Monday, July 29, 2013

BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Project

In the time it took BrightSource Energy to build its 377 megawatt Ivanpah Solar project on over 5 square miles of pristine desert, California added more than twice as much clean energy capacity with rooftop solar, and other companies added hundreds of megawatts to the grid from solar projects built on already-disturbed lands.  Why carpet beautiful desert landscapes with mirrors when there is a better way to generate clean energy?
[click on image to expand]

Monday, July 22, 2013

Los Angeles Times Misses the Full Story on Wind

The Los Angeles Times today published an editorial sympathizing with the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) regarding the relative lack of development zones suitable for wind energy in California's desert.  CalWEA believes the planning process for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) - which will identify areas where land management and wildlife officials believe utility-scale renewable energy development is appropriate in the California Desert District - favors solar over wind.

CalWEA and the Los Angeles Times fail to acknowledge that wind turbines already cover vast swaths of our desert.  In California's San Gorgonio Pass, 3,000 wind turbines have transformed over 20 square miles of desert and foothills into an industrial zone.   In the Tehachapi area, the industry has developed over 50 square miles into a wind energy zone hosting hundreds of wind turbines.  One of the largest wind projects in the country is located in the Mojave Desert near Tehachapi.

This photo only shows a fraction of the wind development along the Tehachapi Mountains.  The California Wind Energy Association wants to repeat this devastation across much of the Mojave and Colorado deserts.
Another flaw is CalWEA's expectation of parity with solar.  Wind resources simply are not as abundant in the desert as solar resources.  This ain't Kansas, where much of the land receives "good" or better wind speeds, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).  Compare NREL wind resource maps for Kansas and California, and "good" areas cover only a small slice of the California desert - and usually where there are already hundreds of turbines.  And where there are wind resources in the desert that have not been tapped, there tend to be cherished wildlife and beautiful landscapes that the public has deemed important enough to protect.  The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 specifically created the California Desert Conservation Area to protect these resources, recognizing the burden of a growing human population.

What would CalWEA like to see in the DRECP?  Maps submitted by CalWEA to the DRECP planners in 2012 request the plan to include wind resource areas totalling 2.6 million acres - over 4,062 square miles -  of mostly pristine desert;  turbines would be visible from anywhere within nearly two-thirds of the California desert.    The DRECP alternatives are not that far off from this number.   Preliminary documents released in December already identify development focus areas that coincide with a healthy portion of the "Priority Wind Resource Areas" that CalWEA is asking DRECP planners to support.  One of the more destructive DRECP alternatives would provide the wind industry with over one million acres of development focus areas. 

The purple areas in the map above are the "Priority Wind Resource Areas" CalWEA proposed be included as development focus areas in the DRECP. 
It is also worth noting that CalWEA's standards for identifying "Priority Wind Resource Areas" are questionable.  CalWEA simply identified lands where the estimated wind speed is typically greater than six meters per second, but it is not clear how accurate the estimates are, nor how consistent the winds would be to generate reliable power.  Notice that one priority wind resource area on the map above includes the now-operational Ocotillo Express Wind project.  The Ocotillo Wind project is notorious for turbines that rarely spin, meaning that nearly 16 square miles of the Colorado desert region south of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was industrialized for a project that probably does not live up to its promised generation capacity.

The Los Angeles Times got one thing right in its editorial - we need more clean energy.  But instead of forking over more intact desert ecosystem to an insatiable industry, perhaps we can look to smarter alternatives.  For starters, many of the turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass are older generation technology.  They could be replaced with newer turbines that generate more energy.   Also, Los Angeles was on to a good thing when it opened up its feed-in-tariff to generate local clean energy by placing solar panels on rooftops and parking lotsIndustrializing the desert may be the quickest way for CalWEA to make money, but it is not the most sustainable way for us to generate clean energy.

The Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign gathered to welcome one more rooftop that is no longer wasting the sun's energy.  This rooftop solar installation joins tens of thousands in California, with many more to come.  Photo from the Sierra Club.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

How Much More Transmission Do We Need?

All of the transmission cables you see strung across the western United States and Canada could wrap around the Earth four and a half times.   New Federal policies and a utility industry emphasis on connecting cities to some of the most destructive energy projects on remote wildlands has resulted in plans to add up to seven thousand circuit miles of new transmission lines in the west, alone, including several new lines in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.  The White House's latest directive on transmission seeks to institute a fast-track approval system for these lines, ostensibly to reach renewable energy projects, but fails to establish an institutional incentive for the energy industry to invest in efficiency or distributed generation as a less costly alternative to new transmission and remote power plants.

This map shows transmission lines as of 2009, and only those that are 230 kilovolt (kv) or greater.
Abusive RelationshipThe transmission system is complex, and we will be mostly dependent on a healthy grid for quite some time, even under an ideal scenario with aggressive deployment of rooftop solar and energy efficiency investments.  However, as technology avails less destructive alternatives - a smarter grid, energy efficiency, and distributed generation - the question we should be asking is how much new transmission do we really need to transition to a clean energy future?  That question will get a different response depending on who you ask.   One thing is clear - investor owned utilities are staunch advocates for new transmission because they are guaranteed a healthy profit margin when they invest in new lines.  Investor owned utilities - including Southern California Edison, PG&E, SDG&E, NV Energy, and APS - meet the vast majority of electricity demand in southwestern states, so their decisions on where to locate new power plants have tremendous impact on our climate and our wildlands.  And they make decisions based on a primary objective: profit. 
To make progress, we must first acknowledge that we are locked in an abusive relationship.  Investor-owned utility-companies make more money when they build new transmission lines.  To justify new transmission lines, utility companies like to reinforce the notion that clean energy must come from far away.  They will tell you the sun shines better in the desert than in Los Angeles to justify building a 5 square mile solar facility over 100 miles away from the customers they serve.  But then they tell ratepayers that a cloud passing over that single solar facility makes it an unreliable energy source, so now they need to build a natural gas peaker plant somewhere else far from the city to provide standby power, and build more transmission lines to reach that project.   State regulators allow them to pass these costs along to ratepayers, and force ratepayers to provide utility companies with a return on their investment.   If we do not change this relationship, we will be forced to accept the status quo - more destruction of wildlands, and the continued dominance of fossil fuels in the grid.

Utility companies do not see much of an alternative in how they make money, so they see new developments in energy efficiency and distributed generation (e.g. rooftop solar), and battery storage of distributed generation as a threat.  When we save energy, or draw from local clean energy sources,  utility companies cannot justify building remote power plants and the expensive new transmission lines to connect them to our cities. 

Only When They Are Told
Utility companies typically only invest in energy efficiency and distributed generation when they are required to do so by state regulators.  California's legislature and Public Utilities Commission have required utilities to adopt robust efficiency programs, and a still-growing rooftop solar program, for example.  Arizona, on the other hand, is back-pedalling on its rooftop solar incentives, probably swayed by the influence of the utility companies.  

Nevada has missed a lot of opportunities, and is redoubling investments in the status quo.  Nevada's utility company - NV Energy - was threatened by a bill in the Nevada legislature that would have included incentives for rooftop solar, and stepped in to lobby the legislature and rewrote the bill.   The bill that passed the Nevada legislature no longer includes any mention of rooftop solar, but it will allow NV Energy to continue investing in a mixture of large solar plants on pristine desert, new natural gas plants, and plenty of transmission lines.

