Will solar energy plants cause irreparable harm to endangered flora and fauna?

http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/local/story/840092.html
Saturday, Sep. 05, 2009
Solar mecca
Plans to build three large energy plants on the Carrizo Plain could turn SLO County into a nationwide pioneer — but the proposals aren’t without critics, who say the industrial uses would cause irreparable harm to the area’s environment and wildlife
By By David Sneed | dsneed@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County could become the nation’s leader in solar energy if three large-scale commercial solar plants are approved to start operating near the Carrizo Plain National Monument.

Two are photovoltaic plants that use solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity. According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, they would be the two largest photovoltaic systems in the world.

The third would also be the world’s largest of its kind: a solar thermal plant that uses the sun’s heat to drive electrical steam generators.
Click image to see caption

The setting sun silhouettes existing transmission lines and a landscape of hills edging the Carrizo Plain. The lines would carry energy generated at three proposed solar plants to the California grid and are a key reason for the choice of location.

The plants could be online as early as 2013. Together, they would produce 977 megawatts of power, enough electricity to serve more than 100,000 homes. Not only are the plants large, they are also on track to be some of the first to come online, said Sue Kateley, executive director of the California chapter of the Solar Energy Industry Association.

“San Luis Obispo County could be the first to see the actual shovels in the ground,” she said.

Several factors are driving this unprecedented growth of solar power.

One is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ambitious goal of having 33 percent of the state’s power come from renewable sources by 2020. State and federal tax breaks also encourage the quick development of renewable energy sources.

All three plants are still in the planning phase with state and county officials processing construction applications, but little seems to stand in the way of their eventual approval. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has signed contracts to purchase all the power they will produce.

The solar projects will pump millions of dollars into the county and help diversify an economy dominated by government and tourism jobs. Other renewable energy projects could follow.

But they will also carry a hefty environmental price.

Two of the plants will occupy nearly 10 square miles and feature millions of photovoltaic panels, concentrated in the top third of the Carrizo Plain, which covers hundreds of square miles.

The third plant will be a highly industrialized, steam-driven power plant covering one square mile and complete with nearly 200 mirror assemblies and 115-foot-tall cooling towers.

They will be built in one of the last remnants of grassland in California, an ecosystem so rare that it contains the state’s highest concentration of endangered plants and animals. They will also sit astride migration pathways used by tule elk and pronghorn antelope.

Public sentiment is divided on the issue.

Many welcome the plants, with some conservationists arguing that sparsely populated California Valley is the ideal location for the projects. Others lament the radical changes they will bring to a stark but beautiful place, saying they will take too heavy a toll on a host of species teetering on the brink of extinction.

A handful of people will be profoundly affected. More than 30 homes are in the vicinity of the plants, and several will be completely surrounded by photovoltaic panels.

Residents of California Valley will deal with increased traffic, noise and lights at night. Additional demands will be made on the area’s already scarce water resources.

But the biggest impact will be the transformation of a vast pastoral landscape populated by more cattle than people into a major commercial electrical generation center.

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The effects three solar plants on California grasslands

Monday, Sep. 07, 2009
Tribune special report: Valley of life
Though the Carrizo Plain may look like a desolate, inhospitable landscape, the remote grasslands are actually home to California’s largest concentration of endangered species, many of which live in underground burrows and are very rarely seen
By David Sneed | dsneed@thetribunenews.com

To the motorist passing on Highway 58, California Valley can look like a whole lot of nothing — brown flatlands nearly devoid of vegetation and inhabited by the occasional cow or raven.

If you’re lucky, you can catch sight of a pronghorn antelope or tule elk grazing in the distance.

But to the trained eye of a biologist like John Davis, the valley is full of signs of a vibrant wildlife community living in the state’s last remnant of grassland. Many of the animals live underground in this treeless environment, coming out only at night.
Click image to see caption

Biologists from URS Corp. — a Santa Barbara-based construction consulting firm — walk in lines while conducting a survey for blunt-nosed leopard lizards on SunPower’s Carrizo Plain site.

Of all the effects the three solar plants will have on the environment of the area, none are as significant as the wildlife impacts.

“Wildlife is the big issue,” said San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Jim Patterson, whose district includes the Carrizo Plain.

“The projects cover so much ground,” he added. “One of the major characteristics of the Carrizo is the multiple rare and endangered species found there.” The Carrizo Plain is the last remnant of grassland in the state.

The solar companies and the state Energy Commission are taking a coordinated look at wildlife issues. The effort has sparked controversy — the solar companies want some of the results of the study kept confidential because it may identify which lands they must purchase as mitigation and that could drive prices up.

Looking for lizards

Davis recently led a team of 24 biologists who were surveying a portion of the area that is proposed to be the site of SunPower’s California Valley Solar Ranch along the valley’s eastern edge.

SunPower hired Davis’ employer, URS Corp., a Santa Barbara-based construction consulting firm, to survey the more than three square miles on which the company will build the plant. One day recently, the URS team went looking for blunt-nosed leopard lizards, one of more than 70 rare and endangered animals that live in the area.

