.Oakland Invades the Desert

Four East Bay companies are leading the rush to develop utility-scale solar power. But some environmentalists suggest there's a big price to pay.

Rising rebelliously from the desert floor on the northern end of Ivanpah Valley, the town of Primm, Nevada, calls to mind man’s triumph over nature. Its gaudy fashion outlet and three hotel-casinos crowd the freeway just east of the California border near the Mojave National Preserve, contrasting severely with the flat expanse surrounding on all sides. Nearby, the world-class 36-hole Primm Valley Golf Club sports glowing green lawns and luxuriant water features. And, across the highway, a cement factory and natural gas power plant spew greenhouse gases.

To the typical traveler passing by on the way to Las Vegas, the town and its neighbors amount to a surreal desert outpost. Little do most know that not far away, another drama between man and the environment is playing out. And its implications could be far greater.

Five miles from Primm, on the valley’s western slope, Oakland company BrightSource Energy aims to build what will be, at least for a while, the world’s largest solar-thermal power plant. Drawn by the valley’s 330 days of sun per year and heat-intensifying 3,300-foot elevation, the project will encompass 5.6 square miles and generate 370 megawatts — enough to power 140,000 homes at peak hours — when it’s complete in 2013. It will nearly double the amount of commercial solar thermal power produced in the United States today.

The project is the first in a wave of utility-scale solar energy plants being constructed on public lands that will soon dwarf BrightSource’s groundbreaking venture. And a surprisingly large number of them will be built by companies based right here in the East Bay. The entire California desert is under siege by solar power developers, thanks to federal incentives promoting renewable energy that expire at the end of the year, along with California’s call for public utilities to draw 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 (versus today’s 14 percent) and a critical mass of interest in the state’s untapped solar resources. Under the guidance of the US Department of the Interior, both the California Energy Commission and Bureau of Land Management have approved seven huge solar plants on federal land in the desert since late August, and more are on the way. At least one hundred applications are waiting to be reviewed. “We’re open for business with respect to renewable energy on public lands,” US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in October.

Combined, the seven approved plants will contribute a total of 3,492 megawatts to California’s energy grid — at peak output, the equivalent to several nuclear power plants. More striking, however, is the amount of public land they’ll eat up: according to current site designs, more than 27,000 acres. Two more plants may be approved by the end of the year, adding another 650 megawatts and 6,600 acres. In all, that’s 53 square miles — roughly the size of the City of Oakland. The energy they produce should help power between one and two million homes.

Not only does this boom cycle represent the beginning of one of the largest transfers of land from public to private use in US history, but the amount of new power being added to the grid in such a short time, especially renewable, is likewise unparalleled, said Tom Pogacnik, deputy state director of natural resources for the Bureau of Land Management. Adam Eventov, spokesman for BrightSource’s Ivanpah project, likened the atmosphere to “the wild, wild West.”

Yet the mad rush to develop poses serious consequences for desert ecosystems, which are easily damaged and slow to regenerate. In the Ivanpah Valley, for example, what may look like a barren field of tumbleweed is in fact a thriving desert scrub ecosystem featuring Mojave yucca, multiple species of cholla cactus, and creosote scrub, one of the oldest living plants on Earth. While nothing in the valley grows much taller than a few feet, it’s enough to provide habitat for a variety of animal species including kangaroo rats, burrowing owls, desert horned lizards, migratory bighorn sheep, and the endangered — and highly vulnerable — desert tortoise. The floor and eastern end of the valley also serves as a natural floodplain called Ivanpah Dry Lake, collecting rainwater from the mountains that ring the valley.

Solar development in the desert has thus pitted environmentalists against environmentalists, renewable-energy advocates against conservationists, and global-warming activists against ecologists. In some cases, projects have been stalled by the infighting; in most, their designs have been modified. Environmental groups have sought to walk the narrow path between encouraging green energy and protecting desert habitat, while developers have struggled to meet federally imposed deadlines with minimal collateral damage. The process has been anything but smooth: BrightSource’s Ivanpah project alone took three years to permit, both by virtue of being first and because of nagging land-use issues.

