Monday, March 31, 2014

IPCC Assessment Underscores Climate Change Danger

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth assessment report yesterday, underscoring the present and future threat climate change poses to human society, wildlife and wildlands.  A good reference for what needs to be done to protect our wildlands can be found in the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, which details the threat climate change poses to a variety of ecosystems, and the steps needed to help species cope with what is likely to be long-term damage.

As I noted in my previous post about this strategy when it was released, the number one goal identified in the strategy is the conservation of habitat and wildlife linkages to help species adapt and bolster ecosystem resilience in the face of climate change.  According to the Strategy:

"Many of our nation’s imperiled species (both those currently listed either as Threatened or Endangered as well as many other species that may eventually be considered for listing) do not occur in existing conservation areas. Indeed, the major threat to many species on the U.S. Endangered Species List is the loss of habitat caused when the habitat they depend on is converted to a different use. Climate change will make the problem worse—and will make the need for new conservation areas more urgent."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Federal District Court to Hear Case on Ivanpah Valley on Monday

Defenders of Wildlife on Monday will argue before the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California that First Solar should not be allowed to begin construction of the Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley this spring because of the irreparable harm the projects would incur on critical desert tortoise habitat.  The Department of Interior permitted the projects even though biologists - including at the Fish and Wildlife Service - have argued that no additional large-scale development should take place in the Ivanpah Valley because it could impair a critical habitat linkage for the threatened desert tortoise.

The Department of Interior, California Energy Commission, and First Solar have filed notices in opposition to Defenders of Wildlife, claiming that the projects are critical components of Federal and State renewable energy programs, but failing to justify why these two projects must be built on such important wildlife habitat.  First Solar and other companies have built even larger solar projects on already-disturbed lands in California and Arizona, calling into question the wisdom of building the Silver State South and Stateline Solar projects on a narrow habitat linkage that the Department of Interior's own Solar Energy Development Program has since identified as an exclusion zone for large-scale solar energy development because of its importance to wildlife.

It is clear that the Department of Interior does not know whether Silver State South Solar will have a long-term impact on habitat connectivity for the desert tortoise, which is why studies will be conducted after the projects are built to determine what impact they will have on the viability of the tortoise habitat linkage.  And if the studies determine there is a negative impact, Interior does not know what steps it will take to restore the linkage.  Even the Fish and Wildlife Service's own biological opinion declares that irreparable harm is a potential outcome of the Silver State South solar project:

"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."

If the connectivity is degraded, the biological opinion states that:

"demographic stochasticity and genetic deterioration likely [to] diminish the potential for population growth."

And Interior's own recovery plan for the desert tortoise states that habitat fragmentation places isolated populations:

" higher risk of localized extirpation from stochastic events or from inbreeding depression (Boarman et al. 1997; Boarman and Sazaki 2006)."

Furthermore, the Obama administration's own National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy identifies protecting critical wildlife linkages and minimizing impacts from renewable energy development on wildlife habitat as key goals.

If the U.S. District Court does not grant injunctive relief, First Solar may begin disturbing tortoise habitat on April 3, 2014. 

The Cost of Grid Worship

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) seems to be declaring a truce in a battle that has barely begun in an op-ed it co-authored with California utility company PG&E (yes, the same company that poisoned desert community groundwater with hexavalent chromium to pump natural gas).  While I appreciate the need to exploit opportunities for common good when interests align, I see the NRDC's move as a losing bet for the environment because PG&E fundamentally opposes the opportunity we have today to greatly expand energy efficiency and distributed generation; when PG&E claims support for these, it is usually only because it has been ordered by California regulators to do so.  A utility company's default preference is to build more centralized infrastructure, regardless of whether or not it is efficient or friendly to the environment.  With our planet facing two intertwined crises - global warming caused by our greenhouse gas emissions and the growth of the human population leading to the destruction of wildlife and wildlands - our focus should be on reducing our overall footprint (carbon and land use).

