California Set to Approve Controversial Solar Plant

Palen as imagined with two towers | Image: California Energy Commission

The California Energy Commission gave tentative approval Friday evening to a reconfigured solar power plant in Riverside County that opponents say potentially poses a serious risk to migrating birds.

At 4:55 p.m. on Friday, September 12, the commission announced a preliminary decision to approve what is essentially half of the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System, which would have placed 170,000 of mirrored heliostats on just under 3,800 acres of land adjacent to Interstate 10. Those heliostats would have focused sunlight on boilers atop two 750-foot towers -- the tallest structures between Los Angeles and Phoenix.

In Friday's decision, the commission gave preliminary approval to a version of the project that would include just one tower and about 1,900 acres of heliostats, and leaves the way open for Palen's owners to build the second half of the project in the future.

Group Urges Public Comment on Desert Transmission Line

Opposition mounts to a proposed transmission corridor through the Mojave Desert | Photo: Duke Energy/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A group of concerned residents of the Mojave Desert is urging the public to make their feelings known about a proposed transmission line that would run across 63 miles of the central Mojave Desert.

The Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Project would string two large transmission lines from the Coolwater Substation at Daggett to the Lugo Substation near I-15 south of Hesperia, zig-zagging through the Lucerne Valley and Apple Valley areas along the way.

Southern California Edison contends the lines are needed to augment transmission capacity between desert renewable energy facilities and Southern California cities. But the Apple Valley-based Alliance for Desert Preservation disputes that claim, saying that the project is designed to transmit power from renewable facilities in the east Mojave that may never be built.

Report Shows Need to Protect Bird Habitat While Fighting Climate Change

Golden eagles stand to lose 79 percent of their winter range by 2080 | Photo: John Kay/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The National Audubon Society released the results of a seven-year study this week on the future of North American birds in a warming world, and that report is getting a lot of press. According to the report, of 588 species of birds studied, 314 are at risk of extinction due to climate change before the end of the century.

The study, based on data from Audubon's annual Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird survey, found that 126 bird species are "climate-endangered": they're expected to lose more than 50 percent of their North American range by 2050 due to a warming climate. In other words, changing climate will make more than 50 percent of those birds' current range unsuitable for their survival. Another 188 "climate-threatened" bird species are projected to lose more than half their current range by 2080, though they may gain new potential range in areas formerly too cold or otherwise inhospitable.

The report underscores the dire future birds face if we don't act now to stem climate change. But it also highlights the main reason climate change threatens birds. A warming world means less habitat for many species of birds, which should give pause to those trying to excuse destruction of remaining habitat in order to combat climate change.

Rooftop Solar Leads to Cheaper Bills in More Ways Than You Thought

Homeowners who install solar have added incentive to conserve energy first. | Photo: Green Energy Futures/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Every once in a while a study reveals something new that makes perfect sense when you think about it. Here's the latest example we've seen: a survey conducted by researchers for the San Diego-based Center for Sustainable Energy found that California homeowners who've shelled out for rooftop solar panels are far more likely to be interested in energy conservation.

Researchers Ria Langheim, Georgina Arreola, and Chad Reese report in the study that of more than 2,000 solar home owners surveyed, more than 80 percent put significant time and effort into household energy efficiency upgrades before installing their solar panels. Those upgrades included everything from more efficient lighting and appliances to improving the insulation in their homes.

The researchers suggest a straightforward reason for the interest in both solar and efficiency: most of the solar homeowners surveyed said saving money was the main reason for installing solar. And cutting down on energy consumption before going solar means you need fewer solar panels to power your home, thus saving even more money on installation.

Tentative OK For New Huntington Beach Gas Power Plant

The existing power plant in Huntington Beach | Photo: Russel Neches/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A committee of the California Energy Commission today recommended approval of a new 940-megawatt natural gas-fueled power plant in Huntington Beach to replace an aging facility that's been offline since 2013. The committee's presiding member, Commissioner Andrew McAllister, and Commissioner Karen Douglas, determined the plant would not have significant impacts on the environment.

The public has 30 days to comment on the decision, and a hearing is scheduled for Sept. 17 in Sacramento. The full commission may accept, reject or change the committee's recommendations at an Oct. 7 meeting.

In Solar Discussion, There Are Birds and Then There Are Birds

No one would lump these mammals together, so why do we do it with birds? | Photos: Martin Heywood (mouse, on left), Jim Frost (rhino, right) /Flickr/Creative Commons License

As part of the recent flurry of interest in the issue of harm to birds from solar power plants, some people are trying to compare the damage done to bird populations by solar facilities to other sources of bird mortality. If a coal plant kills more birds than a solar power plant, goes the reasoning, then the birds killed by a solar plant might be a reasonable cost to pay for getting off coal.

There's some truth to the argument. Fossil fueled power plants do an extraordinary amount of damage to the environment and wildlife, and sometimes trade-offs are reasonable to reduce the overall level of damage to the planet's other species.

But the discussion as it's shaping up on blogs and in social media is seriously flawed for a number of reasons. The biggest one: when it comes to gauging environmental harm, "birds" is a nearly useless category.

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