Monday, May 26, 2014

Ivanpah's Toll on Wildlife Mounts

According to reports sent monthly to the California Energy Commission, the NRG and BrightSource Ivanpah Solar project in California continues to incinerate and batter birds and bats, even though the plant is often not running at full capacity.   As many as 165 birds and four bats have been found dead on the project site from February to the end of April, and 6 birds have been found injured.  These numbers are probably only a fraction of the total mortality since surveys cannot cover the whole project site, and it is possible some birds and bats die after flying beyond the project boundary or their carcasses are picked up by scavengers.  As KCET ReWire points out, some of the bird deaths in April were water birds, suggesting they may have flown to the shimmering mirrors of the solar project thinking it was a body of water.

Notice the significant amount of "stand-by" focal points - also known as solar flux - appearing as a white pocket adjacent to each of the three power towers.  This super-heated air has scorched and incinerated many birds.

Many of the birds were killed after being burned by the super-heated air above the project site, while others likely collided with one of the thousands of giant mirrors used to project the sun's rays toward the three power towers.  The super-heated air created by the mirrors is often visible from the nearby desert when the mirrors are on "stand-by."  When on stand-by, the mirrors focus the sun's energy in the air adjacent to the power tower, rather than focusing the light directly on the tower.  The result is a large pocket of air known as solar flux that appears as white mist to the observer (see photos above and below).  The Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned that the project's solar flux may also be attracting and killing a significant amount of insects, and they are investigating whether the higher concentration of insects may be attracting more birds to the project site, according to KCET ReWire.

This photo shows one of three power towers lit up by the fied of mirrors.  Notice the stand-by pocket of light to the right of the tower.  Also of note, many of the mirrors in the foreground are not focused on the tower or the stand-by point.  It's not clear why most mirrors are not even directed at the tower, but this suggests an inefficient or ineffective plant design.
As the CEC considers whether to approve Brightsource Energy's Palen Solar project, hopefully they will view Ivanpah's mounting wildlife toll with concern and give scientists enough time to study and understand the full extent of this technology's impact.  Government agencies are developing and implementing an avian and bat mortality monitoring plan for solar projects in the desert, but it may be a while before conclusive results are available.  One thing seems clear - BrightSource Energy's solar power tower technology poses a triple threat to wildlife because it not only requires the destruction of habitat beneath mirrors, it also seems to be responsible for killing flying wildlife with both its mirrors and super-heated air.  No other solar technology has been found to burn flying wildlife like the solar power tower design.  A clean, sustainable energy future should not include BrightSource's power towers.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Silurian Valley Comments Due Soon

Can you spare a few minutes for the Silurian Valley?  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) extended the deadline for comments on Iberdrola's proposal to build a solar project in the Silurian Valley north of Baker, California.  BLM will decide whether or not to allow the project to move forward because it is outside of the established Solar Energy Zones.    BLM's initial solicitation for public comments included an incorrect e-mail address, so the comment period has been extended to May 28.  You can visit this blog's "Take Action" page for more information and the corrected e-mail address to send your comments!

Overlooking the Silurian Valley where Iberdrola plans to build a solar and wind project.  The Avawatz Mountains stand in the distance.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Obama Establishes Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

President Obama on Wednesday designated nearly half a million acres in southern New Mexico as the new Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, protecting large swaths of soaptree yucca, four-winged saltbush, alligator juniper, and gray oak in the northern reaches of the Chihuahuan desert.  The designation is the second in as many years for New Mexico; the President established the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in March 2013.   Both monuments are administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

Other desert conservation and wilderness proposals are languishing in Congress, including bills to protect desert habitat and recreation areas in California, Nevada and Arizona.  Hopefully the President will once again act to protect our beautiful desert landscapes.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Future of Zzyzx: Solar Project or Wildlife?

Here we go again.  Do we allow Bechtel to destroy 3.8 square miles of desert habitat, or keep the wildlands intact to preserve a potential wildlife corridor?  Bechtel's proposed 350 megawatt Soda Mountain Solar project could dry up habitat for an endangered desert fish, and foreclose an opportunity to restore bighorn sheep habitat connectivity.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a draft environmental impact statement that signals likely approval for the Soda Mountain  project, although environmental groups, former National Park superintendents, and other citizens are expressing concern regarding the BLM's environmental review.  Prospects for wildlife are dim, however;  BLM also ignored wildlife concerns and environmental group protests when they approved the Stateline and Silver State South Solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley, a critical desert tortoise habitat linkage.  A judge denied a preliminary request from Defenders of Wildlife to stop the Ivanpah projects in April.

This photo shows the proposed site of the eastern array of Bechtel's Soda Mountain Solar project. The Mojave National Preserve boundary is on the peaks of the mountains in the distance.  Some biologists assess that a wildlife overpass across Interstate 15 (to the left of this photo, not shown), which currently acts as a significant barrier to wildlife populations.
The draft environmental impact statement suggests the Soda Mountain Solar project would not imperil bighorn sheep or other wildlife, but underplays the importance of the area to many species. Biologists believe that instead of a solar project, the location would be ideal for an overpass that would connect bighorn sheep populations across Interstate-15.  Arizona installed a wildlife overpass that has successfully supported bighorn sheep connectivity (check out the video, here) across a separate highway (pretty sad when Arizona does more to support wildlife than California...).  In addition to bighorn sheep, the site also hosts a robust population of burrowing owls that feast on small rodents and insects.  Mexican free-tailed bats, red-tailed hawks, and golden eagles are also active in the area.

This map from the BLM's draft environmental impact statement shows the proposed Soda Mountain Solar project that BLM currently recommends approving.  Bechtel does not yet have a power purchase for the project, which would be built far outside of BLM's "solar energy zones."
If the solar project is built, Bechtel would pump millions of gallons of water for construction and operation of the solar project, jeopardizing groundwater supplies and possibly drying natural springs that currently sustain a healthy population of bighorn sheep and other wildlife.  The natural springs at Zzyzx are just across the mountains from the proposed site of the Soda Mountain Solar project.  Although some of the springs may be getting water from the Mojave River, others are likely charged by groundwater seeping through rock from the same basin that would be pumped to clean solar panels at the Soda Mountain Solar project.  MC Spring is one of the water sources at Zzyzx that likely gets its water from the same basin as the proposed solar project.  In addition to supporting bighorn sheep, MC Spring also provides habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub.  Scientists have expressed concern that even if the solar project only lowers groundwater levels by a small amount, that will be enough to dry up the very tenuous water flow to these vital springs at Zzyzx.

A Mohave tui chub at a spring near Zyzzx.  This fish only exists at a handful of places in the Mojave Desert. Bechtel could jeopardize one of the last remaining refuges for this species.
At the end of the day, Bechtel's proposed Soda Mountain Solar project exposes the same injustice and insanity we see in other desert solar projects - the unnecessary destruction of important and beautiful desert wildlands when already-disturbed lands and rooftops prove to be equally capable of hosting solar panels and generating clean energy.  Just this month, rooftop solar leasing company Solar City estimated that it will install 858 megawatts of solar panels in our cities in 2014.  Separately, MGM announced plans to install enough solar panels on a portion of its rooftops in Las Vegas to power nearly 1,300 homes.  Imagine if we tapped the rest of Las Vegas' rooftops for clean energy instead of spoiling wildlife's graceful but tenuous grasp of life in the desert.

These bighorn sheep were part of a group of six that had just finished drinking at MC Spring at Zzyzx.  If BLM allows Bechtel to build its solar project, these sheep may lose an important water source.