Posts

Bridges for Bighorn

Image
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?

Image
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

Image
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

Image
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

Image
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

Image
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

Image
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…