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BrightSource Energy Design Too Risky for Wildlife

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BrightSource Energy's plans to build the Palen Solar power project in the California desert were cast in doubt last week when the California Energy Commission (CEC) proposed to deny a permit for the facility because of its impacts on wildlife.  The denial could spell doom for BrightSource Energy, which has invested heavily in a solar power plant design that has become notorious for its troubling impacts on wildlife -  destroying rare plants and habitat for terrestrial wildlife, and burning birds to death.
BrightSource's Palen project would involve thousands of mirrors spread out over nearly 5.9 square miles to focus the sun's energy to heat boilers on the top of two towers - each over 750 feet tall.  The focused energy would create super-heated pockets of air; the super-heated air created at the company's Ivanpah Solar project in the Mojave Desert has already killed dozens of birds. BrightSource paid experts and lawyers to urge the CEC to approve its Palen Solar pro…

BLM Could Leave Key New Mexico Wildlands Open to Energy Development

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published the draft environmental review for a plan that determines how it will manage nearly 2.8 million acres of public lands in three large counties in southern New Mexico, including the beautiful Otero Mesa grasslands.  Unfortunately, the BLM's preferred alternative would leave much of the region vulnerable to oil and natural gas drilling, including areas identified by conservation groups as needing protection.  According to the Wilderness Society:
"The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has identified more than 700,000 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics in the tri-county area; yet BLM only found 11,917 acres as meeting the criteria to be considered lands with wilderness characteristics and only proposed to protect 803 acres." -the Wilderness SocietyIndecision on Oil and Gas Prompts Uncertainty
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that the BLM's land use plan would defer a decision on how to handle oil and gas drilling o…

Department of Interior Favors Industry Over Wildlife in New Rule

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The Department of Interior finalized a new rule extending permits for wind energy facilities to kill bald and golden eagles in a move that could encourage even more wind energy development in eagle habitat.   Interior's issuance of the new rule caps a public review process that started last year, and extends eagle "take" permits -- permission to kill or harass protected bald and golden eagles -- from 5 years to 30 years.  The rule provides the wind industry with assurances it needs to finance and build sprawling energy projects in areas where eagle mortality is more likely, even though efforts to offset eagle losses are still experimental or speculative.  The American Bird Conservancy, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, and others have expressed concern about Interior's decision.

The final rule includes some concessions to conservation groups, such as requiring wind companies to report the mortality rates of eagles at new project sites,  but wind facilities are…

California Does Not Need More Fossil Fuels

The California Public Utilities Commission is considerng whether to offset the loss of the failed San Onofre nuclear power plant with new natural gas power plants.  San Onofre's twin reactors generated over 2,250 megawatts of electricity.  We will need to take affirmative steps to offset the loss of that generating capacity, but we should find the most sustainable way to fill this gap without creating more environmental problems. 

As the Sierra Club notes, replacing San Onofre with natural gas plants is unnecessary because energy forecasts for California indicate that roughly half of San Onofre's generating capacity will be offset with energy efficiency gains; we can fill the rest of the gap with improvements in transmission or added rooftop solar capacity in the Los Angeles basin.  Consider that solar panels on California rooftops already generate over 1,880 megawatts of  clean energy.  Instead of wasting ratepayer money on new fossil fuel plants that will pollute our commu…

Waking up to the Solar Power Tower Threat

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As BrightSource Energy began to bulldoze approximately 5.6 square miles of pristine desert to build its Ivanpah Solar power project, we quickly learned the impact on terrestrial species - rare wildflowers, long-lived yucca plants, and desert tortoises were displaced or killed.   Now that the Ivanpah Solar project is powering on, thousands of mirrors focusing the sun's rays at three towers have burned or battered dozens of birds in the first couple of months of becoming operational.  Chris Clarke with KCET's ReWire has been reporting on the troubling new trend - dead birds being found after colliding with mirrors or burning to death in super-heated air over the project.  We need to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, but we need to do so in a way that minimizes (not expands) the human threat to ecosystems and wildlife.  The vast majority of BrightSource Energy's negative impacts on wildlife could have been avoided if we invested more in solar panels on rooftops, or…

Conservation Groups Warn Against Approval of Ivanpah Projects

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Defenders of Wildlife this month warned the Department of Interior that its pending approval of two large-scale solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley would destroy irreplaceable desert habitat and degrade an important wildlife linkage, despite smarter alternatives.  In a separate letter, the Nature Conservancy noted that Interior's approval of the projects would ignore science-based guidance on how to manage public lands and minimize impacts of energy projects.

