Monthly Archives: September 2010

CEC responds to your comments on Ivanpah

Or at least they sort of respond to some of them.

The document embedded below is the “Errata to the Presiding Members Proposed Decision” on Ivanpah SEGS by the California Energy Commission, in which they detail changes to the PMPD document based on public comment received. They seem to have picked and chosen the things to which they respond. For instance, my comments about the original document’s failure to address visual impact on nearly 100 square miles of the Mojave Preserve’s main unit are nowhere mentioned or addressed.

From the document:

Approximately 89 parties, individuals, and organizations commented on the PMPD. Their names are listed below. Those comments which raised substantial new environmental issues as well as selected other comments, are addressed throughout the remainder of this Decision. For substantively similar comments made by multiple commenters, our responses address the comment as a group, rather than individually. General comments to the effect that the Energy Commission should or should not approve the project were considered by the Commission but are not responded to individually.

Parties: Applicant, Basin & Range Watch, California Native Plant Society, CEC Staff, Center for Biological Diversity, San Bernadino County, Sierra Club, Western Watersheds

Non-Party Organizations: American Lung Association, CA Dept of Fish and Game, Southern California Edison, Californians for Reliable Energy, Inc., Western Lands Project

Individuals: Monica Alvarez, Janeen Armstrong, John Beetham, Tom Budlong, Chris Clarke, Craig Deutsche, David Dills, Amanda Finger, Jared Fuller, Kelly Fuller, Shaun Gonzales, Eric Hamburg, Richard Haney, Larry Hogue, Brendan Hughes, Timothy Ingalls, William C. McDonald, Thomas Meister, James Moody, LeRoy Murray, Susan Murray, Mary Ann Schroder, Rachel Shaw, Charlie Shrimplin, Michael and Joan Simmons, Charlotte Smith, Katherene Smith, Kim Snyder, Rebecca Swan

Saint Leo University Students: Monica Alvarez, Brittany Brasseur, Marquetta Brown, Chris Cappuccilli, Allison Cary, Michael Castronuovo, Julia Cavallo, Zhen Feng Chen, Elise Clyburn, Karen Coradin, Jessyca Daniel, Erin Davis, Chamel Dayaa, Nick Dublino, Sarah Eade, Nicoletta Everett, Anella Garness, Heather Gick, Brittany Groubert, Jeraldine Guaba, Stephen Hallet, Luke Haniford, Laquida Jennings, Kelvin Justiniano, Joe Kaman, Matthew Kendrick, Brooke King, Bryan Komorowski, Leah MacPherson, Megan Mancuso, Ryan McArdell, Richie Miller, JiHae Moon, Courtney Murphy, Chelsea Olivero, John M. Peterson, Ryan Popovich, Konstantin Pyankov, Ryan Regidor, Catherine Sands, Sara Schmalz, Kevin Sullivan, Andre Swain, Jamal Thompson, Preston Walsh, Terry Whitted, Sarah Young.

That’s a record number of comments on a CEC document. Thank you all for speaking truth to power. The thing about doing so is that power doesn’t always listen, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have to speak.

Errata to the Presiding Members Proposed Decision (Ivanpah SEGS)

Camp Ivanpah: The Video

Journalist Claes Andreasson, who has been doing good work covering desert solar for Swedish Public Radio and other outlets, came out to see us at Camp Ivanpah the week before last. He interviewed a number of participants, including yours truly, and has just released this nine-minute video about the encampment and the Ivanpah Valley.

Jeffrey Byron pushes the desert tortoise closer to extinction

Tessera’s Calico Solar Project is another one of those projects that’s likely even worse than Ivanpah. Originally proposed for a swath of land east of Barstow that would have been larger than the city of Berkeley, Calico would affect not just the federally threatened desert tortoise, but the Mojave fringe-toed lizard and the desert bighorn as well. Unsurprisingly, Basin and Range Watch is a great resource for information on Calico, and Shaun at Mojave Desert Blog — with whom Basin and Range Watch’s Laura and I had the pleasure of dining this past week in DC — has a lot of dope on Calico at his place as well.

