Shaun G. deconstructs BrightSource’s latest plea to modify its agreement with the state of California over the Ivanpah solar power plant. In the process, he offers a stunning overlay showing how much of Yosemite Valley the project would fill.
Biologist Bruce M. Pavlik, author of The California Deserts: An Ecological Rediscovery, which I’m working my way through this week, has a great piece in the Los Angeles Times on Big Solar vs. the deserts.
The costs of industrializing the biologically rich California deserts will be measured in terms of species extinction, ecosystem degradation and the perpetuation of human self-deception.
We know better than to rush. A cautious, informed and integrated approach will secure sustainable, clean energy without sacrificing the future of these precious lands.
Below are two satellite images, courtesy Google Earth, of different pieces of the Ivanpah Valley. Both photos show land at around 3,000 feet in elevation, at a resolution equivalent to 1,500 feet up.
One of the photos is of land whose wilderness habitat value was important enough that in 1994 Congress designated it part of the Mojave National Preserve.
The other shows land deemed “heavily impacted by human use” by the developer who wants to build a massive solar generating facility thereon.
Can you guess which is which? Feel free to click through to the Flickr site to see the higher-resolution versions if you think that’ll help.
In the meantime, I’m off to Death Valley first thing in the morning for a meeting, and then Sunday afternoon I hope to swing by the proposed solar generating site to get some photos from six or fewer feet above the ground. See you all Monday.
In Adam Hochschild’s book The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin, Hochschild describes a conversation with Alexander Vologodsky, a Russian physicist. Vologodsky had noticed an abandoned settlement as a youth in the extreme north of Siberia, and found that the settlement was the remains of a prison labor construction project. Stalin had been looking at a map, noticed a blank spot on the Arctic coast between the mouths of the Yenisei and Ob rivers, and decided he wanted a railroad built connecting the two rivers — across 800 miles of tundra. As Hochschild relates:
“As far as [Vologodsky] can figure out, there was no logical reason to build this long and expensive railroad — particularly in the famine-ridden, ravaged, exhausted USSR of 1948… The Soviet Union is famous for grand public works projects that turn out not to work; but this Arctic railway, said Vologodsky, was ‘the acme of the absurd.’
“In the frantic haste to satisfy Stalin’s orders, Vologodsky said, when construction began in 1948, ‘they were laying the tracks at the same time as they were surveying.’ The terrain was a builder’s nightmare: below ground was rock-hard permafrost; on top of this lay six feet of snow in winter, and, in the summer, vast bogs that swallowed up ties, tracks, and equipment. Although the work force of prisoners reached as high as one hundred thousand, in five years they succeeded in laying tracks over little more than half the route.
“Today, thinking of this waste of resources and human life, it seems easy to condemn the folly of this railroad. But listening to Vologodsky talk, it occurred to me that in other parts of the world, when such projects reach their aim, we often honor them as great feats of engineering or symbols of national grandeur. The Pyramids, the First Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal. Between these efforts and something like Stalin’s Arctic railway, where do you draw the moral dividing line? It is not always easy.”
The passage has stayed with me since I read it a decade ago. The Arctic Railway, which ended construction on Stalin’s death, is a useful absurdum to which one can reductio a whole lot of development proposals. The tragic story emphasizes the importance of the practice described by the jargony phrase “ground-truthing,” almost always an effective counter to grand development plans decreed by fiat, whether that fiat comes from a dictator or a bureaucracy or — even — a well-meaning environmentalist.
David Brower learned this lesson in the early 1960s when he bargained away the irreplaceable Glen Canyon in a meeting room somewhere, then actually went out and belatedly ground-truthed his act by visiting the place. He had the best of intentions: saving Dinosaur National Monument from a dam. It worked. The Yampa is still free-flowing and beautiful. It was a victory Brower regretted for the rest of his life.
Brower’s lesson seems to have been lost on at least one person charged with preserving his legacy. Last year, the current editor of the Earth Island Journal, Jason Mark, charged dismissively that opposition to opening up desert wilderness to renewable energy project development is NIMBYism, and “fueling climate change.”
“…it’s hard not to think that some local activists have their priorities misplaced. One conservationist told Lewis, ‘No opening of any wilderness areas in this state to any energy corridors ever. Absolutely not.’
“According to Amy Atwood, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity: ‘It’s hard to see which Western constituency could possibly support this.’
