Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy's Battle Cry

Are we fighting to save our way of life, or the planet we live on?  Hurricane (and post-tropical cyclone) Sandy left lives, communities, and ecosystems scarred from the Caribbean up through the Ohio Valley.  People are measuring damage in lives lost, boardwalks destroyed, subway stations flooded, and homes without electricity.  The storm is front and center for those warning about the dangers of human-induced climate change -- weather patterns have become more extreme and unpredictable as the planet warms, leading to  frequent "100 year" events -- storms like Hurricane Sandy, the "derecho" wave of thunderstorms that knocked out power to thousands earlier this summer, the unusual rainfall in parts of the southwest, and prolonged "drought" in the Midwest.  Extreme is the new normal.

We are drowning our planet in toxic emissions, taking puffs from fossil fuels every time we turn on a light switch, or turn the key on an internal combustion engine. But are we fighting to preserve our way of life, or to change it?  Our problems are super sized -- multi-million dollar companies that have created a systematic and wasteful demand for our world's natural resources, and an abundance of destructive by-product.  Fossil fuel interests are so deeply embedded in our economy and governance that even the Presidential candidate for hope and change boasts about how much public land he has opened up for coal and natural gas exploitation.

The answer to our problem can be super sized, or a collection of many small but powerful choices.   The super sized answer will sustain the status quo -- we get to maintain an unsustainable combination of waste and "growth" if we unplug fossil fuel plants from the grid, and plug in industrial-scale wind and solar facilities.  This is another industry that answers to shareholders and executives, not Mother Nature, and it will destroy hundreds of square miles of wildlands in each state -- thousands of square miles across the planet.  This answer is preferred by Wall Street because it will sustain "growth" and keep wealth with the same companies and banks that drove us into the fossil fuel catastrophe.   We are already handing over millions of dollars to pay for new transmission lines, and financing multi-billion dollar solar and wind facilities being built on public lands.  Every time we turn on a light switch and pay our utility bill, we keep this status quo alive.    It may help reduce carbon emissions, but it will also rob us of biodiversity, kill birds and bats, deplete water resources, and alter once pristine vistas. 

This battle is about much more than the number of parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere; this is about how we view our relationship with the natural world that we depend upon for everything -- clean air and water, fresh food, wood for our homes, metals for our vehicles, rare earths for our iPads and cell phones.   Population growth and technological innovation mean we can achieve things on an enormous scale -- for better or worse.  If our solution to global warming embraces another form of widespread ecological destruction, then we have not changed our way of life, or how we view our role on the planet

Some in the environmental community have echoed the greedy cynicism of Wall Street, characterizing energy efficiency and distributed solar generation as a weak answer to climate change.  Rooftop solar is not fast enough. It's not big enough.  They're calling for the sacrifice of wildlands to the solar industry, lobbying on behalf of the American Wind Energy Association so it can slaughter birds and bats in some of the most remote wildlands of the United States.  They're advocating a trickle down clean energy policy that keeps wealth and decisionmaking with the same corporations and banks that will always put profit above nature. 

If instead we advocated for more robust tax credits for the grassroots to make energy efficiency improvements or feed-in-tariffs for homeowners and small businesses to install rooftop solar, we could fundamentally change the way we produce and consume energy.  Each rooftop solar panel, and each light bulb replaced would be among millions of cumulative choices in a flood that overwhelms the destructive status quo.  But first we have to answer the question -- are we fighting to save our way of life, or the planet we live on?

Monday, October 29, 2012

First Solar's Funny Math in Ivanpah

First Solar is moving forward with the environmental review process for the Silver State South project, and is requesting permission to destroy enough desert wildlands to accomodate a 350 megawatt (MW) facility, according to the draft report published by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).   But the company only has a buyer for 250MW, and it only has permission from energy regulators to ship 230MW over the transmission lines.  This is significant because the company is proposing to build the project on a very narrow strip of desert habitat that serves as a critical genetic linkage for the desert tortoise, and First Solar appears to be inflating how much of the valuable desert land it actually needs. This is a location in the desert where every acre counts, but the company appears to be ignoring pleas by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other desert experts to preserve this wildlife corridor.

