Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sensible Siting

This photo from the US Fish and Wildlife Service's flickr photostream is accompanied by a sensible message about renewable energy -- if we keep renewable energy projects on degraded or already-disturbed lands, we can minimize ecological damage as we transition away from fossil fuels. 
Photo credit: USFWS/Rachel Molenda

Solar Panel
 Hopefully this message is heard by decision makers in Washington. At this moment the Bureau of Land Management is considering plans by First Solar to build the Silver State South Solar project on a critical desert tortoise habitat linkage in the Ivanpah Valley, Nevada. Surely there are better places for those solar panels.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Climate Change is Real, and So Is Habitat Loss

The Obama administration this month released the  National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy , which details the threat climate change poses to a variety of ecosystems, and the steps needed to help species cope with what is likely to be long-term damage.

The number one goal identified in the strategy is the conservation of habitat and wildlife linkages to help species adapt and bolster ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change.  According to the Strategy:
"Many of our nation’s imperiled species (both those currently listed either as Threatened or Endangered as well as many other species that may eventually be considered for listing) do not occur in existing conservation areas. Indeed, the major threat to many species on the U.S. Endangered Species List is the loss of habitat caused when the habitat they depend on is converted to a different use. Climate change will make the problem worse—and will make the need for new conservation areas more urgent."
As you might expect, they do not recommend bulldozing habitat to build clean energy projects, but instead recommend that new projects should be sited on already-disturbed lands:
"...minimize impacts from alternative energy development by focusing siting options on already disturbed or degraded areas" 
The strategy does not mention sacrificing more wildlands to energy development, and actually argues that some habitat loss should be reversed through restoration efforts:
"Because human development in the United States has been so extensive, some of the habitat necessary for a comprehensive network of conservation areas will need to be restored. In the context of a period of climate change, ecological restoration will not necessarily be about attempting to restore specific species or combinations of species, but rather about restoring the conditions that favor healthy, diverse, and productive communities of species."
This report really underscores the insanity of our current renewable energy approach in the United States, which depends on extensive habitat destruction (just look at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project) and sometimes ignores more sensible approaches, such as building on already-disturbed lands and encouraging distributed generation and energy efficiency.

The full Strategy can be read here:

Friday, March 15, 2013

My Generation

The Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign put together a nifty graphic to mark an important milestone: 1,500 megawatts of rooftop solar installed in California. We have a long way to go to match other countries' rooftop solar progress, but this is worth celebrating.  Rooftop solar is bad for coal, and safe for wildlands.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Interior Approves More Desert Destruction; Ignores Sustainable Alternatives

The Department of Interior yesterday announced final approval for three poorly sited renewable energy projects in America's southwestern deserts that will destroy and industrialize nearly 40 square miles of public lands -- an area larger than the island of Manhattan, and almost as much land area as the City of San Francisco.  None of this destruction is necessary since renewable energy can be more efficiently and more sustainably located in our cities or on already-disturbed lands.

As KCET reported, California has installed 1,500 megawatts of rooftop solar -- an energy output nearly equivalent to three Reid Gardner coal plants.  Elsewhere, solar companies are building hundreds of megawatts of solar on already-disturbed lands, such as agricultural fields.  Renewable energy offers us the alternative to preserve wildlands, but the Department of Interior ignored this alternative when it approved the following three projects: 

Searchlight Wind
The Searchlight Wind project will be built by Duke Energy on nearly 29 square miles of intact desert habitat in southern Nevada. Duke Energy will industrialize 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.   The project is expected to displace or kill up to 50 desert tortoises, according to the environmental impact statement, and almost certainly will kill birds and bats. 

McCoy Solar
The McCoy Solar project was approved even though the seven square mile project infringes on desert wildlands with wilderness characteristics. The project will also destroy acres of microphyll woodland -- this 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)." NextEra Energy will use photovoltaic solar panels on the site -- the same technology that can just as easily be installed on rooftops or on already-disturbed lands.  The project will destroy special status plants, including desert unicorn plant, Utah vine milkweed, Abram's spurge, and Las Animas colubrina.  New transmission lines will be built on habitat currently hosting Mojave Desert fringe-toed lizard. 