Solar power’s rise can be largely attributed to two key environmental benefits: it’s almost infinitely renewable and emits no greenhouse gases. But in addition to its environmental costs, solar power remains expensive. The per-kilowatt-hour production cost of solar energy, while falling rapidly, remains about triple that of most other forms of renewable energy, and approximately double that of most coal and natural gas plants, according to a study released earlier this year by the California Energy Commission.

Nevertheless, three other East Bay companies — FirstSolar, Solar Millennium, and SunPower — have joined BrightSource at the forefront of utility-scale solar development in the United States. “In many ways, the East Bay is central to our nation’s solar industry,” said Keely Wachs, senior director of corporate communications for BrightSource. “It’s ground zero for most of the meaningful solar development.” It’s also, according to some desert conservationists, complicit in an ill-considered attack on the desert.

No single factor is responsible for the fact that four of the nation’s largest solar companies are based in the East Bay, but the area’s central location, affordable rents, and burgeoning green corridor all played a role. Two of the companies, FirstSolar and Solar Millennium, occupy separate floors in the same glass-sheathed modern office building at the corner of 11th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland. BrightSource is located nearby at 20th and Harrison streets, while SunPower is housed in Richmond’s historic Ford Point building.

Together these companies maintain an air of cooperative competition. According to SunPower’s director of market development, Greg Blue, they have close ties but are also acutely aware of the competition among them — to develop the best technologies, attract the best investors, and sign the best power purchase agreements with utility companies. They’re partners in the Large-Scale Solar Association, a California-based trade association with twelve members, but won’t share what Blue calls “commercial secrets.”

SunPower, founded 25 years ago in San Jose, is one of the oldest solar companies in the world. It has 800 employees, split between offices in Richmond and San Jose. The company pioneered the photovoltaic solar power plant business, said corporate communications director Ingrid Ekstrom, and has built 550 solar plants around the world. Last year it completed construction of the US’s largest photovoltaic plant in Florida. The company also claims to have the most efficient solar panels available on the market today.

Yet SunPower’s biggest accomplishment still lies ahead. In a few years, the company plans to erect its most massive solar power plant yet, the 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch — producing ten times more energy than the Florida plant — in a sunny valley east of San Luis Obispo. The 6.7-square-mile project, which Blue said should qualify for a treasury grant covering 30 percent of its costs, will go before a county vote in January and, once approved, take up to three years to build.

Solar Millennium, meanwhile, is planning a solar thermal plant that surpasses both the California Valley Solar Ranch and BrightSource’s Ivanpah project. If completed as proposed, the eleven-square-mile plant in Blythe, California, near the Arizona border, will be the largest solar plant of any type ever built, both in size and energy production. Solar Millennium, a subsidiary of a Germany-based corporation, will sell the plant’s 1,000 megawatts of output, enough to power approximately 300,000 homes, to Southern California Edison. The $6 billion project, which was approved by the California Energy Commission in late October and features Chevron as a leading partner, could be online by the middle of 2013.

Adjacent to the Blythe site, FirstSolar has already installed a 21-megawatt plant of its own. The company is also planning to join SunPower in San Louis Obispo County with a 500-megawatt plant that is still in the environmental review stage; spokesperson Alan Bernheimer said he expects the county to issue a final ruling sometime next year. In addition to three more California projects — including one adjacent to BrightSource’s in the Ivanpah Valley — the company is planning six out-of-state projects: three in Nevada, two in New Mexico, and one in Arizona. Together, they’ll produce more than two gigawatts of power.

FirstSolar plants, which are designed to last 25 years, use photovoltaic solar technology. Bernheimer said the company’s extensive project list makes it the largest developer of PV projects in the country. Its panels are the cheapest on the market, he noted, and boast an energy-payback time of eight months. They’re produced in Ohio, Malaysia, and Germany, with the latter country providing the bulk of the company’s business to date.

