Sunday, September 30, 2012

Southern Nevada Wildlands Face Industrial Transformation

By 2020, Nevadans may not recognize the once open wildlands they enjoy outside of Las Vegas, as renewable energy corporations backed by Wall Street have proposed to industrialize roughly 410 square miles of desert habitat in nearly every scenic vista within an hour's drive of the metropolis.
  • A slew of solar companies have applied, or have been approved to construct 19 solar facilities in desert valleys, each consuming several square miles of land.  
  • Wind companies, on the other hand, are exploring options to build 6 different facilities, and the average project would fragment and industrialize over 27 square miles of desert mountains and foothills of southern Nevada.  
  • Transmission lines constitute the third greatest threat to wild lands, as utility companies plan to add dozens of miles of new transmission lines across the region to connect new solar and wind projects to the grid. 
Doubling Vegas' Sprawl
If all of the projects are constructed,  energy companies will have destroyed a cumulative amount of desert wildlands roughly equal to the size of the Las Vegas metropolitan area.  Whereas the city's sprawl took decades, the industrial energy sprawl could be much faster.  The projects already approved or under construction total nearly 20 square miles -- larger than several housing subdivisions. 

[Click on image to expand] A Google Earth image of the Las Vegas area provides a scale to understand how much public lands will be destroyed for renewable energy development in the southern Nevada area.  Each block represents the square mileage proposed or approved for public land destruction, broken out by solar, wind, transmission, and projects already approved.
Playing Roulette with Wildlands
Local conservationists have been largely silent--if not supportive--as key decisions are made that will affect southern Nevada's landscapes.  Since the Department of Interior has approved nearly every solar and wind energy project proposed and evaluated in America's southwestern desert, the primary wild card that will impact just how many of the projects are constructed is the ability of the companies to win government incentives and private investments.  A single facility can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct.  Depending on an uneven investment climate, however, is not a conservation strategy, and without a more holistic understanding of the ecosystem, Nevadans are playing roulette with their public lands.   Nevada's neighbors are in the process of taking a more in-depth look at how to protect natural resources from the potential wave of industrialization -- California with its Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) and Arizona with its Restoration Design project.  Climate change, urban sprawl and other burdens on desert ecosystems are all the more reason to ensure renewable energy development does not incur irreversible harm to biodiversity. 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has stalled some applications pending its revision of the Las Vegas Resource Management Plan (last updated in 1998), and is reportedly taking under consideration a proposal for a new Area of Critical Environmental Concern in the Ivanpah Valley.  It's not clear to what extent the revised plan will evaluate ecosystem-level impacts of energy development or address habitat connectivity issues between Nevada and neighboring states.

Local Potential Neglected
Nevada also has weaker incentives for rooftop solar and energy efficiency, even though a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study found that Nevada has the potential to generate 7,000 megawatts (MW) of rooftop solar energy, about the same as the state's peak demand. The study further found that Nevada has the potential for 11,000 MW of "urban utility-scale" solar projects -- ground mounted solar panels in open spaces within the boundaries of our cities, instead of on remote desert lands. The state is missing an enormous opportunity to invest in its communities while saving its natural resources.

Visually Impaired
If you need an escape from Las Vegas, one can generally drive out of the valley in any direction and find themselves in a wide open desert expanse.  If the proposed solar, wind and transmission projects move forward, open expanse will become the exception. An analysis of proposed projects and the geography in southern Nevada suggests that nearly every scenic vista will be marred by these large scale industrial projects, not to mention the impacts these projects have on the ecosystem.

The El Dorado Valley south of Las Vegas now hosts a natural gas plant, and ever-expanding solar facilities. This image was taken in early 2011, before Sempra Energy began expanding its solar facility seen in the distance.
The El Dorado Valley offers a case study.  As of the year 2000, most of the desert in the area just south of Las Vegas remained untouched, other than some transmission lines and an electrical substation. Travelers on Highway 95 could take in the sweeping desert vista as an alternative to the subdivisions and tangle of roads and hotels in the city less than an hour drive away, seemingly held back by the rugged McCullough range.  But by 2003 a natural gas generation plant was built, followed by Nevada Solar One in 2008, a concentrating solar facility that destroyed about 400 acres. By 2012 these projects were joined by Sempra Energy's El Dorado and Copper Mountain Solar on several hundred more acres.  These facilities still do not amount to the destruction seen in California's Ivanpah Valley for BrightSource Energy's project, but they offer an example of how a couple of industrial scale projects can transform a desert landscape for worse.

Going South
Driving past the El Dorado Valley into the quiet town of Searchlight, and you'll find more industrial energy projects planned for the sweeping Piute Valley, with views of the Piute Range and Spirit Mountain expected to be ruined by at least two large wind energy developments -- the Searchlight and Crescent Peak wind projects.  Each would install dozens of wind turbines standing over 400 feet high -- each taller than the Statue of Liberty. There will be more structures taller than 400 feet high in the Piute Valley than in the city of Las Vegas, once the Searchlight wind project is built.

