Thursday, January 31, 2013

Solutions at Home

How often do you find yourself looking outside for solutions to our environmental crises -- Federal regulation, conservation of wildlands, and the greening of industry.  These are all efforts that need to be pursued, but I end up spending so much time reading NEPA analysis or sending in public comments on proposed projects that I may lose sight of what is truly within my power to change.  That is why it was refreshing to learn that the US Green Building Council, and the Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign and San Gorgonio Chapter sponsored a home energy efficiency seminar in Southern California.  The seminar is part of a series that will focus on increasing awareness of efficiency and local clean energy (i.e. rooftop solar) solutions in underserved communities.  I hope to have advanced notice of future seminars in this series, and I will advertise them here on the blog.

An audience in Redlands learns how they can save both money and the environment by making their homes more energy efficient.
In the face of environmental disaster -- particularly energy sources that destroy our wildlands and pollute our air -- I felt that my current level of effort on energy efficiency was inadequate,  and decided to tap whatever resources are available to me to "green" my life.  I decided I was needed to balance my external focus with efforts at home.  It's a work in progress, but I started with the lights in my apartment.  I replaced four 75+ watt incandescent bulbs with two 17 watt, and two 10 watt Philips LED bulbs.   A couple hundred watts of energy use is not significant in the grand scheme of things, but being part of the problem means I need to be part of the solution.  If every 60W bulb in the US was replaced with a 10W bulb, we would avoid over 20 million metric tons of carbon emissions, and significantly reduce our electricity demand by 35 terawatt-hours of electricity.

This is a 10 watt LED bulb that I used to replace a 100+ watt bulb. Don't judge the quality of the light by this photo - the camera automatically adjusted the exposure.  The light output is actually much better than a CFL bulb and, in my opinion, better than the incandescent that it replaced.
When it comes to lighting and appliances, it is not just about buying more efficient products, but remembering to turn them off when they are not needed.  This is probably the most basic level of efficiency improvement.  There is more work to do at home, including weatherizing doors and windows, replacing larger appliances, such as water heaters and air conditioners. It starts with awareness, though, which is why seminars like the one held by the Green Building Council and Sierra Club earlier this week are so important.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sierra Club Senior Staff Dismissive of Industry Impacts

Pet cats kill 1.4 to 3.7  billion birds in the US each year, according to a study conducted by scientists with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service.  This is a significant problem that bird conservation groups have tried to address for years, although the revised numbers are very startling.   Unfortunately, this disaster is used by some industry advocates to belittle another cause of avian mortality -- wind turbines.  Sierra Club senior editor Paul Rauber broadcast a Tweet and a blog post this week giving credence to this false logic, implying that if one cause of bird mortality is significantly greater than another, the lesser cause can be ignored.

In a Tweet featuring a chart comparing annual bird mortality by wind turbines to bird mortality by cats, Mr. Rauber stated: "If bird fatalities are an argument against wind power, say goodbye first to Puss."  Mr. Rauber apparently found the infographic from another organization's tweet, which read: "The next time someone tells me wind energy is too "dangerous", I'm going to whip out this infographic."  Mr. Rauber also referenced the graphic on a Sierra Club blog post.  Using Mr. Rauber's faulty logic, one could argue that hammers kill more people than assault rifles, so there is no point in regulating access to assault rifles (a sad distraction actually employed by some misguided folks, including Fox News).

The Sierra Club is viewed broadly by its hundreds of thousands of followers and members as a vanguard of conservation.  It is simply irresponsible for the Sierra Club's senior staff to belittle over 440,000 birds killed by the wind energy industry each year, especially when other elements of the Sierra Club trying to encourage responsible siting are being ignored by the wind industry.  What guarantee do we have that the Sierra Club takes its responsibility to guide the renewable energy industry seriously if some of its staff are willing to give the wind industry a free pass on account of the fact that turbines kill less birds than cats?

There is actually a lot more we need to learn about the wind industry's impacts on birds and bats, but the wind industry has been reluctant to cooperate with studies, and has even attempted to gloss over its impacts by co-opting conservation and wildlife groups, according to American Wind Energy Association strategy documents.  The estimate that wind turbines kill 440,000 birds in the US each year is expected to climb to more than a million as the energy industry installs more turbines, and this number does not include bat mortality, which probably exceeds the annual number of bird deaths. A single wind facility in Pennsylvania killed more than 10,000 bats in one year.