Major transmission lines are greater than 100kv.  Most of the lines you see crossing public lands in the desert southwest are 230kv or greater.
More Transmission Planned for the Desert
We are about to embark upon an aggressive investment in new transmission lines - electric lines to our cities and natural gas pipelines to feed new power plants - that utility companies hope will anchor us to an old paradigm where they tell us how, and from where we receive our electricity.   A 2011 report from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) identified over seven thousand planned circuit miles of new lines in the western United States through 2021.  A new 230 kv transmission line can cost - at a minimum - 1.4 million dollars per mile, but the total cost per mile is much more if the line crosses rough terrain, and you can add millions more for substations, according to the Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC).  The Sunrise Powerlink line that runs 117 miles from San Diego to the Imperial Valley cost ratepayers over $2 billion dollars, so you can see that these minimum cost estimates can end up being much more.

Here is a sampling of the new lines proposed in the southwest:

Coolwater-Lugo Line
Among the planned transmission projects in the west, Southern California Edison (SCE) claims the Coolwater-Lugo line would allow for the addition of more large-scale renewable energy projects and improve grid reliability.  The line would parallel existing transmission in some areas, but create a new transmission corridor through North Lucerne Valley to connect to a substation east of Barstow.  Although the proposed Granite Mountain Wind project east of Apple Valley may require a new substation and few miles of transmission lines along existing corridors, it's not clear why SCE wants to add 35 miles of new lines to a substation east of Barstow.

Sun Zia Line
The proposed Sun Zia transmission line would stretch 515 miles from New Mexico to Arizona, crossing intact desert and mountain ecosystems, including the San Pedro River Valley.  This part of Arizona supports rich bird habitat and a migration corridor.  The transmission line would destroy habitat and pose a hazard to migrating birds.   Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, and Representative Paul Grijalva have questioned the need for the line, noting that upgrades to existing transmission corridors would likely be sufficient.

Southline
Another proposed transmission line called "Southline" would stretch across 360 miles of New Mexico and Arizona.  The proponent, Western Area Power Administration, claims the line would allow for increased renewable energy generation and relieve congestion.  As with the case of Sun Zia, it is more likely that fossil fuels will benefit from the line more than renewables, and if utilities were required to do so, they could invest in more distributed generation and energy efficiency to ease congestion concerns and reduce the need for energy imports.


Barren Ridge Line
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power wants to add nearly 88 miles of new lines from the western Mojave Desert, and across Angeles National Forest.  The lines will connect the city to a growing expanse of wind turbines near the small towns of Mojave and Tehachapi, including some projects that are deadly to golden eagles and may threaten the California condor as the species recovers and hopefully expands its range.

Centennial West Clean Line
This is another multi-state line that would span 878 to 919 miles of New Mexico, Arizona, and California, depending on which route is chosen.  One of the proposed routes would cut right through scenic desert mountains and valleys within the boundaries of Senator Feinstein's proposed Mojave Trails National Monument.  No large transmission lines currently exist on this part of the route.

Transwest Express Line
This 725 mile line would connect Wyoming and Nevada, presumably delivering wind energy from the Sierra Madre and Chokecherry wind projects to the west coast.  The Sierra Madre and Chokecherry projects - when built - could become some of the most fatal wind facilities to golden eagles and other raptors in the country.  With nearly 1,000 wind turbines planned, the project will industrialize over 355 square miles of grassland.

Silver Platter
Our desire to move away from fossil fuels has delivered this opportunity to utility companies on a silver platter.  Requiring utilities to increase renewable energy generation gives them an excuse to invest heavily in new infrastructure.  A utility company hardly cares whether their transmission lines run to a toxic coal power plant or a golden eagle-killing wind facility - as long as state regulators tell them they can pass the costs to us, and as long as they don't have to kill their own business model by investing in energy efficiency and rooftop solar. 

As environmentalists, we must consider what mix of destruction we want in our renewable energy future, keeping in mind that remote central projects and their accompanying transmission lines tend to require a lot of carbon-intensive materials and construction processes.  Each transmission line will require tons of new cement, aluminum, and steel.  Energy efficiency, distributed generation, and facilities on disturbed lands close to the load centers, on the other hand, require much less of these materials.