According to the NRDC, "[o]ur electricity grid, deemed “the greatest invention of the 20th century” is now in a new century, facing new demands of its balancing act of physics and governance."  This is true, but adopting a more sustainable paradigm for consuming and generating energy that cuts not only our carbon footprint, but our overall impact on natural resources will require a less centralized grid that taps into local clean energy sources.  NRDC's blog post points out the potential for energy storage, but PG&E is one of the utility companies that is setting up bureaucratic hurdles for local energy storage installations that would allow us to store excess energy from rooftop solar panels to use at night.   PG&E has also lobbied against California rules that expand the total number of rooftop solar systems allowed in California.  

Californians have installed tens of thousands of solar systems on rooftops in spite of efforts by PG&E and other utility companies to undermine the expansion of this threat to their profit.
Most recently, PG&E filed a submission to the California Public Utilities Commission opposing a new criteria to more closely scrutinize the risk involved in new power plants, including for the potential that each project will have a high impact on endangered species or important habitat.   NRDC supports this new criteria, but PG&E does not.  The new evaluation criteria might stop PG&E and other utility companies from entering into power purchase agreements with projects that will turn out like BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project, which has displaced or killed over 170 threatened desert tortoises, burns birds in mid-air, and is increasingly dependent on natural gas-fired boilers because BrightSource over-estimated the efficiency of its design.  PG&E claims that "developers have no incentive to propose and attempt to construct projects in areas that do not allow such development or with significant permitting risk."  I'll pause here for the irony of that statement to sink in... 

PG&E apparently could not find enough sun in northern California, so they had to buy some power from the Ivanpah Solar project in the Mojave Desert.  Unfortunately, the Ivanpah Solar project destroyed over 5 square miles of intact desert ecosystem, and runs on natural gas-fired boilers.
Quick Reminder:  PG&E is incentivized to build more infrastructure - and thus destroy more nature - because California regulations require ratepayers to pay PG&E not only for the infrastructure it builds, but also a healthy profit margin on each project.  More transmission lines and centralized power plants mean more money for PG&E executives and shareholders.  Is it any wonder why PG&E would rather buy electricity from a power plant hundreds of miles away instead of allowing customers to install their own solar panels on rooftops?
If you believe PG&E's comments on rooftop solar, then for the first time in the company's history it has become a voice for economic justice and equality, but if you take a moment to peel away the layers you find PG&E is simply protecting its profit margin.  PG&E argues that people with rooftop solar still use the grid, but do not pay enough money to PG&E to help maintain the grid, therefore forcing customers without rooftop solar to shoulder more of the cost.  However, PG&E does not explain why it is bad for us buy solar generated in our communities, but it is okay for PG&E to buy energy from destructive power plants hundreds of miles away, and then pay millions of dollars more for new transmission lines to ship that energy to the Bay Area.  By the way, most of those power purchase agreements are confidential and we are not allowed to know most of the details of those contracts, including the cost.   Why is this more fair to people and wildlife than generating clean energy on rooftops and keeping the investment in the community?  It is convenient for PG&E to set up a battle between customers with and without rooftop solar because it shifts the scrutiny away from everything that is wrong about our outdated and centralized grid.  Instead we should be focusing on expanding clean energy investment in our communities and ensure everyone can benefit from energy efficiency and rooftop solar.   

Transmission lines - a utility company's solution to everything, including climate change.

So how do we transform the grid to accommodate more clean energy, kick out fossil fuels, and reduce our overall footprint on the wild places that we love?   We need to change the economic incentive structure in a way that benefits energy efficiency, distributed generation or larger projects built on already-disturbed lands.   We indeed have to update our grid to accommodate this, but not in a way that PG&E will like.  It will involve upgrading our local electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure to allow more solar generation in our communities, and permitting storage projects that capture the benefit of rooftop solar for use at night.  We could use feed-in-tariffs to encourage rapid expansion of solar projects in our cities (learning from Germany's experience),  and we can provide incentives for larger solar projects built on already-disturbed lands over those that companies want to build next to our National Parks.  The evaluation criteria that PG&E is currently opposing at CPUC would be a good start. 