Desert Harvest Solar
The Desert Harvest Solar project will destroy over 1.8 square miles of public lands south of Joshua Tree National Park. The desert habitat that will be bulldozed for the project is currently home to burrowing owls, kit fox, long-nosed leopard lizard, sidewinders, lesser nighthawks, crucifixion thorn, coyotes, and potentially American badger.

With Spirit Mountain the distance, the desert in the foreground would be carved up with new roads for the Searchlight Wind project in Nevada, displacing or killing up to 50 desert tortoises, according to US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

California Desert Policy Makeover Nears Release

Updated to include correct version of Alternative 3 map

California's deserts are about to undergo the most sweeping land management policy transformation since the California Desert Conservation Area Plan was implemented in 1980, which itself was a response to Federal legislation passed in 1976.  The Renewable Energy Action Team -- a Federal and State of California inter-agency cohort formed to facilitate utility-scale solar and wind projects in the California desert while attempting to protect habitat and wildlife -- issued a series of documents in December that outline the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). The documents provide more details on potential conservation measures and "development focus areas," which would significantly alter land designations for millions of acres in the California Desert Conservation Area.  The documents released do not identify which of the six action alternatives is favored by the REAT agencies, however, keeping us in suspense until a preferred alternative is announced later this year.

The DRECP will have a more extensive impact on how we manage desert lands and guide renewable energy development than the Department of Interior's Solar Energy Development Program, which is a broad policy finalized last year that created "solar energy zones" throughout the southwestern United States.   The Solar Energy Development Program failed to contain industrial sprawl on wildlands, however, by allowing energy developers access to public land outside of the energy zones using a land designation known as "variance lands." Some conservationists argued for Washington to consider an alternative that would focus renewable energy development on rooftops or already-disturbed land, while others hoped the Solar Energy Development Program would restrict industrial development only to the zones.  Neither happened, essentially leaving us with the status quo of unchecked industrial speculation on public lands.

Extensive Conservation and Development Designations
The DRECP will identify additional areas for energy development outside of the solar energy zones identified in the earlier Solar Energy Development Program, but it will also change land use plans to protect wildlife and recreational areas in the desert in an attempt to address public concern about the scale of potential energy development and its negative impacts.

I outlined the DRECP alternatives under consideration in a previous blog post showing the extent of "development focus areas".  The action alternatives offer six different energy development scenarios, ranging from 1.12 million to nearly 2.3 million acres of development focus areas, some of which encompass the solar energy zones already identified in the earlier Solar Energy Development Program. Some of the alternatives would concentrate development on already-disturbed lands, while others would encourage industrial development on remote desert areas well beyond the solar energy zones.

The wide open desert expanse of the Silurian Valley, pictured above, would be turned into a development focus area under some of the more destructive alternatives considered under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.  The Avawatz Mountains are pictured in the distance.
The documents released in December give us a better sense of the range of conservation designations that might accompany the development focus areas.  The conservation designations range from 3 million to over 5 million acres of new areas of critical environmental concern (ACEC) and National Landscape Conservation System status, in addition to existing protections.  Generally speaking, the more aggressive development scenarios are paired with more aggressive conservation designations for remaining wild lands. The more destructive development scenarios include significant sacrifices by accepting the Solar Energy Development Program's insidious "variance lands," including intact desert habitat in the Silurian Valley, along the historic Route 66, and east of the Imperial sand dunes. The degree to which the DRECP corrects for the Solar Energy Development Plan's deficiencies will depend in large part on how much the final alternative will abandon the variance lands and instead enact conservation measures to protect habitat connectivity.

Depending on which alternative is chosen, new areas of critical environmental concern and National Conservation Lands would preserve critical habitat linkages not currently protected, as well as culturally important sites, including remnants of a Native American turquoise mine and signs of human in habitation in one of the harshest climates on Earth near Death Valley, and provide additional buffer to the Manzanar National Historic Site to preserve the stories of Japanese American internment during World War II.

The map below shows one of the more aggressive development alternatives, Alternative 5, that would open the most amount of land to development, including remote and intact desert habitat.  Notice that the map also includes extensive designation of ACEC and National Land Conservation System designation, presumably an effort to  balance the extensive development areas.

