companies to build in the proposed solar zones, minimizing potential with conservation efforts outside of the zones. It became apparent last year that Interior was more interested in giving public lands away to industry under an alternative known as the Solar Energy Development Program, so environmental groups began to pretend that this was also their preferred alternative.

To highlight the backtracking in these environmental groups' own position,  several national environmental groups urged Interior to adopt a "zone-based" approach to solar development  in a May 2011 press release, and had this to say about the Solar Energy Development Program:
"the agency's Preferred Alternative, goes much farther by opening up an additional 21 million acres outside those zones that have yet to be studied for potential resource conflicts.  Conservation groups disagreed with the choice of the Preferred Alternative, and argued neither alternative offered the certainty that the groups, solar developers, and the agency itself needs to move forward on a smart path."
Fast forward to today, and now the national environmental groups are singing praises for the same misguided policy in a press release.  Jim Lyons of Defenders of Wildlife appeared to be preparing a new job at the Chamber of Commerce in this statement from today's press release:
“Balancing our nation’s energy production by increasing solar, wind and geothermal sources will strengthen our economy, improve energy security and reduce greenhouse gases. This solar energy plan is an important step in that direction.”
F@*k the Zones: Industry Can Bulldoze Wherever They Want
The only places where the energy industry cannot build their projects will be lands that are already protected, such as National Parks and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern.  Other than the creation of weak incentives for zone-based development, this policy is essentially no different than the last few years of solar energy siting in our deserts, where companies have ignored environmental concerns and built their projects on some of the most ecologically valuable desert habitat.  Nevertheless, the Wilderness Society's Chase Huntley in typical Washington Beltway double-speak claimed "this is the quickest route to meeting the renewables targets set by Congress consistent with protecting our dwindling undeveloped wildlands.”

Protect Endangered Species (Optional)
The one aspect of the solar policy that some groups might claim to be a victory for wildlife is actually a glossy sheen added at the last minute that will only be as good as the political will of environmental stewards in the BLM and US Fish and Wildlife Service. A proposal to exclude solar energy development from critical desert tortoise connectivity areas was added late last year, but the proposal appears to have  been significantly weakened by industry lobbying, and now only amounts to words of discouragement from the US Fish and Wildlife Service that developers can ignore.  

Interior initially designated desert tortoise connectivity areas that are assessed to be essential to the recovery and survivability of this Federally listed species, where solar energy development would be strictly controlled or excluded.  The draft exclusion policy would have kept projects off of desert habitat where the desert tortoise population exceeded 2 per square mile in the connectivity area.  Another land designation known as "variance" areas would have required companies to maintain a wildlife corridor at least 3 miles in width and prohibited projects that would require the translocation of more than 35 adult tortoises.   These requirements have been eliminated from the final policy, and replaced with vague references to protecting wildlife corridors that will ultimately give companies the discretion to override scientific concerns, unless wildlife officials are willing to say no to the companies.  Because of political pressure from Washington, however, local land management and wildlife officials have been under pressure to fast-track and approve most projects.

The tortoise connectivity corridors are still referenced in the policy, but only to show companies where they are discouraged from building.  Perhaps not surprisingly, a vast swath of tortoise connectivity designation was abandoned in a region of the Mojave Desert along the California-Nevada border where BrightSource Energy is proposing to build two massive solar projects -- Hidden Hills and Sandy Valley solar projects.  The only real requirement that remains in the wildlife protection aspect of the policy is that developers have to meet with Department of Interior, and possibly listen to words of discouragement before they continue with their application.

The Sierra Club's Barbara Boyle had this to say about the plan's protection of wildlife:
“This Administration’s design for solar development on public lands is based on sound principles, particularly by focusing projects in locations with the lowest impacts on wildlife habitat, lands and water.”
It's unfortunate when the words of our supposed environmental guardians become hollow and pointless.  These groups have already shown a willingness to abandon the principles of sustainability and environmental protections for yet another darling industry that will save us from climate change. It was not long ago that the Sierra Club' Michael Brune said that natural gas will “play a necessary role in helping us reach the clean energy future our children deserve.”  Yes, the same industry the Sierra Club now opposes, recognizing that it too has no regard for our wild places.

