Speed Bump for Big SoCal Solar Project

It had been a good month for BrightSource Energy, the Oakland-based company that’s building the massive Ivanpah solar farm in the Mojave Desert.

Google announced it would invest $168 million in the project. The Department of Energy announced $1.6 billion loan guarantee. And on Friday, the company announced it plans to go public with a $250 million initial public offering. But a recurring issue has popped up: the desert tortoise.

A Mojave desert tortoise. (Image: USGS)

“It’s an endangered species. No project that is sited out there in within their habitat can negatively impact the population,” says Erin Curtis, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management. As anyone following the battles over solar farms knows, prime desert tortoise habitat also happens to be prime solar territory and has been targeted by a number of proposed solar farms.

BrightSource Energy agreed to mitigate the impacts their solar farm would have on the tortoises by capturing and relocating them to new habitat. Fences are being constructed to prevent the tortoises from returning. Continue reading

Time for “Creosote Bush” National Park?

It’s not time to rename Joshua Tree just yet, says the author of a new study.

Climate change is threatening the Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park all right, according to a new report. But unlike the findings of recently-published study,  this report finds the park’s iconic, spiky namesake is unlikely to completely vacate the premises over the next century.

The new report was funded in part by Joshua Tree National Park, and its author Cameron Barrows, a researcher at UC Riverside’s Center for Conservation Biology, says that he conducted it partly in response to the recent study by Ken Cole of the USGS, which found that the trees would likely be gone from the park within the next 90 years.

“I facetiously say if that was to happen, we’d have to rename the park ‘Creosote Bush National Park’ or something like that,” said Barrows.  “It would be really sad if that’s the case.”
Continue reading

Environment and Electrons Create Sparks in SoCal

Hear the companion radio feature about opposition to the Sunrise Powerlink at The California Report, starting Friday morning.

By Ruxandra Guidi

The road that takes you from the sleepy town of Boulevard into the path of the Sunrise Powerlink is a dusty, unmarked path that’s a couple of miles long. It ends at a gate without a sign, where a guard stands in the hot midday sun. He knows to keep any unauthorized visitors away; there’s a party going on inside, while the protesters make noise for hours outside.

David Elliott speaks to protesters outside the Sunrise Powerlink headquarters in the town of Boulevard. (Photo: Ruxandra Guidi)

No one yet knows what the Sunrise Powerlink will end up looking like, and at what cost — and that’s just two of the main issues people have with it. Opponents of the giant network of powerlines, towers, and substations, say it will run for 120 miles, through delicate ecosystems and fire-prone areas. Its impact on local residents and wildlife will be irreparable.

On the other hand, SDG&E says its “superhighway” for transporting electrons from remote solar and wind farms to coastal population centers, will respect state and federal lands and go around delicate areas of the desert; that it will generate much-needed jobs while meeting state goals for green energy development. In the process, the California Imperial Valley is being touted as a so-called “mega-region;” a showcase for clean energy production. Continue reading

National Parks Wrestle with Warming

As the world warms, officials at the National Park Service are starting to sweat: No glaciers at Glacier, no Joshua trees at Joshua Tree. These are part of the long-range forecast for the national parks.

A misty Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park; metaphor for the park's murky future? (Photo: Craig Miller)

Last month, in a post from Glacier National Park, I noted that Park Service director Jon Jarvis was not in a mood to mince words, calling climate change “the greatest threat to the integrity of the national park system that we’ve ever faced.”

That assertion was underscored last week in a new report on potential impacts to the parks from climate change. The collaboration by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, attempted to zoom in on specific parks and projected changes ahead for ten national parks in California, as well as impacts on the state’s economy.

Death Valley is already the hottest spot in North America. The highest recorded temperature there is 136 dF. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Some conclusions under a “medium-to-high” emissions scenario, toward the end of this century: Higher temperatures in Joshua Tree National Park would mean the end of, well, Joshua trees in the park. Muir Woods could be as warm, on average, as San Diego has been historically, making it less hospitable to the park’s legendary coast redwoods. Death Valley, already the hottest spot on the continent, could become virtually uninhabitable during the summer, as average temperatures rise by more than eight degrees, Fahrenheit, over average readings from 1961 to 1990. Continue reading

Parks Chief: No “Free Ride” for Renewables

Renewable energy developers will get no special treatment in the National Parks, according to National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis at McDonald Creek, Glacier National Park (Photo: Craig Miller)

Jarvis made the comment yesterday while touring Glacier National Park in Montana, with members of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “Renewables do not get a free ride,” said Jarvis, when asked about how the parks would treat development of renewable energy sources on park property.

Using the backdrop of Glacier National Park, where the remaining 25 glaciers (out of an estimated 150) are expected to disappear by 2030, Jarvis called climate change the most serious threat ever posed to the integrity of the park system. Continue reading

First Federal Approvals for Big Solar

UPDATE: Since this post was first published, the BLM has also given the nod to another major solar energy installation, the approximately 400-megawatt Ivanpah project, being developed in San Bernardino County by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy.

The federal Bureau of Land Management today issued its first approvals of major solar energy projects in California.