If we're going to build a truly sustainable clean energy future, we have to hold all industry accountable to high standards.  Ignoring the wind industry's impacts should not be an option for the Sierra Club, because we're ushering in a new industry that will hopefully replace fossil fuels.  It is our responsibility to make sure  we're not replacing one ecological disaster with another.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Rooftop Solar Reaffirmed

I wrote last weekend about a last minute motion by three Los Angeles City Council members who sought to kill a feed-in-tariff proposed by the city's utility company, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).  I am happy to report that the motion was not approved, and the feed-in-tariff will survive (thanks to the folks who went to the council meeting and spoke up, and for the supportive council members!).  The feed-in-tariff is hopefully one of LADWP's initial steps toward generating more clean energy locally, and relying less on far away power plants that destroy desert wildlands.

Wall Street Eyes Rooftop Revolution
Also this week, a report released by financial services firm UBS made waves.  The company assessed that rooftop solar's growth in Europe is about to boom (keep in mind, Germany alone has already installed thousands of megawatts of rooftop solar). Because the cost of energy from rooftop solar panels is now cheaper than energy from the grid in some European countries, UBS wrote: "[p]urely based on economics, we believe almost every family home and every commercial rooftop in Germany, Italy and Spain should be equipped with a solar system by the end of this decade.”  UBS assesses that Germany could add an additional 80,000 megawatts of mostly rooftop solar without subsidies.

The US will not be left out of what UBS calls the "unsubsidized solar revolution."  By 2016, solar will match the price of grid electricity in enough cities that homes and business could install over 100,000 megawatts of rooftop solar, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  Within ten years we could see over 300,000 megawatts of rooftop solar at grid parity.

Fight for Local Clean Energy
But the rooftop revolution will not be easy, and we still have a lot more work to do.  It is important that you continue to speak up in community forums and encourage policymakers in support of the tools we need to deploy more local clean energy:
  • Accessibility:  Rooftop solar is not a luxury -- most California rooftop solar installations are in median-income neighborhoods, according to the California Public Utilities Commission -- but we have more work to do to make solar affordable for all.  The California legislature is considering "on-bill repayment," which would allow home and business owners to install solar panels and pay off the cost over time through installments on their utility bill.  Hawaii's Governor also wants to implement this mechanism to bring "solar for all."  In Washington, we are working to cut Federal red tape on property assessed clean energy (PACE), which is another way for people to finance their own rooftop solar panels.
  • Permit Costs: We need to cut "soft costs" for solar to make sure the cost of installing solar panels continues to fall.  Most of this involves streamlining local permits issued by the town where the solar panels are installed.  The Department of Energy is attempting to address this issue across the country with its SunShot initiative, and Sierra Club volunteers in California have analyzed variations in municpal permit costs.
  • Interconnection: Utility companies are fighting back against rooftop solar.  They claim that too many rooftop solar panels can destabilize the grid. They would rather we stick with the old model of centralized power plants shipping energy to us from far away, gauranteeing utility companies a healthy profit margin.  Many states have an arbitrary cap on the number of rooftop solar systems, and will try to impose costly studies on rooftop solar installations that exceed the cap. It's time to lift that cap and streamline any necessary studies. 
  • Feed-in-tariffs:  Utility companies pay high prices when they buy energy from coal, wind and solar facilities built far away from the city.  Then they pay more money to build and maintain transmission lines.  If a household with rooftop solar panels feeds extra energy into the grid, they should be paid for their energy, too.  This is a payment or credit to the rooftop solar owner known as a feed-in-tariff.  Utility companies don't like this idea because they would rather take your money, and not give it back to you.
Efficiency and Conservation First
Local clean energy generation is necessary to replace old fossil fuel plants, but if you are not ready for rooftop solar, there is something else you can be doing.  Energy efficiency (replacing wasteful appliances and light bulbs) and conservation (turning off appliances when they are not in use) can also help us replace destructive energy plants by drastically cutting demand, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

