Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mesquite Flat Dunes

I have to admit I was surprised to see so many footsteps in the sand at the Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley National Park.  One usually thinks of waves of sand arranged only by the wind and small critters that emerge after sundown when the surface is cooler.  But the Mesquite Flat Dunes are right there by Stovepipe Wells, and irresistible to travelers motoring through the park. A short walk from the parking lot and you can be in the middle of an iconic feature of any desert - sand dunes.

Mesquite Flat Dunes at sunset, Death Valley National Park.

I traveled through the park with my friend Jimmy, and caught a glimpse of the dunes at sunset, with the beautiful hues of purple, brown and red of the sky and sand all seeming to blend together.  As we pulled up, headlights were streaming out of the parking lot as folks left for their camping spot or lodge before it got too dark.

The next morning we hiked into the dunes for sunrise.  What a beloved landscape -- with the steps of its admirers from the day before still evident, you could see a dozen or so people climbing to their own special spots among the dunes to soak up what was going to be another concert by Mother Nature - sunrise.

That speck on top of the dune in the distance is another person admiring the sunrise at Mesquite Flat Dunes, hours after the sunset picture further above was taken the night before.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Audubon California Joins Groups Opposing Federal Condor Decision

Audubon California released a statement opposing the Federal decision to allow a wind energy company to kill a California condor.
“Unfortunately, a series of decisions, large and small, over the last several years have brought these turbines to the doorstep of one of America’s most iconic species, and in this process we arrive at a point where the federal agency tasked with protecting the condor says it’s OK to take one, that we have to choose between two good things — renewable energy and wildlife protection.

“We fundamentally reject that choice. Given the continual technological improvements coming online, the American public has every reason to expect that we can develop renewable energy and ensure that condors will not be killed.” - Audubon California
Audubon California joins other groups expressing concern about the decision, including the American Bird Conservancy and Center for Biological Diversity.  Many environmentalists know that there is a difference between energy development that shows disregard for wildlife, and sustainable renewable energy development that can replace fossil fuels without jeopardizing the very ecosystems and wildlife we want to protect.

The wind industry should reconsider its expansion in the Tehachapi Mountains.  If companies need permits to kill California condors, then obviously the mitigation measures they hold up as reassurance to the public are no guarantee for the protection of wildlife.  Instead of risking a critically endangered species, we can invest more in energy efficiency, rooftop solar, or solar on already-disturbed lands.

Feds Publish Final Order Allowing Wind Company to Kill a Condor; Other Wildlife At Risk

The Obama administration published the Record of Decision on Friday that permits Terra-Gen Power LLC to industrialize more of the western Mojave Desert with the Alta East Wind project, and kill at least one endangered California condor without penalty.  The American Bird Conservancy is asking the Obama administration to reverse the unprecedented move to allow the condor death, noting that many private and non-profit groups investing resources in the bird's recovery were blindsided. 

Industrial Transformation of Western Mojave
The wind project - financed by Citibank and Google - will be located near the Tehachapi Mountains and destroy desert tortoise and golden eagle habitat in a region continuously besieged by new new proposals for wind projects.  Wildlife officials admit that the cumulative impact of so much industrialization is difficult to calculate, but Washington's "all of the above" energy strategy typically fast-tracks permits ahead of greater environmental consideration.

The roughly 3.5 square mile Alta East Wind project (approximate boundaries shaded in red) would include habitat used by golden eagles, and potentially by California condors. [click on image to expand]
The Alta East Wind project will consist of 51 giant wind turbines, joining hundreds of other turbines installed by Terra-Gen and other companies along the eastern flank of the Tehachapi Mountains where the iconic Joshua tree and creosote scrub habitat transitions into juniper woodland.  Utility company Southern California Edison has agreed to purchase up to 1,550 megawatts from wind facilities built by Terra-Gen (including Alta East) in the Tehachapi area.

