Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Can Ivanpah Be Saved?

The Department of Interior issued a Record of Decision this week approving two more massive solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley.  With this approval, First Solar could begin construction of the Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects as soon as this spring, even though the Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed concern that the projects could destroy a key habitat linkage for the imperiled desert tortoise.  Conservation groups have asked Interior and First Solar to consider alternative locations for the project, and Defenders of Wildlife in November warned that it may challenge Interior's review of the projects under the Endangered Species Act.

This photo was taken from Metamorphic Hill, looking over the desert habitat that will be destroyed to build the Stateline Solar project.  Further in the distance beyond the dry lake bed, First Solar would bulldoze another swath of intact desert to build the Silver State South Solar project.
There is no good reason why these projects must be built in Ivanpah, but plenty of reasons why they should be built elsewhere.  First Solar picked sites close to transmission lines and secured a power purchase agreement with utility companies without consideration of how these choices might impact our desert wildlands and wildlife, and blind political momentum has done the rest for them. 

Some people argue that the desert ecosystem will be better off with the clean energy generated by these projects, as if there was only a binary choice between clean energy that destroys wildlands and climate change, when in fact solar panels can be just as productive on rooftops or already-disturbed lands.  With just a year or two of tactical patience, First Solar could have found a better place for these solar panels.   The impacts of emissions already generated by humans guarantee negative impacts on all of our wildlands for decades; it is more important that the next step we take is toward clean and sustainable model.  The fact that anybody would insist on the sacrifice of the Ivanpah Valley - a largely intact desert ecosystem that hosts an above averages richness of species - is unreasonable and ignores smarter alternatives.

The Mojave yucca pictured above will be destroyed when First Solar bulldozes over 3.7 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat to build the Silver State South Solar project.

We should be deploying clean energy with the long game in mind, not with some rushed fervor that tramples on our conservation ethic.   Furthermore, Interior's dutiful execution of the President's climate action plan runs in parallel with continued leasing of public lands to coal, oil and gas extraction, pouring salt on the wounds of Ivanpah.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Desert Conservation Languishes As Industrial Uses Expand

As the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continues to facilitate the march of industry into relatively remote corners of America's desert wildlands, efforts to set aside these natural treasures are slow going as Congress has been jammed up by partisan squabbling, and the President has been shy about using his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate monuments.   Waiting for conservation by executive or legislative action may seem worthwhile when you consider that those protections will be more permanent, but what seems to be most lacking in our deserts is proactive conservation through the land management process administered by the BLM; other than islands of critical habitat designated for some endangered species, land use management plans seem to do little to prevent industrial-scale development on land considered to hold important wildlife, scenic and recreation values.

New Mexico Gets a Monument, and May Get A Second This Year

Despite the President's overall reluctance to establish monuments under the Antiquities Act, New Mexico appears to be fairing well - the state is home to one of the largest monuments the President has created so far, and many in the conservation community appear confident that the President will designate a second.  These are long overdue protections, but even if the second monument is granted there are still  plenty of treasured places vulnerable to energy development in New Mexico.

President Obama designated New Mexico's newest national monument - Rio Grande del Norte - in March 2013,  before his 2014 State of the Union pledge to protect even more of America's public lands.  There are rumors that President Obama may again use his power under the Antiquities Act to establish a second monument in southern New Mexico in the Las Cruces area, a conservation proposal that is also the subject of legislation introduced by New Mexico's representatives on Capitol Hill.  It is not clear how much land would be protected by a Presidential order, but legislation proposes protections for three swaths of desert around Las Cruces - the Organ Mountains, Potrillo Mountains, and a "desert peaks" complex.  What is not clear from speculation in the press is whether the President's monument would protect all three swaths of land that New Mexico's representatives seek to protect - totalling nearly 498,000 acres - or just a portion.  You can view maps for the proposed conservation designations accompanying New Mexico Congressperson Martin Heinrich's Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks conservation bill by following these links: Organ Mountains, Desert Peaks complex, Potrillo Mountain complex.

[Click on image to expand]  The map above shows the general areas of the lands to be protected under conservation bills introduced by Senator Udall and Congressman Heinrich of New Mexico (Organ Mountains, Potrillo Mountain, and the desert peaks area), and the Otero Mesa region to the west.
The beautiful Otero Mesa in the southeastern corner of the state, however, remains vulnerable to fossil fuel exploration, despite a strong grassroots effort to seek monument status for one of the largest intact desert grasslands in the United States.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to establish an area of critical environmental concern (ACEC) in Otero Mesa, but the ACEC proposal would not exclude energy industry use.  In the BLM's draft environmental impact statement, it identified only 11,000 acres in the Otero Mesa region with "wilderness" qualities, even though the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has identified over 700,000 acres of land with wilderness qualities.

