Sunday, December 15, 2013

BrightSource Energy Design Too Risky for Wildlife

BrightSource Energy's plans to build the Palen Solar power project in the California desert were cast in doubt last week when the California Energy Commission (CEC) proposed to deny a permit for the facility because of its impacts on wildlife.  The denial could spell doom for BrightSource Energy, which has invested heavily in a solar power plant design that has become notorious for its troubling impacts on wildlife -  destroying rare plants and habitat for terrestrial wildlife, and burning birds to death.
  • BrightSource's Palen project would involve thousands of mirrors spread out over nearly 5.9 square miles to focus the sun's energy to heat boilers on the top of two towers - each over 750 feet tall.  The focused energy would create super-heated pockets of air; the super-heated air created at the company's Ivanpah Solar project in the Mojave Desert has already killed dozens of birds.
BrightSource paid experts and lawyers to urge the CEC to approve its Palen Solar project, claiming that the impacts of its solar plant design can be "mitigated."  But BrightSource became its own worst enemy.   Once BrightSource completed construction and began testing its Ivanpah Solar project - which the CEC approved in 2010 - the public became aware of surprising levels of environmental destruction that the company previously tried to downplay through aggressive public relations and outreach.  BrightSource ignored environmentalists in 2008 and 2009 who argued that the location of its Ivanpah Solar project served as prime desert tortoise habitat that should not be disturbed.  The company ended up displacing or killing over 140 desert tortoises - far above initial estimates and surprising the Fish and Wildlife Service.  The Ivanpah facility has also burned dozens of birds, including warblers, swallows, gnatcatchers, raptors and doves.

BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project destroyed nearly 5.6 square miles of intact desert ecosystem, displaced or killed over 140 desert tortoises, and has already burned dozens of birds in its initial testing.  This photo of the Ivanpah Solar project was taken from miles away in the Mojave National Preserve, and shows the sea of thousands of mirrors heating three towers.  BrightSource's initial propaganda claimed that desert vegetation could still flourish underneath the mirrors and claimed that once-wild tortoises held in confinement in holding pens at the facility were receiving royal treatment.  Tortoises in the holding pens have gone missing, and juvenile tortoises were killed by an ant invasion.
Based on these recent experiences at the Ivanpah Solar project, as well as a study of a similar solar project design in the 1980s, biologists and the conservation community warned that BrightSource Energy's proposed Palen Solar power project would have significant impact on flying wildlife - insects, bats and birds.  It appears that the CEC listened.  In a draft decision that is pending approval before the full commission, the CEC indicated that BrightSource Energy's power tower design would introduce too much risk to wildlife; the proposed decision indicates that a different type of technology (photovoltaic panels or solar trough) would be much less harmful.

The Palen Solar power project would destroy approximately 5.9 square miles of desert habitat - an area nearly as large as Palm Springs - and its two towers would be among the tallest structures in California.
Now if only we could roll back time and stop the approval of the destructive Ivanpah Solar project.  In the time it has taken to complete construction of Ivanpah, California has added hundreds of megawatts of solar panels on rooftops and on already-disturbed lands.  We can generate clean energy without sacrificing natural treasures to irresponsible companies like BrightSource.

A construction marker on the site of the now-completed Ivanpah Solar project, which destroyed nearly 5.6 square miles of beautiful desert ecosystem, and will continue to harm its inhabitants.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

BLM Could Leave Key New Mexico Wildlands Open to Energy Development

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published the draft environmental review for a plan that determines how it will manage nearly 2.8 million acres of public lands in three large counties in southern New Mexico, including the beautiful Otero Mesa grasslands.  Unfortunately, the BLM's preferred alternative would leave much of the region vulnerable to oil and natural gas drilling, including areas identified by conservation groups as needing protection.  According to the Wilderness Society:
"The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has identified more than 700,000 acres of lands with wilderness characteristics in the tri-county area; yet BLM only found 11,917 acres as meeting the criteria to be considered lands with wilderness characteristics and only proposed to protect 803 acres." -the Wilderness Society
Indecision on Oil and Gas Prompts Uncertainty
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that the BLM's land use plan would defer a decision on how to handle oil and gas drilling on millions of acres of desert and grasslands until it figures out how to respond to a 2005 court order.  This means that the land use plan will be amended later, and that amendment will have significant consequences for the conservation of wildlife and wildlands because oil and gas drilling has the potential to alter the character of a sizable swath of the region.

According to the BLM environmental review, existing oil and gas leases will be managed according to current regulations; the overall planning area currently has multiple existing oil and gas leases pending development.  Although the planning area has "low to moderate" oil and gas resources, it is probably safe to assume that industry will soon turn its attention to developing these existing leases - and more - once wells in other states and regions run dry.  These existing leases alone would convert over 70 square miles of grasslands and desert into an industrial zone carved up by roads and well pads.
"As of August 2011, there were 40 oil and gas leases totaling approximately 50,190 acres in the Decision Area and none of these leases were in production at that time. These numbers include 21 leases in Otero County totaling 14,110 acres and one pending lease of 1,600 acres; and 19 leases in Doña Ana County totaling 29,582 acres northwest of Las Cruces and near the International border west of Santa Teresa." -BLM Draft EIS
BLM Setting Up Battle Over Otero Mesa
Although the BLM's preferred alternative would designate an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) over the public lands in Otero Mesa - the last and largest intact Chihuahua Desert grasslands in the United States - the alternative would still allow mining claims in the Otero Mesa ACEC.  Some ACECs in the BLM preferred alternative would be closed to oil and gas drilling, regardless of the outcome of the deferred oil and gas decision that will impact other lands in the planning area.  But not the Otero Mesa ACEC.  The BLM's preferred alternative does not close the Otero ACEC to oil and gas development, suggesting BLM is setting itself up to offer a compromise to the oil and gas industry.  The oil and gas industry has been pressuring BLM to maintain the Otero region open for development, according to a letter submitted by the Western Energy Alliance.