None were found — just as none of the lizards have been found on the other two proposed solar sites. But lots of other rare animals have been seen, including burrowing owls, San Joaquin kit foxes, coast horned lizards, the San Joaquin coachwhip snake and kangaroo rats.

Davis thinks the absence of the lizard is due to the fact that the valley is a marginal habitat for them. This site will be surveyed 12 times before biologists are satisfied that none live there.

“You can’t rule them out just because the habitat is marginal,” he said. “That’s why we do these presence/absence surveys.”

The biologists form a line, each person about 100 feet apart. They begin to walk. Occasionally, one stops to examine a hole in the ground or peer through binoculars at the landscape ahead.

The first thing that stands out is that the ground is full of holes. The holes range from large ones where kit foxes have made their dens or badgers have tunneled after ground squirrels to ones so small you could barely insert a pencil where pocket mice have made their dens.

But the most impressive are kangaroo rat dens — complexes, really. They feature numerous holes, both horizontal and vertical, leading to a network of tunnels. Areas of barren dirt mark where the rats have taken dust baths to eliminate parasites.

Some areas are covered with brown vegetative mats where the rats store red brome seeds, their burrs knitted together to prevent them from blowing away. The ground is also pockmarked with small pits where other grass seeds are stowed.

Davis stoops to measure the diameter of the holes. Biologists are uncertain exactly which species of kangaroo rat is making the holes — the endangered giant kangaroo rat or its more diminutive and more common cousin, the Heermann’s variety.

Before European Americans settled California, much of the Central Valley was covered with massive expanses of grass that hosted numerous herds of deer, antelope and elk.

Those grasslands were converted to farms and oil fields. Only the Carrizo Plain was spared because it lacked enough oil and water to be commercially viable.

This last fragile grassland remnant is so ecologically valuable that President Bill Clinton established the Carrizo Plain National Monument in the waning hours of his presidency in 2000 to protect it.

California Valley, comprising the plain’s northern end, was not included because it had been the most intensely farmed and is where the area’s few residents live.

Fox habitat

Of the myriad of rare species that survive in the Carrizo Plain, none is as important as the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. Populations of the little canine are scattered from the Carrizo northwest into Monterey County and Camp Roberts.

Ensuring that the three proposed solar plants do not block the fox’s migration routes, destroy den habitat or otherwise reduce its chances for survival will be the biggest challenge faced by the solar companies and state and federal wildlife managers.

“The kit fox is what we call an umbrella species,” said Dave Hacker, a state environmental scientist based in San Luis Obispo, who is monitoring wildlife issues associated with the solar farms. “If you can meet the conservation needs of the kit fox you can meet the needs of the other species in the area.”

Unfortunately, the proposed solar farms sit smack dab in the middle of the fox’s migration routes, as well as those of tule elk and pronghorn antelope. Because the fox is federally listed as endangered, its conservation needs far outweigh those of the elk and antelope.

Clearing a pathway

The two sprawling photovoltaic plants will have the biggest potential impact on the fox. Consequently, the companies say they have designed their projects to be as fox-friendly as possible.

Steps they plan on taking include raising the solar panels some 18 inches off the ground to allow the fox to move through the area and maintain a clear line of sight in order to avoid predators.

They plan to provide fencing around the plants that will allow the fox passage. Both photovoltaic plants have also scrapped plans to use concrete pedestals as foundations for their panel arrays in favor of sinking the foundation poles a short way into the ground.

Wildlife officials say this arrangement maximizes visibility for the fox. Not having to mix concrete also reduces water consumption.

Because the wildlife impacts are so important, the state Energy Commission has hired the consulting firm South Coast Wildlands to perform a wildlife corridor study that will look at the cumulative impacts of all three solar plants, said John Kessler, the commission’s Carrizo Plain project manager.

“The goal of this study is to provide and maintain an equivalent alternate corridor for wildlife as is utilized currently, considering the proposed project effects,” he said.

In spite of these efforts, the three solar plants will inevitably destroy or degrade wildlife habitat. The standard way to offset those impacts is to permanently conserve alternative habitat to replace it.

Ausra has options to purchase six square miles of nearby land to offset the environmental impact of its one-square-mile proposed solar thermal plant.

Similarly, SunPower is planning to use only about three square miles of the nearly seven square miles it has acquired, with the rest available for wildlife mitigation. First Solar has reduced the footprint of its project by 2,000 acres which would be available for wildlife mitigations.

The commission hopes to have the corridor study complete sometime this fall. The state Department of Fish and Game will then use the information to decide mitigation measures each plant must undertake.

“Wildlife cannot be worse off after these projects are built,” Hacker said. “That can be a challenge when you are looking at large-scale projects like these.”

Secret info?

The possibility that the solar companies will have to purchase additional land for wildlife mitigation has generated a controversy. The solar companies have requested that parts of the study be kept confidential.

They are afraid that if the study identifies certain properties for mitigation, the price of those properties could increase.

“This type of volatility could potentially have a negative impact on corridor mitigation activities, the interests of local landowners and the advancement of development of solar energy projects,” said Ausra spokeswoman Katherine Potter in a prepared statement.