The two solar projects - First Solar's Silver State South and Sateline projects - would be built on the California-Nevada border on a narrow corridor of habitat that connects different populations of the beleaguered desert tortoise.  A loss or degradation of this habitat linkage would make it more difficult for the desert tortoise to recover from the downward spiral it has experienced over the last half century, and erode its resilience as it faces a host of human threats, including climate change.  Conservationists argu…

Mount Charleston Blue Butterfly

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Mount Charleston blue butterfly as endangered in September, which should result in more resources to protect this species from vanishing.  The Mt. Charleston blue butterfly is only known to occur in the higher reaches of the Spring Mountains in Nevada, west and northwest of Las Vegas. 

The butterfly's population is likely declining, although information gaps preclude us from quantifying its population trends.  The species is believed to be extirpated from six of 16 locations that it has been known to inhabit, and it is only "presumed" to occupy eight of the 10 other locations.  In other words, it may exist in 10 relatively confined locations throughout the mountains, but for eight of those locations it probably has only a tentative existence, at best.

The butterfly faces a threat from climate change - more extreme precipitation and drought patterns are expected in the southwest - and collecting by poachers.  Because of threa…

Interior Rolling the Dice on Future of the Desert Tortoise

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) biological opinion provides a seemingly conflicted and reluctant expression of support for the Silver State South solar project on the basis of mitigation measures that it admits may not offset the damage done by the project to the viability of a key habitat linkage for the desert tortoise.  The biological opinion is FWS' contribution to the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) environmental review of the Silver State South project, and evaluates how the project will impact the desert tortoise.   Perhaps to speed approval of the project, the opinion glosses over a significant potential consequence of the project - local extirpation of the desert tortoise population in the Ivanpah Valley.


The Silver State South solar project would be built at the pinch point of the hour-glass shaped Ivanpah Valley, and potentially isolate two populations of the desert tortoise; both the BLM and FWS acknowledge that "current research does not i…

Solar Decathlon Where It Belongs

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The Solar Decathlon is being held in California at long last.  The competition was first held in 2002, and features homes powered by rooftop solar panels, and built by teams from across the country and overseas competing to be the most sustainable in various categories.  The overall winning team must design and build a home that meets the following general criteria:

Is affordable, attractive, and easy to live inMaintains comfortable and healthy indoor environmental conditionsSupplies energy to household appliances for cooking, cleaning, and entertainmentProvides adequate hot waterProduces as much or more energy than it consumes. Consider the "DesertSol" entry designed and built by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).  The DeserSol house uses a solar thermal system to heat water and the home itself, photovoltaic panels to supply energy, and advanced engineering that reduces framing materials by nearly 20%.  The entry will be on display at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve …

Silver State South Solar Nears Approval; Problems Loom

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Tbe Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in September released the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Silver State South solar project, which would destroy approximately 3.7 square miles of intact desert habitat. Although the direct impact on wildlife may not compare to BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar project, the Silver State South project almost certainly will have significant long-term effects on the ability of the desert tortoise to maintain habitat connectivity.



The BLM’s preferred alternative supports the solar project, and secondarily designates an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) to protect the desert tortoise habitat that First Solar does not want to destroy.  The ACEC is a welcomed sweetener, but still does not override the bitterness that arises from the fact that destruction of habitat for the solar project is completely unnecessary since the solar panels would be just as happy on already-disturbed lands somewhere else in the state.  Tortoises,…

First Solar Supports Utility Company War on Rooftop Solar

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First Solar, the company destroying several square miles of desert habitat to build solar facilities on pristine desert wildlands,  sided with utilities companies seeking to limit the expansion of rooftop solar in a regulatory filing this month.  First Solar's move is not surprising because the panels it manufactures and uses at its large solar facilities are not very efficient, and typically are not used in rooftop solar installations.  The company depends on monopolistic utility companies to buy energy from its projects, funds anti-environment politicians, and has insisted on building a large project that biologists have warned will degrade habitat connectivity for the threatened desert tortoise.

 But First Solar's move is bold - the company complains that rooftop solar installations place an unfair burden on other ratepayers, ignoring the fact that First Solar executives' pay checks are subsidized by taxpayers; the company's large projects are supported by Federal l…

Do We Need Another Transmission Line in the High Desert?

Southern California Edison (SCE) is planning to invest upwards of one billion dollars in new transmission lines through Lucerne Valley, connecting substations in the Barstow area to Hesperia.  Never mind that the utility already has three existing major transmission pathways through the region, in addition to lines owned by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).  SCE argues in its application to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that the "Coolwater-Lugo" transmission upgrade is needed to alleviate a bottleneck on the lines running from Kramer Junction to Hesperia, and to provide interconnection for up to 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy development.