I can only hope that these environmental groups will eventually find a moral compass and gather the fortitude to recognize that applauding industrial destruction of wildlands is a far cry from the vision of the environmental movement's early leaders.  Climate change poses an immediate threat to our wildlands. But just as we do not wish to sacrifice our civil liberties to every national security threat, neither should we rush to abandon our conservation ethic in our battle against the fossil fuels industry. 

It may be "heavy lifting" for a country that cannot resist the "luxury" of ignorance when it comes to our impact on natural resources, but it's time to wake up to the reality that our wildlands are disappearing -- damaged by climate change and finished off by a myriad of other human demands.  It's time to advocate for clean energy that is actually consistent with our principles and sustainability:  distributed generation, such as rooftop solar, facilities on already-disturbed lands, and energy efficiency programs.

Monday, July 23, 2012

BrightSource Energy Falling Short on Mitigation Measures

Biologists tried to warn BrightSource Energy not to build a massive solar project in the Ivanpah Valley -- an area with a particularly high number of the normally hard-to-find desert tortoise.  The company did not listen, and the company's costly plans to "mitigate" its environmental damage may not do much to improve the recovery of this threatened species.  Now that it has mowed and bulldozed nearly 5.6 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat, the company is now responsible for nearly 400 orphaned or displaced tortoises that have survived the bulldozer blades or were born to mothers that were put in cages during construction. Several tortoises died last year after being attacked by ants in their holding pens, or after they were left wandering the construction area now devoid of any life-saving shade and burrows.  In May, the company reported to the California Energy Commission (CEC) that 6 tortoises have been lost -- three of the tortoises were juveniles being held by BrightSource in cages on the project site, and it is not clear how they disappeared from the facility.

Construction of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project in the northeastern Mojave Desert. Less than 2/3 of the destruction is visible in this photo, taken in April, with ground disturbance and clearing still in progress.
To offset the loss of so much desert tortoise habitat needed to build the project, BrightSource Energy was expected to buy and preserve desert tortoise habitat "as close to the project site as possible," according to conditions set forth in the CEC's final approval for the project, with the aim of specifically aiding the tortoise population in the northeastern Mojave Desert.  The Ivanpah Solar project and two additional proposed solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley here in the northeastern Mojave are expected to take an enormous toll on the local tortoise population and impede on long-term tortoise health and recovery prospects by blocking a wildlife corridor.   Now it appears that BrightSource energy will not even preserve habitat in the northeastern Mojave, opting instead buy desert habitat for preservation in the western Mojave nearly 140 miles away from the solar project site, according to the Press-Enterprise 

To be certain, the western Mojave population of the desert tortoise also faces threats from expanding suburbs, illegal off-road activity, and wind and solar energy facilities, so habitat preservation in the western Mojave may be better than nothing.  But the purpose of the BrightSource Energy mitigation plan was intended to offset the local impacts of the project, as outlined by the CEC, so the deviation from the original plan is worrisome to conservationists that are watching many other large solar and wind projects move forward in what has been a rubber-stamp environmental review process, threatening to further fragment and destroy large swaths of tortoise habitat without much concern for maintaining the species' long-term recovery and survival.

A desert tortoise in its burrow in the Ivanpah Valley. This tortoise may have survived BrightSource Energy's destruction, but its burrow is now in the path of First Solar's proposed Stateline Solar power project.
Another bad sign for tortoises being translocated from the project site to nearby desert habitat is the growing raven population.  The raven is a key predator of the tortoise that is being subsidized by garbage and water left behind by BrightSource Energy's construction workers. At least 8 ravens have been spotted using the construction site on a daily basis, according to the company's monthly compliance report from May, eating food waste from uncovered dumpsters and drinking from pools of water left behind by construction activity.  The CEC imposed mitigation measures to prevent the influx of ravens to this part of the Ivanpah Valley, but it appears these measures are not working.  BrightSource Energy reported to the CEC that ten raven nests have been spotted in nearby desert habitat where the company is releasing some of the tortoises it captured during construction.