The DRECP Alternative 3, shown below, tries to focus energy development on already-disturbed lands and desert habitat in the western reaches of the Mojave Desert.

Are Conservation Measures Durable? 
One of the key questions for the DRECP is how durable are the conservation designations?  The most durable designations Washington can apply to treasured landscapes include National Park status (requiring Congressional action), National Monuments (Presidential or Congressional action) and Wilderness (Congressional action).  We will not see these designations in the DRECP because the alternatives amend land use plans through Department of Interior policies, which are limited to ACEC and National Land Conservation System (NLCS) designations.  Interior believes the NLCS designation may be the most durable, although conservationists warn that both NLCS and ACEC designations can be undone in future land use plan amendments. 

Can I Provide Public Comment?
The DRECP documents released in December were provided as a sneak peak to help sensitize the public to the direction of the policy drafting, so they were not part of the official environmental review that should be released later in 2013.  But you can follow and provide input to the DRECP planning process through the DRECP website.  Stay tuned for the release of the environmental review documents for the official opportunity to provide public comment.  No specific date has been provided yet, but the participant agencies expect the documents to be released sometime in 2013.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Another Golden Eagle Killed by Industry

Basin and Range Watch learned from the Bureau of Land Management that another golden eagle was killed, this time at the Spring Valley Wind project built in Nevada's Great Basin desert.  The project -- owned by Pattern Energy -- was built on remote desert wildlands despite concerns from environmental organizations that it could jeopardize a large population of Mexican free-tailed bats.  Spring Valley Wind began operations last year. The wind project is only permitted to kill one eagle, and another eagle death could require the project to curtail operations, although enforcement and compliance are doubtful.

A raptor perches on a creosote bush in the Mojave Desert.
The golden eagle death in Nevada occurs less than two months after NextEra's North Sky River wind project in California killed its first golden eagle, only weeks after beginning operations in the Tehachapi Mountains.  The North Sky River wind project industrialized potential California condor habitat, and was built despite objections from environmental groups (Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club).

North Sky River is near the notorious Pine Tree Wind project, which has killed at least eight golden eagles in an approximately three-year period.  On a per-turbine basis, the relatively small Pine Tree Wind project is more deadly than the massive Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, where nearly 6,000 turbines kill upwards of 70-110 golden eagles each year, according to the Golden Gate Audubon Society

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Pine Tree wind project may kill more golden eagles on a per-turbine basis than the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area.  The project has also industrialized western Mojave habitat along the Tehachapi Mountain range.
Unfortunately, communications from Sierra Club's national headquarters continue to undercut grassroots efforts to confront and correct siting errors by the rapidly expanding renewable energy. Instead of attempting to convey a nuanced argument that we need a sustainable renewable energy path that protects wildlife, the Sierra Club informed its membership in its most recent issue of Sierra magazine that 440,000 annual bird deaths at wind projects are "trivial," and inaccurately assessed that bird deaths like the ones happening at Altamont Pass are an "outlier".

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Rosalie Edge: Hawk of Mercy

Hawk Mountain -- a ridge in Pennsylvania -- used to be a place where hunters would gun down dozens of raptors in a single day and bird carcasses would litter the hillsides.  Hawks were viewed much like wolves are treated to this day -- as vicious predators -- and hunters would take shots at the birds as they followed currents over the ridge, encouraged by generous bounties paid by the states.   What was then known as the National Association of Audubon Societies (now the National Audubon Society) was slow to pay attention to the killing of raptors, prompting citizen conservationist Rosalie Edge to step in and lease the land in 1934 and turn it into a wildlife sanctuary. 

Dead raptors -- the product of a single day's hunt -- are lined up for exhibition on Hawk Mountain before Rosalie Edge took action to save this habitat from exploitation. Photo from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
Rosalie Edge
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary still serves to protect wildlife and promote awareness today, but Rosalie Edge's flavor of activism probably had a more widespread legacy.  Edge founded the Emergency Conservation Committee to advocate for conservation across the United States, including Kings Canyon and Olympic National Parks.  Edge chided Audubon leaders  for being influenced by special interests -- the board permitted hunting wildlife on Audubon sanctuaries and received money from hunting and sportsman interests.  Richard Pough, the founder of the Nature Conservancy, credited Edge as an inspiration for beginning his organization.

