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Archive for the ‘endangered species’ Category

image: Tessera Solar

In a follow-up to my New York Times story Tuesday on Senator Dianne Feinstein’s bill to ban renewable energy production in parts of California’s Mojave Desert, I take a look at some of the incentives in the legislation that could speed green energy projects:

In Tuesday’s Times, I write about Senator Dianne Feinstein’s bill to create two Mojave Desert monuments in California that would ban renewable energy projects on lands that are both coveted for solar farms and valued for their sweeping vistas and populations of rare wildlife.

The mere prospect of the legislation has derailed several massive solar power plants planned by Goldman Sachs and other developers. But Mrs. Feinstein, a California Democrat, has included provisions in the bill that could, if enacted, accelerate renewable energy development and ease tensions over endangered species that are slowing other solar projects outside the monument area.

In a big concession to renewable-energy advocates, Mrs. Feinstein would allow transmission lines to be built through existing utility rights-of-way in the monument to transmit renewable energy from other desert areas to coastal metropolises. That will not likely sit well with some of the senator’s environmental allies. (Nor will a provision that permanently designates areas of the desert for off-road vehicle use.)

The legislation also features a pilot program to assemble huge tracts of land -– at least 200,000 acres — to be used as endangered species habitat to make up for areas lost to renewable energy production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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In Tuesday’s New York Times, I write about California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to ban renewable energy production in two proposed national monuments in the Mojave Desert:

AMBOY, Calif. — Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in Congress on Monday to protect a million acres of the Mojave Desert in California by scuttling some 13 big solar plants and wind farms planned for the region.

But before the bill to create two new Mojave national monuments has even had its first hearing, the California Democrat has largely achieved her aim. Regardless of the legislation’s fate, her opposition means that few if any power plants are likely to be built in the monument area, a complication in California’s effort to achieve its aggressive goals for renewable energy.

Developers of the projects have already postponed several proposals or abandoned them entirely. The California agency charged with planning a renewable energy transmission grid has rerouted proposed power lines to avoid the monument.

“The very existence of the monument proposal has certainly chilled development within its boundaries,” said Karen Douglas, chairwoman of the California Energy Commission.

For Mrs. Feinstein, creation of the Mojave national monuments would make good on a promise by the government a decade ago to protect desert land donated by an environmental group that had acquired the property from the Catellus Development Corporation.

“The Catellus lands were purchased with nearly $45 million in private funds and $18 million in federal funds and donated to the federal government for the purpose of conservation, and that commitment must be upheld. Period,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement.

The federal government made a competing commitment in 2005, though, when President George W. Bush ordered that renewable energy production be accelerated on public lands, including the Catellus holdings. The Obama administration is trying to balance conservation demands with its goal of radically increasing solar and wind generation by identifying areas suitable for large-scale projects across the West.

Mrs. Feinstein heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, giving her substantial clout over that agency, which manages the government’s landholdings. Her intervention in the Mojave means it will be more difficult for California utilities to achieve a goal, set by the state, of obtaining a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; projects in the monument area could have supplied a substantial portion of that power.

“This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmentalist and a partner with a venture capital firm that invested in a solar developer called BrightSource Energy. In September, BrightSource canceled a large project in the monument area.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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I’ve written before about the coming collision between green energy projects and endangered wildlife. Now we have a federal court decision in a case involving an endangered bat and a West Virginia wind farm. As I write Thursday in The New York Times:

A federal judge’s ruling that stopped construction of a West Virginia wind farm to protect an endangered bat underscores the growing conflicts between green energy and imperiled wildlife.

But the case, thought to be the first of its kind involving a wind energy project, seems unlikely to derail other projects, as some wind energy advocates have feared, unless the operators ignore endangered species laws.

In the West Virginia dispute, a subsidiary of wind developer Invenergy called Beech Ridge Energy applied to build a 122-turbine project along an Appalachian ridgeline in Greenbrier County. The county is home to the Indiana bat, which the federal government listed as endangered in 1967.

“This is a case about bats, wind turbines, and two federal policies, one favoring the protection of endangered species, and the other encouraging development of renewable energy resources,” wrote Judge Roger W. Titus of the Federal District Court in Maryland in Tuesday’s ruling. “The two vital federal policies at issue in this case are not necessarily in conflict.”

That’s because under the Endangered Species Act, developers can apply for an “incidental take permit” that allows the inadvertent killing of protected wildlife if other measures are taken to protect the animals.

Invenergy told federal wildlife officials that surveys had not detected the Indiana bat at the West Virginia wind farm site. Although officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service had urged the company’s consultants to conduct more extensive surveys, a West Virginia state agency approved the project and construction of the wind turbines began.

