More Greed Than Green: Desert Solar Gone Mad

by Bill Harper, November 17, 2010

The iconic Mojave Desert is viewed by most as a bar­rier to Las Vegas, the water parks of the Colorado River or spring training. Vast, lifeless, barren, desolate, monotonous, nothing but sun wind and gravel. Nothing lives there — an ideal place for solar power. Except the desert is not lifeless. In the old days, on Route 66 the desert tortoises were a common sight by day, snakes by night, most squished. The problem is these are not your backyard panels with a garden underneath.

The current and proposed solar plants are fenced com­pounds, scraped and sprayed bare, and lit all night like a prison. Many actually run on natural gas and a supplemented by solar. Oh, and they need water.

Like the Marine Life Protection Act processes of the north coast, they are being fast tracked with little or no science. They were approved without consulting local tribes. Like the proposed wave energy farms, they lock the public out of a previously accessible area and, mys­teriously, dovetail perfectly with areas withdrawn by the government in the 1994 Desert Wilderness act. The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council are supporting this massive conversion of public land to private.

There is all the area necessary for solar rooftop and parking lot production on the industrial buildings in LA, Las Vegas, the Inland Empire, etc. This would put the money in hands of current beleaguered property owners. A New York Times article says that financing and loan guarantees for this sector of the market are “unavail­able.”

The California Energy Commission has given approval of a 5.6 square-mile part of pristine Mojave Desert in the Ivanpah Valley for a solar plant to be built by BrightSource. Like most of these projects the costs of development are 100% subsidized. Public land, public money and public water.

This area is just north of the Mohave National Pre­serve. Teeming with desert life; tortoises, kangaroo rats, desert bighorn, and all the mammals, snakes and birds that feed on such things. Drainage will be directed towards other public lands and transportation. Literally smoke and mirrors, the water requirement to keep the mirrors clean is increased because of the truck doing the washing.

The claimed greenhouse gas savings are eliminated by the four years of diesel, stainless steel and aluminum inputs for a design life of 30 years. Rates and contracts for transmission with PG&E and others are a secret. Estimates are 18-30¢ per kilowatt-hour. BrightSource's existing plants are in Israel. RFK Jr. is BrightSource's spokesperson. The project was approved the day after John E. Bryson, who founded the National Resources Defense Council (also SoCal Edison and Walt Disney), was installed on the board for BrightSource.

A post from Laura Cunningham of Basin and Range Watch, November 1, 2010:

“Amazingly the tortoise count is 38, just on Phase 1! This is the limit apparently that triggers the need for Bright to find another translocation area in addition to the ones west and north of the project, due to carrying capacity. I do not know how this will work out, but apparently BS is allowed to continue clearance, their deadline to stop has been extended to November 3 (this should be OK for the tortoises as it is warm enough still). There are currently 77 biologists walking the surveys and four monitoring construction machinery. They are making their final push, but I do not fully understand the FWS trigger mechanism, nor what will happen — but the project is obviously not being halted!

“There were only supposed to be 32 tortoises present on the total project, all three phases. The original surveys were done in 2007, a drought year, so apparently the tortoises were remaining underground waiting better times, and the biologists were only required to do a pres­ence-absence survey, not a survey that could actually estimate population density. Obviously the US Fish and Wildlife Service methodology is not working.

“Tortoise relocation does not work. Kristin H. Berry, one of the science advisers and a research wildlife biolo­gist with the US Geological Survey, said relocations of tortoises and other sensitive animals have not proven successful. “Moving tortoises can spread disease. It can also put animals in the receiving areas at risk, because there may not be enough food, water and shelter for both the residents and the newcomers.”

A post from Bob Ellis of Desert Survivors:

“A number of environmental activists attended as well and some camped the night before across the valley near the old Ivanpah village site. I was one. Imagine my surprise when my phone beeped and I got a email from the Executive Director if the Sierra Club strongly reminding me that the National Sierra Club supported the Ivanpah Solar Project, in part because they had re­duced the project area by 10 percent or so. I was told that as a Sierra Club member I should refer any questions about the project to the National Sierra Club Office.

“Very quickly we discovered that most club mem­bers in the West had received the same Email. It wasn't just us who were attending the Spirit Run. The presence of several law enforcement officers and security person­nel the next day at the site again showed how seriously concerned some people were with any opposition to this project. As a Desert Survivor member and also a Sierra Club member I was a bit less troubled than those whose main affiliation was the Sierra Club.

“A number of Southern California desert activists have been deeply bothered by the National Sierra Club's position on Ivanpah. In response they have been pro­moting the concept of Solar Done Right! (locally distrib­uted small scale solar and urban rooftop solar). If indus­trial utility-sized solar must be constructed let it be on already disturbed lands, NOT undisturbed natural habi­tats with desert plants and animals. The Mojave Desert Ecosystem contains networks of plants and ani­mals which have evolved here since the last glacial advance with less than 5 percent invasive species. Now is not the time to significantly impact this unique assemblage.”