This Google Earth image shows just part of the existing Alta Wind Energy Center, to which the Alta East project will add another 51 turbines outside of this view.  The distance from the turbine rows in this image from nearest to farthest spans over 6 miles.  The turbines dwarf otherwise beautiful rolling hills and open creosote scrub habitat, turning a mostly natural scene into an industrial landscape.
All of this industrialization has taken its toll on the ecosystem.  The nearby Pine Tree Wind project has one of the highest rates of golden eagle mortality per turbine in the country, and Next Era's North Sky River Wind project killed its first golden eagle in January - within weeks of beginning operations.  The Alta East Wind project is expected to add to eagle mortality, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) admits that too little is known about the golden eagle population in the Mojave Desert to know if the deaths will result in the protected species' decline.  The Pine Tree and North Sky River wind projects use the larger turbines that the industry previously claimed are safer for wildlife.

According to FWS documents submitted during the environmental review for the Alta East Wind project:
"The site-specific information collected to date and the golden eagle fatality predictions suggest that the AEWRA [Alta East Wind] is reasonably likely to take eagles, but it is unclear if that take would be at a rate greater than is consistent with maintaining a stable or increasing population. It is unclear to what degree any eagle mortality at the AEWRA would adversely impact the local population due to lack of information on the population in the region, and a lack of understanding of what level of mortality, if any, could be sustained." - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A desert tortoise found on the site of the Alta East Wind project during environmental surveys.  Photo from the environmental impact statement for the Alta East Wind project.

Uncertainty About Condor Protection Measures 
Although lead poisoning still ranks as one of the greatest risks California condors face (the birds die after ingesting lead ammunition left behind by hunters in an animal carcass), the expanding wind industry poses a potentially significant constraint on the condor's future range.    FWS asked Terra-Gen to implement a list of measure to mitigate the chances of a California condor being killed by turbine blades at the Alta East Wind project site.  Although condors typically prefer habitat further to the west of the project, the species' recovery will require it to expand over more habitat and the birds are known to travel long distances outside of normal territory in search of food.  Terra-Gen will monitor a 16-mile buffer zone around the wind project using a human observer and a system that can detect radio frequencies from transmitters attached to most condors.  If a condor flies within two miles of any turbine, the company will supposedly slow down the turbine speed.

Conservationists are concerned for a couple of reasons.  The radio frequency detector is still a new system for energy companies, and relying on a human observer is also imperfect.  It takes at least two minutes just to slow turbines down, so a delay in detection could prove fatal to the birds. Also, condors tend to scavenge for food in groups, so most likely more than just one condor will be in jeopardy if they enter the area.

What is not clear is what will happen if the condors become more regularly active in the vicinity of the wind project due to behavioral changes, or perhaps an expanding population.  FWS says it would consult with the wind company to determine the what action to take if condors begin roosting more frequently near the project.  But the Record of Decision does not say if such a scenario would result in the project being indefinitely curtailed, or if FWS would take actions to harass the birds away from the project, essentially denying condors access to habitat.

The Record of Decision leaves this intentionally vague:
"In the event that a group of California condors moves to within 2 miles of the project boundary (e.g., feeding event or establishing new roost), then Alta Windpower will implement immediate measures, such as real time curtailment to ensure California condors are not killed while the Service, the Bureau, and Alta Windpower convene an immediate meeting to determine what actions are necessary."  - Record of Decision, Department of Interior
Regardless, the wind industry's decision to industrialize the Tehachapi Mountains and western Mojave has severely degraded the quality of habitat for birds and bats, as is already evident with the high raptor mortality.  This sort of region-wide industrialization should be limited, and subject to more thorough cumulative resource planning and management before we take regretful and irreversible steps against nature.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Joshua Tree National Park Spared From Los Angeles Trash Plans

Los Angeles County has withdrawn plans to turn an abandoned mine site adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park into one of the world's largest trash dumps, according to KCET.  The mine site was among 265,000 acres of public land removed from what was then Joshua Tree National Monument by Congress in 1950 to benefit the mineral industry. 