The shortcomings in BrightSource Energy's mitigation plans call into doubt the CEC's ability to offset the immense environmental damage caused by solar facilities built on pristine desert wildlands, even as the CEC is considering approval for two more massive BrightSource Energy projects in the desert. As BrightSource continues to plot the death of our desert ecosystems, Australia is likely to add 600 megawatts of rooftop solar this year, on top of 1,700 megawatts already installed, several times more energy than will be produced in Ivanpah, with none of the ecological destruction.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

BLM Voices Concerns Over BrightSource Water Use

BLM sent a letter to the California Energy Commission (CEC) this month recommending stronger measures to mitigate or monitor BrightSource Energy's proposed Hidden Hills Solar project.  If approved, the project would be built in the Pahrump Valley next to th California-Nevada border, and draw an estimated 227.1 million gallons of water during a 29-month construction period, and 45.6 million gallons each year during operation.  Groundwater is already severely overdrawn in the Pahrump Valley, causing subsidence in the land that may ultimately reduce. the amount of water that can be stored.

BLM provided the following photo of large cracks in the land near the proposed Hidden Hills solar site-- an indication of subsidence resulting from overdrawn groundwater.
Photo from BLM submission to the CEC.

In its submission to the CEC, BLM noted that simply requiring BrightSource to replace extracted water at some point over the expected 30 year life of the project may not be sufficient given the current severity of groundwater shortages in the Pahrump Valley.  The BLM recommends requiring BrightSource Energy replace water early in the life of the project.   The BLM also recommended additional groundwater monitoring wells in the vicinity of the project to more accurately assess the impacts of the projects on groundwater supply.

Of significance, the BLM expressed its concern that the Hidden Hills Solar project's water demand would also negatively impact the Amargosa Wild and Scenic River, in addition to the Stump Springs Area of Critical Environmental Concern.  The BLM requested more detailed criteria for determining the proposed solar project's negative impacts on desert vegetation dependent on natural springs.  The current proposed CEC conditions of certification state that a significant impact would consist of a "decline in vegetation health of any groundwater-dependent species of 20 percent or more as compared to baseline values and values from offsite reference plots," but the criteria do not describe what is meant by a 20 percent decline.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

People Are Green, Not Companies

Many national environmmental groups think that the solution is to find alliances with multi-million dollar companies on Wall Street to advance a sustainable agenda. But when they do that, they have to make compromises on how they define "sustainable" and "green".  The world can only be sustainable if the 99% acts sustainably.  Solar panels on rooftops, not on desert wildlands.  Flipping off the light switch for the room you are not using. Recycling your plastics.  Taking a bike, and not a car.  Sharing the planet with a growing population will not be easy, and saving the wildlands we love will be even more challenging.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Speak Up: USFWS to Extend Eagle Kill Permits

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is accepting public comments until midnight 12 July on a proposal to extend eagle "take" permits -- permission to kill or harass protected bald and golden eagles -- from 5 years to 30 years.  The move is intended to make it easier for the wind energy industry, which is building massive wind facilities that are already killing the protected birds.

For some good background, Chris Clarke wrote a great piece on the proposed rule on KCET.  The bottom line, though, is that wildlife officials will end up giving permission to wind companies to kill eagles over a 30-year period, and eliminate flexibility to save the birds if their numbers dwindle during those 30 years.  How will the USFWS save a threatened bald or golden eagle population if they cannot do anything to stop one of the birds' biggest threats -- spinning wind turbines -- because they issued too many permits some 30 years earlier?

Locking wildlife management into 30-year contracts is not an effective way to preserve these majestic species when we do not know what their status will be decades from now.

Please submit your comments opposing the proposed rule on the website >> here <<.  

You can read the proposed rule >> here <<

You can also sign a petition on the American Bird Conservancy site >> here <<

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sierra Club Endorses Wyoming Wind Farm That Will Slaughter Golden Eagles

The Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign and the group's Deputy Conservation Director applauded Department of Interior's plans to authorize a 355 square mile industrial wind facility in Wyoming that is expected to kill as many as 5,400 birds and 6,300 bats each year.  The Club's "Blowing in the Right Direction" article in Grist claims the energy could be shipped nearly 700 miles to Nevada in order to replace the dirty Reid Gardner coal plant, even though the Sierra Club released a study in June saying that Reid Gardner could be shut down by implementing local energy efficiency measures that actually save ratepayers money. 