Until the BLM makes a decision on oil and gas development, we will not know how much of the Otero Mesa will be exposed to drilling, but the fact that the BLM decided not to close the ACEC to drilling in this draft plan suggests at least some of the area remains on the chopping block despite a groundswell of support for a monument proposal there.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Department of Interior Favors Industry Over Wildlife in New Rule

The Department of Interior finalized a new rule extending permits for wind energy facilities to kill bald and golden eagles in a move that could encourage even more wind energy development in eagle habitat.   Interior's issuance of the new rule caps a public review process that started last year, and extends eagle "take" permits -- permission to kill or harass protected bald and golden eagles -- from 5 years to 30 years.  The rule provides the wind industry with assurances it needs to finance and build sprawling energy projects in areas where eagle mortality is more likely, even though efforts to offset eagle losses are still experimental or speculative.  The American Bird Conservancy, Sierra Club, National Audubon Society, and others have expressed concern about Interior's decision.

The final rule includes some concessions to conservation groups, such as requiring wind companies to report the mortality rates of eagles at new project sites,  but wind facilities are not required to apply for a take permit or adopt the new rule's mitigation measures.  Although mortality at wind energy sites is not currently the leading cause of death for eagles, the wind industry poses a rapidly expanding threat and can convert large swaths of eagle foraging habitat into a danger zone for the species.
  • The United States will likely have installed 100,000 wind turbines by 2020, which are expected to kill one million birds each year.  In 2009, 22,000 turbines killed approximately 440,000 birds, according to research on bird mortality at wind facilities.
  • The US goal of generating 20% of our electricity demand with wind facilities is expected to impact nearly 20,000 square miles of terrestrial habitat and 4,000 square miles of marine habitat.  That is an area the size of West Virginia, or nearly three times the size of New Jersey.
An injured golden eagle at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon.  Golden eagles face a myriad of threats, including climate change, vehicle strikes, ingesting pesticides and lead, and electrocution on transmission lines.  Golden eagles deaths at wind facilities is yet another factor casting doubt on the species' future.
Wildlife Takes The Short Straw

Interior has a history of ignoring conservation goals for the sake of expediting wind energy development.   At the behest of the wind industry, Interior in early 2012 decided to make guidelines for the proper siting of wind projects on wildlife habitat voluntary for the industry, ignoring wildlife experts' request to make them mandatory.  Interior approved several projects expected to pose a high threat to wildlife, including the Spring Valley Wind project in Nevada, and the North Sky River Wind project in California.   Interior is also preparing to green light the Chokecherry - Sierra Madre wind project in Wyoming, which preliminary environmental analysis estimates could kill as many as 64 golden eagles each year.

Interior has also been slow to take action against wind facilities that do kill large numbers of eagles.  Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Pine Tree wind project near Tehachapi, California has killed at least eight golden eagles in just a three year period, making it one of the most deadly projects on a per-turbine basis.  No action has been taken against the Pine Tree Wind facility, and new wind projects have been permitted in the same area.   The first U.S. government enforcement of laws protecting eagles at a wind energy site was brought into the spotlight last month after Duke Energy acknowledged that it built two wind projects in Wyoming "in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths."

Conservation Measures Needed

Interior's concession on monitoring and annual reports is a positive step, but it will be difficult for the new rule to live up to its pledge to provide transparency on eagle mortality.  Instead of simply relying on the self-reporting mandated by the new rule, Interior should require independent monitoring at wind projects.  We cannot expect all wind energy companies to faithfully live up to the monitoring requirement, and accurately report eagle fatalities.  More importantly, Interior needs to quickly implement conservation plans that set aside key raptor habitat, and exclude harmful development from these areas.   As threats to raptors increase, we need to provide them with the space needed to preserve resilience. This cannot be achieved with the haphazard and shotgun blast approach to project siting and approval that is beginning to fragment and degrade otherwise intact wildlife habitat.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

California Does Not Need More Fossil Fuels

The California Public Utilities Commission is considerng whether to offset the loss of the failed San Onofre nuclear power plant with new natural gas power plants.  San Onofre's twin reactors generated over 2,250 megawatts of electricity.  We will need to take affirmative steps to offset the loss of that generating capacity, but we should find the most sustainable way to fill this gap without creating more environmental problems. 

As the Sierra Club notes, replacing San Onofre with natural gas plants is unnecessary because energy forecasts for California indicate that roughly half of San Onofre's generating capacity will be offset with energy efficiency gains; we can fill the rest of the gap with improvements in transmission or added rooftop solar capacity in the Los Angeles basin.  Consider that solar panels on California rooftops already generate over 1,880 megawatts of  clean energy.  Instead of wasting ratepayer money on new fossil fuel plants that will pollute our communities, encourage drilling on public lands, and contribute to climate change, we should invest in local clean energy. 

Follow this link to a Sierra Club site that helps you send a message to the California Public Utilities Commission, and personalize your message demand more investment in energy efficiency and rooftop solar.