This desert habitat to the east of Highway 95, and south of Searchlight would be disrupted by dozens of giant wind turbines, and new dirt roads large enough to accommodate construction equipment and wide-load vehicles. 

If you drive along the I-15 toward California, you'll already see a couple of the BLM's approved projects - First Solar's Silver State North and BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah project.  First Solar now has plans to build two more projects -- Silver State South (Nevada side of the border) and Stateline (California).  This will continue the unfortunate industrialization of the Ivanpah Valley, a majestic open desert expanse at the foot of Clark Mountain, and potentially cut off a desert tortoise connectivity corridor.

Several square miles of this view will be bulldozed for First Solar's Silver State South project in the Ivanpah Valley. The project is on the Bureau of Land Management's "priority" list, despite concerns from Fish and Wildlife officials and citizen conservationists.  Research on habitat connectivity is incomplete, but the Department of Interior is already signaling approval for the project after adding it to the "fast track" list.
If you drive past Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area toward Pahrump, you'll pass the rugged area where a wind company wants to build the Table Mountain project. You won't have to drive much further before you see another desert valley that is slated for more destruction. BrightSource Energy, Abengoa, and Pacific Solar Investments all want to bulldoze vast tracts of desert here for their projects. And the Valley Electric Association is planning to install a new transmission line, running over 50 miles to the El Dorado Valley, to connect all of these new projects to the California grid.

What is currently a mostly untouched open expanse in the Sandy Valley area of  Nevada, south of Pahrump. Several solar applications would completely transform this landscape.
In a few years time, the drive from Vegas on the I-15 heading toward Utah could look quite different. Open desert will be replaced by the Moapa Solar project (recently approved by the Department of Interior), and possibly the Moapa Solar Energy Center project.  These projects will operate alongside the Reid Gardner Coal plant, which has been in operation for decades and escaped strict EPA regulation earlier this year. Companies also want to build the Pioneer Wind energy project, and a massive solar "power tower" project adjacent to the Muddy Mountains ACEC. If you drive even further toward Utah you'll come across the proposed Flat Top Mesa wind project.

BrightSource Energy proposed building it's power tower facilities (an example pictured above) northeast of Las Vegas in an open expanse of desert south of Moapa and the Reid Gardner coal plant .  The photo above shows the construction of the company's Ivanpah Valley project.
Department of Interior made this map of all proposed renewable energy and transmission projects available on its website, as well as a list with more details on each project.
Southern Nevada Renewable Energy Projects as of July 2012

Thursday, September 27, 2012

BrightSource Energy's Plans to Limit Environmental Review Meets Resistance

In an odd legal move, BrightSource Energy is demanding the California Energy Commission (CEC) correct "errors" in the preliminary staff assessment of the company's Hidden Hills solar project.  BrightSource's motion to alter the staff assessment would limit environmental analysis in such a way that improves the company's chances of approval, despite serious concerns about the project's water demand in the overdrawn Pahrump Valley groundwater basin.  The move drew sharp rebuke from the CEC staff and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The company's motion suggests they are worried the CEC will either select the No Action Alternative or require the project to use a different technology, such as photovoltaic solar panels.  Among the specific requests in the motion, BrightSource Energy asks that the staff assessment 1.) define the project's objectives in a way to meet the company's own preferred criteria, 2.) limit analysis of alternatives to technologies preferred by the company, 3.) include a ridiculous assumption in the no action alternative analysis that would assume the community would use more water if the project is not built, and 4.)  ignore the projects impacts in Nevada (the project would be built right on the border).
A view toward the proposed Hidden Hills project site, which currently consist of mostly open desert visible from nearby wilderness areas.  Spring Mountains visible in the distance, on the Nevada side of the border.
The CEC staff and Center for Biological Diversity pointed out that BrightSource's motion is a thinly veiled attempt to short circuit meaningful environmental analysis to achieve corporate objectives.  The CEC staff had this to say about BrightSource's motion:
The title is ironic, and the prayer for relief audacious. Behind the undisputed black letter CEQA citations, the underlying request of this document is quite the opposite: it would have the Committee prevent its independent agency staff from performing the robust alternatives analysis that CEQA requires.  -- CEC staff response to BrightSource Energy
The Center for Biological Diversity provides a thorough analysis of how BrightSource Energy's motion  attempts to distort the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires decision makers to consider a range of potentially feasible alternatives.   The CEC staff underscored this requirement:
The “project objectives” selected by Staff allow consideration of technological alternatives, site alternatives, and configuration alternatives—the “reasonable range” that the Guidelines require. Applicant may question the feasibility of such alternatives, or whether they meet most project objectives, but these are issues the decision-maker—not Applicant--must decide after reviewing the analysis and considering counter arguments, including the views of intervenors, agencies, and others. -- CEC staff response to BrightSource Energy
One of the more absurd requests in BrightSource's motion was to include an assumption in the no action alternative analysis that, without the solar project, the 5 square miles of open land would be developed for other residential or commercial purposes, putting more of a burden on the groundwater supplies than the project.  If the solar project is approved it would draw an estimated 227.1 million gallons of water during a 29-month construction period, and 45.6 million gallons each year during operation.  The CEC staff points out that development in the area is unlikely to ever surpass the water demand of the proposed project, noting that the community land in question has seen no development in nearly 40 years, and that Inyo County would require any new development to first assure access to sufficient water.