The Google Earth image above shows an area of approximately 68 square miles industrialized by oil and gas extraction in southeastern New Mexico near Carlsbad.  This scale of development would wreak havoc on Otero Mesa, which is not yet afforded protection from the energy industry.
Arizona Conservation Bill Awaits Congressional Action

Arizona congressperson Raul Grijalva introduced legislation last year to protect over 950,000 acres of Sonoran desert habitat, mostly west of Phoenix.   The Arizona Sonoran Desert Heritage Act, like most legislative efforts, is stalled on Capitol Hill.  Grijalva's bill would create two new National Conservation Areas, two Special Management Areas, and thousands of acres of new wilderness designations.  The new designations would bring more conservation into the balance where military training ranges, urban sprawl, and agriculture have dominated.  The population explosion has also placed greater demand on open space for recreation, with hikers and OHV riders competing for the same trails. Outdoor shooting is also taking a toll as Arizonans drive out to the desert for target practice, often taking aim at the iconic saguaro cacti that dot the landscape.  All of this begs for better resource management, and conservation of what is left of desert wildlands.

You can download a map of Grijalva's proposed conservation measures below.

Nevada Waiting in Line

The last time Nevada enacted conservation measures for its southern desert was in 2002, and it was a double-edged sword.  The Clark County Conservation of Public Land and Natural Resources Act of 2002 protected 452,000 acres of desert with 18 new wilderness designations, but it also released thousands of acres of wilderness study areas and further cemented plans to accommodate an unnecessary airport proposed for the Ivanpah Valley, over 30 miles from the city.   Las Vegas' sprawl has destroyed a significant swath of desert habitat in southern Nevada, and the swelling population has contributed to "edge effects," with hundreds of miles of OHV trails etched into the surrounding desert.  Plans for massive new renewable energy projects, transmission lines and transportation infrastructure threaten to further fragment what is left, potentially rivaling the amount of land destroyed in the city's sprawl if all of the projects are approved and built.

Some more conservation may be on the horizon, but probably at a cost.  A bi-partisan group of Nevada representatives are supporting a bill that would create the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument that would protect 22,650 acres of ecological and archaeological resources north of Las Vegas.  However, the legislation would allow construction of a transmission line right through the monument,  and designate additional land to support the proposed airport in the Ivanpah Valley.  A separate bill introduced by Senator Reid would create the Gold Butte National Conservation Area (NCA) in southeastern Nevada, protecting valuable wildlife habitat and recreation areas.  The bill would also designate 129,500 acres of wilderness within the NCA, and another 92,000 acres of new wilderness areas within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.  The prospects of this legislation are less certain because it lacks the same bi-partisan support that the Tule Springs legislation enjoys.

[Click on image to expand]  The proposed Gold Butte National Conservation Area and Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument would protect additional desert habitat, although compromises in the legislative process would put other lands at risk.

California Desert Protection Act, Part II?

The California desert is a popular place.  Nearly 1.4 million people visited Joshua Tree National Park in 2012, and over 900,000 made the trek out to the remote Death Valley National Park - the fifth largest park in the United States.  The Mojave National Preserve is the newest of California's desert parks - created by Senator Feinstein's California Desert Protection Act in 1994 - but still hosted over 500,00 visitors in 2012.  But enjoyment of the desert is not restricted to these parks, as millions of people hike, tour by 4x4, race off-highway vehicles and hunt all throughout California's desert lands.  A recent surge in renewable energy construction has also showcased the fact that California's wilderness and National Park units seem insufficient to protect the feeling of remote escape that is achieved by 360 degree views of largely unspoiled wildlands.  Energy projects proposed for the region would be visible from miles away, and shatter the solitude of vast swaths of the desert by introducing industrial-scale development to a place where desert peaks and a sea of creosote bushes should dominate the view.

Nearly two decades after the first California Desert Protection Act cleared a contentious debate on Capitol Hill, Senator Feinstein has pledged continued support for additional desert conservation, and introduced the second California Desert Protection Act in 2010.  The Senator has not yet reintroduced the bill in the current legislative session, but she penned an op-ed on her plans to do so in November; it is not clear why the introduction of the bill has been delayed.  Assuming the reintroduced bill mirrors the 2010 version, the new California Desert Protection Act would create two new national monuments protecting lands donated by the Wildlands Conservancy for conservation purposes, designate new wilderness areas, and slightly expand the existing desert parks.