There are plenty of decisions and investments you can make -- short of installing solar panels -- that still can drastically change much energy you need to draw from the grid.Consider replacing your old incandescent bulbs with LEDs -- LEDs are more expensive, but they use a fraction of the energy, do not contain mercury like CFL bulbs, and can last over 20 years.  I have had good experience with Philips bulbs, so far, but you can check out reviews online.  Set your thermostat higher during the summer.  Be aware of "vampire" appliances, such as DVR systems that are running even when your television is off.  Compare the energy efficiency of new appliances before you buy.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Every Day a Day of Service

Not long ago I posted about my opportunity to clean up open desert near my sister's home.  Trash of all sorts -- plastic bags and cups, newspapers and cardboard boxes -- had been strewn about a couple of acres of habitat in the western Mojave.   It does not take much time or effort to make a significant difference, and two other organizations committed to clean communities and deserts have proven this.  It's our community. Our public lands.  Keeping the places we love in clean and pristine condition is our responsibility. 

One of the efforts I learned about is organized under the Facebook page called the One a Day Picker Uppers -- more of a lifestyle than an organization.  Christina Lange told me about this effort, and members of the group's Facebook page pledge to pick up at least one piece of litter each day.  There are already over 200 members, and photos from across the US of pieces of trash cleaned up by civic-minded folks. The idea behind this is that if each person took the time to pick up at least one piece of trash a day, we could make serious progress in keeping our communities and wildlands clean. 

This photo from the One a Day Picker Uppers Facebook page shows a single plastic bag found and disposed of by someone inspired to keep their desert clean.  Instead of ignoring the bag and letting it blow deep into our wild desert, a One a Day Picker Upper took the few seconds necessary to give it a proper disposal.

Separately, the Morongo Basin Conservation Association sponsored a stretch of Highway 62 in the California desert, picking up trash twice a month and even removing invasive plant species.  The group is catching highway litter before it drifts into our beautiful deserts and otherwise clean communities.  I can't express how much I appreciate these efforts -- I've been hiking in the middle of remote desert and come across a stray balloon or plastic bag caught in a creosote bush, probably blown miles from a highway or city.  I take it upon myself to collect everything I come across on a hike, so it is encouraging to know that there many other people out there acting as good stewards.

A photo of some of the Morongo Basin Conservation Association's volunteers during one of the group's recent clean-ups. 

Inauguration 2013

The President made a clear commitment in his inaugural address today that his administration will tackle climate change and pursue "sustainable" energy.  Let's fight for a local clean energy path that replaces fossil fuels, and preserves wildlands.

Image released by the White House.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Los Angeles May Cancel Rooftop Solar Plans

Update:  Rooftop solar prevails! The Los Angeles City Council denied the motion that would have jeopardized the rooftop solar incentives!

Come on, Los Angeles!  Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP - the utility company for the California metropolis), approved a feed-in-tariff that would have expanded its local solar generation capacity by 100 megawatts.  The cost would probably be pennies per month for most households.  The benefits -- clean energy generated in the city, replacing toxic fossil fuels, and more jobs.

Apparently some members of  the Los Angeles City Council are not on board, and have proposed a motion to send the feed-in-tariff back to "committee". Anybody familiar with politics knows that this is an early stage of death for the clean energy policy.  According to Run on Sun's blog, the L.A. City Council opponents of rooftop solar are members Jan Perry, Bernard Parks and Mitchell Englander.  Hopefully the other Los Angeles City Council members are able to recognize the opportunity bestowed upon them by the sun -- local independence and wealth.  Building that infrastructure is not free, but once it is in place, the city will break its bonds of the negative externalities and guilt that have financed the city's expansion over the past century.  Any ray of sunshine that falls on an empty rooftop or parking lot in the sun capital of the world is nothing more than a testament to the negligence of the city's civic and business leaders.

Friday, January 18, 2013

EPA Proposes Significant Emission Controls at Navajo Coal Plant

The EPA this week took a significant step toward reducing harmful emissions from the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), one of the largest coal power plants in the southwest, although the emission reductions will be delayed by a compromise between the EPA and the plant owners.  Located in Page, Arizona, the NGS ships its 2,250 megawatts of energy to multiple utility companies, and spews over 19 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.  The EPA's proposed rule specifically targets NGS' nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, which adversely impact our respiratory health and deposit a smoggy haze in 11 National Parks and wilderness areas in the southwest, including Grand Canyon National Park.