The Animal Welfare Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit group, sued to stop construction. An initial assessment of the project had estimated that it would annually kill 6,746 bats of all kinds.

After listening to expert testimony from both sides, Judge Titus concluded that Invenergy’s consultants avoided undertaking surveys that would have shown the presence of Indiana bats at the project site.

“By a preponderance of the evidence, that, like death and taxes, there is a virtual certainty that Indiana bats will be harmed, wounded, or killed imminently by the Beech Ridge Project,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “This court has concluded that the only avenue available to defendants to resolve the self-imposed plight in which they now find themselves is to do belatedly that which they should have done long ago: apply for an I.T.P.” (I.T.P. refers to incidental take permit.)

You can read the rest of the story here.

photo: U.S. FIsh and Wildlife Service

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photo: eSolar

Last week Green Wombat wrote about how solar power plant developer eSolar may avoid conflicts over endangered species by building its solar farms on privately owned agricultural land rather than in desert areas home to a variety of protected wildlife.

At the opening ceremony of eSolar’s Sierra demonstration power plant outside Los Angeles on Aug. 5, Wildlands Conservancy executive director David Myers gave a speech praising the Pasadena company for not building power plants in fragile desert ecosystems while criticizing competitors. The Wildlands Consevancy, a Southern California non-profit, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying up and preserving broad swaths of the Mojave Desert.

What my story did not point out was a connection between the Wildlands Conservancy and eSolar. The Wildlands Conservancy’s biggest backer has been Southern California investor and environmentalist David Gelbaum, who also serves on the green group’s board.  Gelbaum’s Quercus Trust is an investor in eSolar and dozens of other green tech startups.

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esolar_8

photo: eSolar

eSolar on Wednesday fired up its five-megawatt Sierra “power tower” solar farm outside Los Angeles during an opening ceremony that featured such green tech luminaries as Google.org climate change director Dan Reicher and Dan Kammen of the University of California at Berkeley.

But the speaker that caught my eye was environmentalist David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, a Southern California non-profit that is working with California Senator Dianne Feinstein to put hundreds of thousands of acres of the Mojave Desert off limits to industrial-scale solar power plants.

“By siting their project on disturbed lands, eSolar has avoided degrading treasured public lands and core areas of biodiversity,” said Myers. “This is an important distinction from the solar firms that propose to industrialize 600,000 acres of pristine California desert lands belonging to the American people.”

I’ve written extensively on Green Wombat and Grist about eSolar’s technology and CEO Bill Gross’ vision of a software-driven solar revolution that taps computing power to drive down renewable energy costs. (Google-backed (GOOG) eSolar has a partnership with energy producer NRG (NRG) to build power plants for Southern California Edison (EIX), PG&E (PCG) and other utilities.)

But eSolar’s strategy of building relatively small-scale modular solar farms on privately owned agricultural land is also allowing it to avoid — so far — fights over endangered species that have slowed big solar power plants planned for federally owned land in the Mojave Desert.

While Myers was praising eSolar at the Sierra ceremony, his environmental group, as I wrote in Wednesday’s New York Times, has been raising issues about the impact of Tessera Solar’s planned 8,230-acre, 850-megawatt power plant on such Mojave species as the desert tortoise, Mojave fringe-toed lizard and Nelson’s bighorn sheep.

Meanwhile, Defenders of Wildlife, a local chapter of the Sierra Club and other national and grassroots environmental groups are worried about the impact of BrightSource Energy’s 400-megawatt Ivanpah solar farm on the imperiled desert tortoise. The Sierra Club chapter recently proposed that BrightSource move the solar power plant to avoid disturbing habitat currently occupied by desert tortoises.

eSolar has spent $30 million acquiring previously disturbed ag land — mostly in California. While that should speed development of its solar farms as it won’t need federal approval to build, there’s no guarantee, of course, that the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup won’t also run into critter problems.

Just ask Ausra, the Silicon Valley solar company that’s building a 177-megawatt power plant on ag land in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast. That project has been bogged down in disputes over the solar farm’s consequences for a plethora of species and the cumulative impact of two other solar power plants planned for the same area that First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWR) want to build.

Still, eSolar’s focus on location, location, location could pay off. While the five-megawatt Sierra demonstration plant is a small project, the fact that company was able to get it built in a year is no doubt a competitive advantage.

“This plant delivers the lowest-cost solar electricity in history,” said Gross, the founder of tech incubator Idealab, at the ceremony in the L.A. ex-urb of Lancaster.  “We currently compete with natural gas and as we continue to drive down the cost, we will even compete with coal.”