A photo submitted by the Bureau of Land Management to the CEC shows  land subsidence resulting from severely reduced groundwater supplies near the proposed project site.  BrightSource's facility could worsen the situation, which is why BrightSource would rather change the CEC staff assessment to make its project seem like the lesser of two evils.
It is extremely unfortunate that BrightSource Energy did not learn a lesson from the disaster in Ivanpah, where the company's first solar project has displaced or killed well over 150 desert tortoises. The Ivanpah Solar project benefited from a political environment that prioritized unhindered industrial development of wild lands over proper land stewardship.  The environmental review process was rushed and, despite concerns from government scientists and citizens, the project was approved.   BrightSource now wants to recreate the same preferential conditions, ignore environmental concerns, and probably doom community and wildlife water sources, and destroy habitat used by desert tortoises and raptors.

Worst of all, BrightSource's project is separated from its potential PG&E customers by nearly 600 miles of transmission lines. That is even more environmental and financial burden that could be avoided if our policies incentivized local clean energy, instead, such as rooftop solar and energy efficiency programs.

A Member of the Desert Choir

Desert wildlife is elusive. You'll see all of the signs of wildlife -- tracks, scat, burrows, etc. -- but you often don't see the animals.  When I am lucky enough to be enjoying a trek in the desert, I always hear plenty of chatty birds, especially in the morning and around sunset.  So it was delightful to read Chris Clarke's piece on cactus wrens, which included a video of this bird's characteristic call.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Real Wastelands

If you ask me, rooftops are the real wastelands.  Vast open spaces in our cities, just waiting for another purpose in life.

[Click on image to expand]


Solar panels do not need pristine desert to thrive. They do just as well on your rooftop.  If you own a rooftop, consider the solar leasing option.  Solar City and Sungevity offer rooftop solar panels with no upfront costs to much of the southwestern United States.  If you are not ready for rooftop solar, then please turn off lights, TVs, computers and other appliances when you do not need them. Energy efficiency is the best way to cut our dependence on fossil fuels and save wildlands. Change starts in your backyard.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

TV Series Features Desert Landscapes

This American Land and the Pew Charitable Trust featured desert activists Tom Budlong of the Sierra Club, and Laurel Williams of the California Wilderness Coalition, among others, who explain why the desert is special to them, the local communities, and visitors from far and wide.

Pew made this available on YouTube.  Check it out!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Calico Solar Project: Corporation Shows Contempt for Environmental Concerns

Despite requests by an array of environmental groups to prevent destruction of critical desert habitat in the Pisgah Valley in the central Mojave Desert, the Department of Interior and K Road Power continue to move forward with plans to permit and build the Calico Solar project.  The project footprint has only been slightly redesigned, but would still destroy at least 6 square miles of desert habitat for photovoltaic solar panels -- the same technology that can be deployed on rooftops or already-disturbed lands.  The public lands targeted for the proposed project site host a diverse array of birds, reptiles, mammals, and plants, prompting concern from desert conservationists that the massive project will block wildlife connectivity across the central Mojave.

[Click on image to expand]  A screenshot of the modified layout of the Calico Solar project, which would be built by K Road Power
Modifications Miss the Point
The modified layout of the Calico Solar project provides a 158 acre "habitat connectivity" zone through the center of the project -- that is less than a quarter square mile of total habitat that would be surrounded by solar panels, and probably subjected to increased erosion and invasive plant species as a result of the nearby project.

What K Road Power does not seem to understand is that marginal adjustments to a 6 square mile solar facility still leave us with massive habitat loss for rare plants and animals.   Levelling this desert habitat will leave a scar that will take centuries to repair, long after the solar facility is shut down.  Our deserts need open and intact habitat that allows connectivity across each desert species' population. As our deserts face climate change, urban sprawl, off-road recreation, and expanding military training bases, now is not the time to unnecessarily bulldoze 6 square miles when better alternatives exist.