The Navajo Generating Station, just right of center in this Google Earth image, is almost as big as the town of Page, Arizona on the left side of the image.
The EPA's proposed rule would reduce NOx emissions from NGS by 84%, equal to 28,500 tons each year, but compromises with the plant owners by extending a 2018 deadline to install selective catalytic reduction (SCR) scrubber technology until the year 2023, according to an EPA press release.  SCR technology is one of the most efficient but expensive scrubbers used to reduce NOx emissions.  The EPA justifies the extended deadline by giving NGS credit for emission reductions achieved from voluntary installation of a less efficient NOx reduction technology in 2009.  EPA does not always require coal plants to install the SCR technology.  The EPA in 2012 asked another southwestern coal plant -- the Reid Gardner facility in Nevada -- to install a less efficient scrubber technology.

Once the Navajo coal plant installs the SCR emission reduction technology, visibility is expected to improve in nearby parks and wilderness areas by over 70% in many cases, including at Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands,  Capitol Reef and Zion National Parks.

A closer look at the Navajo Generating Station.
Continued energy conservation and efficiency improvements, as well as distributed solar generation are more than capable of eliminating our coal power plants.  Consider that the Reid Gardner coal plant could be shut down if Nevada utilities invested in energy efficiency measures to reduce consumption by 2%.  The efficiency program would simultaneously save ratepayers $59 million over 20 years.  Similarly, Germany installed over 7,500 megawatts of mostly distributed (i.e. rooftop) solar panels in 2012, enough to shut down the equivalent of three Navajo Generating Stations.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gold and Silver in the Mojave - Images of a Last Frontier

I just finished reading Nicholas Clapp's Gold and Silver in the Mojave: Images of a Last Frontier.   My interest in the desert is mostly in the natural history, but the human history is closely intertwined.  You cannot explore the desert without running into reminders and relics of the relatively recent mining boom, which involved lonely prospectors creating boom towns if they struck a significant deposit of gold, silver or copper.   There are also stories of manipulation and exploitation by corporations and frauds -- something that we still see in our deserts today. 

Other than the random story or two that I have come across in my other desert readings, or from following the adventures of Death Valley Jim, I have not really dedicated much time to learning about the mining history in the desert.  Clapp's book is a great introduction to this history, providing an overview of the histories of a handful of Mojave mining camps.  Plenty of photos bring the late 1800s and early 1900s to life, and Clapp's research puts a human face on the history. 

Clapp tells the personal stories and anecdotes of some of the miners and families that inhabited the Mojave, illuminating the different perspectives these desert rats had of their surroundings. Some of them obviously hated the desert, others struck it rich and left, but others seemed to grow a deep appreciation for the desert.

Clapp quotes the reminiscence of a miner's daughter from a mining camp near present-day Ridgecrest:
"A full moon swung like a yellow pumpkin in the sky, and sheer magic lay over the desert.  During the night the newly fallen snow turned to icy casings for the millions of desert bushes spread out in all directions.  The sun rose into a clear sky as I rode up on the hill top, and transformed the desert into a mystic garden of diamond-string shrubbery, glittering and twinkling prisms strung from every smallest branchlet. It came to me very young that perhaps I should never again witness a scene of such delicate, startling beauty."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

BrightSource Suspends Rio Mesa Project

Luckily for the birds using habitat along the Colorado River, part of the bird migratory corridor known as the Pacific Flyway, BrightSource Energy has temporarily suspended its plans to develop the Rio Mesa Solar project.  The California Energy Commission (CEC) staff, wildlife officials and conservation groups expressed concern during environmental review that the project's proposed location and design -- involving the solar power tower technology -- puts birds at risk of collision with the project's thousands of mirrors, or risk of eye damage and burning from superheated air above the project. 

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.
Another downside of the Rio Mesa Project that likely stalled its environmental review is the fact that BrightSource Energy chose a location that contains a lot of microphyll woodland habitat.  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). "

BrightSource Energy instead plans to focus its investment on developing a solar power tower facility on the Palen Solar project site further to the west along the Interstate 10 corridor, which it bought from Solar Trust of America last year.  Solar Trust of America, the front company of German corporation Solar Millennium, planned to build a solar thermal plant before the company went bankrupt.

