Saturday, December 29, 2012

Small Solar Adds Up

The Los Angeles Times published a great article this weekend explaining the virtues of smaller distributed solar generation on rooftops and on disturbed lands in our cities. Distributed generation is a cheaper clean energy solution for ratepayers than big solar on remote desert wildlands, saving money and the climate. We can overcome roadblocks to more wide scale deployment of solar on rooftops and in our cities by cutting administrative red tape at the local level, and encouraging Washington to lift the Federal Housing Finance Agency's hold on Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), which would allow homeowners to finance rooftop solar through their own propert tax assessments.

As the LA Times explains, utility companies profit from the large and destructive desert solar plants, which is why they have opposed efforts to encourage solar in our cities by blocking legislation that could make rooftop solar more accessible to residents and small businesses:
Built in far-flung locations where there is plenty of open land, large-scale plants require utilities to put up extensive transmission lines to connect to the grid.  By comparison, small-scale plants can be built near population centers and provide power directly to consumers, reducing the demand for electricity from the grid.
Our renewable energy policies should be focused on the most efficient and environmentally responsible clean energy avenue -- distributed generation.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Shrinking Silver State South

As I mentioned in a previous post, First Solar's application to build the Silver State South solar project on public land in the Ivanpah Valley does not add up.  Southern California Edison only wants to buy 250 megawatts (MW) of energy from the facility, and provided a large generator interconnection agreement (permission to use transmission lines) for 230MW, yet First Solar asked BLM for permission to build a 350 MW facility. That is at least 100 MW of solar facility that may not even be economically feasible.

The math means a lot because the Silver State South project would be built at one of the narrowest points of the Ivanpah Valley, which serves as an important habitat linkage for the threatened desert tortoise.  A bigger solar facility equates to a narrower (or non-existent) habitat linkage.  A weak or non-existent habitat linkage means this species may lose genetic diversity and resilience needed to face continuing threats to its recovery, including disease, habitat loss, and climate change.

Although the draft supplemental EIS does not consider a 250 megawatt alternative, I figured I would play with the footprint of the 350MW alternative on Google Earth to see what a notional 250MW layout might look like, and how much desert wildlands could be saved.  I calculated the number of acres per megawatt by dividing the total acreage for the BLM's preferred layout -- including the permanent and "temporary" disturbance for the drainage basins -- by 350 MW.  That leaves us with roughly 9.26 acres per megawatt, including drainage basins.  So a 250 MW alternative could be about 2,317 acres -- possibly a bit more, or a bit less depending on how an altered layout changes the drainage basin requirement.  But shaving that acreage off of the eastern edge, which obstructs the habitat linkage, could give us nearly a mile wide corridor.  That is double the corridor allowed by the proposed 350MW alternative.

(Click on image to expand)  A comparison of the proposed 350 megawatt Silver State South solar project (magenta outline), and a notional layout for a 250MW alternative (blue outline).  The notional 250 MW facility could provide a much wider habitat linkage for the desert tortoise, and save more rare plants and foraging habitat for desert wildlife.
Ivanpah Valley is not the place to maximize destruction and corporate profit.  First Solar should go back to the drawing board, and hopefully the BLM will consider a more robust conservation alternative.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Cost of Coal

The Sierra Club launched its Cost of Coal campaign, taking a look at the toll of this fossil fuel on our communities and ecosystems.  One of the videos features Kami Miller, who lives in the northeastern Mojave Desert town of Moapa, Nevada in the shadow of the Reid Gardner Coal plant.  A study by the Sierra Club earlier this year found that energy efficiency investments by the utility company -- NV Energy -- would allow them to shut down all four coal burners at Reid Gardner, and save customers $59 million over 20 years.  Efficiency, distributed generation, and larger solar facilities on already-disturbed land can responsibly and sustainably break our addiction to coal.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

BLM Takes Another Piecemeal Step in Ivanpah

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in late November issued the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for First Solar's Stateline Solar power project, only a month after issuing the Silver State South Solar DEIS -- both projects would be built in the Ivanpah Valley.  The BLM's draft documents lay out a plan allowing First Solar to bulldoze approximately 8 square miles of ecologically intact desert habitat, but fails to present a credible conservation strategy and overlooks other major developments on the horizon in this corner of the Mojave Desert.

This Google Earth image shows the BLM's preferred layout of First Solar's Stateline solar power project, covering nearly 3.4 square miles.  The BLM estimates that the project could kill or displace 32 desert tortoises, although a higher estimate of 88 tortoises is also possible.  Rare plant species likely occurring on the site include Rusby's desert-mallow, Mojave milkweed, and the small-flowered androstephium.
The BLM only proposes token conservation measures in the documents --  establishing an area of critical environmental concern (ACEC) that arguably does not even preserve habitat connectivity for the Federally-listed desert tortoise (see my last post), and an extension of a desert wildlife management area (DWMA).  Both land use changes provide substantial carve-outs for the ill-sited solar projects, rendering the conservation steps meaningless toward their original intent of preserving a north-south genetic linkage for the desert tortoise, and preserving special status plant populations.  The massive loss of habitat is sure to impact other species, removing foraging habitat for raptors and bighorn sheep active in the area.

The Google Earth image below (also available in a larger PDF at the bottom of this post) depicts the locations and footprints of some of the more substantial projects built, under construction or proposed for the Ivanpah Valley and vicinity.

Click on image to expand

Although the BLM's analysis of the Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects acknowledges other foreseeable projects in the Ivanpah Valley -- including the Desert Xpress rail line and the Southern Nevada Supplemental Airport -- it misses developments that could be potentially more damaging.
  • The BLM's analysis does not account for a proposed transmission and natural gas line that would traverse desert habitat just north of Primm, Nevada and connect Brightsource Energy's Hidden Hills Solar project (over 30 miles away) to existing transmission and natural gas lines in the Ivanpah Valley and El Dorado Valley. 
  • The BLM does not evaluate plans by Elissa Resources to mine rare earth elements on the eastern edge of the Ivanpah Valley -- the company drilled 21 core samples this summer that revealed "significant" deposits.  If the company begins larger scale mining operation, extensive surface disturbance, water usage, and natural gas and power facilities may be required. 
  • Partially overlapping with the Elissa Resources mining claims, Oak Creek Energy Systems plans to install over 220 wind turbines for the proposed Crescent Peak Wind project along the eastern edge of the Ivanpah Valley and adjacent to the South McCullough Wilderness.
The Department of Interior is showing that it is more interested in saying yes to corporate interests than acting as a responsible steward of our public lands and the biodiversity of our desert ecosystem.

A downloadable PDF version of the map included above.
Ivanpah Cumulative Projects Graphic

Sunday, December 2, 2012