BrightSource, meanwhile, says it’s actively developing more than four gigawatts of solar thermal power at nine plants on public and private land throughout the Southwest. The company is backed by Google, Morgan Stanley, Chevron, and BP, and helmed by 45-year-old Oakland resident John Wollard, who first encountered BrightSource while working as a green-energy venture capitalist.

No project by any of these East Bay companies has escaped the environmental gauntlet unscathed, and it’s a given that FirstSolar will run into resistance of its own when it tries to develop its Stateline project next to BrightSource’s in the Ivanpah Valley. Environmental concerns have dogged BrightSource’s project since it was first proposed there in 2007, and upon the project’s completion, the company expects to have spent at least $34 million on managing them. FirstSolar’s plant is proposed to have a significantly larger footprint than BrightSource’s, and with a project border only a quarter mile away on the same side of the highway, it’s certain to run into many of the same issues. In a way, the ongoing drama in the Ivanpah Valley has become a microcosm of the wider struggle between solar power development and desert conservation.

The battle for the desert can be curiously complex, involving an array of natural resources. BrightSource’s dry-cooled, closed-loop system will use water only to wash its mirrors: one hundred acre-feet a year, enough to supply 200 homes, all drawn from underground aquifers. The company also took steps to reduce its impact on slow-growing desert plants. Mirrors will be mounted on pillars rather than concrete blocks to reduce ground impacts, vegetation surrounding the mirrors will be trimmed to eighteen inches rather than bulldozed, and species of special concern will be dug up in their natural soil and transported off-site. Meanwhile, Wachs said, grading for roads will be kept at a bare minimum. These steps will also reduce damage to fragile living desert topsoils, some of which are thousands of years old and capable of carbon sequestration equal to that of a temperate forest. However, they’ll likely be heavily impacted at less sensitive sites.

But no concern rivals the desert tortoise. From 1996 through 2009, the species was among the top recipients of state and federal funds to help endangered species. During those years, $145 million was spent on the reptile, US Fish & Wildlife Services records show — more than was spent on the grizzly bear, the gray wolf, and the bald eagle. Of that amount, $26 million came just last year. And these figures don’t include the cost of purchasing land for mitigation, which is a major expense whenever development takes place in the tortoise’s habitat. These shy, sensitive animals, which spend most of their lives underground, can die if handled improperly and are highly susceptible to environmental stresses — yet live up to one hundred years in the wild. They’ve arguably become the California desert’s marquee species.

The Ivanpah site is not included in any of the Bureau of Land Management’s special tortoise management zones, and has seen occasional off-road vehicle use and light cattle grazing. But the land still provides important tortoise habitat that conservationists will fight tooth and nail to protect, as BrightSource learned early on in the process.

The company’s initial proposal for an 11-square-mile site featuring 7 towers was quickly downgraded to a 6.3-square-mile site. Later, it was trimmed another 12 percent to appease several environmental groups who identified the north end of the site as home to particularly rich biodiversity, including a wide range of plant species and high numbers of tortoise. The final design employs 170,000 sun-tracking mirrors, or heliostats, to focus heat on three 459-foot towers topped with water-filled boilers. The resultant steam drives turbines that generate electricity before being cycled back through the system.

In June 2009, midway through the review process, the Sierra Club attempted to halt the project because of its impact on the desert tortoise. The organization requested that the solar panels be moved downhill and closer to the highway, with the uplands reserved as an area of permanent protection. But the California Energy Commission rejected the Sierra Club’s proposal on the grounds that it “would not reduce impacts in comparison with the proposed site.”

More opposition came later from the Center for Biological Diversity, which threatened to sue the company on the basis of “unacceptable impacts to endangered desert tortoise.” Within hours of the organization’s deadline to file, and after more than a month of negotiations, it reached a deal with BrightSource. Kieran Suckling, the center’s co-founder and executive director, said the agreement should preserve at least 100,000 acres, or 156 square miles, for tortoise habitat — above and beyond the mitigation required by the federal government, which typically specifies a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of mitigation lands to site acreage. Few of those acres have yet been identified, but the goal is to secure contiguous, high-quality land as close to the site as possible.

