April 19, 2013

State Lauds Mitigation Deal For Ivanpah Solar Project

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (Photo: Craig Dietrich/Flickr/Creative Commons License)

by Chris Clarke
KCET Rewire

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has announced that the finishing touches have been crafted on a deal to preserve 7,000 acres of land in the Mojave Desert as mitigation for the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System near the Mojave National Preserve. But not everyone's happy with that.

The land, whose acquisition and management has cost Ivanpah's owners $11.4 million dollars, was purchased through the state's Advance Mitigation Land Acquisition Program (AMP), started in 2010 by the passage of Senate Bill 34. That program streamlined previous mitigation programs in which developers had to work on their own to acquire parcels of land for protection to "mitigate" the habitat destruction their projects entailed. Under the AMP, CDFW does the legwork of finding suitable mitigation land and developers need only write a check.

A press release on CDFW's website describes the land being preserved to mitigate Ivanpah, though with a significant error:

The lands are comprised of 163 separate parcels in the Chuckwalla Desert Wildlife Management Area (DWMA) in San Bernardino County, and the Fremont-Kramer DWMA and Superior-Cronese DWMA both in Riverside County.

The Chuckwalla DWMA is actually in Riverside County east of the Coachella Valley. The Fremont-Kramer and Superior-Cronise DWMAs are in San Bernardino County; the first is near Boron and the second north of Barstow along the southern edge of the Fort Irwin Army base.

Each individual parcel of the newly acquired lands will be managed either by the Transition Habitat Conservancy, based in Pinon Hills near Hesperia, or the Joshua Tree-based Mojave Desert Land Trust.

The Ivanpah project occupies about 3,500 acres of land, meaning that the ratio of mitigation land to developed land is about 2/1. Ivanpah is owned jointly by developer BrightSource Energy and investors NRG Energy and Google. "Working through the State's Advanced Mitigation Program has proven to be an effective alternative for satisfying the Ivanpah project's mitigation land requirements," said Marc Sydnor, BrightSource's director of environmental affairs, in the CDFW press release. "We've also been able to achieve a project goal of ensuring that the land purchased is used for the highest possible purpose -- to protect our state's natural legacy."

Other observers are less sanguine about the deal. Ileene Anderson, biologist and Public Lands Desert Director for the Center for Biological Diversity, lauded the land being preserved but told ReWire that better development strategy would avoid the need to replace the tortoise habitat at Ivanpah:

While these acquisitions are in important areas for desert tortoise conservation, future solar projects would be best developed on already disturbed lands and rooftops, so that desert tortoise habitat is not impacted and therefore there is no need for mitigation.

Meanwhile, blogger Shaun G. at Mojave Desert Blog, a long-term critic of utility-scale desert solar projects, was even more unsparing about the trade-offs:

[W]hat benefit did we achieve in Ivanpah? Approximately 392 megawatts of solar energy. Companies in the United States installed far more solar panels on already-disturbed lands and rooftops during the Ivanpah Solar project's construction period. And Germany added thousands of megawatts of mostly rooftop solar. All while we watched BrightSource destroy a true natural treasure in the Mojave.

April 18, 2013

Lawsuit Filed Against Wind Energy Project Near Mojave Preserve

Spirit Mountain from Wee Thump Wilderness. The Searchlight Wind project would fill the middle distance with wind turbines (Chris Clarke photo)

by Chris Clarke
KCET Rewire

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have been sued over the recently-approved Searchlight Wind Project in southern Nevada, with plaintiffs charging that the federal government conducted an inadequate review of the project's likely effects on desert wildlife. The project, which would generate a maximum of 200 megawatts of electrical power, would place 87 turbines on almost 19,000 acres of public lands within view of the Mojave National Preserve and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

The suit, which also names former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as a defendant, was filed April 10 in the U.S. District Court in Nevada by the groups Basin and Range Watch and Friends of Searchlight Desert and Mountains, along with Searchlight, NV residents Judy Bundorf and Ellen Ross, and the Reverend Ron Van Fleet, an elder in the Fort Mohave tribe.

Plaintiffs charge that the project, to be built by Duke Energy, would (in the words of the suit) "pose significant adverse harm to a wide array of sensitive and protected species ... including desert tortoise, golden eagles, bald eagles, and residential and migratory birds and bats... through direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts" which weren't adequately addressed in the project's final environmental impact statement, nor in FWS's Biological Opinion on the project. The plaintiffs maintain that Secretary Salazar issued a positive Record of Decision for the project based on that inadequate review of the project's ecological impacts, and that mitigation plans for the ecological dmmage the project would cause have not been developed.

The suit also alleges that the project would cause irreparable damage to cultural resources important to local tribes, whose origin stories center on a prominent peak some miles south of the project's footprint.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to set aside Interior's Record of Decision on the project, as well as FWS's Biological Opinion and the BLM's Environmental Impact Statement, and to issue an injunction halting work on the project, which could start construction this year.

April 15, 2013

Sacrificial Land: Will renewable energy devour the Mojave Desert?

Looking north towards the Ivanpah solar plant's eastern boiler tower in California. (Craig Dietrich)
By Judith Lewis Mernit
High Country News

Over breakfast at the Crowbar Café in Shoshone, Calif., Brian Brown explains to me how he makes a living. Shoshone is a town of 31 in the Mojave Desert near the Nevada border; Brown runs his own business here, the China Ranch Date Farm. In the late summer, he strips offshoots from unproductive palm trees and sells them to landscape designers in Las Vegas; in early fall, Orthodox rabbis descend from New Jersey to procure unopened palm fronds, or lulavim, for Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival. But in the winter and spring, Brown caters to tourists. They come from faraway places -- the East Coast, Canada, Europe -- drawn by the limitless views and thick, dark nights. So many come from Germany, in fact, that one local restaurant prints a version of its menu in German.