A Desert Sun article on the project repeats BrightSource Energy's misleading talking points -- that the solar power tower technology reduces environmental impacts compared to solar thermal.  The benefits are questionable, if non-existent.  The solar power tower technology requires natural gas generation, a natural gas line connection, and presents an increased risk to birds.  BrightSource Energy's power tower technology may need less water than traditional solar thermal, but the company requested permission from the CEC in March 2012 to increase its water use for the Ivanpah project, switching to a partial wet-cooling system after the Ivanpah project was already approved.

Below is a video of BrightSource Energy's  "environmentally-friendly" mowing technique used at the Ivanpah project:

The Desert Sun also speculates on what role Riverside County's solar fee may have had in BrightSource's decision to suspend the Rio Mesa project, but the company is now investing in another project also in Riverside County.  If the  solar fee were a hurdle, they would have taken the opportunity to abandon the county.  That has not stopped the large-scale solar industry from fighting back.  First Solar gave campaign contributions to Riverside Board of Supervisors candidate Republican Kevin Jeffries, helping him claim victory.  Jeffries is pro bisphenol-A, anti-rooftop solar, and probably pro-desert destruction, according to his past voting record.   During Jeffries' stint in the California Assembly, he had one of the worst environmental voting records.  Apparently that is exactly the kind of ally the large-scale solar industry needs.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Black Lava Butte May Be Spared from Wind Project

Element Power appears to have cancelled its plans to build a wind energy project on desert wildlands near Pioneertown and Joshua Tree National Park, according to BLM records.  The company drew the ire of conservationists and fans of the desert when it installed meteorological testing towers, and signaled interest in eventually installing giant  turbines that would stand over 420 feet tall.  Element Power in December submitted a request to relinquish its wind testing right-of-way due to poor wind resources in the area.

Silurian Valley Still Under Threat of Energy Development

Energy company Iberdrola Renewables is still looking for a way to bulldoze a portion of the Silurian Valley, a quiet desert landscape nearly 15 miles north of the town of Baker, California.  Iberdrola as of last year had plans to build a wind energy project in the Silurian Valley, but likely conflicts with Department of Defense training and testing activities forced the company back to the drawing board.  According to BLM records, Iberdrola is now considering building a large solar project, which probably would sidestep conflicts with Department of Defense interests.

Iberdrola has converted over 10 square miles of its wind energy application to a solar right-of-way application, according to the BLM records, although the company has not given up on its wind application.  The company may not plan to use all 10 square miles of the right-of-way application for the solar project, since the current application only describes a 150 megawatt facility, which would require a much smaller footprint.  If the plans enter public environmental review, you can plan on hearing about it on this blog.

The map below shows an approximate outline of the solar right-of-way application, based on the BLM's map.

View Silurian Valley in a larger map

Calico Solar Project Not Paying the Bills

The owner of the stalled Calico Solar project is asking for a deferral on nearly 600,000 dollars in rent owed for reserving a large swath of public lands.  You might remember the long saga of the proposed Calico Solar project, which will destroy up to six square miles of desert habitat in the central Mojave Desert if California and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials give K Road Power the green light to convert the previously approved plans from solar thermal to photovoltaic technology.   The short version is that the initial project plans were approved in late 2010 despite environmental concerns, but the previous owner went bankrupt and sold the project to K Road Power, which decided to alter the plans enough to warrant further environmental review.

After K Road acquired the project, Southern California Edison withdrew its agreement to buy power from it, and now K Road is stymied by unspecified issues with transmission lines.  The project would require expensive new transmission lines spanning desert wildlands.  In the meantime, K Road still holds a right-of-way approval to the public lands where it plans to build the project. The company paid its rent for the land at the beginning of 2011 and 2012, according to BLM records, but apparently K Road asked the BLM for a deferral on the bill it owes this year, according to the California Energy Commission's (CEC) status update.  The CEC document notes that the decision on whether or not to grant a deferral will be up to the BLM's California State Director.

Maybe K Road should cancel this project and invest in solar on rooftops or on already-disturbed lands.