According to the California Public Utilities Commission, First Solar has a power purchase agreement to sell 250 MW to the utility company Southern California Edison.  In order to get that energy to customers hundreds of miles away, it will have to be shipped on transmission lines that stretch across part of Nevada and through the Mojave Desert.  Think of those transmission lines as highways. As more power plants ship more energy on those lines, the traffic gets so bad that more energy cannot be added unless you pay for extremely expensive upgrades. It's not clear how much extra capacity the transmission lines closes to the Silver State South project have, but Southern California Edison filed regulatory paperwork indicating that it would only accept 230 MW on the transmission lines from First Solar's proposed project.

First Solar is obviously trying to maximize profit potential, designing a project with the hopes that conditions change and it can sell more power at a later date.  The company pretends to have concern for its ecological impacts by making marginal modifcations to its other projects, but its insistence on (over)building a power plant that could indefinitely sever a genetic linkage for an endangered species, instead of looking for alternative locations, shows First Solar's crass disregard for biodiversity.

If First Solar is serious about being a friend of the Earth, it would not be building in the Ivanpah Valley.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sunlight, Camera, Action!

ReWire's Chris Clarke wrote on the winners of a video contest called "Sunlight. Camera. Action." hosted by Environment California, and the winners' videos are awesome.   The point of the contest was to tap the community's creative talent to promote the potential for rooftop solar in Los Angeles.  There are already thousands of rooftop solar installations in Los Angeles, but as these videos show, there is potential (and enthusiasm!) for so much more.

Below are the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners of the video contests:

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Conservation Groups Weigh in on Destructive BrightSource Projects

The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and NRDC have expressed concerns about BrightSource Energy's choice of project sites on desert habitat, recommending that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) reject power purchase agreements (PPA) between BrightSource and Southern California Edison (SCE), according to letters filed with CPUC.  The CPUC was already looking into concerns that BrightSource's projects would sell electricity to the utility company at highly uncompetitive prices when compared to other renewable energy options. BrightSource Energy, which is responsible for displacing or killing hundreds of desert tortoises for its Ivanpah Solar project in the northeastern Mojave Desert, may have trouble financing and building two of its projects if CPUC rejects the PPAs.

Rio Mesa Solar Project Would Batter, Blind and Burn Birds
The Sierra Club's submission to the CPUC expressed concern that BrightSource Energy's proposal to build  the massive Rio Mesa solar project within a significant migratory bird corridor along the Colorado River (known as the Pacific Flyway) will pose a significant risk to birds, which can die in collisions with the thousands of "heliostat" mirrors, be incinerated in super-heated air generated by the facilities, or go blind from exposure to "radiant flux".  The Sierra Club's submission notes that the ecological risks of Rio Mesa Solar could delay the project and make it less viable, and Rio Mesa's highly uncompetitive costs make it less attractive than other clean energy projects that have fewer impacts on desert habitat. According to the Sierra Club's submission, "there continue to be competitive, well-sited renewable energy projects which will not be developed so long as SCE’s portfolio is filled with less-viable, poorly-sited projects."

A screenshot from Avian Mortality at a Solar Energy Power Plant, a study by Michael McCrary and others at a solar power tower plant in California that found these birds burned by the super-heated air generated by the mirrors focusing the suns rays at central points above ground.  The study also found that most birds probably died from collisions with the mirrors.  The study focused on a small 10 megawatt solar power tower project on 72 acres near Barstow, CA.  BrightSource's Rio Mesa project would be many times larger.
According to the California Energy Commission preliminary staff assessment,  CEC staff are very concerned that up to 86 birds could die every week from collisions with mirrors at the Rio Mesa Solar project site based on a study conducted at a smaller solar power tower project that once existed near Barstow, California.  That study was conducted at Solar One, which was not along a major bird migratory corridor.  Rio Mesa would be built along the Pacific Flyway, and would host a mirror surface area 36 times larger than the deadly Solar One project.  The preliminary staff assessment also highlights the risk that birds flying over the Rio Mesa project will suffer eye damage or blindness since the project will create "radiant flux" far above the "maximum permissible exposure" that would damage eyes in less than a quarter of a second. 