Photo by Lara Hartley Photography.  Screenshot of white-margined beardtongue from Sierra Club prehearing conference statement to the California Energy Commission in 2010. The white-margined beardtongue is a rare desert plant found in only a few places in the Mojave Desert, including on the site of the proposed Califo Solar project.
Chorus of Opposition
The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a legal challenge against the project in March after repeated requests to the Department of Interior to take a closer look at the project's environmental impacts.  The groups suggest nearby already-disturbed lands as a better alternative location.  An earlier legal challenge in the California Supreme Court failed, but the groups persisted and filed a second challenge in Federal Court as the project assumed new ownership and applied for permit modifications.

The Department of Interior acknowledged the importance of the Pisgah Valley in its Solar Energy Development program by removing a proposed "Solar Energy Zone" that would have fast-tracked even more industrial-scale energy development in the area.  But Interior has refused to take a closer look at the Calico Solar project and has even listed it as a "priority project," the successor to the "fast track" process that result in environmental disaster in the Ivanpah Valley.

Calico's original layout was approved by the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the Department of Interior in late 2010 after a contentious review process that highlighted the significant environmental harm the project would cause.  The project's original owner, Tessera Solar, fought to silence scientific experts and even excluded some environmental groups when it reconfigured the layout of the project to gain a hasty approval in 2010. Tessera Solar abruptly sold the project to K Road Power after winning approval, and K Road now has to submit for a renewed approval since it plans to use a different solar technology on the site.

New Transmission Required
Utility company Southern California Edison would have to build up to 70 miles of new transmission lines  to connect the Calico Solar project with the grid, if it is approved, even though the Department of Interior has dropped plans for the Solar Energy Zone in the Pisgah Valley. The Lugo-Pisgah Transmission line is likely to be an expensive boondoggle that would cost ratepayers more money.  A slightly longer transmission line in San Diego County -- the Sunrise Powerlink -- County cost upwards of two billion dollars. Costs are passed along to electricity customers, who would probably rather be given that money to install rooftop solar panels or make energy efficiency upgrades.

This map by Southern California Edison shows the approximate path of the proposed Lugo-Pisgah transmission line, which would cross through Lucerne Valley to reach the Calico Solar project.
According to a status report submitted by K Road Power to the CEC in September, the company is in negotiations with Southern California Edison regarding unspecified transmission issues, and expects to have these resolved in December 2012, or later.  So the environmental review of the project's modifications by the CEC probably will be on hold until after K Road resolves the transmission issues. But with the CEC and Department of Interior primed to conduct a fast-track review of the project modifications, approval could come quickly after the transmission issues are sorted out.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Edward Abbey and the Great American Desert

Chris Clarke over at Coyote Crossing found this old film of Edward Abbey -- an ardent defender of the desert -- that intended to air in 1985, but ended up getting shelved by a broadcast company that apparently rejected his efforts to protect nature.  I read Edward Abbey's Desert Solitude in high school, and have to say that it was one of the few books I loved reading back then. I did not know at the time, though, what the desert would mean to me later in my life.  I cherished the desert's quiet open space, the challenge of an unrelenting sun, and the reward of the most beautiful sunsets. I just took all of that for granted.


Here is another great work on Edward Abbey recently featured in the new ARID: Journal of Desert Art, Design and Ecology.  The piece is an interactive web experience titled "Canyonlands: Edward Abbey and the Great American Desert" that takes you from Ed's arrival at Arches National Park in the late 1950s to the end of his life in 1989, just three years after the film above was taken.  The interactive feature starts with a narrative that asks what emotions the desert should evoke, and how it impacts the human spirit.  The five minute video below contains excerpts from the Canyonlands piece at ARID.

Canyonlands - 5 Minute Clip from Roderick Coover on Vimeo.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Energy Is Costly, But It Does Not Have To Be Greedy

Our clean energy path will not be cheap, but it should not involve subsidizing the same corporate greed that continues to wreck our wildlands. The Los Angeles Times published an article detailing the costs to taxpayers and ratepayers for giant solar facilities responsible for destroying desert habitat, and the fact that companies investing in these projects receive an incredible return on their investment.  Some of these companies responsible for remote desert solar facilities will probably be familiar to you -- JP Morgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley, General Electric, and Berkshire Hathaway. These are the same companies that also profit from fossil fuels.  It does not matter if the bulldozer is making way for a natural gas well or a wind turbine -- for these companies, the end is profit, and the means is anything that will increase that profit.

As we advocate for a clean energy future, we should ask ourselves if we're willing to take shortcuts that destroy the things we love -- unspoiled landscapes and biodiversity -- or take the responsible path of generating clean energy where we live or on already-disturbed lands.  What is missing in the Los Angeles Times article is a discussion of these responsible options.  Many people commenting on the article take a black and white approach, either you have desert-destroying solar or you have catastrophic climate change.  But in the midst of a heated debate, very few people recognize what fossil fuels and large-scale desert solar and wind facilities have in common -- an insatiable appetite for land.  An appetite for the landscapes and wildlife we cherish.