Brown is 58, green-eyed, tall and fit, dressed in striped shirt, jeans and sneakers, his graying hair combed to the side like a small-town mayor's -- conservative in demeanor, forward-thinking in philosophy. Long ago, the ranch belonged to his great-aunt, Vonola Modine, daughter of Ralph Jacobus Fairbanks, who founded Shoshone in 1909, and grandmother of actor Matthew Modine. The property abuts a wet trickle of the Amargosa River and slot canyons where you can bellow out arias and hear your voice echo back in triplicate; it's a popular birding spot for locals and an almost mandatory cool-down hike for expeditioners coming east out of Death Valley National Park. Brown serves them date shakes, date-nut muffins and bags of well-bred Middle Eastern varietals, all much sweeter and softer than typical store-bought Medjools.

A fourth-generation desert native, Brown grew up back when you could do as you pleased in the Mojave: Put up a shack and drill a well; start a family business around a talc deposit; test a nuclear bomb. "I drove dune buggies and dirt bikes everywhere," Brown remembers. "Nobody stopped me, nobody ticketed me." Then came the 1970s, and Brown, like a lot of local residents his age, watched as the federal Bureau of Land Management, empowered by land-protection laws written for a nation caught up in the environmental movement, closed popular off-road routes and evicted elderly couples from cabins they'd built by hand. "They came in like stormtroopers," Brown says, "burning cabins to the ground to restore the land to its natural condition." To this day, he resents the way BLM deputies enforced those laws.

For a long time, Brown and his neighbors reflexively opposed every federal land-management effort, every habitat protection plan, even the very idea of desert conservation. They regarded the landmark 1994 California Desert Protection Act -- which raised Joshua Tree and Death Valley monuments to national park status and established the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve -- as "something getting pushed through by the Sierra Club and its henchmen."

Over time, however, those laws changed not just the landscape, but the local economy, its culture -- and eventually its longtime residents' minds. If you couldn't mine minerals, graze cattle or sell nail-biting Jeep adventures over desert rocks and dunes, you were left with one option: To serve the people who come for the desert's singular beauty and emptiness -- people willing, as the late desert naturalist Elden Hughes once put it, "to get past the color green."

"We had to figure out what assets we have," Amy Noel, who owns a local hot-springs resort in nearby Tecopa, says. "And we figured out that the greatest asset we have is the desert itself." The Mojave's nowhere-else-on-earth species, its spectacular light play on volcanic mountains, the wetlands that pop up like exotic bird carnivals among the winter sands, became the basis for a new economy. Even the night sky brought tourists: Noel is busiest on the night of the new moon, when astronomers set up a projecting telescope to look at the stars.

And so it was that Brown, along with many other local businesspeople, became a conservationist. In 2004, Brown, his cousin, Susan Sorrells, and a number of other residents founded the nonprofit Amargosa Conservancy, an organization dedicated to "telling the story of the desert," Brown says. He even joined the Sierra Club.

Lately, though, Brown has again begun to worry about federal intervention, only this time moving away from conservation toward industrialization of large tracts of untouched land. Since early 2009, when then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar fast-tracked renewable energy projects on public land, the Mojave and the adjacent Colorado Desert have been racing toward a radical transformation, unlike anything the locals ever imagined. Large-scale wind and solar projects, each occupying thousands of acres, have already begun to destroy habitat and mar prized views. "I think if we don't set (certain) places aside and say not there, then eventually what we have here will be lost," Brown says. "We're at a historical point where decisions are being made right this minute that will change this place forever."

Brown now finds himself speaking out alongside environmental groups like the National Parks Conservation Association and the Center for Biological Diversity on behalf of a new California Desert Protection Act, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced in 2009 and again in 2011. The new bill folds in some of the lands left out of the 1994 bill, and would designate two new monuments in the Mojave, expand Death Valley National Park and add several hundred thousands Mojave acres to the wilderness system. It also offers formal protection to off-road vehicle recreation areas, keeping Jeep trails safe from energy development and other interference.

The bill has already died twice in the Senate, and will probably fail again: 2013 does not seem an auspicious year for new environmental laws. But that doesn't mean it's doomed: Feinstein's predecessor, Sen. Alan Cranston, spent eight years working on the 1994 law; after he retired, Feinstein braved local opposition and Senate filibusters to push it through. That kind of patience could pay off again.

But compared with the hundreds of thousands of acres that renewable energy could potentially occupy, the new desert bill protects very little. While it wends its way through the political maze, the Mojave's fate will have been determined; the sacrifice of this land, once protected by its own climatic extremes, is already under way. Whether the remaking of the Mojave yields one small but crucial contribution to the salvation of the whole planet's climate or goes into the annals of energy history as a grand but failed experiment is anyone's guess.

Five years ago this spring, I reported on the first wave of people resisting industrial renewable energy projects in the Mojave -- solar fields covering six or seven square miles, wind farms eight or nine times that size. Over the years, I watched them start nonprofits, launch blogs, lobby the media to tell their stories. When a reporter wrote an unalloyed success story about how big solar in the Mojave would fight climate change and secure U.S. energy independence, the activists filled up the newspaper's comment section with statistics about Germany's rooftop solar, the decline of the threatened desert tortoise whose habitat these projects destroy, the desert's function as a carbon sink.