A computer rendering of the proposed Rio Mesa Solar project.  The project would destroy about 5.9 square miles of desert habitat in California, not including the additional desert destruction to build new transmission lines and roads for the project.
The CEC also found that the Rio Mesa project would destroy over a square mile of rare microphyll woodland habitat - prime habitat for the rare Gila woodpecker and Elf owl.  This impact is particularly significant because the company is unlikely to find sufficient microphyll woodland habitat to purchase as a mitigation or offset measure.  According to the CEC preliminary staff assessment, the microphyll woodland habitat type "support[s] 85 percent of all bird nests built in the Colorado Desert, despite accounting for only 0.5 percent of the desert land base (McCreedy 2011). "

Siberia Solar Project on Critical Desert Habitat
In a separate letter submitted jointly by the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and NRDC, the groups singled out BrightSource's proposed Siberia Solar project as not viable, in part because of the company's decision to build the project on ecologically intact desert habitat that hosts a number of protected species.   Quoting a US Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion and the Nature Conservancy's Mojave Desert Ecoregional Assessment, the joint letter noted that "[t]he Siberia Project would disrupt an area that falls within a wildlife movement corridor that connects Desert tortoise recovery units located in the Western and Eastern Mojave Desert regions." The letter also cites concerns that the project and its associated transmission facilities would negatively impact foraging habitat for desert bighorn sheep and raptors.  In addition to the threat to birds posed by BrightSource technology at other projects (collision, burning, blinding), the Siberia Solar project would be built adjacent to the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument, which aims to protect sensitive habitat and iconic desert landscapes along the historic Route 66.

It is not clear why Defenders of Wildlife and NRDC did not also sign the Sierra Club submission expressing concern about the Rio Mesa project's environmental impacts.

Wide open desert with the Bullion Mountains in the background, where BrightSource proposes  building its Siberia Solar project.
Industry and Military Also Express Concerns
BrightSource is also receiving push back from the Department of Defense, which is concerned that the Siberia Solar project would curtail training operations at the nearby Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, since the solar power towers could interfere with live fire training exercises.  Separately, the California Wind Energy Association and Western Power Trading Forum expressed opposition to the Siberia and Rio Mesa Solar PPAs, citing the highly uncompetitive costs of the projects and negative impacts on clean energy options that are less costly.

CPUC Deliberations Continue
The CPUC has been deliberating the Rio Mesa and Siberia PPAs throughout the summer and into the fall, and last decided during its 11 October meeting to hold off on a decision pending further review, according to the CPUC website.  The CPUC agenda at the 11 October meeting considered two alternatives, both of which would reject some (but not all) of the Siberia and Rio Mesa PPAs. One of the alternatives under CPUC consideration would approve just half of the Rio Mesa PPA, meaning BrightSource could only afford to build one of the two Rio Mesa solar power towers, and reject the entire Siberia Solar PPA.  

CPUC seems eager to approve at least one BrightSource PPA so the company can develop its molten salt storage capability, which would allow the company to feed a more consistent stream of energy into the grid even after sunset or during cloud cover. BrightSource argues that in order to eventually build the molten salt storage capability it needs to build at least part of Rio Mesa Solar project (even though the Rio Mesa project would not incorporate molten salt storage technology).  Regardless of the molten salt storage capability, BrightSource chose a very bad location for the Rio Mesa and Siberia Solar projects given the anticipated impacts on wildlife, setting the company and ratepayers up for complications during permitting, construction and operation. BrightSource Energy's projects are destructive and more expensive than most other renewable energy projects.  Why should we pay for such inefficiency when there are more environmentally friendly (and cheaper!) renewable energy options?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Race to the Bottom, or to the Roof?

In tonight's Presidential debates, both candidates competed to be the person most willing to open public lands to energy companies. While there is undoubtedly a difference between the candidates on clean energy, neither seems to truly value our wildlands.  What if one of the audience members could ask how the candidates would address the urgent problem of climate change while protecting the iconic landscapes that we love?