Although some of the new line would run along an existing transmission corridor, the utility would add nearly 15 miles of lines along a new corridor following Barstow Road before veering northwest to join another LADWP corridor, further entangling otherwise scenic desert with industrial-scale develo…

BrightSource Palen Solar Project Moving Through Environmental Review

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The California Energy Commission (CEC) this month published part of its Final Staff Assessment for BrightSource Energy's Palen Solar power project.  After evidentiary hearings this fall, the CEC plans to decide whether to approve the project proposed for the Chuckwalla Valley between Indio and Blythe, resulting in the destruction of up to 5.9 square miles of desert habitat that currently hosts kit foxes, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, and burrowing owls.  Biologists are concerned that the project would not only disrupt sand transport through the valley that sustains fringe-toed lizard habitat, but also pose a collision and burn risk to a variety of birds, from golden eagles to the endangered Yuma clapper rail.
The size of the project is difficult to imagine, so I provide a comparison of the project footprint (red overlay, below) to the city of Palm Springs.  BrightSource Energy says the facility would generate 500 megawatts of energy through steam boilers positioned on two 750-foot t…

Will the California Legislature Save or Punish Ratepayers?

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California's legislature is considering a bill (A.B. 327) that may solidify the monopoly status of investor-owned utility companies by charging all ratepayers a fixed fee.  Not only would this unfairly penalize ratepayers who invest their own money to make their homes and businesses energy efficient, it would strangle nascent efforts to democratize our energy grid with rooftop solar.  California ratepayers are already being taken to the bank by utility companies; each utility collects a guaranteed return of over 10% from ratepayers.  No matter what they build or destroy, they can earn a profit.  Even when utility companies make bad decisions, they expect to be compensated and rewarded.  For example, now that Southern California Edison shut down its failed nuclear plant at San Onofre, it wants to collect 2.4 billion dollars from ratepayers, enough money to pay for its misguided investment and earn at least 5.5% extra. 


Apparently utility companies don't want to give up this go…

DRECP Public Meetings

If you want to have your voice heard regarding the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) - a Federal and state effort to figure out the appropriate locations for large-scale renewable energy development in California's desert - you will have your chance on Friday, September 6, and Saturday, September 7.   As noted in the Desert Sun, the meetings will afford the public a chance to provide input to the planners.  The plan will identify areas for conservation, and areas for renewable energy development.  Speak up in favor of expanded conservation protection for our desert wildlands, and for renewable energy on rooftops and already-disturbed lands.  There is no need to for industry to destroy more wild places when we have a more sustainable alternative.

Meeting details:
Lucerne When: 6:30-9:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Lucerne Valley Elementary School, 10788 Barstow Road

Yucca Valley When: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Yucca Valley Community Center, 57090 29 Palms Highway
Informati…

Mojave Soundscape

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I've written recently about the desert's visual resources. The term itself - visual resources - seems so inadequate; as if you could actually quantify the serenity and beauty of a desert landscape.  The Mojave Desert has a soundtrack that is equally difficult to capture.  When I'm not in the desert, I can at least enjoy the photos I took of the landscapes, but my cheap camera microphone is never going to pick up all of the beautiful sounds.   I have tried using the video function on my camera to record the sound of the coyotes in the distance, but I'm left with a couple of faint yips drowned out by the breeze hitting the microphone.

Luckily a pair of naturalists, Sarah Koschak and Andrew Skeoch, travel the world recording the sounds of nature, and compiled sounds from the Mojave Desert in an album available on their website.   Sarah wrote about realizing her wish to camp amongst Joshua trees under a starry sky, and listening to the yip of the coyotes.  Near the Gran…

Fighting for Local Clean Energy

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I wrote earlier this week about a misguided approach to clean energy that accepts - and applauds - the unnecessary destruction of our wildlands.  Until we change the system, we will continue to be at the mercy of giant and monopolistic utility companies whose business model involves the destruction of our environment and health.

Well here is an opportunity to change the system.  The Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign in California is stepping up its efforts against utility companies, and you will have an opportunity to join the fight on August 21.  Why?  Because utility companies are lobbying California legislators to prevent the expansion of rooftop solar programs, including a bill that would have brought rooftop solar and jobs to underrepresented communities.  Apparently utility companies want us to obediently pay our electric bills and let them decide where, and how to generate our electricity.  This is a new age, however, and solar allows average folks like you and I to becom…