“It’s going to pretty dramatically increase protection for the desert tortoise,” said Suckling. “In this case, because BrightSource had already got the go-ahead at this location, which is not a good location, we had to work the other side of the equation, which was mitigation.”

On the Bureau of Land Management’s tortoise habitat scale of one to three, one being the most valuable, Ivanpah rates a three, representing ten to twenty tortoises per square mile. Initial surveys in 2007 at BrightSource’s Ivanpah site identified only seventeen tortoises across the entire site, a surprisingly low number. Yet three years later, just prior to groundbreaking, the company counted 23 tortoises in the 1.4-square-mile first phase alone, calling into question the accuracy of earlier surveys on whose basis the project was permitted. The company has permission to move only 38 tortoises, so if the remaining two phases turn up more than fifteen tortoises, approving agencies will have to reexamine the project’s scope.

Ultimately, when everything was finalized with the project’s design and all permits were in, BrightSource still had those 23 tortoises on its hands. To ensure their safety, the company embarked on an ambitious translocation plan. During the final two weeks of October, the company worked with seventy biologists to identify and move all of the tortoises located within the first phase’s fenced-in boundaries. The tortoises were transported by hand, one at a time, to twenty-by-twenty-meter pens, or “nurseries” in the company’s parlance, located a half-mile from the site, which are fenced in and protected from ravens with mesh.

Within the pens, the biologists re-created the tortoise’s underground burrows, facing them in the same direction, digging them at the same angle to the surface, and even stocking them with scat found in the original burrow. They also took blood samples from the tortoises in order to identify which suffer from a disease called Upper Respiratory Tract Disease, which is often fatal and has decimated tortoise populations, with the intention of quarantining sick animals. The process took two painstaking weeks, BrightSource’s Wachs said, and should ultimately leave the tortoises better off. In the spring, healthy animals will be moved to protected mitigation lands adjacent to the project site, where they’ll be monitored for three years.

The pains the company took with the translocation weren’t lost on environmentalists. When the Army’s Fort Irwin expanded two years ago in the Mojave Desert seventy miles east of Ivanpah Valley, personnel airlifted 556 tortoises to public land a few miles away. Of the 158 outfitted with tracking devices, nearly half died, mostly from coyote attacks. Ivanpah project spokesman Eventov uses the Army’s carelessness as an example of how not to handle desert tortoises. BrightSource is permitted to kill three a year for three years without receiving any fines, he said, but hopes not to kill a single one.

Yet all the good PR from the carefully orchestrated tortoise roundup took a hit on the project’s groundbreaking day in October, three weeks after it received its final permits, when reporters who had been invited by the company discovered a tortoise with a broken shell in the middle of the site. It had been run over by an off-road vehicle, not BrightSource’s crew, but the finding didn’t bode well: The tortoise problem just wouldn’t go away.

Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, says she’s most worried about cumulative impacts on the desert tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley. Together with FirstSolar’s 8.5-square-mile StateLine plant, BrightSource’s project represents the loss of valuable high-elevation desert tortoise habitat, which is of special importance given the anticipated impacts of climate change. If it’s not currently a prime spot, it will be soon, said Delfino, as tortoises seek cooler temperatures at higher elevations. But by then there may be little habitat left in the valley.

When it comes to finding land for solar projects, developers look for three things: sunlight, level terrain, and access to the power grid via transmission lines. Conservationists recognize that without these three components, utility-scale solar power plants won’t get built, but many argue that the condition of the land itself is even more critical. They want the Bureau of Land Management to limit utility-scale solar plants to previously degraded lands. Thus far, however, the agency has made it clear that it’s willing to listen to almost any proposal.

