Sunday, October 20, 2013

Interior Rolling the Dice on Future of the Desert Tortoise

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) biological opinion provides a seemingly conflicted and reluctant expression of support for the Silver State South solar project on the basis of mitigation measures that it admits may not offset the damage done by the project to the viability of a key habitat linkage for the desert tortoise.  The biological opinion is FWS' contribution to the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) environmental review of the Silver State South project, and evaluates how the project will impact the desert tortoise.   Perhaps to speed approval of the project, the opinion glosses over a significant potential consequence of the project - local extirpation of the desert tortoise population in the Ivanpah Valley.

The Silver State South solar project would be built at the pinch point of the hour-glass shaped Ivanpah Valley, and potentially isolate two populations of the desert tortoise; both the BLM and FWS acknowledge that "current research does not indicate whether reductions in the width or configuration of the corridor compared to existing conditions would reduce or eliminate its ability to maintain the genetic linkage between populations north and south of the Project area." In other words, the Department of Interior plans to approve the Silver State South Solar project even though it does not know if the Silver State South project will essentially sever the habitat linkage.


If the Silver State South project does reduce the viability of the habitat linkage, extirpation of the desert tortoise from the Ivanpah Valley seems to be a possible outcome, although the FWS' biological opinion is written in such a way to avoid direct mention of this outcome.  According to the biological opinion, "[l]oss of population connectivity between the northern and southern portions of Ivanpah Valley would create a nearly closed population of desert tortoises within a 258-square-mile area in its southern portion...and a nearly closed population within the 255-square-mile area of the northern portion of the valley."

The consequences of cutting the habitat linkage are summed up in the biological opinion as "demographic stochasticity and genetic deterioration likely [to] diminish the potential for population growth."  In other words, the project could divide one larger population into two smaller isolated populations that would be too small to maintain population growth in the face of natural and man-made changes (including climate change, wildfire, and natural fluctuations in birth rate, sex ratios, and age distribution), and could cease to exist over time.  As the FWS notes in the revised recovery plan for the desert tortoise that it issued in 2011, such habitat fragmentation places isolated populations "at higher risk of localized extirpation from stochastic events or from inbreeding depression (Boarman et al. 1997; Boarman and Sazaki 2006)."  The Ivanpah population covers a significant portion of the eastern Mojave Desert, and its decline could have ripple effects on the ecosystem.

The biological opinion notes that the northern and southern Ivanpah populations already fall slightly below the recommended density of tortoises necessary to maintain a stable or growing population, suggesting the project's impediment on the habitat linkage could push the populations over the edge.

Ineffective Mitigation

The FWS biological opinion evaluates several mitigation measures that will be funded by First Solar, but the document casts doubt on whether any of them can actually offset the damage that will be done by the solar project to the habitat linkage.  The mitigation measures mostly attempt to reduce tortoise mortality elsewhere in the Ivanpah Valley.  For example, First Solar will pay for tortoise fencing along the Morningstar Mine Road several miles away from the project, and closure of illegal off-highway vehicle (OHV) routes elsewhere in the eastern Mojave recovery unit.  The routes to be closed are unlikely to be the routes in the habitat linkage since the BLM states in the Final EIS that it does not plan to close any routes on the Nevada side of the Ivanpah Valley.

The Final EIS and biological opinion also notes that First Solar's mitigation funds will enable increased law enforcement patrols in the area to "reduce damage to habitat and injury and death of desert tortoises." However, the BLM will continue to manage the Special Recreation Management Area (SRMA) that overlaps the habitat linkage for "intensive recreation," including competitive OHV events that draw thousands of participants.  Given that so many OHV routes will remain open in the SRMA, it's not clear what illegal habitat destruction law enforcement will be able to detect or stop.  OHV events in the habitat linkage will continue to result in desert tortoise mortality, but the impacts will be compounded by the loss of habitat to the Silver State South solar project.