A Mojave fringe-toed lizard spotted on the site of the proposed Calico Solar project site last year.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

One Hour, Two People, Five Bags of Trash

It took my sister and I about an hour to remove enough trash from a patch of Joshua tree and pinyon juniper habitat in the west Mojave Desert to fill five garbage bags full of trash, not to mention a few card board boxes that did not fit in the bags.  This is one of the edge effects that population centers have on the desert -- trash that either blows away from the owner or dumped illegally (I'll address the latter in a follow-up post).   The trash can pose a fire hazard, trap or choke some wildlife, and is a blight on the landscape.

Pick a place, set aside an hour or two, bring gloves and some trash bags, and get out there and clean.

But think about how quickly a few volunteers can make a difference  If you're interested, you can always grab a pair of gloves and some trash bags and clean up your neighborhood.  It is quite fulfilling to look back on your favorite desert spot as you haul away the trash.   If you want a more structured project, check out the Mojave Desert Land Trust.  They organize or support clean up and restoration events in the Mojave, including Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.  

Monday, January 7, 2013

BLM Urged to Preserve Ivanpah Linkage

In a rather strong and thorough letter, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in November asked the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to reject First Solar's Silver State South solar project in the Ivanpah Valley, reiterating FWS concerns that the project will reduce or eliminate a critical linkage for the threatened desert tortoise.  FWS' letter preceded a joint letter submitted in December by eight different environmental groups asking the BLM to suspend approval of any additional projects in the Ivanpah Valley until a conservation plan is in place, indicating that BLM decisions impacting the Ivanpah Valley so far have underestimated its biological importance.
FWS Comments on Silver State South Solar

FWS's asks the BLM to work with the applicant to modify the layout of the project if it is not possible to reject the project altogether, suggesting the alternatives already analyzed by BLM do not offer a sufficiently wide habitat linkage. Human development to the west, and the rough terrain of the Lucy Gray Mountains to the east leave tortoises with a relatively narrow strip of creosote bush scrub habitat as a genetic linkage connecting two different populations.  Without genetic diversity, the species may become less resilient over time, thus hindering its recovery.  The FWS letter also raises concerns about the project's impact on golden eagle foraging habitat -- the birds have been spotted soaring over the proposed project site -- as well as other migratory birds and bats.

In December, a joint letter from Audubon California, California Native Plant Society, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and the Nature Conservancy asked BLM leadership in Washington to suspend development on public lands in Ivanpah until a regional ecological assessment and conservation plan are completed. Although the BLM evaluates a proposal for an area of critical environmental concern (ACEC)  in its environmental review, the ACEC is significantly modified to accommodate the First Solar's project.  According to the letter:
"The biological importance of this region should not be underestimated; natural communities in Ivanpah Valley support rare and diverse plants and animals including genetically distinct populations of the threatened desert tortoise which occur in relatively high densities. As stated above, under the current approach, the BLM is failing to adequately assess and account for the cumulative impacts from the current and proposed development. Only a properly defined landscape scale assessment and conservation plan will adequately protect the biological resources and values in the Ivanpah Valley."
The joint letter also raises concerns regarding the effectiveness of mitigation measures instituted for other development projects in the desert, noting that "uncoordinated mitigation requirements for individual projects" limits their success.  This is certainly evident with First Solar's proposed Stateline Solar project, which would be built on desert habitat now inhabited by tortoises that were already displaced--and thus put under stress--by BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project.  The letter also seems to reference BrightSource Energy's plans to mitigate its project by purchasing desert habitat far from the Ivanpah Valley where it is unlikely to actually mitigate the local impacts of the project.

The letter does not specifically call out First Solar's projects in the Ivanpah Valley, but the suspension request would presumably apply to both Silver State South and Stateline, which are undergoing environmental review by the BLM.  Although First Solar has won praise from national environmental groups for modifying other projects to reduce environmental impacts, the significance of remaining Ivanpah Valley habitat leaves little room for First Solar's Silver State South and Stateline projects, which would destroy nearly 8 square miles of intact habitat.

First Solar's proposals are not the only projects threatening this corner of the Mojave Desert.  The company completed construction of its smaller Silver State North solar project, and Brightsource Energy has already mowed or bulldozed over 5 square miles for its own solar project.  Wind energy and mining proposals also threaten to displace or kill wildlife, and destroy foraging habitat.  The map below shows projects under construction or consideration for the Ivanpah Valley area.

