Saturday, August 29, 2015

Bird Deaths at Ivanpah Solar Project Likely Underestimated

Birds with severely singed feathers are travelling over a half-mile from the center of the Ivanpah Solar project before falling to the ground, indicating that current research efforts are incapable of accounting for the full scope of project-related avian fatality.  Abengoa recently withdrew plans for a similar "power tower" project after acknowledging concerns about the technology's impact on wildlife, but also suggesting that the technology's benefits are uncertain and unreliable.

Birds Dying Beyond the Reach of Research?

Efforts to determine how many birds are killed by the project involve carcass surveys of only 29% of the project area and do not involve significant searches of the desert surrounding the Ivanpah Solar project's boundary.  According to the 2014-2015 Winter Report for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System Avian & Bat Monitoring Plan, (covering 21 October 2014 to 15 March 2015), seven birds with singed feathers were found far from the power towers, including four found on or near the fence line, almost a half-mile from the power towers where the heat is most intense.  Previous reports assume most, if not all singed birds fall to the ground in the immediate vicinity of the power towers.

Two of the singed birds were ravens found incidentally – not during the systematic carcass surveys - still alive with heavily scorched feathers.  One of the ravens was found on the fence line, and another was found in a logistical yard in between Units 1 and 2, indicating that both birds traveled over a half mile before falling to the ground, even with what the report describes as “severe singeing” of flight feathers. The ravens were found still alive but unable to fly. Based on the incidental find of these two ravens, it seems highly likely that other birds singed by the project travel outside the perimeter of the bird carcass surveys and die undetected, representing an unknown portion of the project related mortality not accounted for in mortality estimates.

The map below shows the birds found dead or injured near Unit 1 (of 3) of the Ivanpah Solar project during the winter.  The two ravens found with burned feathers are depicted in the map as "CORA" (common raven) in the upper right hand corner of the heliostat field, and far upper left hand corner of the map. The solar power tower is located in the center of the heliostat field outlined in blue.

The two other birds found dead near the fence line were located during carcass surveys and include an American kestrel and a Northern harrier hawk. The report speculates that these bird carcasses may have been moved further from the power tower by scavengers.  This seems to be a premature conclusion, especially considering that two ravens managed to fly over a half-mile from the power tower before falling to the ground where they were found still alive by workers.

An American kestrel, pictured above, is a relatively small bird.  If the singed kestrel found dead this winter at Ivanpah traveled nearly half a mile before falling to the ground, it suggests that bird species of various sizes travel beyond the project boundary before dying, and remain undetected by surveys. Two ravens - larger than a kestrel - managed to fly much further than the kestrel, according to the winter report.
Four of Many

These singed birds found far from the power tower remain just a fraction of the current mortality detected at the Ivanpah Solar power tower project.  Searches from 21 October 2014 to 15 March 2015 found 340 birds and 3 bats dead or injured within the project fence line.  Based on these detections, the report estimates that the Ivanpah Solar project killed over 2,000 birds this past winter.  Although the report determined that over 600 died from singeing or collision with heliostats,  the cause of death remains unknown for as many as 1,373 of the birds.  It is likely that many of the bird deaths classified as “unknown” were caused by collision with the mirrors or intense heat above the mirror field, although wildlife experts are still trying to determine the various ways in which the project harms avian species.

The singed feathers of a peregrine falcon burned by the Ivanpah Solar project.  This bird was found alive in September 2013, but later died from injuries.  The report of this bird's death lacks details, but does mention it was found near "fencing," suggesting it may have also made it a far distance from the power tower before falling to the ground.
The studies are still a far way from discovering the full range of impacts on avian wildlife. Not all birds affected by the solar project's heat will end up with singed feathers.  Experts believe that the most intense heat near the power towers causes singed feathers, but birds flying throughout the rest of the project are exposed to elevated heat that may cause death without damaging feathers.

This image, submitted by the California Energy Commission staff during consideration of a separate solar power tower project, shows that the most intense solar flux (heat/energy levels) exist close to the power tower (in red), but the rest of the project area also has high "solar flux" that can stress or injure wildlife.
The winter report also cast light on a high rate of mortality for roadrunners.  Surveyors found 25 dead roadrunners, suggesting dozens more likely died on the project site during the winter months.  The report indicates that the cause of death for the roadrunners is unknown, but collision with mirrors and exposure to solar flux seems less likely since the birds usually stay close to the ground.  Minutes from a recent Technical Advisory Committee meeting for the Ivanpah Solar project indicate that officials are considering whether the fence line of the project may be trapping roadrunners inside, but it is not clear whether researchers fully understand why roadrunner mortality has spiked at the project site.  Nonetheless, the data underscore how little we know about the destructive impacts of such large solar facilities built on desert wildlands.

For What Purpose?

With other solar technologies able to generate clean energy more efficiently and with far less impact on wildlife, solar power tower technology is not worth the ecological cost.  Proponents of the solar power tower industry argue that this technology offers an opportunity for energy storage that is badly needed by utility companies.  But the storage capacity of solar power tower projects is likely overrated by proponents.  Evidentiary testimony during the California Energy Commission review of the Palen solar power tower project indicates that the technology may only be capable of providing stored energy for a 15 minute period, and only with the assistance of natural gas-fired boilers.  Considering that photovoltaic solar panels installed on rooftops or already-disturbed lands can be paired with battery storage without burning birds to death, solar power tower technology is struggling to maintain relevance in renewable energy technology and design.