Both sides agree that current siting standards are minimal, at least on the front end. When looking at Bureau of Land Management land, developers need only steer clear of a small number of designated conservation areas. Beyond that, the field is wide open. Even “Desert Wildlife Management Areas,” which provide critical habitat for desert tortoises, are on the table — though surface disturbance is limited to 1 percent of the total area, and development of those areas is likely to prove difficult and costly.

Making matters worse, conservationists say, developers are allowed to lead the permitting process. The Bureau of Land Management offers little in the way of direction. The bureau and the Department of Energy have identified four “solar energy study areas” throughout the California desert comprising more than 350,000 acres, or 547 square miles, but companies are by no means compelled to stay within them. Furthermore, the designated areas include plenty of high-quality habitat, and some unprotected Bureau of Land Management lands are just as pristine as those within the Mojave National Preserve, said April Sall, conservation director for Wildlands Conservancy and chair of the California Desert Coalition.

When a company has identified a plot of land it likes, it invests time and money in studying the site: surveying the land, assessing the environment, and measuring sunlight — all without the benefit of any comprehensive plan pertaining to desert resources. If the plot checks out from the business standpoint, the company will try to find a buyer for the power — usually a large utility company like PG&E — and draw up plans and a draft environmental impact statement in hopes of obtaining a permit. The proposal will then be evaluated by both the Bureau of Land Management and the California Energy Commission, pass through two public comment periods plus California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Policy Act reviews, and finally seek the Department of the Interior’s stamp of approval. This requires at least eighteen months of round-the-clock work, even for fast-tracked projects.

Developers insist it’s a rigorous process designed to reduce environmental impacts, thoroughly vet the best projects, and weed out the worst ones. Yet in the Bureau of Land Management’s rush to qualify major projects for federal grants and loans, environmentalists see a fatal flaw. “The tail is wagging the dog,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Kieran Suckling, “and they’re just running around following the developers.”

Suckling joins Sall in calling for a system based on avoidance rather than mitigation. That means siting projects on low-quality lands such as old agricultural plots, strips adjacent to highways, and otherwise trashed and non-restorable sites. “There are hundreds of thousands of acres of disturbed lands that are already available for solar,” Sall said. “If this was truly about saving the environment and responsible renewable energy development, then companies should be interested in developing more appropriate sites.” As far as she’s concerned, however, not a single large-scale solar project has yet been proposed on suitably degraded public lands.

Ileene Anderson, biologist and public lands deserts director for the Center for Biological Diversity, feels similarly: “When we saw this wall of projects that were encroaching on public lands that were undisturbed, we asked the developers if they could move their projects onto disturbed private lands.” What she heard in response, she said, was resounding silence.

The reason lies at the bottom line. “A lot of the siting is more dependent on economic factors,” said the Bureau of Land Management’s Pogacnik. And perhaps the most important economic factor is the proximity of suitable transmission lines, which are in relatively limited supply throughout the state and can be extremely expensive and time-consuming to build. Transmission-line costs can in fact outweigh the cost of the plant itself. That’s why FirstSolar and BrightSource chose to build in the Ivanpah Valley, even if its habitat is relatively intact: Transmission lines literally loom over both sites. And that saves money. Granted, the financial motive works both ways: Environmental management and mitigation costs can make sensitive and unspoiled lands far more costly to develop. The result is a messy push-and-pull.

A massive document called the Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement was supposed to solve all this. The Bureau of Land Management and Department of Energy have been touting it since May 2008, and in June 2009 the former agency’s Acting State Director Jim Abbott promised it to the House Natural Resources Committee by the end of the year. Nearly a year past his deadline, it still hasn’t been released — though word is it will finally be available around December 15.

The document should provide developers and environmentalists a hefty 10,000 pages of guidance, including detailed maps showing where and where not to develop, plus preliminary site-specific environmental analyses. The report will ban development in some of the most environmentally sensitive areas while calling attention to degraded lands that are ideal for solar development. By the time it finally arrives, however, it’ll be too late to alter the courses of the country’s first generation of large-scale solar power plants.