The owner of the mine sought to enter into a contract with Los Angeles County to accept thousands of tons of garbage, requiring new train and diesel truck traffic in the desert.  The courts dealt the company's plans a severe setback in 2010 and 2011. It was only this month that Los Angeles finally decided to give up on its side of the bargain with the mine company.

As the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) points out, over 300,000 people have spoken out against the landfill project, a testament to the love people have for the desert.  The County became willing to abandon the landfill plans because it is increasing its recycling efficiency, which also goes to show you how much we can do as individuals and communities to reduce the burden on wildlands.

The NPCA now pledges to work to return lands given to the Eagle Mountain mine company back to Joshua Tree National Park.  The mine site was among 265,000 acres of public land removed from what was then Joshua Tree National Monument by Congress in 1950 to benefit the mineral industry.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Nevada Embraces the Bridge, Not the Solution

The Nevada legislature introduced a bill (S.B. 123) that would drastically reduce the state's dependence on coal power plants, but introduce an equal amount of natural gas generation and additional transmission lines that will continue to wreck Nevada's wild landscapes.  The bill proposes to eliminate no less than 800 megawatts of coal-fired generation capacity, but requires utility companies to acquire or construct 700 to 800 megawatts of natural gas generation, in addition to 600 megawatts from renewable energy sources.  The bill does not contain specific provisions that would encourage distributed generation,  and offers only meager encouragement for utility companies to improve energy efficiency.

So not only will Nevada continue to draw a large portion of energy from fossil fuels, Nevada's most significant step into renewable energy is almost certain to be guided by utility companies that profit the most when they build destructive infrastructure on public lands, instead of investing in our communities (i.e. energy efficiency and rooftop solar).  The heavy natural gas component of the legislation should be the biggest red flag that utility company profit, not sustainability, is a key objective of the legislation.  As I wrote about in my last blog post,  utility companies are exploiting the need for renewable energy to justify new and destructive infrastructure without abandoning fossil fuels, using the "intermittency" of renewable energy as an excuse to double down on new fossil fuel plants and transmission lines - all at the expense of ratepayers. 

Perhaps most surprising is that the Sierra Club's Southern Nevada group is asking Sierra Club members to support the legislation without explaining that signing on in support will encourage more fossil fuel development and destruction (see the Sierra Club petition website here, although I'd caution against signing).

If this legislation passes, Nevada will invest heavily in fossil fuels as a "bridge", and thus stall any sensible or sustainable solution to our planet's ails.  Instead of learning from the mistakes of other states, Nevada will strengthen the destructive grip of energy companies on its air, water, and wildlands.   What Nevada needs is an aggressive investment in energy efficiency (as the Sierra Club previously supported), rooftop solar, and larger renewable energy facilities on already-disturbed lands

Utility companies will always find a myriad of excuses to label the more sustainable (and less profitable) solution I outlined above as unreasonable, so if the environmental community is willing accept the paradigm of destruction that is guaranteed under the new Nevada legislation, then when can we ever expect to be on a truly sustainable renewable energy path?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Solar Awakening

An article in Renewable Energy World discusses natural gas as a "bridge" to renewable energy sources, such as utility-scale solar and wind, showing how energy companies are exploiting demand for renewable energy to double down on investment in fossil fuels and unnecessary infrastructure, such as transmission lines.   As long as we draw the majority of our energy from giant utility companies, you can bet on an unhealthy mix of fossil fuels in the grid.  Utility companies are guaranteed a fixed return on the massive transmission lines that link expensive and dirty central station power plants to our cities from far away, and the companies that build those power plants are heavily invested in fossil fuels.

Wind turbines spoiling desert landscapes require new transmission lines, and the "intermittency" of the wind requires a new natural gas plant, and more transmission lines.  These companies collect a guaranteed profit from you,  and then turn around and invest that money in more destruction.