In the meantime we can count on PG&E and other utility companies to propose more of the same, and more "all of the above" insanity.  If a plan involves stringing up more transmission lines - without taking others down - you should recognize that this is merely a ploy by utility companies to expand profit.   It should be no surprise that Nevada utility company NV Energy is welcoming clean energy on its own terms - remote solar plants paired with natural gas generation, but still no meaningful program to expand rooftop solar or energy efficiency.  PG&E will behave no differently; it will accept more solar on its own profitable terms.  Sustainability, not profit, should guide our long-term investments in transforming the grid.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

BLM Seeks Public Comments on Silurian Valley Solar Proposal

The Bureau of Land Management is considering Spain-based company Iberdrola's request to build a solar project on several square miles of the remote Silurian Valley, a beautiful stretch of desert along what KCET has described as California's "outback highway" - over 200 miles of two lane road that provides one of the best opportunities in the country to access solitude and wildlands.  BLM must take extra steps to review the application because the project is not proposed for a designated solar energy zone, and BLM has the discretion to scrap the project before it begins environmental review.  Iberdrola is also interested in building a large wind facility in the Silurian Valley, although those plans have not been advanced recently.

The Silurian Valley is surrounded by desert wilderness areas, and is home to spring wildflower blooms and a segment of the 1,000 mile historic trade route known as Old Spanish Trail.  You can see some beautiful photos of the Silurian Valley at the blog of landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon.

Check out the "Take Action" page on this blog for more information on the Silurian Valley, and how to submit comments by e-mail.  The deadline to submit comments by e-mail is April 27!

Silurian Valley, with the Avawatz Mountains in the distance.  Much of this area will be industrialized if Iberdrola is allowed to move forward with its solar and wind projects here.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Defenders of Wildlife Steps in to Protect Critical Tortoise Habitat

Defenders of Wildlife filed a legal challenge this week against the Department of Interior's decision to permit two large solar projects along the California-Nevada border because each would significantly impair a critical desert tortoise habitat linkage.  The challenge calls out the Department of Interior's own doublespeak with respect to the need for "responsible development of renewable energy on our public lands."  The solar projects in question - First Solar's Stateline and Silver State South - would destroy a total of over 6.3 square miles of habitat in the Ivanpah Valley; this area not only provides genetic connectivity across the tortoise's range, but research also shows the valley will "retain the precipitation and temperature levels necessary to sustain the species" through anticipated impacts of climate change.  First Solar refused to consider relocating the projects to already-disturbed lands, and the Department of Interior decided to permit the projects even though they would be located outside of designated "solar energy zones" identified to encourage "responsible development."

The site of the proposed Silver State South solar project (pictured above) in the Ivanpah Valley provides a critical habitat linkage for the desert tortoise, and hosts a variety of animal and plant species, such as this giant cholla cactus (foreground), and the Mojave yucca in the background.
The U.S. Government has contradicted itself when it has evaluated the importance of the Ivanpah Valley.  The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 2011 described the land on which the Silver State South project would be built as "critically important" because the it “has the lowest level of existing habitat degradation and likely provides the most reliable potential for continued population connectivity” for the desert tortoise.  During preliminary environmental review of the Silver State South project in 2012, FWS argued that the Bureau of Land Management should reject the project because of the impacts on tortoise habitat connectivity.

Yet, in 2013, FWS' final biological opinion did not mention either of these previous official comments and suggested both the habitat linkage and the solar project may be able to co-exist, but acknowledged that if this was not true then "[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," potentially leading to the local decline of the species.  The final environmental impact statement recommended long-term monitoring of the project's impact on habitat connectivity, but failed to identify steps the government would take to correct for any harmful impacts. The Stateline Solar project would be built on the western edge of the Ivanpah Valley, and would also contribute to the loss of habitat connectivity, although probably to a less degree than the Silver State South project.

This desert tortoise's burrow is located on the site of the proposed Stateline Solar power project, across from the proposed site of the Silver State South project on the western edge of the Ivanpah Valley. Both projects would pinch, if not eliminate habitat connectivity for the species.
What is most frustrating about these two First Solar projects is that they can be built on alternative locations that do not jeopardize the recovery of desert wildlife.  The solar panels can be installed on rooftops or on already-disturbed lands;  First Solar should know this by now - the company's 250 megawatt Agua Caliente solar project was built on already-disturbed land in Arizona, and they are investing in other projects on already-disturbed lands.  Other companies are building even larger projects on former agricultural land, such as SunPower's 579 megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Ranch project.  There is no reasons to sacrifice critically important wildlife habitat to install solar panels, when the technology can be adapted to nearly any location.