[click on image to expand]

A copy of the letter submitted by the eight environmental groups is provided below.
Ivanpah Valley Letter

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Disturbed Lands Solar and Desert Conservation

Some solar companies have insisted on having wide access to remote and intact desert habitat to build new solar facilities, lobbying against land management policies that would restrict industrial-scale energy development on lands of ecological importance.  The Bureau of Land Management and California Energy Commission have rejected requests to analyze disturbed land alternatives for projects being proposed for intact desert habitat, sometimes citing the difficulty companies have in acquiring private lands.  But hundreds of megawatts of solar energy development are proposed or being built on already-disturbed lands in private ownership -- typically on agricultural land -- severely undermining the assertion by the industry and its proponents that the destruction of public lands is necessary to generate solar energy.   In the latest news, SunPower is set to build a 579 megawatt facility in the Antelope Valley on nearly 7.4 square miles of agricultural land, financed by Warren Buffett's company, according to ReWire.

SunPower's Antelope Valley Solar projects would be built across much of the agricultural lands shown above.  Agriculture (and later, suburban sprawl) in the west Mojave converted vast swaths of desert grass lands and creosote bush scrub habitat in the last century, replacing the fields of wildflowers that would attract visitors from the Los Angeles basin each spring during the early 1900s, according to Richard A. Minnich's California's Fading Wildflowers.
A good article in the Desert Report highlighted the drawbacks of solar replacing prime farm lands, however, and they are concerns that should be considered by the industry, and the governments considering their approval.   Nobody should dismiss the industrialization of any lands as an insignificant matter -- I have seen so-called "green" publications wrongly dismiss community complaints about both large-scale solar and wind as selfish NIMBY-ism, but who wants to live across the street from a power plant, or in the shadow of a 420 foot tall wind turbine?  It is not environmentally just to turn a blind eye to the problems that can come with such industrialization, such as fugitive dust emissions, hazardous material and glare involved in some solar technologies, and effect on property values. 

But from a conservation standpoint, both agricultural and energy development are human uses of the land. While agricultural land certainly can have some value to wildlife, it is still desert habitat that has been converted for human use.  Mowed, tilled, fertilized, sometimes doused with pesticides, and irrigated with water diverted from ancient aquifers or the Colorado River.  The economy built on this once-intact desert land now feeds millions, and supports local jobs and livelihoods. We have converted a natural landscape to meet human needs.  Which human need will be met by this converted land will be decided by local debates, but the value of intact habitat has already been discarded no matter the outcome.

This map shows the expanse of 8minutenergy's various solar projects in the Imperial Valley being built on farm land, although the transmission interconnection will cross desert habitat.  The company has plans for nearly 800 megawatts of solar projects on agricultural lands in the Imperial Valley -- that is roughly equivalent to the power to be produced by desert-destroying projects in the Ivanpah Valley.
From a personal perspective, I like clean energy that is not on desert habitat, and I like the food farm lands provide.  I don't want either to be a burden on the wildlands I love, or the communities that host them.  However, the threat of energy development on desert wildlands is more deleterious than it is to agricultural lands.  Desert habitat takes decades to "restore," and some shrub cover may take centuries.  Wildlife corridors and foraging habitat can be lost, and genetic diversity of imperiled species can decline. A single solar facility in a remote desert valley will alter the wild qualities of that view for a long time.

At the end of the day, though, solar energy on disturbed lands or on desert habitat are not the only two choices we have to combat climate change. This is why rooftop solar and energy efficiency are the most efficient and least offensive means to combating climate change.  If we can generate clean energy on our rooftops, we destroy less desert, we convert less farm land to another use, and we need less transmission lines. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

BLM Signals Approval for Searchlight Wind Project Despite Objections

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last month issued the final environmental impact statement for Duke Energy's Searchlight Wind energy project, signaling initial approval for the company to industrialize nearly 29 square miles of Mojave Desert habitat near the small town of Searchlight, Nevada. Once the Department of Interior signs the record of decision -- expected early this year -- Duke Energy will transform this peaceful corner of the desert with 87 wind turbines (each standing taller than the Statue of Liberty) 35 miles of new gravel roads, and 16 miles of new transmission and collector lines, according to the BLM assessment. Construction will require over 9,000 trips by diesel trucks, and tons of cement and steel.