The Tessera project will use "SunCatchers" to concentrate solar power. (Image: Tessera Solar)

Tessera Energy’s 700-megawatt Ocotillo project, located in the Imperial Valley, about 100 miles east of San Diego, and a smaller photovoltaic (PV) project by San Ramon-based Chevron Corp., are both cleared to go forward.

The two projects set a precedent not just for California. On a call with reporters this morning, Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called it a “historic day,” saying the two projects “bear the distinction of being the first large-scale solar energy projects ever approved for construction on our nation’s public lands.” Continue reading

California: The “Solar Saudi Arabia”

At solar-thermal plants, mirrors concentrate solar energy on a central tower, where steam is generated to run turbines. (Image: BrightSource Energy)

Prepare for a solar building boom in the deserts of Southern California. After spending years in the environmental review process and clearing other bureaucratic hurdles, approvals for clean energy producers are picking up steam.

State regulators have now given the green light to four major solar power projects in as many weeks. The most recent was on Wednesday, when the California Energy Commission gave the nod to a 370-megawatt solar-thermal array known as the Ivanpah project (the CEC does not have authority over photovoltaic or “PV” solar arrays). Developed by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy and built by Bechtel Corp., it will consume more than 3,500 acres near the California-Nevada border, in the northern Mojave Desert. Continue reading

Clock Ticking for Solar Developers

The “33 x 20” series continues Monday on Quest Radio, with the first of two parts on the proposed Solargen project in San Benito County. The reports will be repeated on The California Report weekly magazine.

Well hidden among the coast ranges of San Benito County, there’s a valley where, as one ecologist put it, “the hammer is hitting the anvil.” Mike Westphal of the Bureau of Land Management’s Hollister field office was describing the current tension playing out in Panoche Valley between two environmental goals: the mandate to combat global warming with a transition to renewable energy, and the desire to conserve the habitat of endangered animals, as well as California’s remaining ag land.

Solargen argues that Panoche Valley is a rare combination of great sun, proximity to population centers, and existing transmission lines to get the power there. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Solargen argues that Panoche Valley is a rare combination of great sun, proximity to population centers, and existing transmission lines to get the power there. (Photo: Craig Miller)

As part of our collaborative series: “33 x 20: California’s Clean Power Countdown,” Quest Senior Editor Andrea Kissack and I have been exploring the effort by Solargen Energy to develop Panoche Valley as a utility-scale solar power array (the state defines “utility-scale” as any facility that produces 200 megawatts of electricity or more).

Like many developers, Solargen CEO Mike Peterson is racing to break ground by the end of this year, in order to cash in on up-front stimulus money from the federal government. He says Panoche Valley presents a rare alignment of attributes for solar power: high solar potential (he says 90% of the Mojave), relative proximity to population centers, and existing transmission lines to get the power there. Peterson told me that the lines already in place have enough available capacity to handle his 420 megawatts of solar power, though a spokeswoman for PG&E says that question is still under study.

Meanwhile, some farmers and wildlife advocates have opposed the plan, saying big solar “farms” are better placed on “degraded” land. Ron Garthwaite, who runs Claravale organic dairy, says “This is just not the place to put it. There’s other places which have no ag value and which have less of a natural value where they could put it.”

Standing at the valley's north end, BLM ecologist Mike Westphal points to where 2,000 acres might be covered in PV solar panels. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Standing at the valley's north end, BLM ecologist Mike Westphal points to where 2,000 acres might be covered in PV solar panels. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Westphal, whose agency is not directly involved in assessing the project, sees the valley as a rare microcosm for the once unspoiled habitat of the San Joaquin Valley, just over the hill. “What we really need to think hard about is do we want to risk ecosystems to get energy,” he told me, scanning the valley from Shotgun Pass at the north end.  “That’s what’s going on here in Panoche Valley is we’re making this equation: how much do we want to risk the continued endangerment or extinction of this ecosystem in order to get more energy? That’s the crux of this conflict here.”

In this video clip, BLM ecologist Michael Westphal gives Craig Miller an overview of the valley, looking south from Shotgun Pass.

Solargen is shelling out for a $1.3 million-dollar environmental impact report, which Peterson says does not include measures such as the two dozen biologists and a detachment of scat-sniffing dogs, trained to track down the droppings of other critters for DNA analysis. The results help determine what species are there. Peterson says the total tab in “preparing and preparing for the EIR” now tops $7 million.

In Part 2 of our Panoche Valley “case study,” Andrea Kissack will have a closer look at the wildlife issues. That report runs next Monday, June 28, on Quest Radio.

As for the Governor’s ambitious goal to have renewable energy sources account for one third of the state’s electrical generation by 2020, Peterson describes the process as “surprisingly harder than you would expect.” He says he ponders how to “get this done in a way that is able to meet the mandates, but also be a good steward to the environment, and try to make people happy. And we won’t be able to please everybody.”

He’s right about that. Dairyman Garthwaite says of the state’s quest for renewables: “Just because somebody in Sacramento says something, doesn’t mean that it can happen–or should happen. I mean there’s all kinds of political things involved in that, there’s lobbyists involved in that. People want to make money.”