Defenders' legal challenge is important because it reaffirms the need for all energy companies to respect fundamental environmental concerns when choosing where to build, and forces the Department of Interior to uphold not just the law, but its own standards for "responsible development" when evaluating the environmental impacts of energy projects.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

This is Not Disturbed Land

Recent press articles suggest the energy industry continues its efforts to define the ecological viability of desert habitat in a way that gives it wide latitude to build in some of the most remote corners of the American southwest.
First, the Bechtel corporation told SCPR reporter Caitlin Esch that it should be allowed to bulldoze over 3.4 square miles of desert to build its Soda Mountain Solar project next to the Mojave National Preserve because “[t]here are distribution lines, phone lines, petroleum pipelines, a cell phone tower, a mine, off-highway vehicle recreation area, it’s also permitted for high speed rail."  Apparently some phone lines, buried pipelines, and a cell phone tower in a valley means the rest of the intact habitat is not worth saving.  In other words, Bechtel should be allowed to disturb as much as 2,800 football fields worth of land because some telephone lines already exist in the valley.   The project will also pump over 62.5 million gallons during construction, and 10.2 million gallons of water each year afterward to wash the solar panels.  This will draw from desert aquifers that support springs that support the endangered Mohave tui chub fish and bighorn sheep.

A panorama photo of the site where Bechtel wants to build the 3.4 square mile Soda Mountain solar project next to the Mojave National Preserve.  Photo by Michael Gordon (  See also Basin & Range Watch's site on the Soda Mountain Solar project.
Bechtel is misleading when they reference the Rasor OHV area, which does not impact the actual site of the proposed solar project;  the OHV area may have an impact on the habitat nearby, but it does not excuse the destruction of a neighboring valley.  And the high speed rail - if built - would parallel Interstate 15, and not draw water from the aquifer.

Separately, BrightSource Energy and NRG continue to justify their choice of location for the 5.6 square mile Ivanpah Solar project by describing the Ivanpah Valley as already-disturbed, and in some cases the companies give the false impression that the project was built on a dry lake bed.  Google "Ivanpah Solar" and "dry lake" and you'll see plenty of articles that reference the project as built on the lake bed itself.  The project was actually built west of the dry lake bed on an alluvial fan that provided habitat for a variety of wildlife.

[Click on image to expand] Notice that the Ivanpah Solar project, in red, was not built on the dry lake bed, labeled in green.  Please stop saying that the project was built on a dry lake bed.  Also notice that both the Primm golf course and gambling outpost are less than half the size of the solar project.  BrightSource and NRG nearly doubled the amount of disturbance in the Ivanpah Valley to build their project.
BrightSource and NRG also like to point out that there is a golf course nearby, as if the entire Ivanpah Valley became a sacrifice zone simply because there was some pre-existing disturbance.  However, the golf course occupies less than a square mile of desert habitat - a fraction of the size of the Ivanpah Solar project. 

This photo of a construction marker in the Ivanpah Valley shows the intact desert habitat in spring 2011, before BrightSource Energy bulldozed and mowed down 5.6 square miles of habitat for desert tortoises, coyotes, golden eagles, cactus wrens and rare desert wildflowers.
As I have noted before on this blog, if we applied these corporations' logic to other natural treasures, we would allow ridiculous levels of destruction in places like the Yosemite Valley simply because there are already some roads and hotels there.  Imagine if a resort developer wanted to double the amount of disturbance in the Yosemite Valley to build a new hotel with three high rises and large parking lots - would we permit such destruction simply because there is pre-existing infrastructure elsewhere in the same valley? Absolutely not. 