It’s a really stupid project. We described various aspects of the project to Congressional aides in DC and made them shake their heads in despair. Thousands of gigantic Stirling-engine-equipped dishes would track the sun — a basically useless technology that has proved supremely unreliable at the company’s demonstration site in Maricopa, AZ, where each “Suncatcher” has two replacement engines tucked away for swapping out when the working engine fails. That’s an ungainly arrangement if you have just 60 suncatchers, as is the case at Maricopa. It becomes insane when you’re scaling that up to 26,450 Suncatchers, which is what Tessera is proposing these days for Calico.

Each Suncatcher reflects and focuses sunlight onto a four-cylinder Stirling engine, which uses thermal expansion of a fluid to drive the pistons in each cylinder. Peak output for each Suncatcher would be 25 kilowatts. That’s peak output of electricity. The Suncatchers will output other things as well, mainly including noise. Imagine 26,450 unmufflered Volvos revving in a 4,600 acre area for as long as the sun is out. At a distance of two miles, says the CEC, noise from the Calico Suncatchers should not exceed 57decibels.  A 2006 paper in Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine recommended an upper limit of 55 decibels for “large open offices, restaurants, gymnasiums, [and] swimming pools.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to the desert to enjoy sounds louder than I can find in a crowded restaurant here in Los Angeles.

Anyway, the California Energy Commission has released its Presiding Member’s Proposed Decision on the Calico Solar Project. Guess what? Presiding Member Jeffrey Byron recommends approval.

I’ve heard Jeffrey Byron is not actually a bad guy: looking forward to retirement, friendly even to people on the other side, yada yada.

If Jeffrey Byron is a nice guy, he’s a nice guy with blood on his hands. If even Calico gets the nod from the CEC staff, then the CEC is in no way keeping the environment in mind as it goes about its business.

Read the whole PMPD below, if you have the stomach for it.

Calico PMPD

Blythe, if anything, is worse

I have a personal connection to the Ivanpah Valley, so that’s what you’ve been reading about here for the most part.

On Wednesday the California Energy Commission approved a solar project that would be twice the size of Ivanpah. The contractor is Solar Millennium. The project is called Blythe Solar. As Shaun says, 

The site will disturb at least 7000 acres of habitat in the Colorado desert in Southern California, making it the largest site to be approved this year.  The project will destroy sand dune habitat for the threatened Mojave fringe-toed lizard (at least 57 were spotted on the site), bighorn sheep foraging grounds, and nesting areas for the burrowing owl.

Kevin of Basin and Range Watch, in comments on the above-linked post, adds that

People from the Chemehuevi and Ft. Mojave Indian Tribe have stated that the CEC’s and BLM’s estimate of “200 cultural sites” is “way off”. They say over 1,000 sites are on the project site. That is why the CEC gave the over ride order on cultural resources for Blythe.

Those 1,000 sites include a number of geoglyphs, some of them ancient.

When Chemehuevi elder Phil Smith of the Colorado River Indian Tribes and Fort Mohave Indian Tribe representative Rev. Ron Van Fleet came out to Camp Ivanpah, they made a commitment to help stop the Ivanpah project. Some of their reasons were covered in this article in the Las Vegas Review Journal. Some of the possibilities are quite exciting, and I’ll be keeping you posted here.

But their priority is Blythe, which would destroy much of the local tribes’ history. In the last post I referred to Blythe as constituting cultural genocide. Sounds like hyperbole, I know, but I think it’s not inaccurate. Mr. Smith and Rev. Van Fleet made it clear that any help the tribes could get from folks outside would be warmly welcomed.

I took that to include me, so I’ll likely be spending some time in Blythe as well as working to promote the Native folks’ efforts there from my desk here, and you’ll be hearing more about the project on this site in days to come. Basin and Range Watch has a lot of great information to start you off.

Meanwhile, I’m heading to LAX tomorrow afternoon to fly to DC, to join a few of my Solar Done Right colleagues to lobby against giant concentrating solar projects and in favor of localized, small-scale renewables. I’ll have a netbook, so I may be able to post a thing or two. At the very least, I’ll post a thing or two a day on my Twitter feed. We’re meeting an insane number of people between Monday and Thursday. I’ll be back Friday.

IMPORTANT: The Desert Protective Council is covering my expenses for that trip. If you’d like to make a quick gesture of support for my work on all this you can drop some cash on them via Network For Good.