* * *

The whole world knows about the Nazca Lines in the desert of Peru. Even many desert people don't know about the giant intaglios north of Blythe on Hwy 95. Intaglio is the removal of the medium to create design or art. In this case rocks are removed to create a giant quadruped and man-like figure. I had heard there were more, their location was closely guarded as, unlike the figures on Highway 95, they were not fenced.

Well there he is, the world’s largest Kokopelli, right in the middle of a proposed plant — no consideration for them included in the proposal. Originally scheduled to be scraped off by bulldozers, the BLM announced they will be fenced off within the project. Already a stolen image, abducted and emasculated by every new age artist and tee-shirt mogul in the southwest gee-gaw circuit. Now locked away from the people that created him. (A video is available at http://www.vimeo.com/16722813.)

The Colorado River Tribes (the Chemehuevi, the Fort Mojave, the Quechan) put out the call: A Spiritual Run to Protest the Blythe Solar Project: from the Blythe Intaglios by the Colorado River; by mining roads and Indian trails over a pass in the Big Maria Mountains; across the Rice Midland Road; and west toward the McCoy Mountains to the so-far largest planned industrial solar project in the world.

No “government-to-government” consultation as required by federal law has occurred. The tribal elders were determined to do all they could to build support from all peoples to prevent this project.

Unfortunately the Blythe Solar Project, recently approved by both the BLM and the California Commis­sion, has not attracted strong environmental defenders. A few organizations commented at the scoping level, but no group has acted as interveners or attempted to publi­cize the special problems with the Blythe project as they have with the Ivanpah Solar Project. As with the other approved projects, significant unmitigatable impacts will occur and the direct signature of the Secretary of the Interior has overridden any of the normal environmental protest channels. Most important for this project are the large number of cultural sites that will be affected, both those documented and those not yet documented, that the tribes are very concerned about.

Some of the runners had participated in intertribal Spirit runs from Alaska to Mexico. None of the invited press representatives showed up to report the event.

* * *

In the 60s, every other boy at one time or another, had a horny toad, or horned lizard. Cute and fierce, they were easily tamed and made great terrarium pets until they became rare.

On, November 4 the LA Times reported: “The Quechan tribe alleges that Tessera Solar's 709-megawatt project on 6,000 acres near El Centro could damage 'cultural and biological resources of significance. The tribe said that department officials ignored Quechan con­cerns and rushed through or skipped important permit­ting steps, violating federal law.

“More than 28,000 SunCatcher solar dishes intended for the site could harm a region known for the flat-tailed horned lizard, which plays a key role in the tribe's crea­tion mythology, the complaint said.

The Quechan tribe, which has about 3,500 members, is asking a federal judge in San Diego to issue an injunc­tion against the project. For thousands of years, the tribe has lived on a broad sweep of desert crossing from Ari­zona into Southern California, according to the com­plaint.”

A protest is scheduled in the vicinity of the Tessera Imperial Solar Two site in Ocotillo from Monday November 15th through Wednesday the 17th, in support of the Quechan Tribe in their lawsuit and request for injunctive relief against the Department of the Interior. This eight square mile solar project that will destroy the integrity of an important Native American cultural area as well as obliterating good Colorado Desert habitat for the beleaguered Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard and other desert creatures.

Construction of the project would involve bulldozing 6,000 acres of intact desert with immense habitat and cultural values, and installing 28,000 “Sun-Catchers.” Sun Catchers consist of large parabolic mirrors that would track the sun and focus its heat on Stirling engines, which use the heat to power small, noisy tur­bines.

“This project is so large it will block a crucial connec­tivity corridor between two core populations of the flat-tailed horned lizard,” said herpetologist Laura Cunningham, who has studied the local horned lizard population. “We need to preserve this desert habitat, not industrialize it.”

The survival of the flat-tailed horned lizard is a key issue in the lawsuit by the Quechan, who hold the lizard sacred.

Tessera's Sun-Catcher technology has never been tested on an industrial scale. “Tessera is using eight months of experience with 60 SunCatchers in Phoenix to predict 40 years of successful operation of 80,000 Sun-Catchers at Imperial and Calico in California, and Colo­rado’s San Luis Valley,” said Tom Budlong, an engineer who intervened in the Imperial project with the Califor­nia Energy Commission. “Only the federal government has agreed to take this risk. Private investors have not.”

The construction of the project's 28,000 Sun-Catch­ers will cause unmitigable impacts to habitat connec­tivity for the flat-tailed horned lizard, destroy foraging habitat for desert bighorn sheep, and grievously harm air quality by scraping 6,000 acres of desert surface. The Environmental Protection Agency has already placed Imperial County's air quality in “severe non-attainment” status due to its high particulate matter content. The project area is crisscrossed by washes of critical ecologi­cal importance. As importantly, the project will also destroy cultural and biological resources of significance within the traditional territory of the Quechans.

