Fact Checking NASA: A Missed Landing on Ivanpah Dry Lake

Ivanpah solar project from space | Photo: NASA

We're huge fans of NASA's Earth Observatory website here at ReWire, so it pains us to report that the site got something badly wrong on Sunday. It put a controversial solar power plant in the wrong place, despite clear evidence in the post's photo, reprinted above: a Landsat 8 photo of the Ivanpah Valley taken in December 2013.

The post, written to describe the image of the day, makes the error in the second paragraph: "The new solar power plant sits within Ivanpah Dry Lake on 3,500 acres of public land that sees 330 to 350 sunny days per year." The error even extends to the post's title: Harvesting Sunlight on the Playa. (Update: NASA changed the second paragraph after this post was published; the headline remains unchanged.)

What's the problem? The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS), which officially went online last month, was not built "within Ivanpah Dry Lake," a.k.a "the playa." The project is actually several miles uphill from the dry lake, on an alluvial fan once teeming with wildlife. A half-trained eye could look at the Landsat image and see that's so. And here's why that distinction is important.

National Park Service Slams Solar Project Near Mojave Preserve

Part of the Soda Mountain Solar Project site | Photo: Courtesy © Michael Gordon

The National Park Service isn't happy about a proposal to build a large solar facility on almost 4,200 acres next door to the Mojave National Preserve. The agency is citing the project's threats to wildlife, rare plants, groundwater, air quality, and wilderness characteristics of the 1.6 million acre unit.

The Soda Mountain Solar Project, which would be built by Bechtel on either side of Interstate 15 along the northwest edge of the Preserve, would pose serious threats to bighorn sheep, desert tortoises, migratory birds, and one of the rarest fish in the world, according to a comment letter on the project's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) filed by Preserve Superintendent Stephanie Dubois.

The project would generate a maximum of 350 megawatts of power by putting solar panels on more than half the project's total footprint: about 2,200 acres. But environmental advocates are saying that the project's damage to the Preserve isn't worth the energy the plant would generate -- especially considering no one seems to be interested in buying the power.

Riverside County Approves Large Desert Solar Project

The McCoy Solar Energy Project would occupy the desert shown in the right foreground. Cleared area is part of the Blythe solar project | Photo: Chris Clarke / KCET

A solar project that would cover almost six and a half square miles of the California desert near Blythe jumped one of its its final regulatory hurdles this week. On Tuesday, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors gave unanimous approval to the 4,096-acre McCoy Solar Energy Project, which would generate a maximum of 750 megawatts of power if it's completely built out.

Finishing the full project would require willing buyers for the project's power. At the moment, the project's owner NextEra Energy Resources has only found a taker for 250 megawatts, a third of the plant's eventual maximum output. Construction on that portion of the project is set to begin late this year, with the power going to Southern California Edison.

Filling up the buyer list for the remaining 500 megawatts may take NextEra some time, as California utilities get closer to meeting their obligations under the state law that requires they get a third of their power from renewables by 2020. In the meantime, the McCoy plant -- lauded in 2012 by the federal government as "one of the largest renewable energy projects" it had approved -- continues to raise environmentalist concerns.

Desert Solar Power Plant a Risk to Air Safety, Say Pilots

Pilots are saying the Ivanpah solar facility is sending unwanted glare their way | Photo: avgeekjoe/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Pilots flying both private and commercial aircraft near Las Vegas have filed complaints abut possible unsafe conditions caused by a large solar power plant in the Mojave Desert, according to documents filed with a state agency, and Las Vegas officials are urging the plant's designer to do something about the problem.

According to a March 10 letter from the Las Vegas McCarran Airport's Planning Manager Teresa Motley, pilot complaints of unsafe glare from the tens of thousands of billboard-sized mirrors at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) have been coming in since at least August 2013, with at least one pilot saying the glare from the facility interfered with the crew's ability to scan the sky for nearby aircraft.

Officials with the Clark County Department of Aviation (CCDOA), which runs McCarran and oversees other regional airports, are urging project designer BrightSource Energy to measure glare from the facility and include its findings in the compliance reports the project's owners file monthly with the California Energy Commission (CEC).

New Study Yanks Away Glimmer of Hope on Climate Change

Bad news on the climate change front | Photo: A. Vicente/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A September paper by the world's leading body of scientists studying the effects of human activity on the world's climate suggested there was a slim chance that greenhouse gas emissions would force global warming to a smaller degree than previously suspected. But a new study yanks the rug out from under that slight bit of optimism.

The new study, published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change, suggests that the amount of increase in global temperature for each ton of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere may be higher than had been hoped. Climate scientists refer to this relationship as "climate sensitivity."

A report put out in September by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that it was possible that the actual amount of warming for each ton of CO2 emitted might be very low. If that were true, it would give global society a bit more time to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases before catastrophe ensued. But according to Sunday's paper, the September IPCC report failed to account for the effect of "aerosols" such as smog and fine dust, which reflect sunlight and can cause temporarily lower temperatures in parts of the world with polluted air.

Group Sues to Block New Desert Solar Projects Over Threat to Tortoises

Adult desert tortoise with four juveniles | Photo: Lake Mead NRA/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The group Defenders of Wildlife filed suit today to overturn the Interior Department's approval of two large solar projects planned for the Ivanpah Valley in the Mojave Desert south of Las Vegas, saying that the projects were approved without enough consideration of the damage they'd cause the federally Threatened desert tortoise.

The Stateline and Silver State South solar projects, which would straddle the California-Nevada line not far from the Mojave National Preserve, were approved by the Interior Department on February 19. Defenders of Wildlife had previously said it would sue Interior if the projects were approved.

According to the language in Defenders' complaint, the two projects "collectively threaten the survival of the tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley, which, in turn, poses grave risks to the survival and recovery of the entire Mojave population of the Tortoise."

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