Its name comes from the Chemehuevi for “clean water”

Last night, Wednesday night, I sat atop my sleeping bag and looked out across the Ivanpah Valley. The first-quarter moon was an hour from slipping behind the summit ridge of Clark Mountain. The Pleiades were a rough blur low in the east. They were obscured by moon haze. My friends had dispersed, each heading for a tent or a camper or a mere pad beneath the stars, and I had found my mere pad beneath the stars as well, but I was not yet ready for sleep.

I had had too much sun, and not enough water, and there were too many things to see, and then the sun went behind the mountain and the shadow of the mountain cut through the valley as an ax blade cuts through dry pine, and we sat together for a long time talking beneath the moon. Time was shorter by a day than it had been the day before. The place we sat was a day closer to destruction. Fall-blooming flowers following the trace of monsoon storms, and fresh-dug tortoise burrows within a few yards of where we sat; ancient desert pavement and meters-wide patches of cryptobiotic crust unbroken by any hoof though the developer claims cattle have destroyed this land, pencil cholla and bisnaga, dragonflies and bats only a little larger than the dragonflies crossing the moon’s face, and we made plans for the next few weeks.

The company had sent people to watch us. A tortoise biologist was there to ensure we didn’t harass any desert tortoises. A security guard was there to keep us from pulling up survey stakes. They’d sent her out without food and water. We shared ours. The head of the company’s Las Vegas office sat in his pickup a mile away, watching us for most of the day. All of them left as the sun set. We had the place to ourselves. We passed wine and water and food around our circle.

We talked about the sorrow we felt as we saw each jackrabbit, each desert iguana that day, our apologies on behalf of our stupid species, our regret that even those of us sworn to protect wild things had traded away the Ivanpah Valley for some marginal and unspecified benefit. We talked about joy, our satisfaction in bringing the valley to the nation’s attention, if fleetingly. Ivanpah Valley was supposed to be the big solar project the environmentalists let happen, the sacrifice to preserve our “access,” the 3,600-acre old-growth token to establish our willingness to deal with industry. Now Ivanpah is the plant with the best-known opposition.

There are too many of these projects, coming at us too fast, and too few of us to tackle them all. We’d gotten the news a few hours before that the monstrous Blythe plant had won approval from the California Energy Commission; 7,000 acres of geoglyphs and other places held as sacred by the Mojave and the Chemehuevi, possibly the world’s first instance of cultural genocide committed using sunlight as the weapon of choice. Palen is coming, and Abengoa, and Next Light Silver State going in on the alluvial fan across the way from us.  Too many for us to oppose, and yet who else will?

Who else will?

Two years ago, when my life seemed over, I walked for a long time over there across the valley, a few miles across the dry lake and uphill from my parked Jeep, and I sat among some head-high creosote as the sun set. My marriage was newly over, my home gone, my grief over my dog still sharp enough to pierce my lungs when I breathed, my stupid and predictable rebound fling in jagged shards. I was desperately alone. My future was utterly invisible, my thoughts dangerously bleak. And yet sitting in the creosote over there, that night a couple years ago, I slowly started to feel something odd. A glimmer of something, a wisp, and yet growing more substantial with each quarter-hour that I sat there: home. Some sort of defense against my fatiguing grief, perhaps? The pharmaceutical effect of volatilized creosote resin compounded in a suspension of alkaline dust? The canopy of creosote offering a bit of psychic shelter to my sky-addled heart?  Whatever it was, I felt my new life start there in the creosote, and the old one slip away.

Last night, Wednesday night, I sat atop my sleeping bag and looked out across the Ivanpah Valley toward the place where I walked two years ago. I stared across the valley for an hour. That night seemed so long ago, the self that sat there different from this self, but the miles and months dissipated after a time and I felt as though I was sitting in both places, in both years at once, the night the Ivanpah Valley saved my life and the night I tried, if feebly, to return the favor.

Group to Protest on Site of Proposed Ivanpah Solar Electrical Plant

[A release we sent out last week, embargoed until today.]

Project needlessly destructive of fragile desert, endangered species habitat

Camp Ivanpah, a group that opposes the pending construction of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station in California’s Mojave Desert, will conduct a non-violent, legal gathering on the site on September 14-16 to educate the public about the ecological treasures the site holds, and to publicize the group’s opposition to locating an industrial solar facility on the site just as government agencies are poised to approve the project.