The only serious effort to offset the damage to the habitat linkage may not even be feasible.  FWS states that it may be possible to remove fencing around the Large-Scale Translocation Site - a portion of the desert on the opposite side of Interstate 15 that hosts tortoises translocated from other parts of Clark County, Nevada - to open up a marginal connectivity corridor on the other side of the valley.  Because of the potential that the tortoises there suffer from diseases at a higher rate than the natural population in the Ivanpah Valley, it may not be prudent to remove the fencing.  Even if the fencing is removed, however, FWS notes:
"If the Bureau is able to remove or realign the fence around the Large-Scale Translocation Site, the improved connectivity on the west side of Interstate 15 would not completely compensate for decreased connectivity to the east of the Silver State South Project, primarily because Primm and the Stateline Hills comprise impermeable and semi-permeable barriers, respectively, to movement of desert tortoises through this area."

Kicking the Can Down the Road

So this is where we stand:
  • FWS and BLM are not sure if the Silver State South solar project will diminish the viability of the desert tortoise habitat linkage.
  • If the Silver State South project severs the habitat linkage or renders it ineffective, the result will be two isolated populations of desert tortoise across over 500 square miles that will be too small to maintain population growth over time.  They could disappear altogether in the face of other threats, and without a linkage that enhances the species' resilience.
  • The mitigation measures required by the Final EIS may help reduce overall direct mortality in the region, but it is not clear if this will make a difference after First Solar destroys tortoise habitat in the narrow corridor between Primm and the Lucy Gray mountains.
What is even worse is that we may not know exactly how the project impacts the viability of the habitat linkage for quite some time, given the slow reproductive rate of the desert tortoise.  According to the biological opinion:
"Although the loss of habitat would occur in a relatively short time and be clearly visible, loss or degradation of connectivity would likely not occur for several years and be more difficult to detect."
So what is the Department of Interior's response?  The U.S. Geological Survey will conduct a long-term monitoring effort in an attempt to detect degradation of the habitat linkage's effectiveness.  If the monitoring detects a change, the BLM would have to re-initiate formal consultations under the Endangered Species Act and implement efforts to remediate the damage to the habitat linkage.  However, neither the biological opinion nor the Final EIS identify specific remediation efforts or what positive effect they could have on the viability of the habitat linkage.  Would they decommission the Silver State South solar project early and attempt to restore the habitat?  Would they sponsor speed-dating events for tortoises in the area? Would they blast through the Lucy Gray Mountains to widen the habitat corridor? If these ideas sound ridiculous it's because there is not much you can do to improve connectivity once you have bulldozed 3.7 square miles of tortoise habitat at the narrowest point of a habitat linkage.

The Silver State South Solar project could effectively isolate and decimate two large populations of the desert tortoise, but the BLM plans to approve it anyways with the hope that they can implement unspecified remediation efforts years after the habitat is already destroyed.  Without identifying what those measures are, there is no reason to believe that the damage can be undone.

Rose-Colored Glasses

Even after all of that uncertainty and doubt, the biological opinion concludes "that the proposed actions are not likely to appreciably diminish reproduction, numbers, or distribution of the desert tortoise in the action area, or to appreciably impede long-term recovery of the desert tortoise." FWS is betting on an unknown ability to correct this mistake even after the project is built. 

All of this begs the question: why must First Solar construct this large project at the narrowest part of the Ivanpah Valley habitat linkage?  This destruction is simply not necessary.  First Solar could install these solar panels on already-disturbed lands elsewhere in the southwest without jeopardizing the future of an entire population of the desert tortoise.  In our necessary efforts to cut fossil fuel emissions, there is no need to accept far-reaching and unnecessary compromises of our conservation ethic.

Below is a full copy of the biological opinion for the Silver State South and Stateline solar projects:

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Solar Decathlon Where It Belongs

The Solar Decathlon is being held in California at long last.  The competition was first held in 2002, and features homes powered by rooftop solar panels, and built by teams from across the country and overseas competing to be the most sustainable in various categories.  The overall winning team must design and build a home that meets the following general criteria:

  • Is affordable, attractive, and easy to live in
  • Maintains comfortable and healthy indoor environmental conditions
  • Supplies energy to household appliances for cooking, cleaning, and entertainment
  • Provides adequate hot water
  • Produces as much or more energy than it consumes.
Consider the "DesertSol" entry designed and built by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).  The DeserSol house uses a solar thermal system to heat water and the home itself, photovoltaic panels to supply energy, and advanced engineering that reduces framing materials by nearly 20%.  The entry will be on display at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve after the competition.

