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Desert Issues

Desert Survivors Issues Report, December 5, 2009


Basin and Range Watch has developed an amazing website detailing threats to the Mojave Desert ecosystem, especially from solar collectors. So good is it that we at Desert Survivors feel no urgency to manufacture our own web array about the subject; we’ll be satisfied with links. Kevin Emmerich and Laura Cunningham have their attention on many of the solar threats, plus wind, mining, off-road and dumps, anything that messes up our beautiful land for a dubious temporary gain.

Three links are below. The first gives access to the home page. The second will put you on the page of Desert Protection Issues Alerts so you can read the sheer volume of the threats we face. It’s a sobering assessment.

The third, entitled “Last Spring at Ivanpah”, is my favorite. It illustrates what will be lost if the first of California’s proposed solar plants, the 5.3 square-mile Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station (ISEGS), slated for Ivanpah Valley near the Nevada border on Interstate-15, is constructed, as is expected next year. In the Spring of 2009, Kevin and Laura went to the Ivanpah site to view and photograph the amazing wildflower show that had taken over the valley. They found plenty of flowers and desert tortoise burrows, plus old-growth stands of cactus and yuccas that had lived there for dozens or hundreds of years. This place is not the Sahara or your typical Las Vegas vacant lot, nor is it a barren asphalt shingle or tar-and-stone California rooftop. It’s alive and grown to an amazing variety of desert plants and well-adapted wildlife. This is what we will lose if we allow solar power in the desert to go forward.

Home Page http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/
Issues Alerts http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/Alerts.html
Last Spring at Ivanpah http://www.basinandrangewatch.org/Ivanpah-Wildflowers.html

In February, Desert Survivors will travel to the Ivanpah site to see the land for ourselves on a scheduled trip. See our Winter Trip Schedule so you can sign up. Meanwhile, below are some pictures taken by Kevin and Laura to whet your appetite for the BRW site. The pictures are theirs, the captions are my own. Enjoy the desert while you can! These should be an inspiration to you to get out to the desert, AND to get active in protecting it.

Ivanpah Solar Electric site - Click for larger image

The Ivanpah Solar Electric site is an amazing mix of old-growth cactus and yuccas on a sloping alluvial fan. The ecosystem here is truly inspiring. It is located here because of proximity to a natural gas line which is needed as a power assist at night and on cloudy days, and because it is close to Las Vegas casinos which will use the power for air-conditioning, and because public land is free to corporations who pay off politicians.

Cactus - Click for larger image

Barrel cactus, buckhorn cholla and pencil cholla are three of the large old-growth plants found on the site, along with Mojave yuccas. Other plants found are creosote bush, burro bush (Ambrosia), desert fir, desert almond, purple sage, turpentine broom, and many more.

Cooper Dyssodia - Click for larger image

Cooper Dyssodia is just one of the many wildflowers photographed by Kevin and Laura in April of 2009. Try planting this on your rooftop alongside your solar collector. Corporate solar developers don't think in terms of desert ecology or any other kind of ecology. They have venture capitalists to pay off at exorbitant rates. Cooper Dyssodia does not grow well in Silicon Valley.

Little Gold Poppy - Click for larger image

The fragile Little Gold Poppy does not handle bulldozers well. It cares little for media hype and slick corporate prospectuses. Maybe it should. Maybe we all should. The poppy has little chance to protect itself from mean men and their machines, whether it's warming or cooling on its little patch of ground. That's why it needs big people like us to protect it. It's good to see your bright yellow smile, Child. We hope to see it again. Maybe we need to make sure that we will see it again by engaging in some kind of action.

This small limestone hill or inselberg - Click for larger image

This small limestone hill or inselberg is a prominent feature of the Ivanpah site. It is the home of exotic species of plants and provides shelter to animals and perches for hunting raptors. The ground below it is slated for some of the 5.3 square miles of solar collectors. If the Obama (formerly Bush) Administration has its way, 1000 square miles of desert will be chopped up and scraped to fulfill the fantasy of the new solar universe. Those of us who love the desert have other values.