If we want a more sustainable path, we have a fight on our hands.  The light bulb in the heads of utility companies is burning bright - they can make plenty of money from this transition to renewable energy by encouraging remote, centralized projects.   When we ask for investments in distributed generation, utility companies ironically attack the idea as too expensive, unfair, or dangerous to the grid.   Utilities want to tell us when, where, and how we will transition to clean energy, even if it is a path that remains unfriendly to our ecosystems.  Their environmental record is abysmal, however, and we must turn the tables in this relationship.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Desert Solar Killing Water Birds

Birds that are typically only found along rivers and at lakes are turning up dead at industrial-scale solar plants in the middle of the desert, according to KCET's ReWire, probably dying of thirst or collision with reflective solar panels.  The birds almost certainly are attracted to the facilities from far away because the field of reflective solar panels or troughs appear as a body of water. 

Basin & Range Watch found this photo of one of the dead brown pelicans in the monthly compliance report for NextEra's Genesis Solar project.  Notice the nearly perfect reflection of the sky in the solar trough above the dead bird.
KCET's ReWire did some research and found that 37 dead or injured birds have been found at the newly-constructed Desert Sunlight (built by First Solar) and Genesis (built by NextEra) solar projects near Joshua Tree National Park.  More than half of the birds are water birds, possibly straying from their normal habitat at the Salton Sea or Colorado River dozens of miles away.  An endangered Yuma clapper rail was found at First Solar's Desert Sunlight solar project, which is at least 35 miles from the bird's nearest habitat.  It is not clear if more birds have already been killed at these project sites, but not found or reported.

Although environmentalists and wildlife officials expressed concern during environmental review for the potential of bird collisions at the projects, I do not think officials expected that the projects would attract - and kill - birds from so far away.  With other projects planned for the same area, including BrightSource Energy's Palen Solar power project, the toll on bird life in the region is likely to grow.  You can submit public comments on the Palen Solar project's review to the California Energy Commission (CEC).

Monday, July 15, 2013

Update on Utility-Scale Energy Projects in the Desert

Although distributed generation continues to chart a sustainable path to produce clean energy, many poorly-sited renewable energy projects threaten to continue the fragmentation and industrialization of our southwestern deserts.  If all of the projects are built, they would rival the destructive impacts of climate change and urban sprawl on desert species.  As long-time readers of this blog know, there have been plenty of bad projects approved on public lands in the desert, with some good news sprinkled here and there.  The list below - not at all comprehensive - provides an update on the status of some of the most significant projects.