From the environmental impact statement.  Alternative 1R is the proposal that Interior plans to approve, despite the heavy toll on wildlife.
Extensive Impacts
The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Project -- a single project divided into two units that each span over 100,000 acres of mostly ecologically intact Wyoming wildlands -- would be built by an affiliate of the multi-billion dollar Anschutz Corporation.  The company operates oil fields, mines, and sports stadiums.  Unlike past Sierra Club communications on wind energy, the Sierra Club article gives a nod to environmental impacts, saying "we look forward to reviewing the final environmental impact statement for these two large wind projects in Wyoming, and working with BLM to ensure that there are adequate conservation measures for two struggling bird species, the Golden Eagle and the Greater Sage Grouse."

I wish the Sierra Club reviewed the environmental impact statement before endorsing the project.  According to Interior's estimates, the 1,000 giant wind turbines are expected to kill up to 64 golden eagles and 150-210 other raptor species each year.  Beyond raptors, the wind turbines are expected to kill up to 5,400 birds of various other species and 6,300 bats each year, according to the final environmental impact statement.  The bat mortality probably would mostly affect hoary and silver-haired bats.  Because bats have a slow reproductive rate, the loss of so many bats would be considered significant, according to the environmental impact statement.

Over 480 miles of wide new roads will be carved into the countryside to provide access to the turbines and facilitate the movement of construction equipment.
A map of the proposed Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind energy project in Wyoming. The project would industrialize an area 10 times the size of Manhattan, and nearly 1.5 times the size of San Francisco.
No Transparency
The true impacts of wind energy could be even greater, but most wind companies do not cooperate with conservation groups or biologists to obtain accurate numbers of bird and bat mortality.  The Anschutz Corporation reportedly will consider measures to reduce bird and bat mortality at the Wyoming wind project, but it is unlikely that these measures will be mandatory and at the end of the day the company will put its contractual obligations with utility companies above wildlife concerns.  The American Bird Conservancy highlighted several examples of wind energy companies ignoring wildlife concerns in its original petition to make wildlife guidelines mandatory for wind energy companies.

The Department of Interior has also failed to share information that would help determine the extent of wind energy's impact on birds and bats. The American Bird Conservancy filed a legal challenge in June against the Department of Interior because the agency has suppressed information about wildlife impacts and its own correspondence with the wind industry, in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.

Super Size Me
Photo by Dept. of Interior.
The Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project will also involve 126 miles of new collector power lines in the project area, but that is just the start of the transmission line disaster.  The company is likely to sell its power to utility companies far from Wyoming in America's southwest.  In order to do so, the project would connect to the TransWest Express Transmission project.  The massive transmission project will construct hundreds of steel lattice towers across 700 miles of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada, and probably lose about 7% of the energy it is carrying to typical "line loss".  The line would be the second largest direct current line in the country and the company estimates the line will costs about $3 billion, although a much shorter transmission line in California cost ratepayers $2.1 billion.

Both the wind project and new transmission lines will require tons of steel, concrete, and copper -- materials that require more destructive mining and processing that pollute our communities and destroy our lands. Cement plants in the western Mojave Desert have emitted as much as 1,200 pounds of mercury and 4.6 million metric tons of CO2 on an annual basis.

...With a Side of Fossil Fuels
It is likely that any utility company purchasing wind energy from the project will also construct a new natural gas peaker plant to compensate for the intermittent nature of wind energy.   The natural gas peaker plants are wasteful because they are usually kept in stand-by mode and need to heat up quickly if there is a significant change in the wind energy contribution to the grid.  In San Diego, hundreds of people turned out to oppose the proposed Quail Brush natural gas plant that the utility company claims is necessary to support its purchase of wind energy, including from the destructive Ocotillo Express wind energy project.