Mostly, though, opponents testified at public meetings hosted by the BLM as it weighed various projects. Local business people learned to talk like biologists. "Ninety percent of the biota in the desert exist beneath the desert soil," Paul Smith, the owner of the "tiny, tiny" 29 Palms Inn near Joshua Tree National Park, said at one meeting. "So a lot of what you think is a relatively dry environment, without a lot of things growing, is actually a rich biological environment."

None of those efforts could stop the juggernaut. The BLM has approved nine solar projects on 24,000 acres of public land in California and Nevada; several more large wind farms in process will take up tens of thousands of acres. Many more proposals appear as splotches on a map, squeezed between mountains and spread across valleys that few humans have sought to inhabit. Some of the solar plants, all pricey capital investments, will fall to the vagaries of financing; others will fail to secure contracts with utilities. Some wind developers will discover that their proposed locations don't have enough wind.

Still, many more projects will go forward, buoyed by California's mandate to generate 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and rushed by ephemeral tax incentives. Nor are public-land projects all there is to worry about. On the May morning I met with Brown, he talked about a 500-megawatt installation planned for five square miles of a former ranch near Pahrump, Nev., 15 miles east across a mountain wilderness from Shoshone and Death Valley. Hidden Hills, a concentrating solar thermal plant proposed by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc., will deploy two circles of mirrors, or "heliostats," each two miles wide, to focus sunlight on 750-foot towers, heating fluid inside until it flashes to gas and spins turbines. It will require new transmission through Nevada wilderness, plus natural gas lines to fuel a small start-up generator. Brown expects that infrastructure "will wedge open the door to more," noting that two more projects are on the docket in the Pahrump Valley. "That whole Nevada strip will become a big industrial zone," Brown says. "Nights will be ruined; we'll be looking at tens of thousands of acres of towers."

This desert of varied elevations can swallow grazing allotments, freeways, mines and military installations. Mountains surround it: the Panamints and Sierra to the north, the San Bernardinos and San Gabriels to the south. If you climb Telescope Peak in the Panamints, braving narrow trails above thousands of feet of scree, you can take in both the lowest point in the Lower 48, at Badwater in Death Valley, and the very highest, Mount Whitney in the Sierra. Within the Mojave National Preserve, craggy hills rise to 5,000 feet and descend into gravelly bajadas that explode with pink-and-gold blooms in a good spring. Fog rolls in, snow falls, and summer thunderclouds focus dramatic beams of light. Landscapes that look barren up close take your breath away from great distances.

What the desert's vistas can't absorb are miles of wind turbines and skyscraper-high solar towers, like the ones already standing at BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station, the first big public-land solar project, now nearing completion on California's border with Nevada. Situated at the base of the Clark Mountains between segments of the Mojave Preserve, Ivanpah will generate 400 megawatts of electricity to potentially power 140,000 homes. The plant occupies six square miles, or roughly 4,000 acres -- twice the land area of Jackson, Wyo., almost the size of eight-square-mile Ogden, Utah, or the entire city of Redondo Beach, Calif.

Given that the planet's climate is already changing, partly because of carbon emissions from coal plants, we may need scaled-up clean energy to head off catastrophic environmental change. And plenty of people, good environmentalists all, consider Ivanpah a necessary achievement. The Natural Resources Defense Council's director of Western Transmission, Carl Zichella, was on board with Ivanpah from the beginning, back when he held a similar post at the Sierra Club. Local chapters were less gung-ho, but national leaders set out to convince them: Brian Brown remembers Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's national president, showing up at a meeting of the Sierra Club's Desert Committee in early February 2011. "What he said was, basically, the Sierra Club knows there are inappropriate places for solar. Then he launched right into the political speech of saving the planet."

The persuasion, however, worked the other way -- especially after biologists confirmed, in the spring of 2011, that the Ivanpah site was home to many more threatened desert tortoises than the company's surveys had predicted. By the end of that year, even Brune and Zichella agreed that future large-scale solar and wind shouldn't proceed without land and species conservation in mind. Both the Sierra Club and the NRDC filed lawsuits against a solar project in the Mojave that would have interrupted desert bighorn sheep migration; the NRDC also came out against the company's proposal to build a 500-megawatt plant in the central Mojave near the town of Twentynine Palms, a gateway to Joshua Tree National Park.

Barbara Boyle, a Sacramento-based Sierra Club energy policy analyst, says that for most environmental groups, "the focus has really shifted from chipping away at the problem to understanding how we can protect ecosystems on a landscape scale." To that end, the BLM and the Energy Department, staffed up with stimulus money in 2009, pressed forward with a plan to designate certain areas in six Western states as appropriate for renewable energy development. Future developers who choose these sites could move quickly from application to construction, confident that environmental reviews have been completed in advance.

It was, from most perspectives, an honest and vigorous effort to lessen the impact of renewable energy on ecologically sensitive lands. Two areas environmentalists had objected to, one north of Joshua Tree called Iron Mountain, and another around the Pisgah lava field south of the Mojave Preserve, were removed from the proposal's original draft. Other, more appropriate areas -- the West Mojave closer to exurban Los Angeles, the Chocolate Mountains, which abut an Air Force gunnery range -- are being considered as alternatives.