Projects that are completed or under construction will be in Red; projects approved but not yet under construction in Yellow; and still pending environmental review and approval in GreenAll told, the list below represents over 100 square miles of intact desert that has now been destroyed or industrialized, and over 150 square miles that could be destroyed over the next couple of years.
  • BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project has destroyed approximately 5.6 square miles, and displaced or killed over 130 Federally listed desert tortoises. The facility is nearing completion and is expected to be operational soon.  The Ivanpah Solar project destroyed a significant swath of public land that hosted rare plants, cactus wren, loggerhead shrike, Le Conte's thrasher, and ash-throated flycatchers.  Rare plants, such as the Rusby's desert mallow, Parish's club cholla, and Mojave milkweed are also lost.  A female Cooper's Hawk was also found dead on the project site, potentially after colliding with one of the solar structures.  BrightSource Energy, and even one of its investors, has tried to describe the location as "degraded" land because of a nearby gambling outpost and a highway running through the Ivanpah Valley.  If we accept the company's twisted standard for defining ecological and aesthetic, we would also bulldoze the Yosemite Valley since there are already roads, parking lots, hotels, and restaurants there.
  • First Solar's Desert Sunlight project is well under construction, and is expected to destroy nearly 6.5 square miles of intact desert on public lands when it is complete.   The project is being built approximately two miles from Joshua Tree National Park, and the rows of solar panels may appear as a lake to some migrating birds.  Already an endangered Yuma clapper rail was found dead at the site this year, according to Basin & Range Watch, likely from colliding with panels.  The project is also displacing desert tortoise, kit fox, burrowing owls, and Mojave fringe-toed lizard.
  • NextEra's 2.8 square mile Genesis Solar power project is also under construction in the Chuckwalla Valley of the Colorado Desert region, north of Interstate 10.  The desert probably did not look like much from the road, but NextEra found out otherwise.  The company found over 65 active and inactive kit fox dens and had a difficult time evicting the animals from the project site.  They used coyote urine in an attempt to scare off the kit fox, but the practice may have resulted in a canine distemper outbreak among the kit fox.   At least several have died.  The project also disturbed a Native American burial site and artifacts, and experienced a setback after flash floods destroyed berms and equipment on the site.
  • First Solar's Silver State North solar project bulldozed about one square mile of intact desert in the Ivanpah Valley on the Nevada side of the border.  First Solar now plans to build the Silver State South solar project next to the North phase, and destroy up to another 4.8 square miles and eliminate a key habitat linkage for the threatened desert tortoise.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the BLM not permit construction of the South project because it could jeopardize the tortoise's recovery and ability to endure climate change, but it is not yet clear if the project will be cancelled or modified.
  • NextEra's North Sky River Wind project has industrialized nearly 20 square miles of rolling hills in an unincorporated part of Kern County on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, despite concerns expressed by environmental groups that the project could jeopardize raptors and California condors.  A golden eagle was killed at the project site within weeks of the turbines being switched on.  Not far from North Sky River wind, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Pine Tree wind project has already killed eight golden eagles making it more fatal than the notorious Altamont Pass wind project on a mortality per-turbine basis.
  • The Alta Wind Energy Center has industrialized over 50 square miles of the western Mojave Desert, also in Kern County.  The wind turbines and access roads have destroyed creosote scrub and Joshua tree woodland habitat.  The Department of Interior recently granted Terra-Gen LLC permission to destroy another 3.5 square miles for an extension of the Center known as Alta East, and even took the unprecedented step of allowing the company to kill an endangered California condor. New power lines have been constructed to deliver the energy to the Los Angeles basin over the San Gabriel Mountains from the Mojave.
  • Pattern Energy's Ocotillo Express Wind project industrialized nearly 16 square miles of desert habitat west of El Centro, California, carving miles of wide dirt roads and destroying ocotillo, creosote bush and cholla cactus.   The area previously provided remote desert solitude before the construction of dozens of turbines, each standing over 400 feet tall.  The California Governor's office is believed to have suppressed the concerns of officials at nearby Anza-Borrego Desert State Park regarding the project's environmental impacts.  The project recently made the news when a turbine threw a blade onto land that is technically open to the public.
  • The Moapa Solar power project is under construction by K Road Solar on over three square miles of desert northeast of Las Vegas.  The creosote bush scrub habitat now being bulldozed is expected to host from 25 to 103 tortoises, according to final environmental impact statement. 
  • Solar Reserve's Crescent Dune Solar project has destroyed 2.3 square miles of desert in Nevada for a power tower project.  The destruction eliminates nearly 10 percent of the Crescent Dunes aegialian scarab's habitat, also known as the dune beetle.  The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2012 determined that the species, which only lives in the Tonopah area, is in peril.  The project will also require to draw on dwindling groundwater supplies.
