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Showing posts with the label BrightSource Energy

Solar Power Tower Developers Attempt to Dismiss Shortfalls

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Solar power tower developers have chided critical press coverage of their massive facilities as letting perfect be the enemy of good.  But we have learned enough about this technology to know that power tower projects do not even qualify as "good" clean energy projects.  Far superior alternatives exist in terms of life-cycle carbon emissions and sustainable siting.

Solar power towers have earned a bad reputation, and their developers are desperate to restore the green halo that they enjoyed a few years ago.  NRG - the current owner of the Ivanpah Solar project in California - and Solar Reserve - owner of the Crescent Dunes project in Nevada - have long been on the defensive with inaccurate and misleading public relations efforts.  But they have stepped up their PR efforts after new reports on their natural gas use and impacts on wildlife. Although developers promise to eventually deliver energy storage benefits, other technologies allow us to do so without burning birds in …

Bird Deaths at Ivanpah Solar Project Likely Underestimated

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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…

BrightSource Cancels Hidden Hills, But Threats Loom

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The Pahrump Valley, a vast stretch of creosote, yucca and Joshua tree that unfolds as you descend from the Spring Mountains, remains the target of extensive development proposals despite a recent decision to terminate a solar power tower project here.  BrightSource Energy this week cancelled its proposal to build the destructive Hidden Hills solar power tower project on the California side of the Pahrump Valley.  The project would have replaced desert habitat with nearly 5 square miles of giant heliostat mirrors and two 750-tall towers that would have burned birds and insects, as is the case with the Ivanpah Solar and Crescent Dunes power tower projects.  Hidden Hills also would have pumped hundreds of millions of gallons of groundwater over its construction and operational lifetime from an already-overdrafted basin, threatening wildlife that depend on nearby natural springs.  So it is indeed a relief that the project has been withdrawn.

Towers May Still Loom on the Horizon

In comments…

Overriding Considerations and the War on Carbon

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The New York Times recently published an Op-Ed by author Rebecca Solnit questioning our concern for the fate of wildlife as we rapidly expand renewable energy generation.  Ms. Solnit's point seems to be that the climate catastrophe poses far too great of a threat to be concerned for the death of wildlife at solar and wind energy projects.  I think it is very timely that her op-ed was published at the same time that our country is left trying to explain why the torture of a few was necessary for the defense of many.  When we are left questioning why we should compromise on our values in the pursuit of victory in war. 

I would like to argue that Ms. Solnit is missing the point, and that every life has value, including every single bird and insect burned at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project, or any burrowing owl that loses its habitat to the effects of climate change.   But she raises a compelling point - climate will bring destruction on a mass scale, and terrorize ec…

Article Exposes Shallow Depth of Energy Discussion

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An article grossly mischaracterizing the current state of research into avian mortality at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project quickly exposed the difference between rally-around-the-flag cheerleaders and those seeking to ensure renewable energy follows a sustainable path.  The piece by David Baker published on the San Francisco Chronicle website notes that only 321 dead birds were found at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project from January to June, and casts doubt on the work of scientist Shawn Smallwood who estimated that Ivanpah may kill as many as 28,000 birds per year; Smallwood's estimate was cited in an Associated Press story bringing attention to the incineration of birds at Ivanpah.  David Baker's piece regurgitates a BrightSource Energy press release, and the Associated Press article cites testimony by Smallwood, a scientist who has been published in dozens of peer-reviewed publications and reports.

The Chair of the California Democratic Party&#…

How Much is Too Much Heat for Birds?

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In testimony submitted in advance of California Energy Commission (CEC) evidentiary hearings scheduled for the end of this month, the CEC staff estimates that the impact of heated air above BrightSource's proposed Palen hybrid solar and natural gas project may result in as much as 2.5 times more bird deaths than at the BrightSource's Ivanpah hybrid project (I use the term "hybrid" because Ivanpah will burn nearly 525 million standard cubic feet  of natural gas, annually.  Palen will burn at least 728 million standard cubic feet of gas, annually.  Unlike photovoltaic solar projects, BrightSource's power tower design needs fossil fuels to warm up the boilers that also convert the sun's energy into electricity).
BrightSource has argued that birds are only at risk of death from solar flux (air heated by the concentration of the solar mirror field) in the air space close to the power tower where the heat is most intense.  CEC staff, however, assesses that birds a…

BrightSource Underperforming; Adds Fossil Fuels

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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.
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 2…

Industry Influence Limits Discussion Space

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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 thos…

Sierra Club Joins Opposition to Palen Solar Project

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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.

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…

Ivanpah's Toll on Wildlife Mounts

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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.




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 mirr…

This is Not Disturbed Land

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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 cons…

BrightSource Makes Weak Case for Palen Solar Project

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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 tha…

Destructive Ivanpah Solar Project To Finally Start Operations

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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 Natio…