Those zones are not binding; they're only incentives. The agencies have also left 22 million acres open for development -- "roughly 13 times the 138,000 acres BLM predicts will be needed to satisfy the 20-year demand for utility-scale solar power under California's aggressive renewable portfolio (standard)," The Nature Conservancy's Laura Crane pointed out at a public meeting.

Worse, "they came five years too late," says Brendan Cummings, the Center for Biological Diversity's public-lands director. Ivanpah lies outside the zone, as do the many projects clustered around it: First Solar has put up a 60-megawatt photovoltaic field here and plans to build two more, five times the size of the first. Bechtel Corp. has applied for rights to install six square miles of photovoltaic panels a few miles south along spring-fed Soda Lake, in an area California Fish and Wildlife has already identified as bighorn sheep habitat. That project would need only a tiny amount of water, but that tiny amount of water, drawn from the local aquifer, could be the ruin of a small and locally famous fish, the endangered Mojave tui chub, which persists nowhere else on earth but in Soda Lake's small, isolated springs.

"The solar developers say to us, 'You guys always find something,' " Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, says with a laugh. "And it's true, we do. Because there is always something."

The day after my breakfast with Brown in Shoshone, I go for a drive with Seth Shteir and David Lamfrom of the National Parks Conservation Association, a group that in the last decade has gone from quiet lobbying to open activism in its determination to protect this desert from renewable development. We plan to visit some of the wild places included in the new desert protection bill, blue pools choked with green reeds on the rugged edges of Death Valley and the variegated mountains farther south, near the Mojave Preserve. Lamfrom, 34, is a dark-haired, southern Florida import with a sharp eye for wildlife; even at night, he's constantly pointing out camouflaged creatures -- a fringed-toed lizard in a sand dune, a coiled Mojave green rattler soaking up the night heat on an asphalt road. Shteir, 45, a fresh-faced, blue-eyed Midwesterner, is like the science guy, backing Lamfrom up with binoculars and facts. In a 4x4 truck rented for the day, we drive up a dirt road to the remains of a 1907 mining camp, where old trash sometimes surfaces. "Sardine cans and whiskey bottles," Lamfrom says, picking up a shard. "Signs of a hard-living crowd."

At sunset, the three of us stand on a high slope and face north toward the Castle Mountains, which look, in essence, like little castles -- castles that were once full of gold. The range and the surrounding area, the 340-square-mile Lanfair Valley, were left out of the original 1994 Mojave Preserve boundaries because, until the end of the last century, gold and silver were still being extracted from the rocks. The desert bill would include them, a prospect that has already scared away developers. "Two solar projects had been proposed for this parcel," Lamfrom says, "but the fact that they were being spoken for by a powerful U.S. senator added a discouraging layer of complexity."

Nothing so far, however, has discouraged San Diego-based Oak Creek Energy from testing the wind resources in these mountains as it considers building here, on one of the few high-elevation grasslands left in the Mojave, and just outside the boundaries of Feinstein's proposal. It's an area thick with Joshua trees –– "a different subspecies than the one you find in the park," Shteir explains. "Those are Yucca brevifolia brevifolia; these are Yucca brevifolia jaegeriana," or "pygmy" yucca. "If you look at the leaves, they're more compact, and the trees have more branches on them." Once they're gone from here, they'll be gone forever.

Nor would Feinstein's bill deter any project on the Nevada side of the border. One of the three desert peaks visible if you look east from the Castle Mountains is a black-and-white batholith known as Spirit Mountain, designated as a "traditional cultural property" in the National Register of Historic Places. To the Native American people who lived here until the federal Department of the Interior pushed them out in the early 20th century, that view wasn't just scenery: It was the seat of all creation, and they believed a clear sight of it was essential to their very survival. In March, Duke Energy of North Carolina won approval to build a wind farm on 19,000 acres between the mountain and the Nevada town of Searchlight.

Lamfrom pilots the truck to the top of the road and parks. We get out. "Look, this is a great view of Spirit," he says, retrieving beers from his backpack for each of us. The beer is slightly warm, but welcome in the dry air. I note from the label that it happens to be German.

"There you go," Lamfrom says. "We give them our open space. They give us their beer."

In 1927, when Brian Brown's great-grandfather, Ralph Fairbanks, homesteaded on 160 acres along the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad line, he probably expected some of that open space would have filled in by now. He wisely picked a spot where the railroad line crossed the Arrowhead Trail, the first all-weather road between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. Then he harnessed local springs and established a water stop for motorists in the town of Baker.

During the 1930s, while Hoover Dam was under construction, Fairbanks and his son-in-law, Charles Brown, Brian Brown's grandfather, grew the family business into an all-purpose rest stop and kept it open 24 hours a day, putting every able body in their remnant Mormon clan to work. "It was so isolated, everybody had to stop," Brown says. "You had to get water, you had to pee, you could buy liquor." When Brown's father, Charles Brown Jr., came home from World War II, he spruced the compound up for a new era, with a full-service market, three gas stations and a trailer park.

As I drive to Brown's date ranch in August, I wonder what his great-grandad would think -- watching his descendant argue for less development rather than more, fighting to keep civilization at bay.

My plan is to arrive in Baker at sundown and drive Highway 127 toward Death Valley as the temperature descends from its late-summer three-digit high. When I stop for a falafel at the Mad Greek in Baker, the temperature is 109; 20 miles out of town it rises to 110. Sixty miles later, at 10 p.m., the sensor on the dashboard display ticks up to 114. Irrationally panicked, I pull over the car and get out, forcing myself to walk into this infernal sink where neither man nor beast can survive for long, even at night. The wind blows, hotter than the still air.