Public Lands - Our Energy Addiction's Credit Card
Public lands have become a convenient credit card for environmental organizations eager to defeat fossil fuels by supporting renewable energy projects instead, and the White House has played off of this blind support by approving both renewable energy projects and fossil fuel projects.  The Obama administration this year alone has approved exploratory drilling for oil in the Arctic, the southern leg of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, thousands of acres of new natural gas fields, and the mining of millions of tons of coal.

Instead of pushing local clean energy or energy efficiency, the response from some corners is to demand more destruction. The pro-industry Center for American Progress -- which collaborates with many environmental groups -- published a report in June demanding the administration ramp up utility-scale renewable facilities on public lands (which the White House is already trying to do, by the way).  According to the report:  "In order to use publicly owned places as a test case for a balanced energy policy, we recommend that the president establish a clean resources standard of 35 percent by 2035 for public lands."  The report does not acknowledge how much land would be destroyed to meet this objective, but a Department of Energy study found that meeting just 20% of our energy needs with wind turbines would industrialize 20,000 square miles of public lands, and an additional 4,000 square miles of our waters for offshore wind.

Why should the White House care about protecting nature if nature's guardians are also willing to sacrifice wildlands?  Why should Interior care about polar bears in the Arctic or dolphins in the Gulf, if the Sierra Club is sacrificing golden eagles in Wyoming?  We're locked in a battle of compromises where public lands lose, and corporations win.

Slowly but Surely
The Sierra Club's endorsement of the 355 square mile wind project and implicit approval of the TransWest Express transmission line may make it one of the most well-funded and organized proponents of industrializing public lands second to the fossil fuels industry.   The group has asked for an extension of the wind energy production tax credit (PTC) as part of its pro-industry "Wind Works" campaign, potentially unleashing hundreds of square miles of additional wind projects on public lands, and has publicly or tacitly supported several large solar projects in California and Nevada that have destroyed ecologically intact desert and grassland.  The Sierra Club knows that the costs are high, but its measures to contain the damage of these projects have resulted in only two lawsuits -- one against the North Sky River wind project that is likely to kill California Condors, and another against the Calico Solar power project, which would destroy several square miles of pristine desert tortoise habitat. With just tepid willingness among most conservation groups to speak up,  most "green" energy companies are deaf to conservationist concerns and eager to make a profit off of the destruction of wildlands.

Photo from San Ramon Valley School District
Generating clean energy locally and implementing more energy efficiency measures should be our starting point before we destroy the lands we cherish.  Some in the Sierra Club seem to recognize this -- the group started the "My Generation" rooftop solar campaign in California, and its own study suggested that the Reid Gardner coal plant could be replaced by cutting energy waste in Nevada.  The Sierra Club of California is pushing for a robust feed-in-tariff that would spur local clean energy installations, sparing our wildlands from climate change and industrialization.  But the Sierra Club's "Blowing in the Right Direction" article suggests it remains addicted to the industrial solution, and has not seriously considered the costs.  Climate change is already strangling our planet as this past week's record-setting temperatures attest to, but destroying public lands should not be our first step.

A list of wildlife considered present on the wildlands to be destroyed and industrialized for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project:

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Clean Coalition and Sierra Club of California Demand More Robust Feed-in-Tariff

The Clean Coalition and Sierra Club of California filed a petition demanding that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) reconsider and strengthen its planned implementation of a feed-in-tariff (FiT). Solar Done Right applauds this petition and encourages the CPUC to implement a more robust FiT. Local clean energy advocates believe that the CPUC’s late May decision on how to implement California SB 32—a law passed in 2009 requiring CPUC and utilities to expand FiT programs in the state—failed to address the law’s requirements and does not fairly compensate ratepayers for the value of distributed generation.

Specifically, the petition notes that the FiT formula in the CPUC decision does not recognize one of the greatest benefits of rooftop solar installations to other utility ratepayers—the avoidance of new transmission and distribution costs, which are required when the utility companies invest in expensive and remote power plants far from the point of use.

The petition calls out CPUC and the utilities for failing to implement the right policies to encourage local clean energy, pointing to Germany as an example of how robust feed-in-tariffs have encouraged 15 times more solar installations than California in just one year, even though California gets far more sunshine.

