Wildlife

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Grand Plan May Settle the Solar Siting Paradox

Remote deserts would seem to be the ideal place for Big Solar — were it only that simple

Can threatened tortoises and utility-scale solar plants coexist in the California desert? Since the solar rush began a few years ago, results have been discouraging. But an ambitious new plan aims to strike a long-lasting compromise. Northern Californians get a chance to weigh in on the process at a public meeting in Sacramento on Wednesday, September 5.

BrightSource Energy

The sprawling Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is scheduled to go online next year.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan — just call it the DRECP — is designed to establish habitat protection guidelines for dozens of species, not just the elusive desert tortoise, across an incredible 22.5 million acres of desert caught in the crossfire between conservation and clean energy. Continue reading

Rough Waters for Sea Level Rise Planning

Salt ponds in Redwood City where the new Saltworks development is proposed. Photo: Lauren Sommer.

What do Bay Area airports and some big Silicon Valley companies have in common? They sit right on the edge of San Francisco Bay, where sea level rise is expected to have a big impact by the end of the century.

That may seem far in the future, but state agencies are preparing for climate change now by writing new rules for construction along the bay’s shoreline. As you can imagine, developers and environmentalists aren’t exactly seeing eye to eye.

That’s evident on a patch of land at the edge of the bay in Redwood City. For more than a century, it’s been home to one thing: salt. Continue reading

Of Birds, Bats and Blades

The wind energy industry faces multiple challenges in California.

Flocks of birds near wind turbines in Solano County. (Photo: Craig Miller)

It’s hard to find people who are just flat out against wind energy. As with real estate, attitudes seem to come down to location, location, location. That’s why three of the thorniest issues with wind are project siting, transmission (lines for the power produced), and the industry’s turbulent history with birds and bats. Some of those challenges are highlighted in this slide show, designed to accompany my two-part radio series. Continue reading

Citizen Science: The iPhone App

A new iPhone app aims to make recording and sharing observations of the natural world fast, easy, and could eventually help bring climate models into better focus.

Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie demonstrated the new iNaturalist iPhone app at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

At Jasper Ridge, a biological preserve and study area on the Stanford campus, a dozen of the preserve’s docents gathered this week to learn about a new iPhone application that could ultimately help scientists study how ecosystems are adapting to climate change.

The new app, called iNaturalist, is the mobile version of a citizen-science website by the same name.  The iPhone app is still in testing and not yet available, but the website, iNaturalist.org, is already an active online community of citizen-scientists around the world who use the site to record and share their sightings. Continue reading

Hidden Treasure: An “Eco-City” in SF Bay?

Thousands roar by Treasure Island every day without a passing glance. That could soon change…radically.

Listen to Alison Hawkes’ companion radio feature on The California Report, Monday morning, and see a slide show of the island’s transformation, below.

Architect's rendering of a proposed "eco-city" on Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco’s twin islands in the Bay – Treasure Island and Yerba Buena – are not exactly jewels of nature. Although they have stunning views, a half-century of use by the U.S. Navy and years in redevelopment limbo have taken a toll.

Some sites on Treasure Island are severely contaminated, and much of the island is cracked asphalt and derelict buildings. Yerba Buena is solid rock but Treasure Island is entirely artificial, conjured from bay mud as an engineering showcase for the 1939 World’s Fair. As time passes, a corner of Treasure Island is gradually sinking into the sea. Rising sea levels as a result of climate change could subsume the island entirely, returning it back to its natural state, which is to say underwater.

In short, the place needs some serious help and this is where a massive multi-billion dollar redevelopment takes stage. Private developers want to transform the islands into a high-density “eco-city” with as many as 20,000 residents, making use of the best that technology and city planning have to offer in sustainable development. Continue reading

San Benito PV Array Clears a Key Hurdle

Panoche Valley is located in San Benito County, between Hollister and Fresno. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Cupertino-based Solargen Energy cleared a major hurdle this week in its plan to build a nearly 400-megawatt solar farm in the Panoche Valley. Late Tuesday the San Benito County Board of Supervisors unanimously  approved the company’s environmental impact report. The project has seen opposition from environmental groups and valley residents concerned about the impact of covering more than 4,700 acres with photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. The Board also approved the water supply assessment and canceled several Williamson Act contracts, both paving the way for the project to move forward.
Continue reading

New Federal Climate Change Plan for Wildlife

Caribou on Alaska's North Slope (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

By Andrew Freedman

Calling global climate change “the transformational conservation challenge of our time,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a new climate change strategic plan on Monday, which represents a significant shift in the agency’s approach to protecting species. The plan puts a heavy emphasis on the need for the federal government to work closely with state and local agencies, academia, and private groups as climate change alters the suitable habitat for many species across the country.