I think Edge's story provides a great window into the early days of the conservation movement, but also plenty of lessons that are still relevant today.  So I would strongly recommend reading Rosalie Edge, Hawk of Mercy: The Activist Who Saved Nature From Conservationists.  It is an excellent book about Rosalie Edge's life and conservation efforts, and gave me plenty of food for thought about today's efforts to save treasured wild places, and the importance of maintaining a conservation ethic free from influence by special interest groups.

When Education Becomes "Misuse"

BrightSource Energy does not want you to see photographs of birds burned by its solar power tower technology, according to an excellent article in the Press-Enterprise.  The company's archaic solar design involves thousands of giant mirrors heating up a cauldron at the top of a tower (taller than the Statue of Liberty) to generate steam.  The company also uses natural gas to keep the boilers warm, so it is not entirely "clean" energy, unless you think fracking is clean.  The air above the field of mirrors can become super-heated, and burn birds' feathers and damage their eyes, according to wildlife experts and a study at a similar facility in the 1980s.

The photos were presented in a special closed door session of the California Energy Commission (CEC) proceeding for BrightSource's proposed Hidden Hills Solar project, only after the CEC issued a subpoena to get them.  According to a BrightSource statement to the Press-Enterprise, the company is afraid of that the photographs would be "misused" if entered into the public domain.  In other words, people might actually know more about BrightSource Energy's impacts on wildlife.  Check out the article.

The threat of burned feathers and eye damage is only one aspect of the project's impacts on birds, since collision with the "heliostat" mirrors may turn out to be the highest cause of mortality.

No, these are not BrightSource's "secret" photos.  This is an excerpt 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 looked at a 10 megawatt solar power tower plant in the 1980s.  BrightSource Energy's Hidden Hills project would generate 500 megawatts and cover nearly 5 square miles with mirrors.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Wind Developer Targets Victor Valley's Juniper Flats

Chicago-based energy company E ON Climate and Renewables is planning to install 42 wind turbines, each over 400 feet tall, on the Juniper Flats area of Victor Valley.  The company has been testing wind resources in the area since 2010, and submitted notice to the Bureau of Land Management in January of its intent to begin the environmental review process to build the industrial-scale project.  The current right-of-way application spans over 23 square miles of public lands at the foot of the San Bernardino National Forest.

[Click on image to expand] An approximate outline of the North Peak Wind project proposed right-of-way on public lands in the Juniper Flats area, located in the southeastern Victor Valley.
Juniper Flats are a prized recreation area for residents of the Victor Valley, where many enjoy hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, hang-gliding, and 4x4 driving on designated routes.  The area features riparian habitat that attracts a range of wildlife, including great horned owls, vireos, coyotes, jackrabbits, and an often beautiful wildflower display in the spring.  Community volunteers and the Friends of Juniper Flats have partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to clean up the area and manage the area for future generations of public use.  The wind project would threaten the current landscape and wildlife, bring miles of wide roads and potentially make some areas off-limits or unsuitable for the natural escape that Juniper Flats currently provides.

Local volunteers and BLM staff at a community clean-up event in Juniper Flats in November. Photo from BLM website.

A cactus in bloom in the Juniper Flats area.  Photo by Todd G.

Friday, March 1, 2013

State Signals Approval of Keystone Pipeline Project

Far away from the desert, oil tycoons are plotting to build another pipeline to bring their goods to the market. The Keystone XL oil pipeline would connect Canada's tarsands with customers in the US and ports for shipment abroad. The State Department signaled its approval of the pipeline in its draft supplemental environmental impact statement issued today, suggesting the Obama administration continues to hold to its destructive "all of the above" energy policy.

The Keystone pipeline will unleash nearly 800,000 barrels of oil a day, and destroy grasslands in the Midwest.  For the desert, the pipeline will add more climate pressure, as well as insult to injury.  Washington has approved thousands of acres of utility-scale solar and wind facilities on pristine desert habitat with the insincere excuse that it is addressing climate change, and ignoring saner alternatives, such as rooftop solar or facilities built on already-disturbed lands.  This energy policy has run amok, and shows no regard for the climate or our wildlands.