Just this month, Abengoa decided that it would no longer pursue a power tower design for the Palen Solar project, looking instead to use solar trough technology.  Abengoa clearly recognized that the benefits of solar power tower technology are weak compared to the alternatives, indicating in its letter to the California Energy Commission that the decision to abandon power tower technology was made after an evaluation of California's "future electrical reliability needs."  And that's coming from the profit-driven industry perspective.  From a sustainability perspective, the choice is much clearer.  How can a project be green when it burns natural gas, burns birds, barely generates solar energy, and bulldozes intact desert habitat?

All three units of the Ivanpah Solar project can be seen in this photo, taken miles away from the facility.  The bright glare next to each of the three power towers is the most intense portion of solar flux that can burn avian wildlife, although the air space above the entire project likely contains elevated levels of flux. The Ivanpah Solar project destroyed 5.6 square miles of intact desert habitat.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Clean Power Plan Requires Grassroots Polishing

The Environmental Protection Agency this week rolled out a Federal rule - known as the Clean Power Plan - that is designed to reduce toxic emissions from power plants. The Clean Power Plan is a necessary top-down step to cut fossil fuels and toxic emissions, especially in states where policymakers are climate deniers and shills for the coal industry.

But let's be honest - the easiest path for most states to achieve the relatively weak targets set by the Clean Power Plan will be profitable for most utility companies and power plant owners, and destructive to wildlands and wildlife.  And the states that have the most work to do on emissions reductions are the ones least likely to prioritize sustainability or local ownership in how they respond to the plan.

As the President said of the Clean Power Plan, "this is our moment to leave something better for our kids...let's make the most of it."  We have more work to do to ensure that the Clean Power Plan unleashes sustainable changes in how we generate and consume energy.  And we will need a strong grassroots effort to ensure that the renewable energy transformation we see will be one that we can applaud, rather than one that we regret.

Hopefully Just a Starting Point
The Clean Power Plan largely leaves it up to the states to decide how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,  but the EPA estimates that power plant emissions will be cut by an average of 32% of their 2005 levels.  States will have until 2018 to finalize their own plans laying out how they will achieve emissions reductions.

Although there is a lot of support for the Clean Power Plan, many in the environmental community recognize that it sets a relatively low bar.  The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that some states have likely already exceeded the emissions standards, and many are over half way to their goal.  Hopefully these goals are just a start, for the sake of our climate, and perhaps many states will take a cue from the plan and set even more ambitious goals for reducing fossil fuel use.

In the southwest, the states that have the most work to do are Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.  California, New Mexico, and Colorado probably will not have to change much to meet the current Clean Power Plan's targets, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, because of actions they have already taken to shut down dirty power plants and increase renewable energy generation.

Opportunity or Threat to Sustainability?
For states that are furthest behind their emissions target, the Clean Power Plan will act as an indirect renewable portfolio standard (RPS), encouraging states to close down dirty coal power plants and switch to renewable energy (although the Clean Power Plan criteria also allows states to meet targets by switching to natural gas).  It is no surprise that many corporations and utility companies actually support the Clean Power Plan - it is an opportunity to make money by building new power plants and infrastructure.  And although we frequently see references to energy efficiency and locally-owned renewable energy, some southwestern states have a poor record of actually prioritizing these sustainable alternatives.

Energy Efficiency
The final Clean Power Plan does not require energy efficiency to be a part of a state's plan, but states can choose to invest in efficiency to meet their target.  Although energy efficiency and energy conservation are the cheapest, most sustainable ways to cut fossil fuel use, it's likely that this route will be under-utilized without more encouragement.  Utility companies don't make money if they are not selling energy to you.  So local policymakers usually need to require that utility companies invest a certain amount in efficiency programs.

Take Nevada, for example.  From 2008 to 2013, Nevada fell from 15th nationwide to 33rd on energy efficiency performance.  The Sierra Club commissioned a study showing that the state's ratepayers could save $59 million dollars over 20 years and retire the toxic Reid-Gardner coal plant if the utility - NV Energy - improved efficiency by just 2%.  Reid-Gardner is now slated to close, but not because of energy efficiency improvements.  The utility instead plans to increase natural gas generation and bulldoze desert habitat for utility-scale solar projects.

Distributed Generation
Solar installations on rooftops, over parking lots and other places in our communities is another sustainable way to cut fossil fuels.  Utilities have had a hard time figuring out how to make money from this, however, and are working to undermine policies that compensate individuals that share excess solar energy with the grid.

In Arizona, the main utility has spent ratepayer money on ads to attack rooftop solar and has proposed adding penalty fees to the bills of rooftop solar owners.  In Nevada, NV Energy has also lobbied against rooftop solar.   Don't bet on sustainability featuring prominently in any clean energy policies in Nevada.  First Solar - the company that has bulldozed several square miles of intact habitat in the Ivanpah Valley - joined Nevada officials and executives to hail the Clean Power Plan as likely to position the state as a net-exporter of clean energy.  And they plan to accomplish this by bulldozing wildlands and building dozens of miles of expensive, destructive transmission lines.

Policies that encourage local ownership would help save wildlands by encouraging investment in clean energy in our cities.  Feed-in-tariffs, on-bill repayment, and property-assessed clean energy would go a long way to quickly increasing renewable energy generation and making financing for rooftop solar available to individuals.  Community solar programs - especially those that place an emphasis on local installations - allow renters and those that live in apartment buildings to buy into clean energy.

And if you think local ownership does not add up quickly enough to combat climate change, consider that roughly 85% of Denmark's wind turbines are owned by farmers and small co-ops.  Nearly half of Germany's 73,000 megawatts of renewable energy generation is owned by individuals.  And companies like First Solar want us to think that distributed generation is too expensive (see this study challenging that perspective), even as they bulldoze priceless public lands.  Just as we face an uphill battle tossing out fossil fuels, so too will we face challenges keeping clean energy on a sustainable path.

Rooftop solar - generating clean energy without sacrificing wildlands.