Sierra Club Joins Opposition to Palen Solar Project

The Sierra Club filed a petition this month opposing BrightSource Energy's plans to build the nearly six square mile Palen Solar power project in the Colorado Desert between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe, California.  Although the California Energy Commission (CEC) denied the Sierra Club's petition to formally participate in evidentiary hearings regarding the project, the Sierra Club's public opposition adds to the persistent environmental concerns expressed by desert conservationists, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Basin and Range Watch.

[click on image to expand] The Palen Solar power project would blanket nearly 6 square miles of Colorado Desert habitat with thousands of giant mirrors and two power towers taller than the Washington Monument.  Based on initial observations of other solar project in the desert, the Palen Solar project is likely to attract and kill a significant number of migratory and resident birds.
What makes the proposed Palen Solar project remarkable is its solar power tower technology, which appears to burn insects and birds alive, according to biologists and the study of a similar power plant design from the 1980s. BrightSource and NRG's Ivanpah Solar project is believed to be responsible for a mounting wildlife death toll in the northeastern Mojave Desert, and biologists are just beginning to study how the solar power technology proves fatal to avian species. 

A screenshot from Avian Mortality at a Solar Energy Power Plant, a study by Michael McCrary and others at a solar power tower plant in California that found these birds burned by the super-heated air generated by the mirrors focusing the suns rays at central points above ground.   The study focused on a small 10 megawatt solar power tower project on 72 acres near Barstow, CA.  BrightSource's Palen Solar project would be many times larger.

The field of thousands of giant mirrors that would be installed at the proposed Palen site would also pose a collision hazard to birds, which may confuse the perfect reflective surfaces for the sky or a body of water.  Preliminary investigations suggest water birds from far away have been led astray by the Genesis and Desert Sunlight solar projects - not far from where BrightSource plans to build the Palen Solar project -believing that the field of solar panels were a body of water.

A brown pelican was found dead at the Genesis Solar power project, far from the nearest water habitat.  The Palen Solar project would be built near the Genesis project and likely exacerbate the threat to all avian species in the Mojave Desert, including birds that seek out rare riparian habitat.
If this is the future of solar, it is merely the repeat of an ugly system that continues to pit the needs of human society against wildlife and wildlands.  Our next step into the future of energy generation and consumption doesn't have to look like this, especially considering that renewable energy technology can be scaled and adapated to already-disturbed lands and other spaces in our city.

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