UNLV's DesertSol home design at the 2013 Solar Decathlon.  Solar power and water heating, low water consumption, and efficient use of materials have made this one of the event's most competitive designs. Photo from DOE Flickr page, creative common license.
Held every other year by the Department of Energy, the decathlon has always been hosted in Washington, D.C., but this year it is hosted in Irvine, California.  It seems more appropriate for the event to be held out west, or at least outside of Washington D.C.   Other than the Department of Energy folks that support this event, Washington does not seem to properly value the mostly untapped potential of energy efficiency and distributed generation that these designs embody - policy on these important fronts are mostly stalled.  Consider that a bill supporting energy efficiency (S. 1392) with bi-partisan support has yet to be passed by Congress.  Or that in 2011 the Department of Interior did not want the competition to take place on the National Mall because of the impacts of so many visitors on the grass there.  The irony was lost on Interior that it felt the need to protect a typical lawn from an event that raises awareness about sustainability, even thought Interior provides fast-track approval for the destruction of public lands for big energy projects.

So I am glad for the folks out west that can attend this event, and learn about innovations in sustainable design, energy efficiency, and distributed solar generation.  We should do more to tap these elements to change the energy paradigm, and challenge the assumption that more homes equal more big power plants and transmission lines.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Silver State South Solar Nears Approval; Problems Loom

Tbe Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in September released the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Silver State South solar project, which would destroy approximately 3.7 square miles of intact desert habitat. Although the direct impact on wildlife may not compare to BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar project, the Silver State South project almost certainly will have significant long-term effects on the ability of the desert tortoise to maintain habitat connectivity.

The BLM’s preferred alternative supports the solar project, and secondarily designates an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) to protect the desert tortoise habitat that First Solar does not want to destroy.  The ACEC is a welcomed sweetener, but still does not override the bitterness that arises from the fact that destruction of habitat for the solar project is completely unnecessary since the solar panels would be just as happy on already-disturbed lands somewhere else in the state.  Tortoises, on the other hand, are unlikely to survive after they are evicted from their burrows.   There is no need for First Solar to push this species to the brink when alternative locations are available.

A stand of yucca on the site of First Solar's proposed Silver State South project site, just east of Primm, Nevada.
To add insult to injury, Southern California Edison - the utility company that is purchasing energy from the Silver State South project – is asking California regulators for permission to make corrections to its contract for the energy that will add over $60 million in costs to ratepayers. The additional costs result in part from a brand new substation; SCE previously told the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) a new substation was not necessary.   It took SCE nearly two years to notify CPUC about the corrections; the delay probably benefited SCE and First Solar because the incorrect information initially submitted to regulators made the cost of the project seem more competitive and reasonable.  CPUC will consider SCE’s request at the end of October.

Narrowing the Corridor

The project is poorly sited because it will impede a habitat connectivity corridor for the imperiled desert tortoise, potentially restricting gene flow for the species and challenging its resilience in the face of climate change, and ability to recover from a stark population decline over the past half century.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December requested that the BLM not approve the project, or at a minimum reduce the project’s footprint. The BLM and First Solar reduced the footprint from the project analyzed in last year’s draft EIS, but only because First Solar initially proposed a 350 megawatt (MW) project.   First Solar only had commitments to sell 250 MW, so the footprint reduction is not a compromise by First Solar, but a right sizing of its inflated plans.

A map included in the Final EIS shows how the width of the desert tortoise corridor (in green) will be impacted if the Silver State South project (blue outline) is built.  The primary connectivity corridor would be reduced significantly, leaving a 1.39 mile corridor at the narrowest point.
First Solar’s project will narrow the habitat corridor down to 1.39 miles across at the narrowest point, reducing the width of the habitat corridor by a mile. The EIS estimates that as many as 115 tortoises will be displaced or killed by the project.  Over the long term, the species will have more difficulty maintaining genetic connectivity through the Ivanpah Valley, which leads to a narrow and also unprotected connectivity corridor across the McCullough Range to the El Dorado Valley.  Other connectivity has already been eliminated by Las Vegas’ urban sprawl.