As the plan notes, climate change is already shifting habitat and threatening species large and small, from polar bears to alpine plants.

“In the history of wildlife conservation, the Service and the larger conservation community have never experienced a challenge that is so ubiquitous across the landscape. Our existing conservation infrastructure will be pressed to its limits — quite likely beyond its limits — to respond successfully,” the plan states.
Continue reading

Another Mountain Critter Confronts Climate Change

The San Bernardino flying squirrel is a subspecies of the northern flying squirrel, pictured here. (Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

The San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed petitions with the US Fish and Wildlife Service today to protect four mountaintop species from climate change, including the San Bernardino flying squirrel.  The CBD is requesting that the species be listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and that critical habitat be designated.

The San Bernardino flying squirrel is a subspecies of the northern flying squirrel. Historically it has thrived in the high-elevation conifer forests of Southern California, in just two locations: the San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains.  But according to Shaye Wolf, a biologist at CBD, the species has likely disappeared from the San Jacinto Mountains in the past few decades. Studies indicate that the remaining population is isolated in the San Bernardino Mountains, which is bordered on the north by the Mojave Desert, a formidable barrier to migration. Continue reading

Passionate About Panoche

The “33 x 20″ series continues today on Quest Radio, with the second of two parts on the proposed Solargen project in San Benito County. The report will be repeated on The California Report weekly magazine on Friday.

Catch up by listening to the first part and reading the accompanying blog post from last week.

PG and E already has transmission lines running along the Panoche valley floor.

PG and E already has transmission lines running along the Panoche valley floor. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

One thing becomes clear when you visit the Panoche Valley and the people that live and work there, everyone is charmed by it. The local ranchers, the environmental advocates, even the biologists hired by the Silicon Valley company that is looking at developing part of the valley for a commercial solar farm.

Thousands of acres of vast cattle land ringed by golden, scrub covered hills make up the Panoche Valley. The area has a vast, open beauty that seems very Californian. But in the springtime locals say it looks like Ireland. The land has also caught the eye of the CEO of Solargen Energy.

The company would like to build a 420 megawatt solar farm that would power about 120 thousand homes. To do so, Solargen would cover much of 4,700 acres of the valley with photo voltaic solar panels. Locals like chicken rancher Kim Williams worry it would change the character of the valley and harm wildlife. A group of local environmental advocates and ranchers have formed a group called Save Panoche Valley.

Kim Williams runs Your Family Farm in the Panoche valley and is opposed to the Solargen project.

Kim Williams runs Your Family Farm in the Panoche valley and is opposed to the Solargen project. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

Solargen, as required by law, has hired a team of wildlife biologists to do environmental surveys of the area which, it turns out, is home to several endangered species. Michelle Korpos, the leader of the team, has also developed a fondness for Panoche Valley where she has been working for the past year. Everyday she and group of biologists march out to the project site, and surrounding hills, searching out fox dens, canvassing creek beds and geo-tagging lizard scat.

Michelle Korpos, along with other biologists, has been hired by Solargen to run wildlife surveys for an Environmental Impact Report.

Michelle Korpos, along with other biologists, has been hired by Solargen to run wildlife surveys for an Environmental Impact Report. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

Charlie McCullough has owned his cattle ranch, one of the biggest in the area, since the early fifties and was born in San Benito County. He is one of five ranchers who has agreed to sell some of his land to Solargen. But McCullough is feeling remorseful that his decision could lead to such a change in the valley he loves.

 Charlie McCullough has agreed to sell some of his land to Solargen for their big solar project.

Charlie McCullough has agreed to sell some of his land to Solargen for their big solar project. Photo: Andrea Kissack.

The only commercial business in town is the Panoche Valley Inn which is not really an inn at all but a bar that serves as a stop for tired ranchers at the end of the day and birders and bikers on sunny weekends. The owner hopes the project’s contstruction jobs mean more business over the six year build out. But even the number of jobs Solargen promises to create has become contentious.

Larry Lopez, owner of the Panoche Inn, hopes construction of a big solar array would bring in more business.

Larry Lopez, owner of the Panoche Inn, hopes construction of a big solar array would bring in more business. Photo: Craig Miller.

One thing is for sure, the valley gets lots of sun, 90-percent of the solar intensity of the Mojave desert. But the Mojave, with its protected federal lands and desert tortoises, has turned out to be a nightmare for big solar entrepreneurs. Listen to our stories on the Panoche Valley which now finds itself in the middle of the debate over big solar. It’s all part of our series, “33 by 20,” a look at the obstacles in the way of California’s plan for utilities to generate one third of their electricity from clean energy by 2020. Here’s a map of solar intensity throughout the U.S.

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