Below is an article I wrote for the Summer 2009 issue of the SURVIVOR on the Ivanpah plant. Since its publication, BrightSource has applied for an $800,000,000 loan from the U.S. Government to help pay for its $1,000,000,000 construction cost (Source: Contra Costa Times, November 11, 2009). The company has reportedly raised only $160,000,000, despite years of planning, reams of favorable publicity, and a regulatory go-ahead to construct (Silicon Valley Frontlines, November 19, 2009).


By Steve Tabor

The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the giant Ivanpah Solar Power Generation station near Stateline, Nevada has been published. Three separate plants are designed to act in concert. Each is a boiler facility with large mirrors to collect heat from the sun’s rays and direct them to a central collection point where water is boiled to drive a turbine. Each has a natural gas assist to keep the boiler hot and to generate power on cloudy days. The entire array and support buildings will consume 3,400 acres of pristine desert, about 5.3 square miles of “non-carbon footprint”. Like other large-scale solar plants already constructed in the desert, its power will be used primarily for air-conditioners, in this case to cool Las Vegas casinos. The California Energy Commission (CEC) prospectus on the plant does not mention any nighttime power generation. See the CEC website <http://www.energy.ca.gov/sitingcases/ivanpah/index.html> for plant specifications.

The total “capacity” of the three plants together is given as “400 megawatts” in the CEC prospectus. The term “capacity”, sometimes translated in the media as “enough to power XXX,000 homes” (don’t bet on it), refers to the maximum power output of a facility under ideal conditions. The rated capacity of this array, “400 megawatts”, is what the plant will produce in full sun when the sun is shining. The mirrors will be tilted to concentrate the maximum of rays at any given moment. Maximum utilization of the sun’s rays will be from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm Standard Time (or 10:00 am to 4:00 pm Daylight Time). A lesser concentration can be expected during daylight hours before and after that peak, due to lower sun angle. (Peak sunshine happens to be the time of day when air-conditioners are most needed in Las Vegas casinos. When evening comes, you can open your shirt a bit to show some chest hairs, especially if you’re up on the big stage sweating for the ladies.)

The actual output of the facility will be much lower than its rating. When the sun isn’t shining it will simply be eating up capital outlay with no profit accruing to the investors, or for that matter, to the taxpayers and the ratepayers, who shall have subsidized its construction with their tax dollars and bill payments and will continue to subsidize its daily output until they get tired of footing the bill and boot out the legislators and administrative functionaries who saddled them with such an over-hyped white elephant.

The mirrors in each plant heat water to steam, which then drives a turbine. An activist did some research and noted that a large consumptive use of water is expected at this facility, a puzzling fact since the prospectus states that it will not be water-cooled. He started looking through staff reports on the plan. Most of the water required would be used to wash the mirrors each night. This will be done by slowly driving diesel trucks through the complex, spraying water on the mirrors. There is no reclamation of water planned; the water is expected to evaporate during the next day.

Diesel emissions are also expected from the project. Since solar mirrors and the boilers do not employ diesel, it is clear that the fuel will be burned by trucks during the mirror washing. CO2 emissions from the nightly forays of the trucks will certainly offset at least some of the carbon savings claimed for the plant; how much is unclear. Ironically, dust (PM10 particulates) will be raised from the ground by the trucks that are supposed to washing dust off the mirrors! (If this sounds like a Rube Goldberg contraption, so be it.) Calculations indicate that the particulates raised would be about the same as that spewed out by a plant of the same capacity burning natural gas alone.

Engineers from decades past have long criticized solar as a waste of effort. Getting power from the sun is not as simple or pure as it seems, and the meager output of energy and low efficiency of any of the designs leaves little margin for error, or for profit. The plants consume a large area of land for a small return due to the weakness of the sun’s rays. For example, the Kramer Junction SEGS mirror-boiler plant profiled in the Winter 2008 SURVIVOR, with its one square-mile “footprint”, would have to be expanded to 33 square miles to equal the output of one 1000-megawatt conventional power plant, which would itself fit on a few hundred acres. The SEGS’s rated capacity is “335 megawatts”, but with 25% of its power coming from natural gas and with other inefficiencies not stated in ITS prospectus, it proves out at only 77 megawatts of solar-generated electricity on average. I have no figures on how many thousands of “homes” that translates to.