A bulldozer clears land in northwestern United States for a sing wind turbine.  The wind energy production tax credit has kept the wind industry afloat, and attracted Wall Street investors. Wind projects have spread from the farmlands of the midwest, and are now beginning to industrialize public lands across the West.   The wind industry is more intent on growing its profit than protecting ecosystems.
No form of energy is cheap.  Oil, natural gas, or solar in the desert.  In each case we are absorbing costs that are not reflected in the per watt price -- asthma, lung cancer, clean water, the loss of rare plants or animals, or a landscape forever spoiled by fields of mirrors or wells.  We are subsidizing an appetite for natural resources -- when we give Big Oil, Big Solar, or Big Wind the tax breaks that only increase their profit margins. Each of these business models depend on a common denominator -- people looking the other way as corporations destroy nature.  Another common denominator is that each company acts as a wealth aggregator.  A select few people benefiting enormously from the public investment in their business model.

[Click on image to expand] This photo shows the footprint of BrightSource Energy's  Ivanpah Solar project, being built on 5.6 square miles of intact desert habitat in the northeastern Mojave Desert. California has already installed enough rooftop solar energy to avoid four Ivanpah Solar projects. 
It's time for this insanity to stop. It's time to give our wildlands a break. It's time that we advocate for an energy model that invests in our communities, and not in Wall Street. Study after study shows that our rooftops and cities are vast reservoirs for local solar energy, and energy efficiency savings.   Critics complain that distributed generation -- solar panels on rooftops or over parking lots -- is expensive.  But coal power plants that spew toxins in our communities actually ruin lives, and giant wind facilities that kill rare birds and bats for the sake of corporate profits are not "green."  This is the same greed we have been subjected to for too long.

We should redirect the tax breaks and subsidies away from Shell Oil and BrightSource Energy, and give our neighbors a chance to install rooftop solar, or improve their energy efficiency.  We can save on energy bills, make our communities more sustainable, and save wildlands for future generations.  Nobody said the right path would be easy or cheap, but it does not have to be greedy, either.

A school district in southern California installed solar panels over the parking lot, generating clean energy and  savings on its utility bill. Best of all, no extra land had to be destroyed to support the school's energy needs.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

NPCA Warns of Unnecessary Desert Destruction

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) released a report warning about the "solar energy tsunami" heading for America's southwestern deserts, referring to plans by energy companies to destroy hundreds of square miles of intact desert ecosystems for industrial-scale solar facilities.  In discussing the report and accompanying video, NPCA California Desert senior program manager urges a more innovative clean energy path that does not force America to lose natural and cultural treasures in desert landscapes:
"I think that part of the message we want to share today is that we do want to encourage both the public and the administration to stand strong in support of national parks. We recognize that it's really important to forward our solar future, but we think that can best be accomplished by a diversified portfolio where we're looking at options like not just roof-top solar, but also looking at development on disturbed lands." -- David Lamfrom, NPCA, quoted in National Parks Traveler
The video released with the report shows many beautiful scenes from across America's deserts, but also some of the destruction caused by BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project, which is being built right next to the Mojave National Preserve, and is responsible for displacing or killing over 150 desert tortoises.

The report takes a fairly in-depth look at some of the solar projects already under construction on desert habitat, including the BrightSource Ivanpah project and First Solar's Desert Sunlight project.  NPCA acknowledges that some energy companies make adjustments to the project in an attempt to reduce the footprint and environmental impact of the massive facilities.  In the case study on First Solar, NPCA notes that the company changed the project footprint to avoid higher quality desert tortoise habitat, but points out that the project size and location still blocks wildlife connectivity and degrades the visual beauty of the desert landscape.

Under the assumption that industrial scale solar on public lands will continue to be a problem for our deserts, the NPCA advises that the BLM should at least view the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service as equal partners in the renewable energy permitting process (I agree that industrial-scale solar will continue to be a problem, but I do think it is an unnecessary one!).  The NPCA report also notes that the Department of Interior should focus on minimizing impacts on threatened wildlife and document landscape connectivity, to ensure sustainable ecosystems and a more holistic stewardship of our lands.  BLM's Solar Energy Development program should not allow industrialization on "variance lands," a key weakness of the proposed BLM policy that has been criticized by other citizen and conservation groups, as well.