And if eSolar continues to carefully select sites for its solar farms it won’t have to worry about environmentalists like David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy.

“You can see why the entire environmental community is so excited about a firm that’s model is to use disturbed lands,” said Myers after slamming an unnamed eSolar competitor for trying to build a solar farm in what he described as a fragile desert ecoystem. “We can’t say enough great things about eSolar.”

With that, Gross walked over to a computer, pressed a button and 24,000 mirrors began to focus sunlight on two water-filled boilers sitting atop two towers. As the intense heat vaporized the water, steam flowed to a power block to drive an electricity generating turbine.

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Can Google help defuse a simmering green civil war between renewable energy advocates and wildlife conservationists in the American West?

That’s the idea behind a new Google Earth mapping project launched Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society. Path to Green Energy will identify areas in 13 western states potentially suitable for massive megawatt solar power plants, wind farms, transmission lines and other green energy projects. The app will also pinpoint critical habitat for protected wildlife such as the desert tortoise in California and Wyoming’s sage grouse as well as other environmentally sensitive lands.

“This was information that was unavailable or very scattered,” said Google.org program director David Bercovich at a press conference. “The potential cost savings from this will be enormous. If we can get people to the right areas and streamline the process that will have enormous benefits in getting clean energy online faster.”

NRDC senior attorney Johanna Wald said her group already is using Path to Green Energy in New Mexico to help plan a new transmission project. “Careful siting is the key to renewable energy development,” she said, noting that NRDC has mapped 860 million acres. “We’re not greenlighting development on places that are on our map but we’re providing a framework for discussion.”

siting2The unveiling of Path to Green Energy comes two weeks after California Senator Dianne Feinstein announced she would introduce legislation to put as many as 600,000 acres of the Mojave Desert off limits to renewable energy development to protect endangered wildlife and their habitats.  Solar developers have filed lease claims on a million acres of federal land in the California Mojave and there are state and federal efforts already under way to identify green energy zones across the West.

Path to Green Energy is designed to give regulators and developers a tool to choose the best potential sites for solar and wind farms so they don’t get bogged down in years-long and multimillion-dollar fights over wildlife.  Ausra, BrightSource Energy and other developers of the first half-dozen solar power plant projects moving through the licensing process in California have spent big sums on hiring wildlife consultants who spend thousands of hours surveying sites for desert tortoises, blunt-nosed leopard lizards and other protected species.

The Google Earth app won’t do away with the need to do such detailed environmental review but puts in one package a variety of information that developers must now cobble together themselves — if they can find it. Path to Green Energy could also prove valuable to utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) as more and more projects are proposed and regulators scrutinize the cumulative impact of Big Solar power plants across regions.

For instance, in California’s San Luis Obispo County, three large-scale solar farms are being planned within a few miles of each other by Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR). That has resulted in delays as wildlife officials initiate studies looking at how all those projects affect the movement of wildlife throughout the area. Going forward, Path to Green Energy will give developers a snapshot of where the wild things are, as well as wildlife corridors to help them avoid siting one plant too close to another in a way that may impede animals’ migration. That could save millions of dollars in mitigation costs – money builders must spend to acquire land to replace wildlife habitat taken for a power plant project as well as avoid fights with environmental groups that have become increasingly uneasy about Big Solar projects.

If the desert tortoise is the critter to avoid when building solar power plants in the Mojave, the sage grouse poses problems for Wyoming wind farms. Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming, said Path to Green Energy shows the densities of sage grouse across the state, allowing developers to stay clear of those areas.

“We get a solid indication of where energy development shouldn’t go,” he said. “Just as important, we get a better sense of the places that should be evaluated for wind turbine farms and transmission lines. The maps make clear that there is plenty of room for green energy.”

The payback from using Web 2.0 software could indeed be tremendous, given that Google (GOOG) spent a scant $50,000 in donations to NRDC and Audubon to create the maps.

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photo: Wild Rose Images

California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to put a large swath of the Mojave Desert off-limits to renewable energy development is splitting the environmental movement and could derail some two dozen solar and wind power projects the state needs to comply with its ambitious climate change laws.

On the firing line are 17 massive solar power plants and six wind farms planned for federal land — land that would be designated a national monument under legislation Feinstein intends to introduce. The solar projects in question would be built by a range of companies, from startups BrightSource Energy and Stirling Energy Systems to corporate heavyweights Goldman Sachs (GS) and FPL (FPL), according to federal documents. (For the complete list, see below.)