  • NextEra assumed control of the Blythe Solar power project after the original owner, German firm Solar Millennium, could not afford to pay for construction.  NextEra modified the construction plans and is seeking a review of the new plans.  Before selling the project, Solar Millennium managed to bulldoze dirt roads into the desert, destroying a Native American sacred site.  The new project layout would destroy almost 6.5 square miles of creosote bush scrub and microphyll woodland habitat.  
  • Solar Reserve's Rice Solar project would be built just south of the Turtle Mountains in a remote corner of the Mojave Desert.  The company describes the private land it will be built upon as "previously disturbed," even though much of the land is relatively intact.  The previous disturbance was caused by the Rice Army Airfield, a small facility only in use from 1942-1944.
  • NextEra's McCoy Solar project would be built on over 6.8 square miles, located just north of the Blythe Solar project.  NextEra recently received approval from the Bureau of Land Management.  Most of the project site is creosote bush scrub habitat, including areas with wilderness characteristics.  The project would destroy dozens of acres of desert washes with blue palo verde and ironwood trees. Although this habitat type only makes up a small fraction of the vegetation type in the Colorado Desert, it supports nearly 85% of bird nests.
  • Duke Energy's Searchlight Wind project will industrialize 29 square miles of the picturesque Piute Valley south of Las Vegas with 87 wind turbines.  The project is in proximity to Spirit Mountain, which holds deep significance for tribes in the Colorado River region.  In addition, the land disturbance would fragment otherwise great habitat for tortoises and other wildlife, and could displace or kill as many as 50 of the animals.  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. 
  • BP's Mohave Wind project in northwestern Arizona will carve up and fragment approximately 59 square miles of desert habitat, impact golden eagle and bat foraging areas.  The Final Environmental Impact Statement estimated the project could kill between 1,085 and 2,149 bats per year.  For a species already dealing with climate changed and white nose syndrome, adding another major sourc of mortality seems unsustainable.
  • BrightSource Energy's Palen Solar project will destroy over 5 square miles of desert north of Interstate 10  to construct two power towers and a field of thousands of heliostats, which are giant mirrors each as big as a garage door.  The Palen Solar project was previously led by Solar Millennium before financial troubles forced it to sell the permit to build on public land.  The two power towers would be much taller than the three towers at Ivanpah, however, and at 750 feet they would be visible from remote desert wilderness as far away as Arizona.  The project's heliostats not only create a collision hazard for birds, but also concentrate the sun's rays to create super-heated air near the towers.  Birds can be blinded by the mirrors' glare or burned to death in the concentration of sun's energy, according to research on a similar facility that once operated near Barstow, California.
  • First Solar's Stateline Solar project could destroy up to 3.4 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat in the Ivanpah Valley, not far from BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project.  Some of the desert tortoises found on the proposed Stateline site were already handled or displaced by BrightSource construction crews, so approving the Stateline project would add considerable stress and reduce their chances for survival.
  • Iberdrola Renewables is planning the Silurian Valley Solar and Wind project on public land north of Baker, California. The solar portion of the project would involve bulldozing over 2.3 square miles of intact desert, and the wind project portion would industrialize an area over 10 square miles.  The Silurian Valley is a gorgeous landscape that is only impacted by existing transmission lines and a two lane highway, which is eligible for scenic highway status.  The Hollow Hills Wilderness and gentle Silurian Hills bound the valley to the east, with the impressive and imposing Avawatz Mountains to the west.
  • The Soda Mountains Solar project will destroy up to 4.6 square miles of habitat adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve.  Perhaps most disturbing is that the project may require groundwater pumping that could impact habitat for the endangered Mojave tui chub fish.  The project could also obstruct a migration corridor for the desert bighorn sheep.
  • E ON Renewable's North Peak Wind project could industrialize up to 23 square miles of the Juniper Flats area of the Victor Valley, where the Mojave Desert meets the San Bernardino National Forest.  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.
  • Oak Creek Energy Systems has expressed interest in industrializing about 58 square miles of desert habitat along the California-Nevada border to build the Crescent Peak Wind project.  The project would be immediately adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, where hikers and campers seek solitude.  The project would also be built near a known hot spot for nesting raptors, including golden eagles.
  • The Granite Mountain Wind energy project would be built along the eastern edge of the Victor Valley.  The Granite Mountain area hosts canyon bats, Pallid bats, Townsend's big-eared bat, Mexican free-tailed bats, and others.   Offering a stark warning, a study found that wind facilities in the Pennsylvania killed at least 10,000 bats in one year, sending ripple effects through the ecosystem.  The Granite Mountain Wind project could also imperil turkey vulture migrations that are known to pass over the ridge.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Desert Kit Fox Project