“Well, how about a constituency that recognizes that climate change is already dangerously altering Western ecosystems, contributing to droughts, wildfires, and shrinking and shifting habitats?”
We have to destroy the wilderness to save it, Mark would seem to be saying.
Or take renewable energy activist Gar Lipow’s odd rant in comments on a post in the online magazine Grist, responding to desert protection activists concerned about careless “renewable” development:
“Yeah, let’s stay pure.
“Lets burn more coal -cause we can’t put up one acre of mirrors in the desert.
“Let’s drill oil off the coasts of California and Florida because we are too pure to put wind generators offshore where a couple of Senators have to look at them.
“Let 1 in 4 children in Harlem continue to suffer asthma caused by fossil fuels so that we don’t have besmirch the purity of Wolverine and Stopgreenpath. I hope those snowy white garments you wear don’t get stained by splatters from all the people you will trample if you win what you are asking for.”
Lipow’s comment really has it all: the straw-children, the conflation of habitat preservation with scenery, the Cheneyan accusation that the opponents’ environmental concern is a matter of “personal purity,” and a literal “bloody shirt” threat besides. (An explanation of just what effect transmission lines in the desert would have on the diesel exhaust that chokes kids in Harlem? That Lipow does not provide.)
Here’s the thing. The Glen Canyon Dam provides renewable energy too, and yet I don’t see too many “big picture” enviros like Mark and Lipow self-righteously demanding new dams be put up on free-flowing rivers. Big hydro is a cost-effective source of huge amounts of electricity, and new large dams could conceivably replace a significant amount of fossil-fuel-generated power. Why aren’t enviros demanding new dams, and spattering fishermen and river rafters with the figurative blood of their straw victims? Hochschild’s question about drawing lines would seem relevant here. Where, exactly, is the line between a new Glen Canyon Dam on the wild river of your choice, on the one hand, and paving 689,910 times as much desert as Lipow sneers about on the other?
The line, I suggest, is entirely in the minds of people who talk the way the above-quoted environmentalists do. The fact is, reactions like those offered by Mark and Lipow are fueled by a combination of ignorance of, and apathy toward, the actual groundtruthable reality in the desert. As Hochschild put it later in “Unquiet Ghost”:
“We are back again at the issue raised by the finger on the map. I want a railroad, there. Because it’s good for humanity. Or, perhaps, because I want it there.”
Those who would save the planet at the cost of the desert look at maps like this
and put their fingers on the map right on that sunny blank spot. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it would seem that the functional difference between the Mojave Desert and Glen Canyon is not in the value of the habitat to its wildlife, nor in the efficiency of power generation in each locale, but simply in the fact that most environmentalists don’t give a shit about the Mojave Desert.
The thing is, even if enviros don’t ground-truth their decisions about the Mojave Desert, the developers do, lest they sink their own metaphorical railroad ties in bogs. As a result, there are other, more useful maps of the areas proposed for solar development. Here’s a fragment of one, obtained from this site (hat tip to Larry Hogue):
That’s 1.3 square miles of the Ivanpah Valley, about a third of the planned Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. The developers hired someone to walk every square foot of their project site to note what would be displaced. Those little colored dots, which turn out to be numbers if you look closely, are tortoise-related sites. The brown and black numbers mark burrows or other sign. The green numbers are places where live tortoises were found by the surveyors. The red numbers mark the location of found carcasses. Four times as many carcasses as live torts seen, in part because dead tortoises aren’t as good at hiding as live ones, and in part because tortoises are dying off from a contagious respiratory infection and heightened predation and general habitat disruption.
By law, all live tortoises on a site to be developed must be relocated to intact habitat. The two dozen live tortoises found on the Ivanpah SEGS site will need to be moved uphill, toward Clark Mountain. There they’d rub elbows with a whole lot more tortoises relocated from the immediately adjacent Ivanpah Airport. One problem with tortoise relocation is that it spreads that respiratory disease. Another is that disoriented tortoises, relocated away from a territory they may have known for decades, are easy prey for coyotes, a fact that shut down the US Army’s relocation program at Fort Irwin last year. (The proposal for Ivanpah SEGS tortoise relocation uses the same target tortoise density as Fort Irwin’s plan.)