Imagine if the candidates were eager to portray themselves as supportive of covering rooftops with solar panels, instead of handing public lands over to big corporations.  We need tax breaks and incentives for individuals to improve energy efficiency and put their rooftops to work, instead of more handouts to the 1%.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Palm Oil

I just read an article online about the destruction of remote rainforests in Sumatra to meet our demand for palm oil, an ingredient in many foods, soaps and cosmetics, according to Rainforest Action Network.  The rainforests being destroyed for palm oil are home to rare orangutans, but that is just one of the most charismatic of thousands of species that are being displaced.  I have never seen an orangutan in the wild (and I have never been to Sumatra), but it's deeply troubling to think that such a wild and beautiful place is being destroyed to feed mindless consumption.  But then again, we destroy mountains in West Virginia for coal, and deserts for solar.  We can rationalize or tolerate so much destruction until we are faced with the consequences.  And since our consumption draws on resources so far away, it is too easy to ignore the true costs.

Consider Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's (LADWP) recent announcement that it signed contracts to purchase solar energy from K Road's Moapa Solar project and Sempra's Copper Mountain Solar 3 project in Nevada.  That's a cause for celebration, right? Clean energy for Los Angelenos that will hopefully replace coal.  But both of these solar facilities are being built hundreds of miles from Los Angeles on beautiful desert landscapes, displacing desert tortoises, kit fox, and rare plants.  The world population is growing, our consumerist demands increasing -- it's time to value sustainability, not convenience. And it's time to stop ignoring true costs.  That bar of soap destroyed a grove of trees that buzzed with a chorus of birds and orangutans in the morning.  That TiVo box coaxes toxic plumes from a coal power plant.  And your TV is slowly slipping money into the pockets of a solar power plant developer that is bulldozing the desert.

If you want to do something about it, learn about the products you consume and their ingredients.  Turn off the lights you are not using. Look into rooftop solar, solar water heating, or demand that your government and utility officials keep clean energy projects on lands that are already-disturbed. Live your life as if you witnessed the destruction and despair caused by each of your decisions.  Positive change will have to come from individuals acting responsibly.  Don't wait for Wall Street to grow a conscience.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

First Solar's Silver State South: Wrong from the Start

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) this month issued a supplemental draft environmental impact statement supporting First Solar's proposed Silver State South solar facility, which would be built on a narrow strip of desert that has also been recognized as a critical desert tortoise connectivity corridor.  BLM intends to approve a modified layout of the solar project that would destroy up to 4.8 square miles of mostly intact desert wildlands between the small gambling outpost of Primm, Nevada and the Lucy Gray Mountains.  The project layout preferred by the BLM appears to ignore a recommendations by the US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS), and Washington is rushing to approve the project before further wildlife connectivity studies are completed.