The site, on 3,600 acres of intact old-growth creosote habitat adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve, is prime habitat for the federally listed threatened desert tortoise, and is important to at least 19 other animal species of concern including desert bighorn, golden eagles and burrowing owls. Surveyors have detected 10 plant species of concern on the site, with more likely present. Centuries-old Mojave yucca clumps are abundant on the site, as is so-called “desert pavement,” a naturally occurring soil type that may have taken as long as 10,000 years to form, and which is a crucial component of the desert’s erosion control systems.

The group is planning educational discussions on the site to discuss wildlife, plants, geology, and other facets of the old-growth desert slated for destruction, as well as viable alternatives to the project.

“This is some of the finest desert landscape I have seen in many years of exploring and enjoying our deserts,” said longtime desert protection activist Sid Silliman. “To bulldoze intact, ancient habitat like this for a few years of inefficient power generation is an atrocity.”

The project would install more than 170,000 moving mirror assemblies, called “heliostats,” that would focus the desert sun’s rays on boilers atop three towers that would stand 459 feet tall — taller than the Great Pyramid of Cheops. The glare from the mirrors and from the white-hot boilers atop the towers would be visible from a large part of the Mojave National Preserve.

Approval of the project is expected this month. Desert tortoises will then be dug out of their burrows on the site almost immediately thereafter, said tortoise biologist Laura Cunningham. “And that will be a death sentence for many of those tortoises, perhaps most of them. Even with the best science, tortoise relocations have resulted in almost 50 percent short term mortality, and probably much more than that in the longer term.”

“It’s not just the tortoises,” said Chris Clarke, an environmental journalist and desert writer. “This is a landscape that is unimaginably ancient. It is diverse, it is thriving, and it is ours. This is public land, and we object to handing it over to the energy industry so that it can be destroyed for short-term profit. We absolutely need to move away from fossil fuels, and the sooner the better, but rooftop solar is cheaper, faster, and far less destructive than giant subsidized desert projects like the Ivanpah SEGS.”

The group’s experts will be available by cell phone at the encampment for press questions.

Additional Information:

The proposed project would be constructed within the Northeastern Mojave Recovery Unit for the desert tortoise. This population is genetically the most distinctive unit of the desert tortoise in the Mojave Desert.  The Ivanpah Valley is considered excellent quality tortoise habitat. The project, combined with future proposed projects, would also significantly affect a genetically distinct subpopulation of desert tortoise that occurs in the Ivanpah Valley.

Given the project’s location on a large portion of the Ivanpah Valley, and that the project site supports 10 special-status plant species, it is reasonable to conclude that a substantial portion of the suitable habitat for some of these plants would be affected by construction of the project, increasing the threat of local extirpation of the Ivanpah Valley portion of these species’ ranges.

Solar Done Right up and running

It’s been quiet here lately, in part because I’ve been working on an action to protest the upcoming destruction of Ivanpah (more on that Monday) and partly because of this:

Solar Done Right is a coalition of public land activists, solar power and electrical engineering experts, biologists and others who view with concern the rush to develop our few remaining wildlands for industrial solar energy.

We have come together to urge government, utilities, the mainstream environmental movement and the public to abandon this destructive path, and to work toward generating the power we need in the built environment.

The centerpiece of the SDR website is the collection of briefings, which make the case rather authoritatively for distributed generation — rooftop solar, mainly, but also including microwind and other technologies — and against scraping wildlands and productive agricultural land to build industrial solar.

A few of us from Solar Done Right will be heading to DC in a week to stalk the corridors of power, advocating for policies which level the playing field for rooftop solar. To update people on our progress there, we’ll be passing along news on our Facebook page and Twitter feed.  Check it out and spread the word.

This is weather in the Mojave

Via Morongo Bill and The Guzzler, this is a result of a somewhat stronger than normal rainstorm in the Mojave Desert. This happened on US 395 just south of the Owens Valley and north of Ridgecrest.

That’s a small storm. In Summer 1997 a somewhat stronger one not far away tore out the Ricardo Campground at Red Rock Canyon State Park. And when a 100-yearstorm hits the Ivanpah Valley, even more fun will result:

“While neighboring properties will not be substantially affected by increased peak or sediment flows, the data suggests that a significant number of heliostats may fail due to erosion removing the soil support for their mounting poles, as many as 32,000 during a 100-year flood event.”

That’s from the CEC, via Basin and Range Watch.