That’s just one of several threatened species on the site, and we’re only discussing one big solar thermal site in dozens proposed in the American desert. And yet any hesitation desert habitat advocates express to scraping away the soil, denuding habitat, and building massive industrial facilities to generate solar thermal power is criticized as obstructionist. Meanwhile, big hydroelectric, which also offers a theoretically carbon-neutral source of electrical power, is opposed by those same critics simply because it destroys habitat, with neither hemming nor hawing about regrettable sacrifice and cost-benefit and dire emergencies and wheezing fourth-graders.
Which raises the question: why is a fish more valuable than a tortoise? Before we put our fingers on the map and say “there,” I’d like to hear an answer to that.
Left out of my discussion yesterday of the big solar thermal proposal for the Ivanpah Valley—because I didn’t find out about it until just now—was the fact that the site that would be bulldozed for construction of the Ivanpah Solar Generating Station is of significant botanical importance.
As James M. Andre, Director of the University of California’s Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, says in his article “Will We Know What We Lost?”, in the December 2008 issue of Desert Report:
The nearly 10,000-acre Ivanpah solar energy development project, located in San Bernardino County near the California-Nevada Border, is (at the time of this article) close to approval and implementation. Prior to project surveys at Ivanpah Valley, there existed no database or herbarium records of rare plants in the footprint of the project. Results of project surveys there, however, documented 11 CNPS-listed rare plant taxa, including 80% of the known California occurrences of Asclepias nyctaginifolia.
A previously unknown type of manzanita, for instance, was recently discovered growing on a ridge above Andre’s Desert Studies Center sitting there unnoticed despite the presence of generations of botanists working below. Andre points out that this sort of thing is likely to be the case on many desert sites slated for development, as the California desert’s flora is, quite frankly, poorly known:
There is a broad misconception among the public (and to some extent among scientists and land managers) that we have completed our floristic inventory of the California desert, and that the remaining hotbeds for botanical discovery are limited to places like Indonesia and the Brazilian Amazon. Yet the California desert is, in fact, one of the remaining floristic frontiers in the United States. Numerous mountain ranges (e.g. Turtles, Dead, and Avawatz Mountains) have fewer than 100 herbarium voucher records currently housed in herbaria. The vast majority of herbarium specimens from the desert region are recorded along paved roads. New, rare, and localized endemics continue to be discovered, noteworthy range extensions are still frequently reported, and distributional limits of common taxa are poorly established. Even in areas of high research focus, such as the University of California’s Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, a new manzanita species was found growing on a ridge overlooking the laboratories below. Clearly, the Jepson Desert Manual represents only a work in progress rather than the final word on floristic diversity and distribution in our desert.
Larry Hogue has been asking whether we’d clearcut forests to put up big solar installations. It’s a fair question! And when we consider the fact that the California desert would seem to be every bit as unexplored, botanically, as a tropical rainforest or coral reef, the question arises: should we even consider paving them to provide power for people who still use incandescent light bulbs, or whose “standby-powered” electronics annually waste the equivalent output of 18 typical electrical power generating stations?
My answer: hell no.
Put your computer and your microwave and your television on a power strip that you turn off or unplug, replace your incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs, and learn how to cope with room temperatures above 72 degrees without turning on the AC, and get your neighbors to do the same, and then, maybe, we can talk about installing some big solar-generating facilities, as long as we focus on appropriate places near population centers, like this project in California’s Central Valley.
Yes, like the President Elect said, it’s gotta be about more than changing a light bulb in your house: industry, transportation and commerce account for 78% of total US power consumption. A lot of the reason for inefficient energy use is structural, in both the building and societal senses. In the household, building codes should be amended to mandate a wall switch that turns off power to all but one wall outlet, so that “standby power” can be cut off at the source easily. (Just plug your clock into the live outlet.) The building materials market is ready to explode with new photovoltaic materials, from tinted windows to siding and sidewalks.
Paving the desert should be the absolute last resort.
The Bureau of Land Management reports that it has received applications for large solar electrical generating projects, around 80 of them, that would cover 689,910 acres of California, almost all of it in the desert.
689,910 acres is a big number, and it’s hard to put into perspective. Past a certain size, land area stats are a little hard to grasp. Two acres, the size of the piece of land my parents had when I was small, that’s an easier area to grasp, mentally: if it was all lawn, you could cover it with a walk-behind power mower, figuring a 12-inch wide swath mown at about three feet per second, in four hours or so.