NV Energy, a Nevada utility company, says it has a plan to replace the dirty Reid-Gardner coal power plant pictured above.  But it involves more natural gas generation, and utility-scale solar and wind on pristine wildlands. And that means they want to build more transmission lines, too.
When you drive by a utility-scale wind or solar project, most like the money and companies behind that are also hard at work destroying other wildlands to extract fossil fuels.   These companies have invested billions of dollars in machinery and land for fossil fuel exploration and extraction, and the return they expect to see on this investment will take decades to be realized. 

Consider K Road, the company building the Moapa Solar project that is touted as the savior for the Moapa community that is besieged by the Reid-Gardner coal plant.   K Road will destroy 3 square miles of desert on the Moapa Band of Paiutes' reservation for the Moapa Solar project -- sharing a relatively minuscule amount of profit with the tribe.  At the same time, K Road is building a 600 megawatt coal power plant in the Philippines.   To the company's executives in New York, they are investing in whatever will secure a healthy return - what happens to the communities where they operate is not a concern.  The Sierra Club's press releases on the K Road project did not mention the company's continued coal development, or plans to build a hydro power dam on a tropical river in South America.

A photograph of preparations for a single wind turbine pad at the Ocotillo Express Wind project.  Notice the new dirt road, and clearing around the pad, with a deep pit that will be filled with tons of cement and steel to anchor the turbine.  Photo by Phillip Colla. Aviation support provided by LightHawk.
Another example is the Silver State North solar project, also in Nevada.  Built by First Solar on a patch of desert deemed to be sensitive and important to the recovery of the threatened desert tortoise, the project was sold to Canada-based Enbridge.  Now Enbridge makes money from ratepayers that think they are buying guilt-free clean energy.  What they don't know is that their money is going to a company that will pool and reinvest that money in hundreds of miles of oil sands pipelines in North America.   Not far away in Arizona, BP now wants to build a massive wind facility across over 54 square miles of desert.  But don't count on that company to abandon drilling for oil and natural gas.

All of this is to say that if we are truly serious about breaking our ties to fossil fuels and destruction of wildlands, we need to make energy decisions rooted in a core conservation ethic.  We need to deprive these companies of our business as much as possible.  And that means that the most sustainable renewable energy path involves a much higher component of distributed generation.  Will corporations be involved? Yes.  But the investments begin to undermine the corporate paradigm that counts on a centralized and destructive energy grid.  Goldman Sachs invested 500 million dollars in rooftop solar leasing this past week.  Each of the solar panels installed under that financing will chip away at the stranglehold of utility companies on our communities and ecosystems, and a grid that continues to generate profits for other large corporations. 

NRG, which has also invested in destructive solar projects in the desert, teamed up with the owners of this stadium in Philadelphia to install solar panels on the side of the building (the diagonally arranged panels in the picture above), as well as over some of the parking lots.  The stadium now generates nearly 3 megawatts of clean energy, and no wildlands had to be destroyed to install the panels.
An even better model is being championed by Solar Mosaic, which allows individual investors -- anybody with at least $25 -- to invest in a rooftop solar installation in the community.   Compared to the example of Goldman Sachs giving millions of dollars,  Solar Mosaic is more like crowd-funding, and typically involves hundreds of small investments for each rooftop solar installation.  This means that investment comes from, and stays in the community. And the end product does not involve bulldozers on wildlands.
An info graphic by Solar Mosaic shows how hundreds of individuals came together to fund a rooftop solar project in New Jersey.  That is capital and clean energy that is undermining the central power of utility companies.
Building on the power of the individual and community, programs such as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) and feed-in-tariffs allow us to install clean, distributed generation and improve energy efficiency.  PACE allows a homeowner to install rooftop solar financed through their own individual property tax.  Feed-in-tariffs force utility companies to buy power from individuals with rooftop solar, instead of going to their fossil fuel cronies for more energy that is generated far from the community.  Unfortunately utility companies are staunchly against feed-in-tariffs and the Obama administration's Federal Housing Finance Agency has mired PACE in red tape to protect the banks.