I am glad NPCA is bringing attention to what is at stake in our deserts, and advocating for a wiser approach.   If you want more details regarding the pending projects, I have embedded a PDF doc with some of the solar projects proposed for public lands (mostly intact desert wildlands) in the southwest.  Keep in mind this does not include proposed wind energy projects, which would industrialize even more of our public lands with thousands of wind turbines, each standing over 400 feet high.
BLM Solar Apps and Auths 2012

Sunday, September 16, 2012

BrightSource Energy Challenges Military Training Mission

The Department of Defense has expressed concern that BrightSource Energy's solar "power tower" technology could obstruct military testing and training activities in the Mojave Desert, since the heated towers standing hundreds of feet over the desert could become an attractive target for heat seeking sensors and weapons.  Two BrightSource Energy projects in particular are proposed for desert habitat bordering the US Marine Corps' base at Twentynine Palms, where air and ground live fire exercises are conducted.

The Siberia Solar project would be built just north of the Marine base, but within view of an active training ground.  The project would also be adjacent to the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, a conservation effort to protect desert landscapes and wildlife along the historic Route 66.  The Department of the Interior has shown a propensity to permit energy projects despite environmental concerns in its "fast track" permitting process, but it is not clear if BrightSource will be able to "mitigate" its way out of Department of Defense concerns.  

According to a presentation made by the Department of Defense at the July Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) stakeholders meeting, the area where BrightSource wants to build the Siberia Solar project is labeled as a red zone for solar power tower technology, meaning a project there is "highly likely" to pose an "unacceptable risk to national security." The specific reason given for designating the Siberia area as a red zone is "proximity to live fire range," according to Defense documents posted on the DRECP website.

BrightSource Energy's Siberia Solar project would be built south of Route 66 in the area identified with the purple circle, north of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (light blue area). Another project proposed by BrightSource is the Johnson Valley project, roughly located in the area identified by the green circle. Red zones are areas where solar power tower projects pose a high likelihood of an unacceptable risk to national security, while projects in orange zones pose a medium likelihood.
BrightSource Energy has a second project proposal that could be impacted -- the Johnson Valley Solar project would be built near the proposed expansion area of the Marine base to the east of the blue area in the map above. The area where the project would be built is a mix of "medium" and "high"  likelihood of unacceptable risk to national security.  According to the Final EIS for the Marine Corps base expansion, aircraft would maneuver into the expansion area from the south, possibly flying over the Johnson Valley solar power tower project.

[Click on image to expand]  One of BrightSource Energy's solar power towers under construction in the Ivanpah Valley.  The tower will be taller than the Statue of Liberty, and thousands of mirrors o the ground, each the size of a garage door, will reflect the sun's rays onto the top of the tower.
BrightSource claims that the larger and taller "power towers" provide increased efficiency, but this would seem to only pose a greater risk of interfering with military training in the desert southwest, as the heated portion of the tower would then be visible from farther distances.

San Bernardino County --where both projects would be built -- has made it clear that military concerns will trump BrightSource Energy's profit motive, since a county offcial participating in the DRECP stakeholder process affirmed the County's support for the military training and testing bases.

Desert Conservation Proposal Languishes in Washington

A gridlocked Congress has sat on top of a proposal to conserve desert wildlands for two years now, and it appears that the only hope for Senator Feinstein's California Desert Protetion Act of 2011 (S. 138 - originally introduced in 2010) may be a Presidential designation under the Antiquities Act.   Although a Presidential monument designation is sure to draw fire from opponents, the Antiquities Act of 1906 has been used by Republicans and Democrats alike to protect natural treasures and Congress' indecision over land stewardship is unlikely to be resolved soon.

Public lands are caught in a political spectrum that has trended toward destruction and away from conservation, with Utah Governor Herbert looking to seize treasured public lands and dole them out to private companies, and a Presidential candidate that wants to ramp up fossil fuel extraction in every corner of the country.

The Obama Administration's mark on desert wildlands so far has been regrettable  with a disastrous "fast track" solar and wind energy policy that prioritized industrial-scale development of public lands and largely ignored wildlife and cultural concerns, part of the"all of the above" energy strategy that has also opened Arctic waters to oil drilling.  Even as the Administration attempts to moderate its destructive approach with the "Solar Energy Development Program," it appears some projects are still being given a "fast track" approval on some of the most ecologically sensitive lands in the desert, such as a proposal by First Solar to build the Silver State South solar project in the Ivanpah Valley, and K Road Power's Calico Solar project in the Pisgah Valley. 