Climate Watch intern Chris Penalosa mapped some of California’s larger solar projects in development, below.

View Utility Scale Solar Projects in California in a larger map

Has the Southwest Passed “Peak Water”?

Historic water marker on the shores of Lake Powell, April 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Historic water marker on the shores of Lake Powell, April 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

People have been talking about “peak oil” for decades now, debating when oil production will peak and then start to decline as remaining resources become scarcer and harder to access.   Less attention has been given to the idea of “peak water,” which is the subject of a new analysis by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute.  The concepts of peak oil and peak water aren’t entirely analogous for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that, overall, water is a renewable resource.  But there are limits to what water is renewable, and how fast supplies recharge.  While the world is not going to run out of water, the report authors argue, in parts of the world including the southwestern US, we’re likely long past the point of peak water.  That matters a lot, said study co-author Meena Palaniappan, because unlike oil, which is shipped across the world, water is still a local and regional issue.

“We’re not going to run out of water,” said Palaniappan, “but we’re going to see a change.  We’re at the end of cheap, easy access to water.  We’re going to have to go further, pay more, and expect less in terms of fresh water.”

The report divides peak water into three types: peak renewable water, the total annual supply of water from sources such as rainfall, rivers, and groundwater sources that are refilled relatively quickly; peak non-renewable water, which includes groundwater aquifers that either do not refill or do so extremely slowly; and peak ecological water, past which, the value of ecological services provided by water is greater than the value it provides in direct human services.  Or simply, it’s the point where taking water causes more ecological damage than it’s worth.

“The goal is to find the sweet spot, where we can maximize the human value water provides as well as the ecological value,” said Palaniappan.

In the western US, we are definitely past peak ecological water, said Palaniappan.  As evidence of this, she cited the Central Valley aquifer, which is being pumped down far faster than it can recharge and the Colorado River, which supplies Southern California with much of its water, and no longer reaches the ocean most years because every drop of it is appropriated for human use.

Last week, I was in Salt Lake City to talk with Terry Fulp, the Bureau of Reclamation‘s Deputy Regional Director of the Lower Colorado Region.  He said that after 10 years of drought on the Colorado, each of the seven states that draw from it are still getting their allotted water supply, and the reservoirs are about half full.  The Colorado River system, which supplies water to more than 30 million people, has a huge storage capacity, equal to four times the river’s annual flow, Fulp said. But increasing demand due to the drought and to population growth have the Bureau looking ahead at the challenges the system may be facing in the not-too-distant future.

“The supply and demand curves basically have crossed,” said Fulp.  “If you look over the last 100 years, the water supply has been above the demand, but demand has been growing, and essentially, today they have met.  We’re operating on a tight margin, a very tight margin, so the question is about projecting what we think the future will look like twenty years out.”

Like Palaniappan, Fulp says that conservation is critical and may become increasingly so in the near future. But even so, he said he doubts the demand for Colorado River water is going to decrease. The supply may, however.  Long droughts are common in the paleorecord, and water managers are planning for an additional 10-15% reduction in flow due to the effects of climate change.   This matters a great deal in a system where just about every drop is spoken for.  Fulp says that developing methods for accessing new water supplies, such as groundwater and desalinization plants, needs to be central to a long-term water management strategy for the region.

Series Explores 33×20 Renewable Energy Goal

California has set some ambitious targets for ramping up renewable energy sources. Some say too ambitious. Utilities won’t make the first milepost of 20% renewable power by this year, and many are skeptical that the longer-term goal of 33% by 2020 is doable, either, the executive order signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2008 notwithstanding.

A thermal-solar array of the type planned for southern California. Photo: Brightsource Energy

A thermal solar array of the type planned for southern California. Photo: BrightSource Energy

A major hurdle is the permitting process for large “utility-scale” solar and wind installations, described by the Governor’s own senior advisor as “tortuous.” In the months ahead, we’ll take you through some of the obstacle course in a multimedia series called “33 x 20: California’s Clean Power Countdown.” A collaboration of Climate Watch and Quest, KQED’s science and environmental initiative, the series of radio reports and web features explores the promise and pitfalls of the state’s 33 x 20 plan.

The series begins Monday with Lauren Sommer’s review of California’s clean power legacy and an assessment of the present push. Future reports will look at a solar siting case study in central California, as well as prospects for major development of wind and geothermal sources. California currently leads the nation in solar generation but trails Texas and Iowa in the race for wind power. See Lauren’s interactive map for an overview of how California stacks up against other states in its ambitions toward renewable energy.

Future reports will examine the potential impact of large-scale power generation on deserts and tribal lands and the progress toward what some consider the “holy grail” of energy technology; large-scale storage of electricity. In June, Quest Senior Editor Andrea Kissack and I will team up for a kind of case study in one company’s ambitions; the 4,700-acre photovoltaic array planned by Solargen Energy for Panoche Valley in San Benito County.

Northern California listeners can hear the radio series as part of KQED’s Quest radio service (airs Mondays during NPR’s Morning Edition on KQED and KQEI in Sacramento) or statewide on The California Report. You can follow the entire series and see the related web features as they appear on our “33 x 20” series page.