* * *

According to Laura Cunningham this is one of the worst plans: “This was one of the most messed up solar projects, too many tortoises, white-margined penstemon, bighorn sheep; Mojave fringe-toed lizards population will be wiped out, flood control design non-existent, 10-12,000 year old spearhead found on site, etc.”

* * *

Panoche is south of Holister, a north-south valley like Anderson Valley. From the LA Times of Nov. 1:

“A kind of family feud has erupted in San Benito County's rich slice of Central California farmland over plans to build a massive solar power facility in a valley shared by 20 ranchers and organic farmers and some of the rarest creatures in the United States.

“Both sides of the dispute insist they are fighting for the same things — protecting the environment and growing the local economy.

“County officials — some of them farmers them­selves — believe Solargen Energy Inc.'so proposed 400-megawatt solar farm on 5,000 acres just south of San Francisco Bay will be a key part of a new future based, in part, on green technology.

“But the small-scale ranchers, farmers and horse train­ers who live and work in the misty pastures and furrowed slopes of Panoche Valley believe the old con­notation of “green" is worth more.

“’They are selling us and a unique landscape out for a measly 50 long-term jobs and $24 million spread out over 20 years," said Kim Williams, who raises grass-fed pastured chickens in the valley. ‘That's pathetic.’

“In an effort to hasten construction of the plant, the county recently approved a final environmental impact report that opponents say was faulty.

“In addition, despite opposition from the California Farm Bureau, county leaders and the San Benito County Farm Bureau approved the withdrawal of about 6,500 acres in the Panoche Valley from pacts intended to keep that land in agriculture for 10 years, in return for tax breaks under the state's Williamson Act.

“The San Benito County Board of Supervisors was expected to approve a conditional use permit for the project, which would cover nearly a third of the valley floor, within a few weeks.

“County officials say they are not fast-tracking the project, as detractors suspect.

“Many county officials suggested that the valley's land was of marginal agricultural value, and that concerns about the solar panels' effect on habitat crucial to the survival of three federally endangered species —the giant kangaroo rat, the San Joaquin kit fox and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard — were overstated.

“‘The photovoltaic plant looks like nothing more than a vineyard, so the risk to the creatures is insignificant,’ said Greg Swett, president of the San Benito County Farm Bureau. ‘If the blunt-nosed leopard lizard is a standard lizard, it will get out of the way.’

“Sensing their pastoral community is slipping away from them, Panoche Valley residents have been studying their legal options in a case that also is being watched by environmental groups, including the Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.”

* * *

Mitigation measures are quietly abandoned after the hulalaboo dies down.

The well at Harper Dry Lake Watchable Wildlife area northwest of Hinkley is a mitigation to offset the water being pumped out of the lake by the two nearby gas fired, solar assisted, wet cooled plants. Pumping at BLM expense and the BLM being stuck with the replacement cost when the pump was stolen, this mitigation replaces a natural system that required no inputs.

Now that well is scheduled to be given to another solar plant. It also is to be wet-cooled, which is unbelievable in this desert environment — they plan to pump around 2,000 acre-feet per year of groundwater. They say they will buy out farms to retire water usage, but 80% of the farms are belly-up here anyway. The plant should have been dry-cooled, because wet-cooling evaporates most of the water to cool the steam cycle. It will be 250 MW.

Hinkley is where Erin Brockovich took on PG&E and won after the town’s water supply was contaminated. Now that plume of Chromium 6 is on the move due to pumping.

A new study in Science, November 8, shows that even small roads can block the movement of birds from the nest to a new home. “Movement of individuals influences nearly every aspect of biology, from the existence of a single population to interactions within and among species.” Migration corridors and the connectivness of suitable habitat is crucial to the survival of animals. If mere roads disrupt bird migration, what does a five-square mile glittering stainless and aluminum complex that is lit at night do?

So called investors feeding at the public trough include the usual gang of thugs; Chevron, BP, Morgan Stanley, Google, the Russian government and Goldman Sachs.

Governor Schwarzenegger: “Some people look out into the desert and see miles and miles of emptiness,” he said at the event for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. “I see miles and miles of gold mine.”

Ah yes the gold rush; billions in loot spirited away, Indians and wildlife pushed aside, stream channels rerouted to flood and kill and years later a toxic legacy of mercury plumes throughout the state.

You can get more information at SolarDoneRight.org and basinandrangewatch.org. ¥¥

(This article was produced off grid with only 950 watts of solar panels. Some of which are recycled from the failed Carrizo solar corp. Over 35 years old and still putting out power.)

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