The companies are among scores that have filed lease claims on a million acres of acres of desert dirt controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. California utilities PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) have signed long-term power purchase agreements for some of the projects now in jeopardy and are counting on the electricity they would produce to meet state-mandated renewable energy targets. PG&E itself has filed a solar power plant land claim in the proposed national monument.

The area of the desert in dispute is some 600,000 acres formerly owned by Catellus, the real estate arm of the Union Pacific Railroad, and donated to the federal government a decade ago by the Wildlands Conservancy, a Southern California environmental group. About 210,000 of those acres are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which opened part of the land to renewable energy projects.

“Many of the sites now being considered for leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar released last week, notifying him that she will introduce legislation to designate the former Catellus lands a national monument. “Beyond protecting national parks and wilderness from development, the conservation of these lands has helped to ensure the sustainability of the entire desert ecosystem by preserving the vital wildlife corridors.”

The Catellus land controlled by the BLM forms something of a golden triangle between the Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California and are particularly coveted for renewable energy development because of its proximity to transmission lines.

Alan Stein, a deputy district manager for the BLM in California, told Green Wombat that the solar and wind lease claims are in areas that are not designated as wilderness or critical habitat for protected species like the desert tortoise. “This is public domain land, ” he says.

Tortoises, however, are found across the Mojave, and battles over Big Solar’s impact on endangered wildlife are quietly brewing in several solar power plant licensing cases now being reviewed by the California Energy Commission.  Environmentalists find themselves walking a thin green line, trying to balance their interest in promoting carbon-free energy with protecting fragile desert landscapes and a host of threatened animals and plants.

Take BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah 400-megawatt solar power plant complex on the California-Nevada border. The three solar power plants to be built by the Oakland-based company will supply electricity to PG&E and Southern California Edison. But the project will also destroy some 4,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat and at least 25 tortoises will have to be relocated – a somewhat risky proposition as previous efforts in other cases have resulted in the deaths of the animals.

On Wednesday, the California Energy Commission granted two national environmental groups – the Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club – the right to intervene in the Ivanpah case. “Defenders strongly supports … the development of renewable energy in California,” Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, wrote to the energy commission in a Jan. 23 letter.  “Defenders has several serious concerns about the potential impacts of this project on a number of rare, declining and listed species and on their associated desert habitat and waters.”

Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Johanna Wald wrote a letter with the Wilderness Society expressing concern over the impact of Ivanpah project on the desert tortoise but also made a strong statement of support for renewable energy development. “Our public lands harbor substantial wind, solar, and geothermal resources,” wrote Wald, who serves on a state task force to identify appropriate areas for renewable energy development. “Developing some of these resources will be important to creating a sustainable energy economy and combating climate change.”

The big national enviro groups are working with the government and power plant developers to create zones in the Mojave where renewable energy projects would be permitted while setting aside other areas that are prime habitat and wildlife corridors. A similar effort is underway on the federal level to analyze the desert-wide impact of renewable energy development.

Local environmental organizations, however, have split with the Big Green groups over developing the desert and other rural areas. In San Luis Obispo County,  Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar’s (FSLR) plans to build three huge solar farms within miles of each other has prompted some local residents worried about the impact on wildlife to organize in opposition to the projects.

And some small Mojave Desert green groups pledge to go to court to stop big solar projects. “We don’t want to see the Endangered Species Act gutted for the sake of mega solar projects,” veteran grass roots activist Phil Klasky told Green Wombat last year for a story on the solar land rush in the Mojave. “I can say the smaller environmental organizations I’m involved with are planning to challenge these projects.”

It would be unwise to underestimate Klasky. In the 1990s, he helped lead a long-running  and successful campaign to scuttle the construction of a low-level radioactive waste dump in tortoise territory in the Mojave’s Ward Valley – now a prime solar spot.

Still, while California’s senior senator’s move in the Mojave may exacerbate rifts in the environmental movement over renewable energy, it also could galvanize efforts to resolve critter conflicts in a comprehensive way. Otherwise, environmentalists of varying hues may find themselves fighting each other rather than global warming.

Update: I just had a conversation with BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs, who takes issue with my characterization that the Ivanpah project will “destroy” desert tortoise habitat. He points out that the company is taking care to minimize the impact of the power plant on the surrounding desert and that wildlife may still occupy the site. It would be more accurate to say that the project will remove desert tortoise habitat from active use during Ivanpah’s construction and operation.

(Below is a list of solar and wind projects that fall within the proposed Mojave national monument. Note: Solar Investments is a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs and Boulevard Associates is a subsidiary of FPL.)

source:  BLM

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