Sunday, September 15, 2013

BrightSource Palen Solar Project Moving Through Environmental Review

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.
[Click on image to expand] The Palen Solar power project would destroy up to 5.9 square miles of creosote bush and dune habitat. Palen mountains, home to raptor nests, can be seen in this Google Earth image northeast of the project site.
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 tall towers, as well as supplemental natural gas turbines.

[Click on image to expand] This is the footprint of the 5.9 square mile Palen Solar power project overlayed on the city of Palm Springs for comparison.  That is how much desert habitat will be destroyed over the next couple of years to build the project, if it is approved. The area will be covered with large heliostats - mirrors the size of garage doors - that reflect the sun's rays onto the towers to heat up steam boilers and generate energy. 
One of the significant impacts of the Palen Solar project identified in the CEC's Final Staff Assessment is the damage to visual resources.  The two towers will be visible from miles away to those seeking solitude and an escape to wildlands, including in Joshua Tree National Park and two wilderness areas.  Two 750 foot tall towers rising from the middle of the open desert is difficult to imagine , but for comparison, the towers would dwarf the Washington Monument, and tie for the third tallest buildings in Los Angeles.
The red cylinder to the left rises to 750 feet, the same height and dimensions as the "power towers" that will be constructed at the Palen Solar project site.  These towers will dominate the desert view, just as they would dominate the Washington skyline, as can be seen in this side-by-side comparison to the Washington Monument, above.

The project's thousands of mirrors are likely to appear as a lake or other body of water to shorebirds from far away, attracting them to their deaths.  This is a growing concern after various species of birds were found dead or dying at other solar projects earlier this year, according to KCET, including the endangered Yuma clapper rail.  What this means is that the project's impacts may extend beyond the species that normally forage in the area, and include species that use riparian habitat much further away.  The CEC staff assessment responded to public concern on this danger by explaining that there is a lack of available data on this impact to birds; despite this lack of understanding, it appears the CEC is ready to give the project approval.

BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project pictured above produces a glare that not only distracts from the natural landscape, it can appear as a body of water to some birds, like the reflection of the sun on a lake.  Birds may spot this perceived water feature and travel from far away, only to expose themselves to risk of collision or burning.

For birds that do find themselves flying over the project site, the dangers are numerous.  Birds may be exhausted from flying to the solar project only to find no water, while most bird mortality is likely to be caused by collision with the tens of thousands of large mirrors that will be installed.   Just as birds collide with reflective skyscraper windows that appear as open sky,  BrightSource Energy's mirrors will likely confuse birds flying through the project site.  Probably the worst fate will be for the birds unlucky enough to fly through the project's "solar flux," super-heated air that will burn birds to death or damage their feathers enough to prevent them from flying.

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 Energy's Palen Solar power project will be over 3,700 acres larger than the project studied earlier.
The proposed Palen Solar site also hosts active kit fox dens. This species is under threat from a canine distemper outbreak from NextEra's Genesis Solar project site nearby. At least 11 of the animals have been found dead and tested positive for the disease, according to the staff assessment.  Testing by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has shown that some of the surviving kit foxes in the vicinity of the Palen Solar project site may have been exposed to distemper - if the foxes are evicted from their dens they could expose other populations of the animal to the disease and contribute to its spread.

The project will also be built along a natural sand transport corridor, where wind carries sand from one dune system to another.  Disrupting this natural cycle would affect not only the dune habitat on the project site, but downwind, as well. 

A younger Mojave fringe-toed lizard photographed at the Mojave National Preserve (Kelso Dunes).  This species prefers sandy dune habitat found on the site of the Palen Solar power project.
You can download the Part A of the Final Staff Assessment at this link [PDF, large file], and send specific comments to the CEC for consideration at the CEC e-comment website.








2 comments:

  1. Great blog and post. Important information. Well done!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great blog and post. Important information. Well done!

    ReplyDelete