Sunday, June 29, 2014

BrightSource Underperforming; Adds Fossil Fuels

The California Energy Commission (CEC) last week signaled support for BrightSource Energy's request to increase natural gas use at the Ivanpah Solar project to nearly 525 million standard cubic feet each year to help heat steam when the sun is not shining.   BrightSource's request to burn more natural gas underscores the difficulty the company has had with its experimental power tower project, even as the company proposes building the even larger Palen Solar project east of Joshua Tree National Park.  The difficulties at Ivanpah - increased fossil fuel use, impacts on birds and bats, and poor operational performance - undermine the company's argument that the CEC should approve Palen because of the project's proposed renewable energy and storage benefits.
The photo and text above were submitted by CEC staff as part of a supplemental staff assessment in the Palen Solar project proceeding regarding glare.  The Caltrans Aeronautics Division Chief was also part of the flight, and the flight crew noted that the glare was "excessive," "painful" and compromised vision.  Note that Unit 2 does not to appear be operational during this flight in early May.
According to supplemental analysis submitted by CEC staff for the Palen Solar project, the Ivanpah multifuel project was only online for a fraction of the anticipated capacity (see chart below) from January to March 2014.  Although these statistics were meant to provide context for the project's impacts on wildlife, they could also suggest that the overall ratio of natural gas and solar energy inputs could be skewed toward the fossil fuels if natural gas was used to keep steam warm while the company struggled to synchronize its mirrors.  According to the CEC's Renewable Portfolio Standard Eligibility Guidebook,  Ivanpah's energy generation must include no more than 2% of heat inputs from fossil fuels in order to count toward California's RPS goals.  With so many of the Ivanpah project's thousands of "heliostat" mirrors in stand-by mode for so many hours and days out of the year, it's possible that the project could surpass that 2% limit.

The chart speaks for itself.  The Ivanpah multifuel project has had a tough start and may need to burn more natural gas, despite BrightSource Energy's confidence that its technology is necessary to meet California's Renewable Portfolio Standard.
Even with only partial operational success in early 2014, incidental and preliminary biological surveys found hundreds of dead birds and bats at the Ivanpah multifuel project, killed either in the solar flux (superheated air above the field of mirrors) or collision with facility structures.  As a biologist noted in testimony submitted on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, it is likely that many more birds were killed but their carcasses were not found during the partial searches, or scavengers removed the dead birds and bats before they could be discovered in searches.  Biologists are still working to determine the full extent of the power towers' impacts on wildlife.

Once again we have to ask ourselves what we get in return for this sacrifice of intact desert wildlands.  In the case of Ivanpah, we have a multi-billion dollar hybrid solar/natural gas plant that has destroyed 5.6 square miles of prime tortoise habitat, and now burns and batters hundreds - and perhaps thousands - of birds and bats each year.   It would be much wiser to double down on renewable energy and storage technologies that do not use our treasured landscapes as testing grounds and instead promote a more sustainable grid, such as Solar City's batteries paired with rooftop solar, or UC Riverside's solar parking lots and battery storage. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Industry Influence Limits Discussion Space

Protecting intact ecosystems from unnecessary destruction should be considered a core objective for  people concerned with the fate of the planet and our ability to live sustainably, yet the climate crisis has prompted various facets of the energy industry - from fossil fuel interests, to utility companies, wind turbine manufacturers, wind project developers, solar panel makers, and solar panel installers - to manipulate how we discuss the solution to the climate crisis.  Just as any industry tends to lobby and influence the parameters of debates that might affect their profits (e.g., the tobacco industry and public health, and the gun industry and gun ownership regulation) the energy industry will similarly seek to influence how we define and pursue sustainability.  So it is imperative that environmentalists participate in this discussion with a critical eye, questioning not just the information they are given, but also questioning the boundaries placed on the discussion and how those boundaries are established.

A construction marker on the site of the Ivanpah Solar project, before BrightSource Energy bulldozed 5.6 square miles of intact desert habitat.
Within the national debate about how to increase renewable energy generation, industry attempts to define the range of alternatives and the cost/benefit analysis has proven to be a problematic example of industry influence because it the parts of the renewable energy industry have exploited the public lack of knowledge to force compromise on our conservation ethic.  It is particularly insidious because of the partnerships developed between the renewable energy industry and the environmental community to present a solution to climate change and combat the propaganda of the fossil fuel companies.  Working with the renewable energy industry to achieve shared objectives is one thing, but allowing the industry to dictate how those objectives are achieved is quite another.  We have to recognize the profit motive of the industry partners we work with so that the solution to the climate crisis we implement is guided by a conservation ethic, and not any single industry's bottom line. 

The glare of BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar's flux and power towers can be seen from over 9 miles away, across the Ivanpah Valley.  The project was built on 5.6 square miles of some of the highest quality desert tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert.  BrightSource was warned by biologists that this was a bad place to build a large solar project, but the company went ahead anyways.

Limiting the Boundaries of Compromise

As an example of how the industry has influenced the national discussion, someone I know and respect as a person suggested that arguing against utility-scale solar projects that destroy intact desert habitat ignores the "big picture" in favor of avoiding local impacts.   In other words, my passion for protecting the desert is going to prevent efforts to rescue the planet - including the desert wildlands that I want to protect - because I oppose companies like BrightSource Energy mowing down 5.6 square miles of prime desert tortoise habitat to build the ecological disaster that is the Ivanpah Solar project, or Bechtel bulldozing a swath of desert that is home to burrowing owls, kit fox, and bighorn sheep for the Soda Mountain Solar project.