But even with relatively weak distributed generation incentives, we are still breaking free.  California now has over 150,000 rooftops with solar panels, a milestone that the Sierra Club lauded in an interview with KCET's ReWire.   In Arizona, citizens are taking a stand against a utility company that is trying to slash rooftop solar incentives, including a vocal conservative icon.  In Washington, D.C., communities are finding space for solar panels on relatively small rooftops, and encouraging their neighbors to do the same.  This is the difference between renewable energy, and sustainable energy, and it is what will ultimately spare our planet from unnecessary destruction.

Solar panels on a rooftop in Hawaii, where rooftop solar is chipping away at fossil fuel's grip.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Laws Not Enforced as Wind Industry Kills More Birds and Bats

The Associated Press published a thorough article examining the number of eagles and other protected birds being killed by wind energy projects -- many built on remote wildlands -- and highlighting the Department of Interior's unwillingness to hold the wind industry accountable to laws meant to protect wildlife.   With over 573,000 birds killed by wind turbines each year,  according to the Wildlife Society Bulletin, as well as a significant number of bats, the Department of Interior can only point to superficial and voluntary guidelines that the wind industry continues to ignore.

Some environmentalists attempt to downplay the problem, as Sierra Club editor Paul Rauber did in a Sierra magazine article earlier this year that described hundreds of thousands of bird deaths each year as "trivial."  The wind industry responded to the Associated Press article with the same argument employed by Mr. Rauber, stating that buildings, cars, and cats kill even more birds each year.  This logic is similar to the response from the gun lobby to the deaths of elementary school children in Newtown, claiming that hammers kill more people than assault rifles in an insensitive and nonsensical argument against new regulations.  One wrong does not excuse another.

Construction crews bulldoze Joshua tree woodland habitat in the western Mojave Desert to make way for more giant wind turbines, within the historic range of the California condor.  A wind farm nearby - LADWP's Pine Tree wind project - is also likely responsible for several golden eagle deaths.
The longer we ignore, or attempt to downplay the wind industry's impacts, the bigger the problem becomes.  It is time to accept the reality that the wind industry and government leaders are not motivated by the quest for sustainability or protection of the environment, and demand mandatory guidelines that keep utility-scale renewable energy development away from important habitat.

The current voluntary guidelines for the wind industry were only implemented after the wind industry lobbied the White House and Department of Interior to oppose stricter rules that the Fish and Wildlife Service's scientists recommended.  And since those voluntary guidelines have been put into place, the wind industry continues to build projects in areas that jeopardize protected birds, including golden eagles and California condors.  Now the Obama administration is also considering giving the wind industry 30-year permits to kill golden and bald eagles, which would challenge our ability to protect these species, especially as other threats continue to loom, such as urban sprawl and climate change.

This is not a zero sum game between renewable energy and wildlife.  The flexibility of renewable energy technology allows us to generate clean energy in a way that minimizes or eliminates impacts on protected wildlife.  Rooftop solar, solar on already-disturbed lands, and energy efficiency investments are some of our most sustainable renewable energy choices. 

A raptor takes flight over the Mojave Desert, California.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Not Essential

An excerpt from my post "Silence" at the Not Essential List:

"I do not know how to turn these feelings into the words I need to make people see the beauty we are about to lose.  So I watch the sun set, and rise, and set again.  Each time more beautiful than the last. Numb to the yelling that rages.  A violent house that I cannot escape.  It is my Earth, but I have no choice to share it with the ones who do not care.  I have no choice but to keep trying."

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Obama Administration: Wind Industry Allowed to Kill Condors

Update: I have heard that the authorization to allow Terra-Gen to kill California condors may not be under an "incidental take permit," but some other allowance under the Endangered Species Act.  Either way, the green light to kill California condors is a significant step in how we protect and recover this endangered species.  When more details are available I will write a follow-up post.

In a shocking move against wildlife and wildlands, the Obama administration announced on Friday that wind energy company Terra-Gen could kill endangered California condors without penalty near Tehachapi, California, according to the Los Angeles Times.  This is yet another indication that the Obama administration's clean energy platform is motivated not by a desire to protect the environment, but instead to cater to corporations -- Washington has failed to put in place mandatory guidelines that would require companies to build wind facilities away from important bird habitat.  Many in the conservation community have called on the Obama administration for more sensible siting decisions to generate renewable energy in our cities, and away from sensitive wildlands.

