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Sacrifice Upon Tragedy

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When I hear people compare avian mortality levels at wind and solar projects to the number of birds killed by domestic cats, I hear an insensitive and illogical comparison.  One death toll used to excuse the tolerance of even more deaths.   If that argumentation is how we plan to reason through future human actions, we are in for a very depressing and morally-deprived future. 

To illustrate just how illogical this argumentation is, imagine telling Amnesty International that its efforts to advance peace are meaningless because the United States saves more lives through war.  There is only one correct path, and if you're not supportive of that path, you're wrong and your input is not welcome.  Or imagine someone arguing that examining and criticizing the loss of life in Ferguson is not worth discussing because there are bigger issues at hand.  That's what the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) broadcast on Thursday in a subsequently retracted Tweet (below)…

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&#…

Bridges for Bighorn

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Despite efforts to protect desert habitat in the southwest, major highways criss-crossing the desert are isolating wildlife into smaller pockets and hindering genetic exchange necessary to keep species healthy and resilient.  Desert bighorn sheep are not exempt from this impact; they may be agile and swift, but they are no match for several lanes of speeding cars and semi-trucks, and they tend to shy away from culverts that cross under highways.

Biologists have already noticed that desert bighorn sheep populations in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts are becoming genetically isolated because the region's major highways - such as Interstate 15 and Interstate 40 - and other human developments pose a barrier to sheep movement from one range to another.  According to a 2005 article in Ecology Letters,  biologists found "a rapid reduction in genetic diversity (up to 15%)" among desert bighorn sheep resulting from "as few as 40 years of anthropogenic isolation. Interstate h…

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…

Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Line: A Horse Following the Cart

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Southern California Edison (SCE) is suggesting that interconnection of Abengoa's Mojave Solar project is the primary reason it needs to build the nearly 75 mile Coolwater-Lugo transmission line through the Lucerne Valley, according to the Daily Press, even though Abengoa told the California Energy Commission (CEC) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in 2010 that these transmission lines would not be necessary.   Misrepresenting the need for new transmission lines during the CEC and BLM review of the project would have allowed Abengoa to downplay the costs and environmental impacts associated with approving the project.  The Coolwater-Lugo transmission line is likely to cost ratepayers at least 509 million dollars, and bring bulldozers and transmission towers to mostly undisturbed desert.

Without the Abengoa Mojave Solar project as an excuse,  SCE probably could address other distribution needs - such as relieving the transmission bottleneck at Kramer Junction - by upgrading existi…

First Solar Begins Ecosystem Destruction in Ivanpah

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First Solar has begun construction on the 2.6 square mile Stateline Solar project - one of the company's two additional solar projects in the Ivanpah Valley - after a judge turned down a request for an injunction by the Defenders of Wildlife.   First Solar is also expected to begin bulldozing desert habitat for the Silver State South project, which will destroy over 3.7 square miles of tortoise habitat on the Nevada side of the Ivanpah Valley.  Both projects will destroy some of the best quality desert tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert and, more insidiously, likely sever a habitat corridor linking separate populations of the tortoise.
Tortoises Lose Key Habitat

According to construction monitoring reports,  First Solar has already translocated at least 16 tortoises - 8 adults and 8 juveniles - from the first phase of construction, which may be an area of approximately 500-700 acres (the final environmental impact statement indicated "zone 1" of construction would be …

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…