Utility companies continue to pose a barrier to the deployment of distributed generation and the use of existing FiT programs. Southern California Edison’s own FiT program—known as CREST—has only brought 5.25 megawatts of new projects online out of a total program capacity of 200 megawatts, four years after the program began, in part because of a punitively low FiT rate and administrative delays by the utility company.

California utilities have paid as much as $1.88 per kWh on the market for electricity at peak times.  A robust FiT would be as low as $0.25 per kWH,  according to Solar Done Right, and would supply local clean energy during daytime hours.  As an added benefit, local clean energy generates local jobs, boosts property values, and puts money back in the pockets of ratepayers.

It is California's goal to deploy 12,000 megawatts of rooftop solar.  With over 1,200 megawatts installed already, we have a ways to go to catch up with our goal, but also our potential that far exceeds 12,000 MW.

Friday, July 6, 2012

BrightSource Energy and NextEra Assume Control of Two Proposed Solar Projects

BrightSource Energy -- the company that has destroyed 5.6 square miles of pristine desert habitat in the Ivanpah Valley for a massive solar facility there -- recently assumed responsibility for Solar Trust of America's (STA) proposed Palen Solar power project during an auction of bankrupt Solar Trust of America's project pipeline. The project would be built on nearly 8 square miles of desert habitat between Blythe and Desert Center, California, and would impact Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) approved STA's Palen Solar project in December 2010, but would presumably have to conduct revised assessments since BrightSource probably would alter the proposed project to include power tower technology.  BrightSource Energy filed a petition with the  CEC, however, seeking to "transfer ownership of the Final Decision" approving the original Palen project.   The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has previously expressed concerns about the project, and filed a request for clarification in response to BrightSource's petition to assume ownership of the final CEC decision, since BrightSource should be assuming ownership of the proposed facility, and not a commission decision.  It's not clear if BrightSource wants to once again take a short cut in environmental review.

NextEra Energy submitted the winning bid to take control of the Blythe Solar power project, which would be built on nearly 11 square miles creosote and microphyll woodland habitat just east of the McCoy Mountains, and destroy sites of cultural significance to Native Americans.   California Governor Jerry Brown and executives of the scandal-plagued STA attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the Blythe Solar project in June 2011.  Only minimal ground disturbance took place before STA halted construction as funds ran out. The fate of STA's other projects throughout California and Nevada remains unclear.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Do You Know Where Your Solar Energy Will Come From?

Why is Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) buying solar power from hundreds of miles away when the sun shines on PG&E customers' rooftops just like it shines anywhere else?   The utility company for much of northern and central California plans to buy solar power from BrightSource Energy's proposed Hidden Hills Solar facility, which would be built in a remote corner of California known as Charleston View.  Getting that energy to our cities will require depleting natural resources far from PG&E customers, lots of money, and a financial gamble by a small electric utility in Nevada.

Where the Heck is Charleston View?
Charleston View is located in the Pahrump Valley on the border of California and Nevada, east of Death Valley National Park.  Travelers and traders use to cross this remote stretch of desert along the Old Spanish Trail and stop at natural springs that are fed by groundwater flows originating in the nearby Spring Mountains - a majestic range overlooking the valley. The natural springs are not as plentiful as they used to be thanks to increased groundwater pumping, and the solar project could make that problem worse.  BrightSource Energy will pump 227 million gallons of water during the 29 month construction period for its Hidden Hills Solar project here, and 45.6 million gallons each year afterwards to wash the thousands of mirrors.  This not only has the potential to decimate natural springs that support wildlife, but may also dry up wells that local residents depend upon.

The project will not just change what is below ground. Hidden Hills Solar will dominate the landscape in the Pahrump Valley with a 5 square mile field of mirrors called "heliostats" as large as garage doors. The heliostats would focus the sun's rays onto two power towers, each of which will be 750 feet tall, twice the height of the Statue of Liberty.  For a quiet rural area where nothing is taller than a telephone pall, that is a dramatic change.