A short distance from my car, I spot two figures several hundred feet from the road. I can hear them laughing and talking. One is a woman, and in the light of the waxing gibbous moon I can see that she's blonde. Whatever language they're speaking, it's not English. I imagine their flushed and happy faces, sunburned from the desert day.

When I get to my tidy room at the Shoshone Inn, the temperature has dropped to a tolerable 95, but the woman who checks me in says this is the longest period of extreme heat she's experienced in the 25 years she's lived here. "The climate, you know," she says. "It really is getting hotter. Everywhere."

The next day, balanced in a lift about 30 feet off the ground, I help Brown scour a date tree for red fruit with white flesh, still crisp like an apple. The slightly unripe Hyany dates are prized by the Coptic Christians at a monastery south of here. "The red dates have a symbolic value," Brown says. "The red is for the blood of the Coptic martyrs, the white inside stands for their purity. And the firmness of the date symbolizes their resolve." We tear off whole stems and lay them lengthwise in shallow cardboard boxes.

The work is slow and meditative, leaving lots of time to talk. By 9 a.m. the temperature is pushing 100 degrees. Brown tells me his forebears dealt with the desert heat at night by wrapping themselves in water-soaked sheets, an altogether energy-efficient way of cooling, if not so good for uninterrupted sleep. "When the sheets dried, they'd wake up and wet them down again."

Brown knows the climate is changing. And he wants to believe there are appropriate places for massive wind and solar plants. First, though, he'd like to see rooftops exploited to their full potential in Southern California's sunny cities. He can imagine parking lots covered with solar canopies in the baking west Mojave cities of Palmdale and Lancaster, supplying those Los Angeles exurbs with the kind of "distributed" electricity generation -- electricity generated close to where it's used -- they need to keep their air conditioners running. "I don't understand why these utility companies aren't embracing distributed generation," he says. The simple answer: California's three largest utilities are owned by investors who expect a return. Putting solar panels on rooftops is not how they make money.

Nor is private land such an obvious option anymore. "For years, the conservation community has been saying, 'If you're going to do these things, do them on private land. Make them water-thrifty.' Well, guess what? Hidden Hills would be on private land. And the usage estimate is 140 acre-feet a year, which is pretty low. I struggle with that. Because if they can't do it on private land with a water use of 140 acre-feet a year, are we saying no solar anywhere in the desert?"

In early April, BrightSource Energy asked the California Energy Commission to suspend Hidden Hills' application. Recent hearings about the project had been contentious, with the commission's own staff presenting evidence showing that heliostats could fry birds' wings as they flew through the solar field. Richard Arnold of the Pahrump Paiute Indians had claimed the project would interrupt the sacred Salt Song Trail. Even the Nevada BLM had weighed in, concerned that the plant's water use would deplete the springs that sustain a federally endangered pupfish.

None of those concerns caused BrightSource to pause on Hidden Hills; nor is the project done for. Instead, BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs said in a statement that the company needs time to develop "more flexible resources," such as solar power with storage.

"Hidden Hills is a good site to deploy solar thermal with storage technology," Wachs wrote, but to change technology now will require new hearings and evidence. In the meantime, the company will focus on a solar-with-storage collaboration with Spanish developer Abengoa. The 500-megawatt Palen Solar Power Project will occupy 5,200 acres, all within the Riverside East solar zone. It is not without controversy: Its two 750-foot towers will be visible from the higher mountains in southeast Joshua Tree National Park.

Later, Brown and I head south to the monastery with our bounty of dates, pausing in the place where I felt the intense heat the night before. It's called the Silurian Valley, where the road descends from a high plateau to a dry lake just a few hundred feet above sea level. It got hotter on the way down, and windier, too, because the 6,000-foot Avawatz Mountains to the west concentrate the breeze in the playa. In the winter, it freezes.

It's here where you can stand on what feels like the edge of the earth and look far into the distance at uninterrupted space, here where I saw the couple I took to be European staring in the dim moonlight at a landscape that looks no different than it did 100, 300, even a thousand years ago. That, however, may soon change: Spanish developer Iberdrola is eying 15,000 acres in the Silurian Valley for a combination wind and solar facility. Fifteen thousand acres is hard to grasp: 23 square miles, sandwiched between the Avawatz Mountains and the Kingston Range -- wilderness areas that would be protected under Feinstein's new desert bill -- and Dumont Dunes, a popular off-road playground. Trucks, towers, construction and new roads; an industrial park where there once was nothing but extremes -- of distance, of heat and cold, of silence.

As of this writing, Feinstein hadn't yet reintroduced her desert bill. Rumor has it that her staff is busy writing up a new provision that will require renewable energy developers to pay into a wildlife habitat mitigation fund instead of finding land to replace lost habitat on their own. The retooling may take some time, and will have little near-term impact: With the state of California having nearly met its renewable energy goals and state and federal incentives close to exhausted, renewable energy development in the desert will probably stall out in the wake of the projects currently under way.

That lull will give us "some breathing space to get future planning right," Brendan Cummings says. He's hoping that California's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan helps both developers and environmentalists figure out where to put large plants when and if demand ramps up again. A state-federal partnership, the conservation plan has brought together private landowners, utilities, municipal governments and environmentalists to determine appropriate places for renewable energy, piecing together private and public parcels where necessary and lining up approvals in advance.