Project Benefits from Washington's Duplicitous Ivanpah Policy
The Ivanpah Valley has been subject to contradictory Federal actions and decisions that suggest Washington's land stewardship goals in this corner of the northeastern Mojave Desert are incompatible with the energy industry's callous siting decisions and the Obama administrations propensity to cater to corporate wishes on public lands.
  • Interior approved BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar and First Solar's smaller Silver State North projects by 2010, despite characterization of the area by the Nature Conservancy as ecologically important to the health of the Mojave Desert ecosystem, and concerns by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that desert tortoise habitat connectivity should not be disrupted by the massive projects.
  • In early 2011 construction of BrightSource's Ivanpah project was temporarily halted after officials realized the project's impact on desert tortoises would far exceed the initial estimate of 34 animals.  As of August 2012, the project has displaced over 340 desert tortoises from the 5.6 square mile construction area (more tortoises have been handled outside of the construction area), according to a review of compliance documents submitted to the California Energy Commission.  This number is a testament to the high quality habitat in Ivanpah.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended in June 2011 that the BLM prohibit large-scale industrial development in remaining portions of the Ivanpah Valley to maintain habitat connectivity, according to a revised biological opinion. 
  • The final Solar Energy Development Program implemented by Interior this month designates the Ivanpah Valley as an exclusion zone where future solar energy projects would be prohibited because of the ecological importance of the habitat, but the policy includes a loophole that allows earlier project proposals to move forward in the exclusion zone.
Interior Guts ACEC Proposal
Continuing with it's two-faced approach, the Department of Interior is rushing to approve the Silver State South project, even though it will directly conflict with the intent of the Solar Development Program exclusion zones, the desert tortoise recovery plan, and USFWS tortoise connectivity guidelines.  The draft environmental review acknowledges the importance of this area, even though much of it will be destroyed by the project:
"The area that lies between the Silver State North Project and the Lucy Gray Mountains is the most viable linkage between the northern and southern portions of the Ivanpah Valley. It is thought that severing this corridor would effectively isolate the northern portion of the valley from the southern by forcing tortoises to move through passes to the east side of the Lucy Gray Mountains (USFWS 2011)." -- draft environmental impact statement for Silver State South
BLM's compromise is to partially approve a nomination by Basin and Range Watch to designate the Ivanpah Valley as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), explaining that its support fo the ACEC is based on 1.) the need to protect the desert tortoise connectivity corridor and 2.) the presence of rare desert plants.  However, BLM cut out some of the most important lands necessary to maintain tortoise connectivity on desert wildlands between Primm and the Lucy Gray Mountains in order to accommodate the solar project, arguably gutting the ACEC nomination of one of the key reasons for its implementation.  If the solar project is approved, the desert tortoise corridor could be reduced from approximately two miles down to less than two-thirds of a mile.  The USFWS estimates that tortoises need a corridor about 1.4 miles wide to maintain connectivity.

Mojave yucca and creosote bushes on desert wildlands between the gambling outpost of Primm, and the Lucy Gray Mountains (in the distance). Much of the desert pictured here would be destroyed for the Silver State South Solar project.
The map below shows the proposed layout of the Silver State South project, with the solar array depicted in white and gray blocks on what is currently intact desert habitat.  The faint orange outlined area to the east, south and north of the solar array is a modified outline for the ACEC nomination, which was changed substantially to accommodate the solar project on habitat that is most essential to tortoise connectivity.
Silver State South Solar

A study is underway to determine whether higher elevation terrain to the east of the Lucy Gray Mountains also offers a viable linkage, according to the draft environmental impact statement, but the study will not be completed until after the project is likely to be approved.

Conservation Groups Silent or Supportive
Despite the very poor choice of locations by First Solar, and Washington's decision to favor corporate development over proper land stewardship, the reaction from conservation groups thus far has been disappointing, since they have either looked the other way or signaled tacit support.  The Center for Biological Diversity, despite its historical leadership in protecting the desert tortoise, participated in a ceremony last year that celebrated the smaller first phase of the Silver State project, known as Silver State North, (bright green area in the map above), and has not opposed Interior's decision to fast track the larger Silver State South ahead of meaningful connectivity studies.  The local Sierra Club chapter in southern Nevada opposed any conservation measures that might stop the Silver State South project. 

The silence from these conservation groups is tantamount to complicity in what is a significant ecological disaster in the Mojave Desert, with over 12 square miles of wildlands on the chopping block, over 340 tortoises already killed or displaced, and a significant tortoise connectivity corridor in jeopardy.  While some conservation groups are arguing at the national level that solar and wind projects should be located on already-disturbed lands and rooftops, so far only smaller groups, such as Basin and Range Watch and Western Watersheds, have voiced opposition to ill-sited projects in the Ivanpah Valley.