I have never seen a kit fox in person, but I almost certain a desert kit fox has seen me.  I have spent enough time in its habitat that they have probably stalked my camp sites.   This species - like many others in the desert - face the threat of climate change, habitat loss to industrial energy development, and urban sprawl.  More recently, kit foxes on the site of NextEra's Genesis Solar power project have died from a canine distemper outbreak possibly caused when the company tried to harass them from their dens.

Luckily some students from Duke University are starting a research project to better understand the kit fox's habitat preference, and how human disturbances, landscape vegetation, and prey species affect the animals.  Chris Clarke held an informative Google Hangout chat with them where they explain the tools they'll be using to advance their research, but they will need your help.

In order to survey more than 200 square miles of kit fox habitat, they'll need to raise another 3,000 dollars or so.  Every contribution helps the team - and the world - better understand this awesome desert denizen.  So visit their crowd-funding site at Indiegogo to chip in a few bucks.  You only have less than three days left to donate!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Oil Pipeline Proposed for Joshua Tree Area

Questar, a natural gas-focused company with pipelines throughout western states, is evaluating options for a crude oil pipeline through the California desert to refineries in Long Beach, California.  The company would build up to 120 miles of new 16-inch pipeline between Essex and Whitewater, California to connect portions of the existing Questar Southern Trails pipeline, which currently carries natural gas from New Mexico to Essex for California utilities.   The new 120 mile portion would  be routed east of Joshua Tree National Park through Desert Center, or west of the National Park through the Morongo Basin.

The BLM has not yet begun environmental review of the Questar project, so stay tuned.

This map from Questar shows the existing pipeline in solid blue - much of it currently carrying natural gas from New Mexico to Essex.  The dotted lines show two potential routes for new pipeline to connect the existing pipelines, which would then carry crude oil.

The Questar pipeline is a separate project from the CalNev pipeline, which will be developed by another company and carry oil from Colton, California to Las Vegas, Nevada.  I wrote about the CalNev pipeline in a previous post. The BLM re-initiated review and is accepting public comments until July 16 for the CalNev pipeline.  This pipeline mostly follows along Interstate 15, but will damage desert and threaten water supplies, not to mention feed Las Vegas' demand for fossil fuels.

Of note, the BLM analysis for the CalNev project does not evaluate the greenhouse gas emissions of the product carried by the pipeline, only the emissions caused by the construction activity.  Regarding the notorious Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama said he would only approve the pipeline if it did not result in a net increase of greenhouse gas emissions.  It is not clear if the same standard will apply to the CalNev or Questar pipelines.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

NRG Solar Engages in Cover-Up

NRG Solar's Vice President recently expressed to CBS just how ill-informed he is about desert ecology.  In a story about the Ivanpah Solar project, Mr. Randall Hickok described the 5.6 square mile Ivanpah project - which NRG invested in along with BrightSource Energy - as "environmentally benign" and sited on "degraded land" that is "less prone to have wildlife."  Really?  Is that why he had to hire over 80 biologists to displace dozens of endangered species?  Ivanpah Valley hosts an above-averages species richness, serves as a critical habitat linkage for the desert tortoises, hosts pockets of rare plants, and provides a foraging area for desert bighorn sheep and golden eagles.

I'm sorry Mr. Hickok didn't bother to read the environmental impact statement for the project.  I would much rather NRG invest in distributed generation and projects on already-disturbed lands, but now I'm not sure they know the difference.  Luckily CBS also interviewed the National Parks Conservation Association, which is advocating for more sensible renewable energy siting.

[click on image to expand] The Ivanpah Solar project is the epitomy of poorly sited renewable energy.

video
 Construction crews mow down yucca plants that may be hundreds of years old to make way for the Ivanpah Solar project.