The Sierra Club's Boyle, who's heavily involved, says that a draft plan should be out next fall. "Right now, we're nailing down lists of covered species, biological objectives for keystone species, really getting into the important details," she says. "We're trying to tie the conservation effort to actual biological goals so it has scientific integrity."

Cummings hopes it works. "From a climate perspective," he says, "we want and need more renewable energy projects. If we're going to meaningfully address climate change, the state needs to raise its renewable energy standard from 33 to 50 to even 100 percent. We're an energy-intensive society. So even if these planning processes feel like we're planning for something that's already happened, the time will come again when we need them.

"If we don't," Cummings warns, "we'll have failed on the matter of climate policy. And if we fail on climate policy, we'll have far worse problems than arguing over the viewshed in the Silurian Valley."

In mid-September, a few weeks after my visit to Brown's date farm, my husband and I drive home through thunderstorms that start at the Virgin River Gorge in northwestern Arizona and carry on all the way to the California border. We've just been camping in Utah's Wasatch and Uinta mountains, and hiking around west Yellowstone. But nothing could top the dramatic scene we hit as we cross the Nevada border, where sunlight pierces curtains of rain over painted mountains, storms over the Mojave. We leave the interstate for lunch in the town of Nipton, and stand in line at the local trading post with an effusive electrician, blond and sunburned and well-fed, on lunch break from his wiring job at Ivanpah. "I have work lined up in this state for two years!" he tells me. We buy beers and Fritos to go with our packed leftovers. Then we sit outside at the picnic tables to watch the dramatic sky.

It's a view I used to love, across the Mojave Preserve to its next section, which begins on the other side of the freeway at the Clark Mountains. You can't see the freeway from here; you can't even tell it's there. You can't even detect the cheap circus carnival that is Primm, Nev., with its gaudy roller coaster and fast-food chains, tucked over the border to the north. What you can see, what I see for the first time, are the three towers of the Ivanpah Solar Generating Station, spaced one mile apart, each 500 feet tall, topped with large white frames around empty black spaces. They look like skyscrapers over a small city, built to power a small city -- a city nowhere near here.

Solar Project Could Have Significant Effect on Desert Views

A portion of the area from which the Palen solar project's glowing collectors could be visible, overlain in red. (Google Earth screen capture by KCET ReWire)

by Chris Clarke
KCET Rewire

The proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System east of Desert Center could be visible from as far away as the Mojave National Preserve, Mount San Jacinto, and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, according to preliminary calculations by ReWire. The project, proposed by BrightSource Energy and Abengoa, is currently being evaluated by the California Energy Commission.

The project, which would include two solar receiver steam generators (SRSGs) each surrounded by 80,000 mirrored heliostats, would be built just north of Interstate 10 near the Corn Springs Road exit east of Desert Center. The SRSGs, each 130 feet tall, would sit atop 620-foot pedestals, so that the top of each SRSG would be approximately 750 feet above the ground.

The location of the Palen site in the eastern Chuckwalla Valley has one of the most expansive viewsheds in the western United States, even at ground level. Atop a 750-foot tower, line-of-sight distances to the horizon are even longer. And if one can see a spot on the horizon from Palen's SRSGs, it's safe to assume that an observer on that spot on the horizon would be able to see the SRSG.

ReWire used a publicly available web-based line-of-sight generator to calculate the viewshed from each of Palen's SRSGs, and the results are rather surprising. Given a clear day, Palen's SRSGs could well have uninterrupted lines-of-sight to high peaks in the Mojave National Preserve including Table Top, the Providence Mountains, and perhaps even the highest peaks in the New York Mountains, 110 miles north of the Palen site. Wide swaths of the Trigo Mountains, 45 miles distant in Arizona just across the Colorado River from Blythe, and even some western slopes in Arizona's Kofa Mountains 70 miles from Palen, could view Palen's SRSGs. And surprisingly, even a spot in the southern reaches of Mount San Jacinto, about 80 miles from Palen, might well enjoy a direct view of the SRSG atop Palen Unit 1's power tower.

Visibility of the SRSGs at such great distances would depend on a number of factors, including air quality. Though the SRSGs are intensely bright, the perceived intensity of light drops dramatically with increasing distance, following a mathematical relationship called the "inverse square law": if you increase the distance between you and a bright light, the apparent intensity of that light will diminish by an amount proportional to the square of the increase in distance.

Or perhaps more simply: if the Palen Unit 1 SRSG is indeed visible from the eastern slopes of Pine Mountain in the San Jacintos near Idylwilld, it would appear one one-hundredth as bright from that vantage point 80 miles distant as it would from the eastern outskirts of Desert Center, eight miles from the plant.

From 80 or a hundred miles away, on a clear day with no wind-driven dust, even a brightly lit SRSG may well appear only as a glint on the horizon, roughly as bright as a sunglint on a distant window. The noticeability of an SRSG at significant distance will depend in large part on contrast: if the light source is backed by bright midday sky, it may be only marginally visible at best, while the same unit might be clearly visible at the same distance from a vantage point where the SRSG is backdropped by a dark desert mountain range.

Of much greater importance (at least to those of us for whom unspoiled desert vistas are not our primary concern) is the effect of those brightly illuminated SRSGs on observers closer at hand.

Palen's power tower design would be substantially similar to that of BrightSource's now-mothballed project at Hidden Hills in Inyo County. In the Final Staff Assessment for that earlier project, California Energy Commission staff noted that glare from Hidden Hills' SRSGs "would produce a distinct visual distraction effect and be significant in perceived brightness and discomfort/disruption glare effects for a nominal viewing distance of 8.5 miles."