What troubles me is that this person's argument in favor of utility-scale solar projects replacing intact desert wildlands focuses on the need for a "compromise," and suggested that perhaps more projects like BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project must be allowed to move forward.  Compromise itself is wise and a necessary part of our everyday lives, but in the case of building utility-scale solar in the desert,  the parameters of the negotiation that lead to compromise are almost always defined and skewed by those with power and omit the alternatives that are more sustainable.   Environmentalists have sought to convince BrightSource and First Solar to move projects to less destructive locations, and for regulators to emphasize distributed generation, such as solar on rooftops and over parking lots.  Some environmentalists even supported the establishment of "solar energy zones" in the desert in an effort to compromise with the industry and limit impacts to areas away from some of the most important wildlife habitat. 

Germany set a record in May for meeting half of its energy needs with solar, even though it barely has the solar resources that much of the U.S. enjoys.  Most importantly, the vast majority of Germany's solar panels are installed on rooftops.
The industry has generally ignored these attempts for true compromise.  Companies continue to propose and build projects on intact desert outside the "solar energy zones."  The industry has also filed comments with the California Energy Commission and Department of Interior arguing that we cannot meet renewable energy portfolio standards without giving the industry wide access to desert wildlands, building destructive projects far from our cities, and tolerating the loss of important wildlife habitat.   In other words, compromise can only take place where it makes sense for the company's bottom line.

When these companies' talking points reach the press, the story is portrayed as "green vs. green,"  or environmentalists fighting solar companies.  What these talking points and press stories tend to ignore is that there are practical alternatives to destroying remote desert wildlands.  Just look at the thousands of megawatts of large-scale solar projects built on already-disturbed lands and closer to human population centers, or the thousands of megawatts of solar panels installed on rooftops and over parking lots across the country.   If your definition of "compromise" puts the destruction of desert before these other alternatives, BrightSource Energy's CEO thanks you. 

Wildlife Body Count 

The energy industry also preys upon ecological illiteracy.  During my recent conversation, the person I respect asked me how many birds die each week flying into buildings, probably trying to share the lens through which they view the evidence that the Ivanpah Solar project has burned and battered hundreds of birds in its short operational lifespan.  This is the same tactic that the American Wind Energy Association uses to deflect criticism of wildlife impacts - "don't worry, other things kill far more birds."  Even if replacing fossil fuels with solar power towers reduced the net total of bird deaths, the unique impacts of each solar power tower project have to be evaluated on their own merits.  Setting up a solar power tower that attracts and then burns birds along a migratory flyway is not a good idea.  Neither is extirpating a local raptor population.  Any project can have cascading effects on an ecosystem; it's not simply a numbers game.   And from the standpoint of forging a renewable energy path, shrugging off wildlife impacts by finding a higher statistic is simply compromising on our conservation ethic.  Plenty of other forces in society are already quite good at that; it is depressing to think that the environmental community would do so, as well.  Especially when smarter alternatives and locations are practical and available. 

The person I had a conversation with has remarked that far more tortoises have died by natural predators - such as raptors and coyotes - than from the construction of solar facilities in the desert, trying to put Ivanpah Solar's negative impacts on the tortoise in a more favorable perspective.   They have suggested that tortoises may even be better off given BrightSource's investment in caring for the tortoises it took from burrows before it sent in the bulldozers.  BrightSource could pay for tortoises to stay in Las Vegas penthouses, but at the end of the day habitat loss is one of the most significant threats to the species.

This takes us back to the industry's definition of "compromise."  In the case of BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar project and First Solar's Silver State South, compromise has translated into these companies shaving a few acres off of a project that replaces a wildlife corridor, or  shelling out a couple million dollars to house or care for tortoises it displaced in the first place.   Such compromises are a long-term disadvantage to wildlife and a short-term symbolic victory for the company's public relations staff.  If oil companies paid for private polar bear nurseries to offset the species' shrinking arctic habitat, would we be okay with more oil drilling? Probably not.

We cannot allow the industry to limit our renewable energy future to the current paradigm, where we sacrifice more and more wildlands to carry the burden of hosting and electrifying all of our material needs.  Instead, the discussion should center on how our transition to renewable energy can enable a paradigm shift in how we conserve and consume electricity, and where it is generated.  Climate change is not the first - nor will it be the last - sustainability crisis that we face.  The human footprint will now include the ever-expanding renewable energy industry.  It is up to us to make sure we minimize the regrets future generations will have about this path.  We can start by prioritizing energy efficiency, renewable energy in our cities, and on already-disturbed lands.  The first "compromise" we made should not have been to allow BrightSource to bulldoze important wildlife habitat in the Ivanpah Valley.

Friday, June 13, 2014

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.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wildlife Viewing at the Preserve this Weekend

If you are free on Saturday, June 7, head out to the Mojave National Preserve for an opportunity to learn from wildlife experts and a chance to see bighorn sheep and other desert denizens.  

I had the fortune of visiting the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx last month, and the even greater fortune of viewing desert bighorn sheep along the rocky slopes that meet the Soda Dry Lake.  Although the landscape is mostly dry, natural springs in the area provide a critical water source for the sheep and habitat for the endangered Mohave tui chub.  I would highly recommend heading out to this event early, and consider camping in the Preserve that night if you want to prolong your escape into the desert!

These bighorn sheep were photographed just above the Desert Studies Center, which lies in the Mojave National Preserve at Zzyzx.