A map of the 2011 version of the California Desert Protection Act below shows the new monuments and wilderness designations that would greatly enhance conservation. 

Conservationists are also anxiously awaiting the release of the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).  Initially expected to be released late last year, the roll out of the draft has been delayed, but is expected to propose some of the most significant changes to the way California's desert is managed since the California Desert Conservation Area Plan was implemented in 1980.  Initial alternatives floated for public consideration in late 2012 ranged from makeovers that would encourage industrial development in some of the most remote corners of the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, while other options would protect desert mountains and open valleys with National Landscape Conservation System and Area of Critical Environmental Concern status.  The DRECP could turn out to be a nightmare for the desert's millions of visitors if it encourages the destruction of treasured places, but it could also turn out to be a model for landscape-level planning and conservation.

We frequently hear the term "multiple use" when the Department of Interior talks about managing our deserts, but some uses are clearly more exclusive than others and it seems little thought has been put into preserving some of the most fragile qualities of our public lands - solitude and spectacular vistas.  BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project can be seen from miles away by those trying to enjoy the solitude of the Mojave National Preserve.  It will kill migrating birds that are beloved by people throughout the western hemisphere.  Oil and gas exploration in New Mexico will carve miles of new roads into a delicate grassland ecosystem and sprout noisy well pads throughout entire vistas, altering the character of the land for a very long time.  Although land management is indeed a balancing act, it seems most wise to error on the side of conservation since it is a form of management sure to result in the least regret.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Destructive Ivanpah Solar Project To Finally Start Operations

Government officials and executives are expected to flip the switch on the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System on February 13, over three years after BrightSource Energy and its lead investor, NRG, began bulldozing pristine desert to build the project.   During the 3+ years it took these companies to replace over 5.6 square miles of intact ecosystem to build 377 megawatts of solar capacity, Californians have added at least twice as much solar capacity with panels installed on rooftops or over parking lots, and even more capacity has been added with utility-scale projects built on already-disturbed lands.

Years of public relations efforts by NRG and BrightSource have not changed the fact that the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the eastern Mojave Desert arguably represents one of the most destructive renewable energy projects permitted on public lands by the Obama administration.  The Ivanpah Solar project is to the Mojave what oil drilling would be to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge- unnecessarily destruction with the proven risk of ongoing impacts to wildlife from operations.  The Ivanpah Solar project is yet another monument testifying to an unsustainable centralized grid that incents corporate destruction of public lands, and ignores the spaces in our cities and already-disturbed lands that are perfectly capable of generating energy from the sun.
  • The Ivanpah Solar project literally burns birds to death in mid-flight. The super-heated air above the thousands of mirrors singes the birds' feathers and eyes within seconds, causing them to fall to their death.  During initial operational testing so far, over 70 birds have been burned to death or severely injured at the project, including warblers, gnatcatchers, and falcons.  Surveys may not be discovering all of the fatalities because of the immense size of the project and potential that scavengers move carcasses before they are found. 
  • The Ivanpah Solar project has displaced or killed over 173 desert tortoises since construction began, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The impacts far exceeded estimates during initial environmental review for the project.
  • BrightSource and NRG have spent over 22 million dollars caring for tortoises displaced by the massive project.  If the project were not built on prime desert tortoise habitat, that money could have been invested in more clean energy.
  • The project was built on approximately 5.6 square miles of high quality desert tortoise habitat  that the Fish and Wildlife Service warned also serves as a fragile and important connectivity corridor for the species, maintaining its resilience in the face of climate change and other human threats.  Environmental groups asked BrightSource Energy to consider alternative project locations and designs, but the company ignored these alternatives.
  • NRG and BrightSource like to point out that the nearby Primm golf course uses more water than the Ivanpah Solar project, which uses dry cooling technology.  While this is true, the Ivanpah Solar project has destroyed several times more habitat than the golf course, and adds to the cumulative demand on local groundwater sources.
  • NRG and Brightsource have also argued that the Ivanpah Valley is of no ecological value because there is already a golf course, a highway, and gambling outpost that disrupt the desert habitat.  However, the Ivanpah Solar project more than doubles the amount of development in the valley.  Applying this twisted evaluation of wildlands to other beloved natural treasures would mean places like the Yosemite Valley are not worth saving, since roads, shops and hotels also dot that landscape.  If the Ivanpah Solar project were actually built in Yosemite, it would consume nearly the entire valley.
  • The Ivanpah Solar project is built far outside of the "Solar Energy Zones" identified by the Department of Interior in 2012 as appropriate places for solar projects on public lands. The Fish and Wildlife Service and many conservation groups have determined that the Ivanpah Valley is an inappropriate place for utility-scale energy development.
Now that BrightSource and NRG have done their damage, it is now a question of whether or not the Obama administration will approve more projects here, despite concerns from conservationists and biologists.