California Valley residents are fighting the confidentiality effort as unnecessary. They say that property owners in the area are already well aware of the solar projects and would take them into consideration if they received any purchase offers.

Confidentiality would also limit public participation in the study, which has been valuable in increasing its accuracy, opponents say. A decision on the request is pending.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.

Advisory Committee Details for Carrizo

Taft: Carrizo Plain Advisory Committee Members Re-appointed, Watson and Hatch Retain Seats
September 04, 2009

Carrizo Plain National Monument Advisory Committee members have been re-appointed by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
The nine-member committee advises the Secretary and the Bureau of Land Management on resource management issues at the monument, which sits on the border between San Luis Obispo and Kern counties.
“The Carrizo Plain, one of America’s great landscapes, is home to diverse communities of wildlife and plant species, is an area culturally important to Native Americans and is traversed by the San Andreas Fault,” said Tim Smith, BLM Bakersfield Field Office manager. “I look forward to the committee’s continuing advice and recommendations as we work together to manage these valuable public lands.”
Committee members were appointed to staggered terms to allow a transition to full three-year terms.
The following council members were re-appointed:
Dale Kuhnle, Santa Margarita, a rancher representing those authorized to graze livestock (three-year term).
Neil Havlik, Ph.D (Chairman), San Luis Obispo, natural resources manager for the city of San Luis Obispo representing the public-at-large (two-year term).
Ellen Cypher, Ph.D, Bakersfield, a plant ecologist and research ecologist with the Endangered Species Recovery Program representing the public-at-large (one-year term).
Michael Khus-Zarate, Fresno, an educator and member of the Carrizo Plain Native American Advisory Council (three-year term).
Raymond Watson, Bakersfield, a member of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, District 4 (two-year term).
Jim Patterson, Atascadero, a member of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, District 5 (one-year term).
Carl Twisselman, McKittrick, a rancher and member of the BLM Central California Resource Advisory Committee (two-year term).
Raymond Hatch, Taft, former mayor of Taft representing the public-at-large (three-year term).
Robert Pavlik, San Luis Obispo, environmental planner representing the public-at-large (one-year term).

BLM Celebrates National Public Lands Day at Carrizo Plain National Monument, et al

BLM Celebrates National Public Lands Day at 14 sites in California
September 04, 2009

On NPLD 2009- volunteers and BLM staff will renovate the Soda Lake Overlook and the Soda Lake Boardwalk. These sites are the first place most visitors stop and the most visited sites at the monument so the receive most of the wear and tear. Barriers around the parking lot will be replaced, the trails will be resurfaced and the interpretive displays will be renovated.
To celebrate National Public Lands Day (NPLD), hundreds of volunteers will work to improve the quality of their public lands at 14 selected Bureau of Land Management sites in California. Volunteers will perform trail and campground maintenance, clean-up illegal dump sites, remove invasive plants and restore areas back to their natural state.
“National Public Lands Day has grown significantly,” said BLM Acting State Director Jim Abbott. “What began a decade ago with one or two sites has grown into a major volunteer effort at over a dozen locations.”
Some of the activities include renovating the Soda Lake overlook and boardwalk at the Carrizo Plain National Monument in San Luis Obispo County; planting native seeds at Fort Ord in Monterey County; hiking to a remote location in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument in Riverside County to remove invasive plants; conducting an interactive “Caring for the Land” exhibit at the Los Angeles County Fair; and taking intercity youth for an overnight excursion to El Mirage Dry Lake Bed in San Bernardino County to clean-up trash and campout overnight.
The official National Public Lands Day is September 26, when most of the volunteer events will take place, but some sites are holding their events on different dates. The first National Public Lands Day event in California is August 28 & 29, at the newly designated Bitner Area of Critical Environmental Concern in Modoc County. The last event will take place in partnership with the National Park Service at its Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County on November 7. For a complete list of dates, sites and how to volunteer, visit the BLM volunteer website at http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/res/volunteers.html.
National Public Lands Day is the largest volunteer hands-on activity o fits kind in the nation. Held the last Saturday in September each year, National Public Lands Day brings together thousands of individuals and organizations to refurbish and restore the country’s public lands.

Advisory Committee Appointed by Salazar for Carrizo

SLO County

A nine-member advisory committee for the Carrizo Plain National Monument has been reappointed by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

The committee advises the Bureau of Land Management on resource management issues in the sprawling monument in San Luis Obispo County’s southeastern corner. Four of the members, including the chairman, are from San Luis Obispo County.

They are: Dale Kuhnle, Santa Margarita rancher; Chairman Neil Havlik, city of San Luis Obispo natural resources manager; Jim Patterson, county supervisor from Atascadero; and Robert Pavlik, San Luis Obispo environmental planner.

Other members are: Ellen Cypher, Bakersfield ecologist; Michael Khus-Zarate, Fresno educator; Raymond Watson, Kern County supervisor from Bakersfield; Carl Twisselman, McKittrick rancher; and Raymond Hatch, former mayor of Taft.

David Sneed