But last year, the Secretary of Interior sent a report to Congress highlighting 18 backcountry areas worth protecting, including the Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow Monument proposals contained in Sentator Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act.  The report could be a warning shot to those creating road blocks the Capitol building -- do your job or we'll do it for you.  In the report, Secretary Salazar acknowledged that the Administration's "all of the above" energy policy is a burden on natural resources that should be balanced out by conservation measures. 
"It is important that we strike a balance that protects our Nation's special lands at the same time that we are initiating major new renewable energy projects on public lands, keeping our Nation's oil and gas development opportunities robust, and providing critical minerals and other development-focused uses of our public lands." -- Secretary Salazar, 10 November 2011 letter to Congress
The Old Woman Mountains seen from Route 66.  Much of this desert would be protected as part of the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.
Other desert conservation proposals contained in the report to Congress include wilderness designations also included in Senator Feinstein's legislation (Soda Mountains, Golden Valley, etc),  the Gold Butte area in southeastern Nevada, and portions of northern New Mexico along the Rio Grande.  What seems to be missing is a proposal to save the Otero Mesa, a desert grassland in southeastern New Mexico. The area could is targeted for mining and fossil fuel extraction, but also represents one of the largest intact swaths of Chihuahuan Desert grassland.  What is clear from the backlog of conservation proposals is that Washington has a lot of catching up to do, as the public continues to enjoy and treasure public lands that could be irreversibly damaged by corporate interests.  Wall Street has had its pick of public lands -- it's time to listen to the citizen and scientific groundswell advocating for proper stewardship of our public lands.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Wind Developer Taking Aim at Mojave National Preserve

Oak Creek Energy Systems, under a subsidiary known as Crescent Peak Renewables LLC, has submitted initial plans to install up to 220 giant wind turbines in southern Nevada, just outside of the scenic Mojave National Preserve, according to documents submitted to the Nevada Public Utilities Commission and obtained by Basin and Range WatchIf built, the Crescent Peak Wind project would fragment and industrialize approximately 58 square miles of remote desert habitat, threaten raptors and likely impact nearby Wilderness Areas and an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

[Click on image to expand] The Google Earth image above depicts the approximate boundaries of the proposed Crescent Peak Wind energy project in red, which is located in Nevada along the border with California.  The scenic Mojave National Preserve is just across the border to the west and south, as well as the beleaguered Ivanpah Valley.
Oak Creek Energy Systems, which is ultimately controlled by the Japan-based Marubeni Corporation, has expressed interest in developing a wind project in the area since 2006, according to Bureau of Land Management records, and was granted permission to install wind testing equipment in 2009.  In the meantime, Oak Creek has been responsible for some of the destruction of desert habitat in the western Mojave Desert at the Alta Wind Energy Center near Tehachapi.

The Crescent Peak Wind project would industrialize the heart of the Mojave Desert, destroying views from the Mojave National Preserve, a beautiful Joshua Tree woodland at the Wee Thump Wilderness Area, and the South McCullough Wilderness Area.  The turbines almost certainly would pose a threat to raptor species in the region, including golden eagles, and require dozens of miles of wide dirt roads to accommodate construction traffic, fragmenting pristine desert.  Energy development is already taking its toll on the nearby Ivanpah Valley, with two giant solar projects built or under construction.  To the east, Duke Energy plans to build the Searchlight Wind project, which is expected to displace or kill dozens of threatened desert tortoises.

Some of Oak Creek Energy System's work in the western Mojave Desert, where it has installed wind turbines for the Alta Wind Energy Center, and destroyed Joshua Tree woodland. Photograph by Friends of Mojave.

Solar Trends Show Wildlands Sacrifice is Not Necessary

Solar energy is a rapidly growing piece of the energy pie necessary to kick our habit of dirty fossil fuels, but trends in solar energy growth so far, and an abundance of suitable spaces for solar panels in our cities and on already-disturbed lands suggests there is no need to sacrifice our open wildlands.   

Making Progress Without Desert Destruction
Solar energy generation has grown to over 5,100 megawatts in the United States according to GTM research -- enough to replace roughly nine Reid Gardner coal power plants. How did we reach this goal?  A good chunk is from rooftop solar, while most of the larger solar facilities contributing to this number were built on already-disturbed lands.  Most utility-scale projects that are destroying desert wildlands, such as BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project, are not included in this number because they are not yet plugged into the grid.

Looking to Already-Disturbed Lands
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency made a mapping tool available that identifies already-disturbed lands suitable for renewable energy development.  The EPA lists about 11,000 sites in California, but these are just the places considered Superfund, brownfield or mine sites.  But many other lands could also prove more suitable for utility-scale solar energy development, such as former agricultural lands that are no longer productive.  Developers should still respect local zoning rules and control fugitive dust (a health hazard and blight),  but the potential impacts on wildlife and treasured public lands are greatly reduced when projects are built on already-disturbed lands.  Companies like 8minuteenergy and SunPower are proving that keeping energy facilities off of wildlands is practical and profitable, including a project  slated to provide clean energy at a price lower than the "Market Price Referent," according to KCET's ReWire.