[Click on image to expand] The Ivanpah Solar project (in red) is multiple times larger than the Primm Golf course, and extends deep into prime desert tortoise habitat.

[Click on image to expand]  To give you a sense of the scale of Ivanpah, the project footprint (white outline) is compared to Google Earth imagery of the Yosemite Valley.

This image of the Ivanpah Solar project taken from miles away in the Mojave National Preserve during initial operational testing in September 2013 shows the glare of thousands of mirrors.  The shiny "lake effect" may confuse migrating birds into thinking the project is a body of water, and damages visual resources for users of public lands.

 A screenshot from Avian Mortality at a Solar Energy Power Plant (1986), 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 also found that most birds probably died from collisions with the mirrors.  The study focused on a small 10 megawatt solar power tower project on 72 acres near Barstow, CA.  The Ivanpah Solar project is over 48 times larger than the Solar One project, which has since been dismantled.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Will Utility Companies Charge You For Being Efficient?

Will utility companies charge me extra because I cut my energy usage through efficiency improvements at home?  Utility companies across the country are proposing new fees for people who find a way to reduce their dependence on a dirty and destructive energy grid by operating rooftop solar systems.  The core of the utility companies' argument is that these homes and businesses with rooftop solar cut the amount of energy they need from the grid, and thus they reduce the amount they pay for the operation and maintenance of transmission lines and substations that bring them energy from far away places. 

There seems to be two major problems with utility company logic.  First, what will stop them from charging me for reducing my use of the grid through energy efficiency improvements?  How do they distinguish between people who install rooftop solar panels, and people who replace appliances and light bulbs to cut electricity usage?  And second, what choice do I have when the utility companies make poor investment choices in unnecessary grid infrastructure and power plants.  In California alone, utilities wasted billions of dollars on a nuclear plant that is now shut down, and now want to charge us for demolishing the plant and replacing it with unnecessary natural gas plants.  Utility companies also invent reasons to build multi-billion dollar transmission lines that do not always make sense, further entangling our society in an unsustainable grid.

The utility companies' effort against rooftop solar exposes their intention -  to stop distributed solar generation from rendering their monopoly of the grid obsolete.   I am willing to accept that anyone connected to the grid should pay at least a fee for that service, but the utility companies are leveraging that fee to punish people based on the amount of solar they generate at home.   If you apply the logic of that penalty elsewhere, it would mean that anybody that intentionally reduces the electricity they pull from the grid should pay extra charges to pay even more for the grid, including those of us who invest in new appliances or light bulbs that use less electricity.

Reduce your electricity use by switching lights off if they are not in use, and un-plug "vampire" appliances and chargers that will use power in stand-by mode.  Keep in mind cable TV boxes and DVRs use quite a bot of energy even when in stand-by mode.
We all already pay standard fees on our utility bill to pay for the grid in addition to the per kilowatt hour charges for the amount of electricity we use.  So why should we be punished if we try to reduce the amount of grid energy we use?  The anti-solar surcharge applies to many people that are still paying the utility company transmission and distribution charges, it is just that utility companies want to charge them even more for attempting to break from their centralized model.

I live in an apartment building that does not allow me to install my own rooftop solar, but my city recently adopted support for "solar gardens" that allow residents who cannot install their own solar panels to buy into a solar installation elsewhere, such as solar panels on a warehouse or over a parking lot.  The energy those panels produce would offset the energy I use from the grid.  In the meantime, I have switched out incandescent bulbs for LEDs, installed smart power strips that cut stand-by power usage, and I am mindful of turning off lights in rooms I am not using.   All of this adds up, and my average daily energy usage has dropped by nearly 25% over the past two years.  Does this mean I am a freeloader on the grid?  Should my utility charge me more for using less?

What is worse is that the anti-solar fee sets a precedent for forcing people to pay for infrastructure and destruction that they barely need, and cannot control.  If I have to pay my utility company extra money to sustain its outmoded business model, I am undermining the very reason I try to cut my energy usage - to protect our environment and reduce my own footprint.  The role utility companies play must change to accommodate new technologies, and to address the climate crisis.   Utility companies should not be allowed to strangle distributed generation and efficiency improvements; they should instead become partners in transforming our system to one that rewards lower energy use and local clean energy generation.