Google Invests $168 Million In Ivanpah Solar Thermal Plant

Project already blading Mojave desert habitat

Google announces its private investment in Brightsource Energy, the proponent of the controversial Ivanpah Solar Thermal Project:

Google Solar Project: Google Invests $168 Million In Mojave Power PlantHuffington Post

The commitment announced Monday is part of the financing that BrightSource Energy needs to build a solar power plant in California’s Mojave Desert.

A BrightSource contractor working on the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station in California’s Mojave Desert kills a Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera) that was likely between 400-800 years old.

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Ivanpah solar project could displace 140 tortoises

Previous estimate was 32-38

The Bureau of Land Management has increased the estimate of how many desert tortoises will be displaced by the Ivanpah solar plant in southern California just southwest of Las Vegas. The previous estimate was that there would only be 32-38 tortoises displaced by the development. They now estimate that there will be 140 of the endangered tortoises displaced by the 5.6 square mile development. The new estimate has required the BLM to seek new consultations with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Previous attempts at moving tortoises to new locations have resulted in half of the tortoises dying and similar number of resident tortoises dying at the relocation site due to displacement. If this relocation effort has similar results then it would result in 140 dead tortoises.

Tortoises are long living creatures that mature at age 15 and can live up to 80 years or more. They have declined by as much as 90% since the 1980’s due to habitat destruction and increased predation by ravens which thrive in areas where they previously didn’t because of human trash and livestock which die or leave birthing materials in the spring. They also are illegally collected by people who want them as pets. Land development, such as BrightSource’s Ivanpah solar plant, are also becoming threats to their survival.

Read more about Ivanpah

Ivanpah solar project could displace 140 tortoises.
The Press Enterprise

WWP Sues to Stop Fast Tracked Ivanpah Power Plant in California

Endangered Desert Tortoise Further Imperiled by Remote Solar Plant

Female desert tortoise resting on the apron of her burrow about to get a power plant built on her doorstep. (2010) © Michael J. Connor

Female desert tortoise resting on the apron of her burrow about to get a power plant built on her doorstep. (2010) © Michael J. Connor

For several months we’ve been covering the progress of the, now approved, solar power plant at Ivanpah near Las Vegas on the California side of the Nevada/California border. Initial construction has begun and biologists have rounded up as many desert tortoises as they can to prepare the site for what essentially amounts to sterilization. In past studies where desert tortoises had been moved, half of them died while an equal number of tortoises at the site where they were moved to were subsequently displaced and died.

The energy company BrightSource Energy says that they want to mitigate the loss of the desert tortoise by restoring Castle Mountain Venture land and mining claims in an area to the north and add them to the Mojave National Preserve. This is all well and good but the lands are very poor desert tortoise habitat and would not compensate for the habitat lost due to the destruction that the new solar plant will cause.

It’s hard to call a project like this “green” when there is no corresponding reduction in greenhouse gas emitting coal or natural gas power plants and when the habitat destruction being caused further imperils the endangered desert tortoise and other species. This project keeps power generation in the hands of big corporations at the expense of taxpayers who would benefit more from subsidized use of less environmentally damaging rooftop solar.

One article, by the solar industry news site Solar Novus Today, about the lawsuit editorializes about the solar plant this way:

“One begins to wonder, aren’t we all on the same side? One of the main purposes of renewable energy is to protect the environment and help halt global warming. True, making money is a prime desire as well but if it wipes out the environmental concerns, we have, so to speak, thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Do we really need to put solar plants on pristine desert landscapes or on Native American sacred sites? It may take more time, effort and a little more money to research other less obvious sites, such as brownfields, but solar plants in these locations will accomplish both goals: keeping the environment safe and making money.”

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Environmentalists make plea for desert preservation

A group of environmentalists says renewable energy goal shouldn’t come with destruction of native plant, animal life

Sunset © Ken Cole

The Ivanpah Solar site lies on public lands in the center of very important desert tortoise habitat so the company proposes to move those tortoise to a new area before construction begins. This is a strategy that has been tried in the past that resulted in utter failure. Even the environmental impact statement acknowledges that one in six will die after being moved.