Potential Impacts on Wildlife Are Extensive
The area targeted by Duke Energy for the project is full of creosote bushes and Mojave yucca that can be hundreds of years old, and is surrounded by the Piute - El Dorado Critical Habitat Unit for the threatened desert tortoise. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates the project could displace or kill at least 50 desert tortoises, although USFWS admits that the total impact on the beleaguered reptile is difficult to estimate. According to the USFWS' biological opinion, 95 tortoises were observed during surveys of a portion of the project area.  

Bird and bat species that frequent the area are also at risk, including golden eagles that were observed during an earlier survey for the project.  Surveys conducted based on the USFWS' voluntary land-based wind energy guidelines found at least 10 red-tailed hawk nests within two miles of the wind project.  Within 10 miles of the project surveys identified an additional 16 active raptor nests, including 3 golden eagle nests as well as burrowing owls, and 16 species of bats that are either resident in the project area or migratory -- 7 of them considered Federal Species of Special Concern.  

The survey estimates that the project may only kill one golden eagle every five years, but admits that this estimate is based on insufficient understanding of local golden eagle behavior.  The report does not estimate fatalities for other raptors or bats, despite their extensive use of the Searchlight area for nesting and foraging.

This picture was taken from the approximate location of the Searchlight Wind energy project's proposed laydown area and southern substation.  Spirit Mountain is visible in the distance.
Agency and Public Concerns Unresolved
According to a review of agency consultation documents, public and organization comments received in response to a FOIA request and later made available on line, the BLM's environmental review does not adequately address key concerns.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pointed out in comments to the BLM that the draft air quality assessment incorrectly stated that PM10 (particulate matter caused by construction activity and industrial processes that can damage health and reduce visibility) would be below thresholds identified by air quality regulations.  In fact, the draft environmental review estimated that PM10 emissions would be 97 tons per year for the 8-12 month construction period of the wind project, exceeding the threshold of 70 tons per year.   In the final air quality assessment, however, the BLM states that PM10 emissions would only be 64.7 tons per year, without explaining the discrepancy between the draft number that exceeded regulated thresholds, and the final number that is just five tons under the threshold.
  • The EPA, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and other public commenters noted the draft environmental review did not provide specific estimates of raptor or tortoise mortality. Although the final environmental impact statement provides more details than the draft regarding potential impacts, as well as a history of consultation between USFWS and Duke Energy, the assessment dismisses the likely impacts the project will have on raptor foraging habitat.  Despite a survey identifying golden eagle use of the area and nearby nests, the report uses data on golden eagle behavior in Idaho to conclude that the eagles in the Mojave will rarely use the project site for foraging.  The project's impacts would be measured after it is approved during post-construction mortality surveys.
  • The US Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion regarding impacts on tortoise habitat points out that distinguishing between permanent and "temporary" habitat disturbance is irrelevant for near and medium term impacts since perennial shrub cover may take up to 100 years to be restored.  Yet the final environmental impact statement still maintains that only 152 acres will be permanently disturbed, and 249 acres "temporarily" disturbed.  Of note, this final acreage is higher than the disturbance assessed in the USFWS biological opinion.
  • The National Park Service (NPS) expressed doubt about the accuracy of the BLM's visual and noise impacts assessment on nearby wilderness and the scenic values of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The NPS strongly objected to the placement of a transmission switching station adjacent to the NPS' entrance station on a scenic road into the Lake Mead area, but the final environmental impact statement depicts no change in response to NPS concerns.  The project will also be visible from the Nellis Wash Wilderness area, according to the NPS comments, degrading the "wilderness" character of the area.
If built, the project would supply 200 MW of electricity during windy days, although that same amount of energy can be generated more reliably and without destruction of remote desert with solar on already-disturbed lands and rooftops.

The project site was an excellent location for a peaceful camp site in April 2012.  Coyotes could be heard howling in the distance at night, and song birds could be heard at dusk and dawn.  Plenty of active reptile and mammal burrows along washes.