Give Ivanpah a Break
The Bureau of Land Management should favor the No Action Alternative in this case.  Each of the project layouts presented in the draft environmental review would incur substantial and, more importantly, unnecessary harm. The project would impede the desert tortoise recovery, destroy habitat for rare desert plants, and deprive golden eagles and other raptors of foraging territory.  First Solar has  sited projects on already-disturbed lands in the past -- the company's Silver State South project is not worth the harm to our desert ecosystem, or the financial risk that it entails for the company. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Salazar Implements Solar Development Policy

As expected, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar signed the record of decision, officially implementing the Obama administration's Solar Energy Development Program.  For the most part, the policy codifies the status quo -- handing energy corporations wide access to public wildlands.  The initial intent of the policy proposal was to limit the destructive solar energy projects to specific zones, but after intense lobbying by the energy industry, the Obama administration included the option for companies to propose projects on nearly 30,000 square miles of "variance" lands outside of approximately 445 square miles of the solar energy zones.  This wide access to wildlands is the cause of so much concern among conservationists, since energy companies have sought to build on critical desert habitat, instead of already-disturbed lands.

Groups such as the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife suggested development should be limited to the zones, which already provided more land than was needed by the energy industry. Solar Done Right, a coalition of energy and environmental experts, suggested the policy failed to consider the vast potential to site solar energy panels on already-disturbed lands and rooftops.

To add insult to injury, Secretary Salazar's press release ends with a celebration of the record oil and natural gas production on public lands under President Obama.
Today’s action is in line with the President’s direction to continue to expand domestic energy production, safely and responsibly. Since President Obama took office, domestic oil and gas production has increased each year, with domestic oil production at an eight-year high, natural gas production at an all-time high, and foreign oil imports now accounting for less than 50 percent of the oil consumed in America – the lowest level since 1995.-- Department of Interior press release
Continuing to burn fossil fuels and destroy public wildlands is not a sustainable energy path.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Conservation Groups Decry Interior Authorization of Deadly Wind Project

The American Bird Conservancy (ABC), Western Watersheds, and Biological Conservation Alliance issued a statement calling out the Department of Interior for greenwashing its authorization of the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind project,  an industrial energy facility that could prove to be very deadly to golden eagles, and other birds and bats.  I wrote earlier about Interior's celebration that its authorization of the project pushed it past its goal of authorizing 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public wildlands, a rather grim statistic. It is heartening to find groups working to defend our landscapes and wildlife from unnecessary destruction.  We absolutely need renewable energy to displace toxic fossil fuels, but we do not need to sacrifice some of our most special wild.  There are more sustainable alternatives to such callous corporate destruction of nature.

Tortoises Handled by BrightSource Facing Hard Times

BrightSource Energy's negative impact on the desert tortoise population in the northeastern Mojave Desert continues to be felt, as tortoises removed from their burrows to make way for bulldozers or other construction equipment continue to go missing or die.  As of August, three tortoises translocated from BrightSource holding pens, and four others recently handled by BrightSource crews have been killed -- at least six of them by coyotes.  The translocated tortoises probably were more vulnerable to predators and other environmental factors after being displaced from their habitat to make way for BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar project.   In May the company reported to the California Energy Commission that six tortoises held in BrightSource's pens went missing, while several tortoises died last year after being attacked by ants in the pens.

Biologists have warned that tortoises relocated from their home territory can be more susceptible to predation, may have difficulty finding water, or may expose themselves to heat or predators as they try and return to their home territory. Translocation of tortoises is simply not an effective measure to mitigate for the impacts of giant solar facilities on intact desert wildlands.

The hundreds of tortoises displaced or handled by the company to make way for the project are just part of the environmental destruction caused by the project.  In July, a female Cooper's hawk was found dead in an area cleared to make way for thousands of mirrors in phase 2 of the project.  The compliance report does not state how close the nearest heliostat mirror was to the dead raptor, which had trauma to its right wing.  

Dozens of bird nests have been lost as desert plants are mowed down, including those of cactus wrens, loggerhead shrike, Le Conte's thrashers, sparrows and ash-throated flycatchers.  A couple of nests remain in phases 1 and 2, whereas more nests still await destruction in phase 3, which has not yet completed vegetation clearing.  Golden eagles have been spotted flying over the BrightSource project site, which used to serve as foraging grounds for the raptors.

The map above submitted by BrightSource Energy to the California Energy Commission shows the locations of remaining bird nests on the project site that will eventually be destroyed.  Many others were found and destroyed during initial vegetation clearing for phases 1 and 2 last year.
Even more mammal burrows--including burrows for kit fox, badgers, and rabbits -- have been discovered and then excavated by BrightSource crews.