Looking across the Pahrump Valley and Charleston View toward the Spring Mountains across the border in Nevada. Precipitation in the Spring Mountains supplies the valley with its groundwater, although it's having a tough time keeping up with demand.
BrightSource promises an economic infusion into this quiet community, but the company is also trying to avoid paying its fair share of the infrastructure costs that will be necessary to provide services to a sudden influx of people and traffic on two lane roads. Inyo County estimates that providing increased services to this remote area -- fire, medical, and police, for example -- will cost it 11 million dollars during construction, and 1.7 million dollars annually after that, according to a submission to the California Energy Commission (CEC).  According to CEC documents, it appears BrightSource Energy does not want to pay for these increased demands on county services, potentially shouldering local residents with a hefty bill or setting the company up for a legal battle with Inyo County.

Who Pays for Transmission Lines?
It's not easy for local concerns to stop a corporation that has been lobbying Sacramento and Washington, so assuming Hidden Hills gets the green light, BrightSource Energy and PG&E will have to find a way to get the electricity from Charleston View into California's grid.  But there are no transmission lines from Charleston View into central California.  Over 62 miles of brand new transmission lines will be necessary to carry the solar energy to the El Dorado Substation, which is in the middle of southern Nevada's desert.  These new transmission lines will be expensive, and the residents of Nevada are likely to pay part of the price.  A new transmission line in San Diego cost ratepayers at least 2.1 billion dollars, so we are not talking about small sums. 

In order for BrightSource Energy to ship its solar energy from Charleston View into Nevada and back into California, the owner of the transmission lines in Nevada -- the Valley Electric Association (VEA) -- needs to apply to become part of California's transmission system.   Simply becoming part of California's system means that the VEA will need to pay for any system upgrades that California deems necessary to remain a part of its system.  VEA -- a small utility that serves about 22,000 electric meters in Nevada, compared to PG&E's five million electricity customers in California -- may be placing a losing bet.

Solar energy companies are proposing to build several solar facilities on desert wildlands in VEA's territory, but there is not much demand for utility-scale solar in Nevada, so most of them will want a way to ship their energy on VEA's lines to California.  But does California want renewable energy energy generated in Nevada? The answer is no. California Governor Jerry Brown told the Western Electricity Coordinating Council in an August 2011 letter that California was no longer interested in importing renewable energy since it has thousands of megawatts of wind and solar projects proposed for construction in the state.  BrightSource's Hidden Hills project in California may be the only reason VEA is submitting itself to the financial risk of becoming part of California's transmission grid.

BrightSource Energy tried to reassure VEA customers in at a meeting in April, stating that the deal with California gives VEA an opportunity to recover transmission line costs from California.  This is a company that will say anything to get its way.  As California is looking to generate energy in the state and at a low cost, why would it pay any substantial portion of a cost for a transmission line that provides only marginal benefit? Governor Brown's letter to the WECC already identified costs of new transmission lines as a key factor for seeking to avoid importing renewable energy from out of state.

From the El Dorado substation in Nevada where VEA plans to offload BrightSource Energy's electricity, those electrons are still separated from PG&E's cities by nearly 600 miles of transmission lines. It is estimated that up to 8% of energy sent across transmission lines is lost.  That means customers are already being ripped off when the utility signs the purchase agreement to buy solar energy from a facility hundreds of miles away.

[Click to expand image]  Over 600 miles of transmission lines separate BrightSource Energy's Hidden Hills Solar project from the bulk of PG&E's customers.  Around 8% of that electricity may never make it to PG&E's service territory, and people in Nevada may be stuck paying for new transmission lines needed to ship that energy out of remote Charleston View, and down to a substation in southern Nevada, where it will tap into a power line heading back into California. The lines show approximate path of the transmission connection between PG&E and Nevada, which includes lines in Southern California Edison territory.
PG&E may be choosing one of the most inefficient means of harvesting solar energy -- bulldozing desert wildlands, and spending billions of dollars of ratepayer money to get this energy onto the grid on new transmission lines.  Rooftop solar would be more efficient and cost effective, cutting the need for destructive new transmission lines and massive power plants far away.  The result would be local clean energy and local jobs.