This is also true of photovoltaics. A postal facility in LA County the size of a football field has a photovoltaic array on its roof. It provides 10% of the facility’s electricity DURING THE DAY. To provide 100% of the power needed during the day, you’d have to cover ten football fields with collectors. To provide power for all three shifts, at night and when the sun is not shining, you’d need 50 or 60 football fields of collectors and some kind of battery system for storage during the 16 hours of low sun or no sun. The array on this building was put up in 2002. To date the rest of the collectors needed to take the facility “off the grid” have not yet been constructed. Doubtless there would be quite a protest if homeowners in the neighborhood found out that their houses would have to destroyed to make the plant “self-sufficient in renewables”.

This information should prompt a revaluation of the entire process of promoting “renewables”, which can only be accomplished with government subsidies and by administrative coercion. Subsidies of 10% going back to the 1970s have resulted in a 1% production of the nation’s electricity from solar after thirty years of government cash and rebates. That is another way of saying that natural gas, oil, coal and nuclear are paying for solar experimentation. There is no reason to believe that the proposed new subsidy of 30% will succeed in overcoming the multiple deficiencies of this technology.

All Western states except Idaho and Wyoming now have “renewable” mandates of 15-25% to be constructed by 2010-2025 “or else”. These mandates are necessary because no one in his right mind would invest his or her hard-earned money for such a meager return without some “help”. Inefficient sources of electricity like wind and solar are known as “flea power” in the industry. Low-power energy sources that are good for remote rural dwellers who have no electric grid nearby (and do not want to pay the $20,000 per mile needed to build a line) will not be enough to run an urban industrial society. A mandate is a gun to the head. It’s not likely that U.S. taxpayers and ratepayers will embrace such a method, especially if it means higher electric rates as well. Watch for a mean backlash down the pike, along about 2015 or 2020.

In past decades, government subsidies were given to companies building plants with mixed sources, so long as the solar component is 75%, and other fuels (usually natural gas) are limited to 25% or less, as with the Kramer facility mentioned above. We now have reports of a gas/solar plant proposed for the Victorville area that is slated for 10% solar and 90% (sic) natural gas. This plant will of course have the benefit of drawing water from the Mojave River, if pre-existing water rights are not fully allocated. It’s hard to believe that this would even be regarded as a “solar” (“renewable”) plant for subsidy purposes, but the state or federal administration may allow such subsidies and may even be waiving environmental reviews and forcing application approvals on just such a subterfuge. “Renewable” energy is beginning to look like Scam City all over again, joining the Vietnam War, Reagan’s “Star Wars”, the S & Ls, Enron, energy deregulation, the dot-coms, “weapons of mass destruction”, the housing boom and bust, derivative hypes, Nadoff-style Ponzi schemes, and on and on and on....... It never ends.

In May, the Discovery Channel took on the issue of Big Solar. Larry O'Hanlon is a science writer for Discovery.com and made a wonderful page about the Ivanpah issue as well as the whole debate on renewables on public lands.


This is the most even-handed treatment of the issue of public lands degradation from “renewables” that I've yet seen in the mainstream media (MSM). Carl Zichella, who is quoted there, is the Sierra Club zealot we had to deal with at public meetings last year. He is starting to sound more conciliatory and less bull-headed now than he did then, but he's still an alarmist with a clear agenda. Daniel Patterson of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is also featured. Formerly of the Center for Biological Diversity, Daniel’s commitment to public lands is unswerving. We have worked with him on many issues. On the Discovery website, he seems wedded to the “global warming” hype, but his stance on preserving desert public lands is right-on.

Kevin Emmerich and his wife, members of Desert Survivors, took the photographs portraying the beauty of the land that may/will be lost. And yes, that is Ivanpah Valley in Kevin and Laura's slideshow. I was just down there in April and I recognize the inselberg out in the valley.


California Energy Commission: <http://www.energy.ca.gov/sitingcases/ivanpah/index.html>

Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy won’t Run the World, Second Edition, 2004; Howard C. Hayden, Vale Lakes Publishing, PO Box 7595, Pueblo West CO 81007-0595; <www.energyadvocate.com>

The Discovery Channel: http://dsc.discovery.com/earth/wide-angle/green-energy-gone-wild.html

“It’s Not Unusual”, Tom Jones, Vanity Records, Las Vegas NV, 1972.