This map shows the locations of mammal burrows found throughout the Ivanpah Solar project site over the past year, although many others were identified and excavated before this year. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Interior Celebrates Grim Statistic

The Department of Interior reached its goal of approving 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects on public lands this week.  As people across the globe look for places to install solar panels in their cities or on already-disturbed lands, Washington DC has decided that it will stick to the tired tradition of feeding our energy addiction by destroying beautiful landscapes.

The Sierra Madre/Chokecherry Wind project in Wyoming --the project that pushed Interior over the 10,000 MW mark -- is very representative of the unsustainable direction our industrial renewable energy policy is taking.  It will destroy and fragment nearly 355 square miles of Wyoming wildlands, and scientists estimate that it could kill as many as 5,400 birds and 6,300 bats each year Wyoming's air and water were already sacrificed to the natural gas and coal industries, now even more pristine lands and wildlife will be lost. The customers of this energy could be hundreds of miles away, requiring new transmission lines and even more destruction.

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.
Every megawatt of energy produced on top of once-intact ecosystems is another megawatt following an outdated energy model; a model that subjugates rather than celebrates landscapes and wildlife. It is a model that calls on the same big corporations and banks that got us hooked on carbon to bail us out, and gives them a free pass to do what they do best -- destroy nature. 

We celebrate 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public wildlands as Germany celebrates over 25,000 megawatts of solar on rooftops, and Australia has over 750,000 homes with solar panels. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Algodones Dunes Lose Protection

The Bureau of Land Management finalized its Recreation Area Management Plan for the Imperial Sand Dunes  (a.k.a. Algodones Dunes) last month, stripping nearly 40 square miles of fragile dune ecosystem of its area of critical environmental concern status and prioritizing motorized recreation over ecosystem sustainability. The decision is expected to imperil vast swaths of microphyll woodland and psammophytic scrub habitat, which host many rare plant and insect species, including many that are only found in the Algodones Dunes.

Before BLM modified its management of the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, off-highway vehicle (OHV) riders had unrestricted access to 137 square miles of the dunes, and limited access to 81 square miles, for a total recreation area almost 7 times larger than Manhattan.  The new plan will expand the unrestricted OHV area to 199 square miles, and cut the protected habitat from 117 square miles to 54.

The decision comes as land managers are still working to determine how to protect desert ecosystems throughout California as industrial, military and recreational burdens surge.  The BLM late least year authorized the nearby Ocotillo Express Wind project on nearly 16 square miles of habitat, and  the State and Federal authorities are considering permitting BrightSource Energy's Rio Mesa Solar project, the McCoy Solar project, and a redesign for the Blythe Solar project.

This photo from the biological report submitted by BrightSource to the CEC shows the palo verde and ironwood (microphyll) woodland habitat found on the Rio Mesa site.
Of significance, the revised dune management plan and each of the three major solar projects proposed for nearby desert wildlands will destroy significant amounts of rare microphyll woodland woodland habitat - which typically contains a mix of ironwood and palo verde trees.  According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, microphyll woodland habitat only constitutes about 0.5% of the desert land base, and yet it is estimate to host 85% of bird nests in the Colorado/Sonoran Desert.  Bird surveys conducted for the dune management plan found that bird species diversity and abundance is significantly higher in the areas of the Algodones Dunes that are closed to OHV users.  Birds likely to be negatively affected by the plan include the northern harrier, Gila woodpecker, and Costa's hummingbird.

A small portion of the previously protected area (9,046 acres) will remain closed to OHV traffic in order to protect natural communities available to visitors for wildlife viewing and other non-motorized recreation. The BLM probably will have difficulty protecting this area from errant OHV riders.

A time elapsed photo shows the head and tail lights of dozens of OHVs at the Imperial Sand Dunes in California.  The intense use of the dunes by OHV riders easily disrupts and destroys fragile habitat. Photo from BLM presentation to the Desert Advisory Council.