Assuming that Palen's power towers put out the same amount of light -- which seems a sound assumption -- that means drivers on I-10 would be subject to that level of glare discomfort and distraction along a stretch of a bit more than 17 miles between Desert Center and Wiley's Well Road, that distraction accentuated by the towers' placement less than two miles from the highway. For a considerable distance in that stretch, the power towers would be nearly impossible for drivers to exclude from their fields of vision without impeding their view of the highway.

By way of comparison for readers who've driven the section of Interstate 15 that runs past BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System just south of Primm, NV and may have the mental image of those nearly 460-foot towers in mind, Palen's power towers will be nearly 300 feet taller.

At 8.5 miles distance, based on the CEC's Hidden Hills assessment, the SRSGs would appear to be a third the width of the sun. At 2.8 miles, each SRSG would appear to equal the sun in width. Unit 2 is approximately one mile from the Interstate, and Unit 1 about 2 miles. The potential for visual interference with safe driving on this high-speed desert highway seems considerable.

Also potentially considerable: the plant's effect on the visual resources of wilderness areas of Joshua Tree National Park. Though the more trammelled parts of the park are shielded from the plant by the Eagle Mountains and other ranges, park visitors who stray well off the pavement in the park's eastern section may well get a good view of the facility from the valley floor in the Pinto Basin just south of Clarks Pass along Highway 62. Wilderness areas in the Coxcomb and Eagle Mountains that happen to face east and south may well be afforded an unobstructed view of the facility as well.

If you have a copy of Google Earth and you'd like to explore the Palen project's possible viewshed, we've created two .kmz files that detail the viewshed from a somewhat arbitrarily chosen point a bit more than a third of the way from the top of each of the SRSGs. The files are here for Unit 1 and here for Unit 2. It's important to note that our calculations are preliminary; though the line-of-sight calculating app we used -- "Hey, What's That -- relies on reasonably accurate data from both Google Maps and the U.S. Geological Survey, the USGS digital elevation models used to calculate these viewsheds are accurate only to 100 feet. A 50-foot hill in the real world that's not accounted for in the digital elevation models might well turn out to obstruct a line of sight charted here.

Still, due to the facility's proposed location and the immense height of the power towers (more than twice the height of the Statue of Liberty) it seems certain that Palen will be clearly visible over hundreds of square miles of desert, and from surprising distances. It's worth noting that BrightSource is asking the CEC to grant an amendment to a previously approved project that lacked the power towers, which would certainly not have been visible from outside the Chuckwalla Valley. As previously designed by the now-bankrupt Solar Millennium, Palen would have used horizontal parabolic trough mirrors to heat a transfer fluid, and the mirror arrays would have reached no more than 30 feet or so above the ground. A difference in impact that large would seem to merit restarting the permitting process from square one.

April 7, 2013

Rare visit to the Mitchell Caverns

Naturalists from the SCV push back the desert to earn a rare visit to the now closed, historic, cave

Deep in El Pakiva Cavern are numerous formations over which the imagination can take flight. One docent saw in this formation “A woman with a flowing gown with crossed arms and a Poodle’s head.”

By Jim Harris
Santa Clarita Valley Signal

It nearly takes my breath away.

Billowy, white cotton candy clouds march eastward, covering the top of Fountain Peak; its red sentinel spires pushing through feathery cloud-fog.

Descending the mountain are wide, uneven strips of crimson, gray and green; rhyolite and limestone.

“See the three layers?” asked Brian Miller, organizer of our trip to the currently closed Mitchell Caverns in the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area.

“The gray band—that’s where the caves are,” he says.

The caverns are opened to us in exchange for work to push back the Mojave Desert at the Mitchell Caverns Visitor’s Center.

Brian Miller, an employee of the state parks system, enticed his fellow docent/naturalists from Santa Clarita with the chance to be the first in three years to descend into the limestone caverns in exchange for pushing back the encroaching desert.

More than 20 volunteers from Placerita and Vasquez Rocks Nature Centers drove up to the remote site, 116 miles east of Barstow on Highway 40 for the chance to go into the deep, historic caverns.

The volunteers spent hours rooting out desert vegetation that was pushing into buildings, as well as intruding on concrete walkways and planters at the Mitchell Caverns Visitor Center.

“I’m tired,” said Laneita Algeyer, school trips coordinator at Placerita Nature Center. She and her husband Bill are veteran hikers who haunt places like Mitchell Caverns, looking for the historic and the unusual all through the West.

Jim and Toni Crowley brought a wheel barrow and extra tools in their pickup. They haul out the vegetation when the work ends.

Exhausted after hours of work, and a hearty lunch including soup provided by Sue Wallendar, the Placerita/Vasquez group was fired up once more when Miller announced, “Time for the Caverns.”

Suddenly, a Grounds Keeper appeared to lead us into the cave. So remote are the caverns in Fountain Peak that he had to turn on a generator to provide lighting for us as we descend into the caverns. The Caverns are off the grid.

We followed a craggy, rocky trail under Fountain Peak’s red spires, dug into the Mountain’s gray limestone band. On the left the trail plunged hundreds of feet below.

But, we were safe with a solid chain guard rail installed during the heyday of park building after the state park system took possession of the Caverns.

The safety rails were among many improvements Jack Mitchell, the original owner of the caverns, could not have imagined when he ran tours there on his own property.

Mitchell started the tours during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Mitchell played at mining, but what he really excavated was the imaginations and spirits of people who wanted to see and experience unique and mysterious works of nature.

