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Interior Rolling the Dice on Future of the Desert Tortoise

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) biological opinion provides a seemingly conflicted and reluctant expression of support for the Silver State South solar project on the basis of mitigation measures that it admits may not offset the damage done by the project to the viability of a key habitat linkage for the desert tortoise.  The biological opinion is FWS' contribution to the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) environmental review of the Silver State South project, and evaluates how the project will impact the desert tortoise.   Perhaps to speed approval of the project, the opinion glosses over a significant potential consequence of the project - local extirpation of the desert tortoise population in the Ivanpah Valley.


The Silver State South solar project would be built at the pinch point of the hour-glass shaped Ivanpah Valley, and potentially isolate two populations of the desert tortoise; both the BLM and FWS acknowledge that "current research does not i…

Solar Decathlon Where It Belongs

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The Solar Decathlon is being held in California at long last.  The competition was first held in 2002, and features homes powered by rooftop solar panels, and built by teams from across the country and overseas competing to be the most sustainable in various categories.  The overall winning team must design and build a home that meets the following general criteria:

Is affordable, attractive, and easy to live inMaintains comfortable and healthy indoor environmental conditionsSupplies energy to household appliances for cooking, cleaning, and entertainmentProvides adequate hot waterProduces as much or more energy than it consumes. Consider the "DesertSol" entry designed and built by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV).  The DeserSol house uses a solar thermal system to heat water and the home itself, photovoltaic panels to supply energy, and advanced engineering that reduces framing materials by nearly 20%.  The entry will be on display at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve …

Silver State South Solar Nears Approval; Problems Loom

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Tbe Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in September released the final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Silver State South solar project, which would destroy approximately 3.7 square miles of intact desert habitat. Although the direct impact on wildlife may not compare to BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar project, the Silver State South project almost certainly will have significant long-term effects on the ability of the desert tortoise to maintain habitat connectivity.



The BLM’s preferred alternative supports the solar project, and secondarily designates an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) to protect the desert tortoise habitat that First Solar does not want to destroy.  The ACEC is a welcomed sweetener, but still does not override the bitterness that arises from the fact that destruction of habitat for the solar project is completely unnecessary since the solar panels would be just as happy on already-disturbed lands somewhere else in the state.  Tortoises,…

First Solar Supports Utility Company War on Rooftop Solar

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First Solar, the company destroying several square miles of desert habitat to build solar facilities on pristine desert wildlands,  sided with utilities companies seeking to limit the expansion of rooftop solar in a regulatory filing this month.  First Solar's move is not surprising because the panels it manufactures and uses at its large solar facilities are not very efficient, and typically are not used in rooftop solar installations.  The company depends on monopolistic utility companies to buy energy from its projects, funds anti-environment politicians, and has insisted on building a large project that biologists have warned will degrade habitat connectivity for the threatened desert tortoise.

 But First Solar's move is bold - the company complains that rooftop solar installations place an unfair burden on other ratepayers, ignoring the fact that First Solar executives' pay checks are subsidized by taxpayers; the company's large projects are supported by Federal l…

Do We Need Another Transmission Line in the High Desert?

Southern California Edison (SCE) is planning to invest upwards of one billion dollars in new transmission lines through Lucerne Valley, connecting substations in the Barstow area to Hesperia.  Never mind that the utility already has three existing major transmission pathways through the region, in addition to lines owned by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).  SCE argues in its application to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that the "Coolwater-Lugo" transmission upgrade is needed to alleviate a bottleneck on the lines running from Kramer Junction to Hesperia, and to provide interconnection for up to 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy development.

Although some of the new line would run along an existing transmission corridor, the utility would add nearly 15 miles of lines along a new corridor following Barstow Road before veering northwest to join another LADWP corridor, further entangling otherwise scenic desert with industrial-scale develo…

BrightSource Palen Solar Project Moving Through Environmental Review

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The California Energy Commission (CEC) this month published part of its Final Staff Assessment for BrightSource Energy's Palen Solar power project.  After evidentiary hearings this fall, the CEC plans to decide whether to approve the project proposed for the Chuckwalla Valley between Indio and Blythe, resulting in the destruction of up to 5.9 square miles of desert habitat that currently hosts kit foxes, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, and burrowing owls.  Biologists are concerned that the project would not only disrupt sand transport through the valley that sustains fringe-toed lizard habitat, but also pose a collision and burn risk to a variety of birds, from golden eagles to the endangered Yuma clapper rail.
The size of the project is difficult to imagine, so I provide a comparison of the project footprint (red overlay, below) to the city of Palm Springs.  BrightSource Energy says the facility would generate 500 megawatts of energy through steam boilers positioned on two 750-foot t…

Will the California Legislature Save or Punish Ratepayers?

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California's legislature is considering a bill (A.B. 327) that may solidify the monopoly status of investor-owned utility companies by charging all ratepayers a fixed fee.  Not only would this unfairly penalize ratepayers who invest their own money to make their homes and businesses energy efficient, it would strangle nascent efforts to democratize our energy grid with rooftop solar.  California ratepayers are already being taken to the bank by utility companies; each utility collects a guaranteed return of over 10% from ratepayers.  No matter what they build or destroy, they can earn a profit.  Even when utility companies make bad decisions, they expect to be compensated and rewarded.  For example, now that Southern California Edison shut down its failed nuclear plant at San Onofre, it wants to collect 2.4 billion dollars from ratepayers, enough money to pay for its misguided investment and earn at least 5.5% extra. 


Apparently utility companies don't want to give up this go…