The report also won’t make up for the extensive gaps in our knowledge of desert ecosystems. “We never know if we’ve made the right decisions today based on what the environment’s going to give us in the next thirty years,” said Pogacnik. This applies to siting as much as to mitigation; populations move around, and the brief snapshots provided by environmental impact reports and pre-construction survey aren’t necessarily accurate; they’re just the best information available at the time. This is why, said Pogacnik, all mitigation efforts and environmental concerns such as wildlife populations and erosion at plant sites will be monitored on an ongoing basis. Yet mistakes made in a slow-moving ecosystem like the desert can have permanent effects.

It wasn’t long ago that popular culture regarded the desert as an environmental wasteland, and our familiarity with many of its denizens remains relatively cursory. According to Anderson, four rare plants were identified at the BrightSource Ivanpah location that no one previously knew were there. On the site of a 664-megawatt Tessera project called Calico in the Mojave Desert, a survey turned up a greater density of desert tortoise than in designated conservation areas, plus a new plant species undescribed by science. At another proposed Tessera project site, a new population of endangered bighorn sheep was discovered.

Then there was the Solar Millennium site called Ridgecrest that was known to provide valuable habitat to the state-listed Mojave ground squirrel, found only in the western part of the desert. Solar Millennium had proposed half of its site on a Mojave ground squirrel conservation area, and instead of doing preliminary studies, was prepared to heavily mitigate its impacts on the squirrel. However, when surveys were finally conducted, a large, healthy, and “biologically picture-perfect” population of desert tortoise was discovered, Anderson said. For these reasons, the California Energy Commission denied the company’s application; it’s currently on hiatus, but not cancelled.

Anderson’s colleague Kieran Suckling, meanwhile, has set his sights on another Solar Millennium project: Blythe, the 7,000-acre leviathan planned for Riverside County. Its siting is even worse than BrightSource’s Ivanpah project, Suckling said, and environmental discoveries made there could be even more game-changing. “Blythe is a real problem,” he said. “It’s gonna run into a juggernaut of opposition.”

From the perspective of environmentalists, the current outlook offers little in the way of practical solutions. For now, they’ve placed their hope in the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to provide developers strict guidelines on where to develop and where to avoid — what Sall called “solar goal areas” and “solar exclusionary areas.”

In its absence, however, a coalition of ten environmental groups has drafted its own siting criteria and a detailed map identifying proposed new solar energy study areas. The map includes a total of 103 square miles on public land and another 211 privately owned. According to Sall, the Wildlands Conservancy has submitted the map to the Bureau of Land Management for consideration and discussed it individually with all of the major solar companies. However, the Bureau of Land Management has yet to adopt any official siting criteria, and none of the companies has adopted their recommendations, Sall said.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a longtime champion of the desert who helped establish Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Mojave National Preserve with her 1994 Desert Protection Act, has also gotten involved. She recently authored the California Desert Protection Act of 2010, which would set aside more than one million additional acres for conservation as well as streamline the process for evaluating solar energy proposals by fast-tracking only those sited on private land or disturbed public land, effectively leaving those proposed for pristine public lands out in the cold.

The bill has the support of Southern California Edison, the country’s largest purchaser of renewable energy, but is currently tied up in limbo after a Senate hearing in May. Spokesman Tom Mentzer said the bill is still a priority for Senator Feinstein, and that her staff is actively seeking ways to push it through.

As these environmental issues slowly work themselves out, solar companies like BrightSource, FirstSolar, Solar Millennium, and SunPower will continue doing what they do best: supplying as much solar power as they can to our nation’s energy grid — not only to survive as for-profit businesses, but also to help ease our dependence on non-renewable and greenhouse gas-generating power. “All of the companies that are doing renewable energy projects believe that they’re doing something good,” said Defenders of Wildlife’s Kim Delfino, who has been critical of solar development procedures to date. “This has been a learning experience for everybody.”


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