The map above depicts the home ranges of tortoises known to inhabit the area.  Orange and yellow polygons are the ranges of tortoises that will be displaced or severely impacted by construction of the project.  Other tortoises may be impacted that were not detected during surveys.

Competing Uses

The tortoise connectivity corridor is already under threat from other competing uses of the public lands – Las Vegas plans to build another airport on the dry lake bed near Primm known as the Southern Nevada Supplemental Airport.  Although the dry lake bed itself does not provide suitable habitat for the tortoise, the airport may need to build roads and other associated facilities on desert lands that do serve as suitable habitat.  The airport's development and construction has been delayed by the economic downturn and construction of a new terminal at McCarran airport, but the city almost certainly will return to these plans when McCarran begins to reach capacity limits.

Furthermore, the area hosts many off-highway vehicle (OHV) events on designated routes through the desert and around the Lucy Gray Mountains east of Primm.  The Final EIS notes that as many as 22,000 people attend some of the events.  The EIS, however, fails to clearly articulate how the integrity of the tortoise corridor will be preserved while also allowing for the solar project, airport, and OHV events.

The map above depicts off-highway vehicle routes in the vicinity of the Silver State South solar project.  The blue and purple line represents a route used by high speed and competitive events that draw thousands of spectators.  Although the solar project is not depicted in this map, it will interrupt that route, and no alternative route has been proposed. Establishment of the ACEC will complicate identification of alternative routes.

Some of the OHV routes will be blocked by the Silver State South project, according to the EIS, although it is not clear if alternative routes will be permitted after designation of an ACEC.   New routes could result in further destruction of desert tortoise habitat; if BLM plans to permit alternative routes they should have been analyzed in the Final EIS as a connected action.

Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC)

BLM responded to requests from the public and agencies to extend the ACEC to cover areas of the desert not used by the solar project, although the FEIS does not analyze a conservation alternative – where the project is denied but BLM evaluates conservation actions such as a more robust ACEC designation.

Nonetheless, if the BLM selects its preferred alternative, over 31,000 acres of desert habitat will be protected under the ACEC.   Basin and Range Watch originally proposed the ACEC in 2012 as an alternative to the solar project because of the overarching importance of this desert habitat.

Considering just how important this swath of desert is to the long term viability of an entire species, you would think the ACEC outline would cover as much of the suitable habitat as possible.  The ACEC outlined in the first map at the top of this blog post shows a lot of habitat remains unprotected by the designation.  The BLM may consider adding lands to the ACEC designation during its review of the Las Vegas Resource Management Plan.

Increasing Transmission Costs

SCE in Ma filed an amendment with CPUC correcting the original power purchase agreement (PPA) that was filed in 2011, and informing CPUC that the amendment will result in incremental costs of over $60 million.  The transmission upgrades required to accommodate the project on the grid include a new substation (two other substations exist nearby, but apparently Silver State South needs its own), and upgrades at other major substations in the El Dorado Valley, Hesperia, and Kramer Junction.

When SCE first filed the PPA in 2011 they stated the project would connect to the grid at the Ivanpah Substation, which was already approved and paid for to accommodate the Ivanpah Solar project.  It is not clear how SCE mixed up its substations, but they apparently knew the correct substation when they filed a separate regulatory application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in October 2011.  However, SCE never bothered to correct its PPA filing with CPUC until after they approved the contract.  Although the retail rate of the electricity from the project is not affected, ratepayers will pay for the upgrades through the “transmission access charge,” and the error suggests the PPA may not have been properly compared to other projects when SCE was initially selecting projects for contracts.

You can find the Final EIS on the BLM website for the Silver State South Solar project, although these documents are not readily available during the government shutdown imposed by Congress.

The following document was included in the draft EIS published in 2012, and lists all species that are likely to be impacted by the Silver State South solar project.