Renewable energy is important, but where it is placed matters. Is it right to be placing these giant wind and solar power projects and the additional power lines on vast swaths of public lands that are important habitat areas for many imperiled species or would it be better to place the power generation where it will be used? Rooftop solar is a viable alternative with the prices of solar panels dropping. Simply using the heat of the sun to heat homes and water results in significant energy savings. Do we need more power? Do we need to destroy our public lands when a more distributed model of energy production is possible?

Environmentalists make plea for desert preservation
Las Vegas Sun

Senator Feinstein to introduce bills for 2 new national monuments in Mojave Desert

Mojave Trails National Monument would protect 941,000 acres of public land. 314,000 acres of existing ORV areas would also be protected-

The article says environmentalists, hunters, and off-roaders support the legislation. Part of these areas had been targeted for big solar power developments.

The total list is: Mojave Trails NM, 941,000 acres; Sand to Snow National Monument, 134,000 acres; 250,000 acres near Ft Irwin as Wilderness; 41,000 acres to the southern boundary of Death Valley National Park; 2,900 acres to northern portions of Joshua Tree National Park.

Story on Feinstein’s bill. By Louis Sahagun. LA Times.

Update 12-22-09

A more detailed article on the politics and economics of the bills. Desert Vistas vs. Solar Power. By Tom Woody.  New York Times.

I think Feinstein’s bill is very good in directing solar farms into appropriate locations. Without her kind of “NIMBYism,” developers of big projects will just naturally gravitate toward pristine public lands because it makes their land-intensive projects cheaper by means of an indirect subsidy. Now they are more likely to seek out sunny derelict lands already destroyed by cattle or some other passing harmful use.

Idaho man gets federal money to develop his idea of putting solar panels in highways

This would be a way to deploy solar power collectors without disrupting remote and pristine public lands-

It also seems to me that a way to use the electricity to power a new generation of vehicle might also be possible.

Idaho man gets federal money to develop his idea of putting solar panels in highways. By Rocky Barker. Idaho Statesman.

Renewable energy sparks a probe of a modern-day land rush

New technology, same uninhibited ambition

You had better watch this, now and from now on.  The land grabbers are on the loose again and they can be stopped only as they were before, by the effective marshaling of public opinion.  Your property is in danger of being alienated, your interests and those of your children are being threatened[…]

Bernard DeVoto
Two-Gun Desmond is Back
~ 1951

They say history repeats itself.  At nearly every point in the history of western colonization there was an industry that was all the uproar among the well-intentioned.  Europeans moved West and trapped away the beaver, mined, laid claim to the land with homestead, sheep and cattle – don’t forget the logging.  That was no problem, the resource was infinite back then.  We did the impossible in harnessing rivers with dams and harvesting its inertia as our own, bringing power to cities and agricultural production to a western arid landscape that would not support such dense human habitation otherwise.  Hydroelectric dams were supposed to be the next perfect, “clean” source of power – remember ?

At each point in this history, calls for restraint, even timid caution against the unforeseeable consequences of the next great, faultless enterprise were brushed aside – dismissed as ‘nay-saying’ and the personalities behind the calls were labeled enemies of progress by even the most forward thinking and well-intentioned voices leading the charge.  The allure of human ambition has always enjoyed more volume than the practice of restraint.  ‘The land is infinite’ ~  ‘we’ve found the perfect technology, the perfect innovation’ ~ ‘we just need to make sure there’s good housekeeping’ ~ ‘you can’t stop progess’.

But, unfortunately – it seems to me, depending on how one looks at it, “progress” keeps happening over and over again in the same way as before.

Renewable energy sparks a probe of a modern-day land rushThe Los Angeles Times

A rush to stake claims for renewable energy projects in the California desert has triggered a federal investigation and prompted calls for reforms to prevent public lands from being exposed to private profiteering and environmental degradation.