At that speed, assuming you never took breaks to eat or sleep or stretch your lower back, if you started today you’d get 689,910 acres of lawn mowed sometime in June or July of 2165.
That’s still hard to imagine, and besides there is precious little lawn in the desert. How about comparing the 689,910 acres with familiar places of known area? 689,910 acres, about 1,078 square miles, is more than three times the size of New York City, the five-borough total of which runs to 309 square miles. Sprawling Los Angeles, at 465 square miles contained within its city limits, doesn’t even reach half the size of the pending desert solar projects. Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the second-largest state park in the US, covers approximately 600,000 acres. It is huge, but it covers less land area than these solar projects would.
Put it this way: if you bulldozed every bit of land in the city limits of both Phoenix and Houston—possibly a good idea in and of itself—then put all the pending California Desert solar projects on the land that had been occupied by those cities, you’d have just sixteen square miles left over, which I suppose you would need for employee parking.
Yesterday, in the course of a KCRW Interview featuring Coyote Crosser Larry Hogue, among others, it was pointed out that the staggering acreage covered by these proposals will likely be whittled down, that this is a bit of a land rush that has as much speculation at its root as energy policy planning. It was also pointed out that while current technology for big solar development involves grading the site, destroying all habitat thereon and essentially paving the land with mirrors, that we’ll likely be able, within the next couple years, to install massive photovoltaic fields where the only ground disturbance necessary is the pile-driving of supports for the panels. Oh, and driving the supply trucks and installation machinery from one pole to the next. And running cable between them. And maintaining maintenance access roads.
Paving the desert.
Take a look at this map the BLM provides of proposals in the California Desert. There’s a site hard up against the east border of the Mojave National Preserve: called the New York Mountains site, the red crosshatched area actually falls in the Lanfair Valley, a bit of extremely marginal ranchland and irreplaceable Joshua tree forest that was jerrymandered out of the Preserve boundaries before final passage of the California Desert Protection Act in 1994. It was excluded from the Preserve because locals raised a stink, fearing the Preserve management would forever change their way of life. Paving the Lanfair Valley with mirrors is apparently a less drastic change for the ranchers than just buying out the grazing rights, as the Preserve would have done.
Or look at the east end of the (789,745-acre) Joshua Tree National Park, at the mouth of that “little” notch in the Park boundary. That’s a valley that has had a few projects planned for it, including a gigantic garbage dump that would have been the final resting place for Los Angeles’ unrecycled aluminum cans and uncomposted disposable diapers. Now it’s contending with a giant solar project, in an area that—like the Lanfair Valley—should by rights now be protected in perpetuity.
A few days ago The Raven and I drove through Ward Valley, west of Needles. I told her how the valley had been the site of a proposed commercial nuclear waste dump, in which so-called “low-level” waste would have been buried in unlined trenches. The project was never approved, due to the efforts of the Mojave and Chemehuevi people and their allies like my friend Phil Klasky. There is now a solar project proposed for Ward Valley as well.
Just south and west of the spot where the city of Las Vegas wants to build a major international airport in the Ivanpah Valley, backers of the proposed Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System would build three heliostat towers, on which more than 3,000 acres of mirrors would concentrate the desert sun. Water heated in the focal points of the mirror arrays would drive turbines, which would generate a peak of 400 megawatts of electrical power. The installation would use up to a hundred acre-feet per year of groundwater. I have not yet been able to determine whether the site would cover some of the tortoise relocation area cited in planning documents for the Ivanpah Airport: at a minimum, tortoises would have to be relocated from both sites and put somewhere else, a process that has recently proven to be pretty much a death sentence for the tortoises.
All told, if the 80 solar installations in the California Desert are built, they’ll produce a peak of 54 gigawatts of electrical power. This would represent a doubling of California’s electrical generating capacity. It’s clear that these projects are not being proposed as part of a sensible energy strategy, with conserved “negawatts” at the forefront of the strategy. As the majority of current generating capacity in California is much closer to urban areas, these new sites would mean a significant additional loss of energy through transmission line inefficiency.
This assault on the desert is, plain and simple, intended to line the pockets of speculators looking to stake a claim in a burgeoning “green” energy field. Big solar may be a sensible idea in a few unusual locations, but in general it represents business as usual for the energy companies.
And the desert pays.