If Bechtel and BrightSource are confused as to the definition of already-disturbed land, perhaps they can look at the example of other solar projects built on fallow agricultural land, or solar panels installed over parking lots and on rooftops.  Solar is flexible and scalable - there is no reason to sacrifice remote wildlands when more sustainable alternatives exist.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

BrightSource Makes Weak Case for Palen Solar Project

BrightSource Energy filed a relatively weak argument for why the California Energy Commission (CEC) should reconsider its opinion of the Palen Solar project in the Colorado Desert region of southern California.  A Presiding Member Proposed Decision in December recommended that the full Commission reject the project primarily because of the impacts on wildlife, but BrightSource requested more time so that it could make a stronger case that its project would not be a problem for wildlife.

The data submitted by BrightSource suggests its design is likely more harmful to birds than other types of technology, and that if the Palen project is built it would add significantly to the cumulative impact on birds in the Chuckwalla Valley region and pose new dangers.   The data submitted by BrightSource compares bird mortality at its Ivanpah Solar project - located further north near Las Vegas - to the Genesis and Desert Sunlight Solar projects in the Chuckwalla Valley area.  In the few months that BrightSource has been testing its Ivanpah Solar project - involving focusing thousands of mirrors to heat air above the project - it has killed at least as many, if not more birds than the other projects on a per month basis.  However, data across all three projects  -  Ivanpah, Desert Sunlight, and Genesis - is likely uneven because of the different technology types, locations, use of surveys, and questions about the effectiveness of those surveys to accurately capture the full impact of each project on wildlife.

BrightSource began operational testing the Ivanpah Solar project - focusing the mirrors - around September 2013, corresponding with a spike in bird mortality at the site.  However, the company only began conducting surveys for bird carcasses in November.  More time and study is likely needed to determine what percentage of total bird mortality is captured in each survey since each survey only covers a fraction of the 5.6 square mile project.  Even with the smaller sample of time and nascent surveys, at least 135 birds were harmed by the Ivanpah Solar project in 2013, according to the data submitted by BrightSource (not to mention killing or displacing over 170 desert tortoises during construction).

The Genesis Solar project, on the other hand, was responsible for at least 140 bird deaths throughout 2013, and the Desert Sunlight project killed 105.   Although the Genesis project killed more birds in 2013 than the temporarily operational Ivanpah project, the mortality rate at Genesis spiked during July and August and killed a different mix of species than Ivanpah, including water birds.   All three projects - Genesis, Desert Sunlight, and Ivanpah - pose a collision threat to birds; the reflective surfaces of the panels and mirrors confuse birds that fly into them and die from the impact.  But BrightSource's technology poses an added threat by burning birds in super-heated air above the field of mirrors.   Even birds that are not confused by the mirrors and simply traveling over the project can be killed. 

Imagine if the Genesis Solar project used BrightSource's technology. Arguably, the added threat of scorching birds would result in an even higher mortality rate during each month of the year.  BrightSource's proposed Palen Solar project would be built near Genesis, and would not only add to the cumulative impact, but also pose a threat of greater magnitude than either Genesis or Desert Sunlight.  Unlike the Ivanpah Solar project, the Palen Solar project would be built in proximity to the Colorado River and Salton Sea, where birds seeking water sources might confuse the expanse of mirrors as a body of water, a phenomenon at solar sites known as the "lake effect."

[Click on image to expand] The Palen Solar power project would be built near the Genesis and Desert Sunlight solar projects, adding to the cumulative toll on birds in the region with technology that not only poses a collision threat, but also incinerates birds in flight.
The CEC should consider how the Palen Solar project would add to a cumulative toll on bird species in the Chuckwalla Valley region - in addition to the Desert Sunlight and Genesis Solar projects.  Not only would the Palen Solar project contribute an added threat of collision, but it would also bring a new element of danger to wildlife with the super-heated air above the field of mirrors.  The cumulative impacts are reason enough to reject the project and consider alternatives.  Regardless, more studies are needed to understand the true extent of each technology's impact.  If carcass surveys only began at Ivanpah in November, when will they begin at Genesis and Desert Sunlight?  If we're going to build more of these projects, now would be a good time to study the true costs of the path we are about to embark upon to avoid repeating the same mistakes.