A SunPower solar facility expected to generate up to 136 MW of solar energy would be sited on non-prime agricultural land (mapped above) in Lemoore, California, not far from a couple of other proposed large solar projects on already-disturbed lands

Vast Potential in our Cities
Closer to home, third-party rooftop solar leasing is booming, allowing middle income neighborhoods to generate clean energy, create jobs and invest right in their communities, and not hundreds of miles away.   California has over 1,300 megawatts of rooftop solar installed, and the capacity for thousands more, according to a UCLA study. The largest rooftop solar installation in the US was installed on a Whirlpool company warehouse in Perris, California, totalling 10 megawatts of clean energy, while grassroots activists are pushing for legislation that would make local solar even more accessible.

One of the criticisms of renewable energy is that a cloud passing over a utility-scale solar facility or the lack of wind at a large wind facility makes them an unreliable or intermittent supplier, whereas utility companies need a steady and predictable flow of energy into the grid.  If thousands of rooftops across a region or state have solar panels, however, their is not as dramatic of a change to the energy supply with weather conditions.

Solar panels adorn a public works building in Ohio, generating clean energy during peak demand hours.
The Department of Energy also released figures indicating that we could make our homes and businesses much more energy efficient, cutting national energy usage by as much as 261,107 gigawatt hours (GWh), or the equivalent of 241 destructive BrightSource Energy Ivanpah Solar projects.

Let's Give Wildlands a Break
While the industry expects wide access to public wildlands for large scale facilities, and some pro-industry "think tanks" are supporting this voracious appetite for more ecological destruction, at least some conservation groups are expressing concern that we should be prioritizing rooftop solar and facilities on already-disturbed lands.
  • Western Lands Project, Basin and Range Watch, and Solar Done Right filed a protest against the Department of Interior's Solar Energy Development program that would  open up hundreds of square miles of ecologically intact public lands to the solar industry.  The groups point out that the Department of Interior failed to analyze a distributed generation (i.e. rooftop solar) alternative.
  • Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife also filed protests, expressing concern that some aspects of the Solar Energy Development program failed to keep the industry away more ecologically sensitive areas of desert wildlands.  The Solar Energy Development program established solar energy zones where permitting for solar facilities would be expedited, but would still give companies wide access to other desert lands outside of the zones.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What Just Happened?

It was a crazy week for the environment, and one that shows that our political leaders have a shallow--if not absent--appreciation for conservation and sustainability.  On the bright side,  the Obama administration approved stricter fuel efficiency rules for automobiles, requiring all vehicles to reach a 54.5 miles per gallon standard by the year 2025.  The rule is expected to significantly cut fossil fuel demand (by millions of barrels of oil, per day!) and save car owners money over the long-term. This is a significant step in reducing carbon emissions.

But in the same week, political leaders on both sides of the aisle raced to one-up the other on support to fossil fuels.  The Obama administration approved plans by the Department of Interior to lease lands in Wyoming for the mining of nearly 438 million tons of coal, and then issued a much-opposed permit to Shell Oil to begin drilling operations in Arctic water, where environmentalists fear the company will not be able to manage an oil spill.  Candidate Romney this same week announced his position that our energy future should focus on the continued exploitation of fossil fuels -- coal, oil, and natural gas -- more of the same energy dependencies that have left us with destroyed landscapes and dirty air.  One candidate outright dismisses the deleterious effects of human-induced climate change, and the other candidate refuses to address climate change directly in speeches -- it's a third rail powerfully charged by ignorance.

Also this week, the Obama administration removed the Wyoming population of gray wolves from the endangered species list, which will essentially allow the animal to be shot on sight throughout 80% of the state.  The move probably was politically motivated, since the species' recovery probably cannot be sustained under Wyoming's plans to allow for such widespread hunting.  This is a species that used to range across the United States -- including in the mountains in present day Mojave National Preserve. After a relatively brief and limited recovery, we have apparently decided that we would rather decimate this animal than restore its role as a critical piece of so many ecosystems.

This is a country where political leaders applaud the destruction of wildlands for "green energy" and then turn around and sell millions of tons of coal.   Instituting policies that support rooftop solar installations requires too much "heavy lifting" for political leaders, but providing billions of dollars in subsidies to industries that destroy our public lands (both fossil fuels and large-scale solar/wind) is business as usual.  We make our cars more fuel efficient, then start destroying Arctic sea life to supply the oil we still need.  Our decisions on the recovery of endangered wildlife are motivated by politics and state boundaries rather than science. 

There is no true appreciation for sustainability in this cycle.  We are locked in a game where the rules are decided by Washington --  political horse-trading and compromises that promise, but never deliver a more sustainable path.  Until decisions are made by people interested in the proper stewardship of our planet, the conservation of dwindling wildlands and wildlife, and the protection of air and water, we will always be locked in this perpetual war with ourselves.