Terra-Gen is the first energy company to receive a permit to kill California condors but it probably could have operated its facility without a permit because the Fish and Wildlife Service still has not taken decisive action against other wind operators that have killed protected species, including golden eagles, without permits.   Although the Obama administration claims that the permits give the wind industry necessary assurances that their profits will not be jeopardized, no such certainty of existence is available for our wildlife and treasured landscapes in this uncoordinated policy approach that favors corporations in nearly every ad hoc decision.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe claimed that the threat to condors would be mitigated by the wind industry's voluntary use of bird radars to detect the presence of endangered birds, and the industry's voluntary commitment to shutting down turbines when the birds are detected.  Unfortunately, neither the bird radar technology, nor the wind industry have a good track record.  The radar technology is considered experimental, and Terra-Gen's decision to build a large wind facility in condor country itself is evidence of the company's disregard for wildlife concerns.  Any condors that may nest nearby will be imperiled by the proximity of the wind turbines in the Tehachapi region, and this habitat can essentially be considered lost to the species.

According to a Fish and Wildlife Service consultation letter from 2011 that is included in the Final Environmental Impact Statement for a Terra-Gen wind project in the Tehachapi area, wind development in the area is expected to pose a significant threat to the birds:
"Given the behavioral ecology of California condors (e.g.,the importance of experienced individuals in teaching recently released birds how to survive and their habit of gathering in large numbers at a single carcass), we consider avoidance of mortality of California condors to be the only acceptable conservation strategy at this point in time.  In particular, because of their feeding strategy, we are concerned that many individuals could be killed by wind turbines during a single feeding event." - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
More comprehensive conservation is needed in the Tehachapi and western Mojave region to protect condors, but such action will have to consider the fate of multiple proposed wind energy projects that would add to hundreds of existing wind turbines there.   The Fish and Wildlife Service has formed a specific subgroup that is examining the potential impacts of wind energy development on the condor, but in typical fashion, pressure from Washington where industry lobbyists are hard at work has resulted in land and wildlife management decisions ahead of conclusive research.

The California condors' recovery is still threatened by lead ammunition, urban sprawl, and now booming wind industry development within its historic range, in addition to the impacts of human-induced climate change.  Now is not the time to allow industrial sprawl within its range that could result in the loss of these birds.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Disturbed-Land Solar Outpaces More Destructive Alternative

Some energy companies and wayward self-described "environmentalists" suggest that we must destroy desert wildlands for large solar and wind facilities in order to combat climate change. 
Solar facilities on already-disturbed lands, however, prove this assertion is simply wrong.  Just this week a company began construction on a 127 megawatt solar project on fallow agricultural lands in Arizona, west of Phoenix.  The Arlington Valley Solar project will be far from its customers in San Diego, but unlike solar and wind projects being built on pristine public lands, the Arlington project will not rob us of desert habitat. 

The Arlington Valley project joins a series of other large solar facilities on already-disturbed lands, including NRG's 66 MW Alpine Solar, First Solar's 290 MW Agua Caliente Solar, 8minutenergy's 266 MW Mount Signal Solar, and SunPower's 579 MW Antelope Valley Solar.  The Sierra Club lauded SunPower - which began construction on its project last week - for finding a site that does not involve the destruction of intact desert habitat.

These projects are still industrial-scale, however, and it is incumbent upon local planners and the companies to make sure they make good neighbors, especially by controlling fugitive dust.  Construction on a separate project in the Antelope Valley was suspended last month because the company could not control dust clouds, which can cause health problems and impair visibility.   As it goes, energy efficiency and distributed generation (solar on rooftops or over parking lots) remain the gold standard when it comes to kicking fossil fuels because they require no new transmission lines and other carbon-intensive infrastructure.