And in that spirit, as we descend into the caverns, many among us gasped as the lights turned on. The upward lighting cast strange shadows on bizarre, outlandish limestone formations.

“Breathtaking,” said Dolores Olson, fellow docent/naturalist.

Stalagmites, stalactites, shields, helictites, draperies, curtains and popcorn form intricate, sensational formations that illuminated our imaginations. Like children looking at clouds, we could see in our mind’s eyes that which are not there.

“Do you see the Queen washing her face in the basin, her hair hanging down?” asked the caretaker as he pointed to a complex formation of curtains, and stalactites in a section of the Caverns known as “The Queen’s Chambers.”

“Those formations will continue building. This is a living cave, when it rains,” continued the Grounds Keeper.
He pointed to a single trickle of water hanging on the end of a stalagmite, and then down at a tiny stalactite exactly below the motionless drip. This is at the beginning of our descent into the Caverns beginning at El Pakiva, “The Devil’s House” Cavern.

“This is how the formations grow over the years,” said the Grounds Keeper.

To me it was fantastic to think that such a small thing will grow like the enormous formations surrounding us as we continued.

Through El Pakiva we continue down state constructed steps, a far cry from the days when Mitchell and his visitors had to wriggle and climb over and around rocks and boulders.

After El Pakiva, we move in single file through the “Solution Tube” and are stopped abruptly at “The Pit.”
Here, in the 1930s, Mitchell dropped flares which would slowly go out, never to be seen again, said the Grounds Keeper.

“Jack (Mitchell) called it the ‘Bottomless Pit’,” smiled our guide. “It’s not bottomless; it’s about 40 feet deep.”
In those days the tour had to stop, go back, wriggle again through the entrance and walk the trail to the second cavern, Tecopa, named after one of the last Shoshone chiefs.

Now, there is a bridge and an opening to Tecopa, both built by the state.

There was also air-lock doors between the two caverns to eliminate a steady draft that blew through the caves once the state connected them together.

Archaeologists have found the remains of prehistoric animals, including a pre-historic sloth in Tecopa Cavern.
Throughout these caves there is evidence of Native-American life. The caverns were a sacred place for the Chemehuevi Indians, and a number of tools and fire pits have been found.

The Chemehuevi people called the caves the “the eyes of the mountain” because of their double entrances located near the top of Fountain Peak Mountain.

Much later, Jack Mitchell owned the caves (from 1934 to 1954) and operated them as a tourist attraction and rest stop for travelers on nearby U.S. Route 66. He held mining rights to the area and mined several holes and tunnels, which can be seen today.

In 1956 the caves became a state recreation area.

“They are an island of state owned land within the federal Mojave National Preserve,” said Miller.
The Caverns were closed in 2011.

Like the closing of Mitchell Caverns, we ended our tour as we emerge from Tecopa Cavern into the sunlight of Fountain Peak Mountain, and thread back along Jack Mitchell’s old cavern trail, sadly leaving behind our fantastical experience.

And back to our normal lives in the Santa Clarita Valley.

April 6, 2013

Few flowers, but Joshua trees blooming

Joshua Tree blossoms. (James Cornett,
Special to The Desert Sun)
Written by James Cornett
Special to The Desert Sun

It is one of our worst springs and one of our best.

If you are looking for wildflowers this spring you’re in trouble. We are in the second year of a two-year winter drought and wildflowers are very few and very far between. Around my house this is one of the worst springs ever for wildflowers.

On the other hand this is one of the best years for Joshua trees in bloom. This past week, while traveling between my Joshua tree study sites scattered across the Mojave Desert, Joshua trees everywhere were blooming in profusion. From Joshua Tree National Park to Red Rock Canyon State Park in the western Mojave Desert and from Walker Pass just east of Lake Isabella to Utah and Arizona, Joshua trees were in bloom. On Cima Dome, in the Mojave National Preserve, it is the best Joshua tree bloom in 25 years.

How can this be? We’re in the second year of drought yet Joshua trees seem oblivious to the current conditions. When water is in short supply most desert plants become dormant, either by remaining as seed or dropping their leaves. Producing anything, particularly flowers, is out of the question in times of drought. Yet Joshua trees are having a banner year with some large trees producing more than two dozen inflorescences in less than two months.

At first I thought that areas where there were a profusion of Joshua trees in bloom might possibly reflect the occurrence of an intense but localized shower. The extra water that became available to the Joshua trees stimulated them to bloom the following spring. But this year Joshua trees are blooming everywhere. The bloom is so pervasive that it almost seems like they have communicated this year’s blooming plan to all Joshuas in the Southwest.

The next step in our Joshua tree research will be to see if there is any correlation, even a negative one, between broad rainfall patterns and Joshua tree blooming. The data is being tabulated. For now just enjoy the blooming trees.

I started off this column by talking about our disappointing wildflower season. However, this past week I encountered three areas where there are sufficient patches of blossoms to warrant getting your camera out. Be prepared for a drive. The first is along Highway 190 as it descends down into Death Valley National Park. I saw hundreds of notch-leafed phacelia, dozens of the white-flowered parachute plants and numerous rock nettles. The highway between Death Valley and Pahrump, Nevada, has many miles of dense concentrations of desert sunflowers.

Closer to home are the brown-eyed primroses, lupines and several other species in fair abundance along North Amboy Road as it descends to the town of Amboy.

For all of these locations there will be good blooming for about one more week.

James Cornett is a desert ecologist living in Palm Springs.