Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ivanpah, World's Largest Solar Array

If we can’t use the Mojave Desert, then what the hell good is it? —Arnold Schwarzenegger, Yale Climate Conference
In the good old days, when folks headed for Las Vegas, they stopped off at the Mojave desert oases of Barstow, or Baker. Crossroads to Death Valley, and half-way to Hell, someone once said. These two towns were the last major watering holes on Interstate 15 (once called the old Arrowhead Trail, and/or the Mojave Barstow Highway—depending on where you were coming from, or going to). Barstow is also the fabled half-way mark from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

 At the Bun Boy restaurant in in Baker, home of the world's tallest thermometer (134 feet)—commemorating the hottest day in Death Valley, the hottest place on earth. On July 10, 1913, at Furnace Creek, the thermometer reached 134°, the hottest day ever recorded. We very nearly beat that world record this year—it was 135.5° on July 1 at Badwater, but that didn't count—as it's not an official weather official station which recorded a mere 129 or 130°, depending on the tilt of your head. Mo Hurley photo

Once it was a long haul across the fabled Mojave Desert, where fuel and water were non-existant, and it was always a long way to the next big watering hole, Las Vegas (which means the meadows). Not only is Barstow an important crossroads, it's the Southern Pacific train hub for the region.

Barstow, on Historic Route 66, often called the Mother Road. Most of the diners and motels (a Route 66 invention) are gone, replaced by Mcdonalds and Marriotts. Mo Hurley photo

Farther up the Highway 15 grade from Barstowyou pass Zyzzx Road, cross the dry soda lakebed at Baker, head up another steep grade to Halloran Springs, then onto Valley Wells, and finally the ghost town of Cima and then Mountain Pass. Most of these places were once historic mining claim settlements—little more than wet spots along the way with interesting mom & pop curio shops. But that's what makes the Mojave so interesting. Who stores visits to corporate franchises in their memory banks?

Way back when, cars regularly overheated, people would sit a spell, and sip on a coke or iced tea and maybe chew on the weather while waiting for the coolness of evening before driving on. Travel was a more leisurely affair. Like William Least Heat Moon, I favor those blue highways. You're closer to the land, not being held prisoner on the conveyer belt of the interstate highway with its paucity of off-ramps.

I remember stopping off at Halloran Springs in the 1970s, and it cost the equivalent of $5 to use the toilet. There was once a gas pump in Halloran Springs too but prices were astronomical. The LoBall and Eat gas sign is an iconic desert rat's dream.

In those days, State Line (two words—not to be confused with Stateline, NV, at Lake Tahoe) was a cluster of trailers, and one rather iffy-gas pump with the cool red floaty balls leaping inside the glass tube on the face of the gas pump. Primm didn't yet exist. Business was so bad in the 1920s, that "Whiskey Pete" MacIntyre gave up pumping gas and turned to pumping bootleg. In the 1950s-70s, State Line was a gas station, with a tow truck, a large monkey wrench, and a formica lunch counter with slot machines.

If you broke down near State Line, you could get your car fixed, gamble and suck down a cold one at the same time. Some gamblers considered that wide spot in the road a little slice of heaven. Las Vegas was 40 more miles down the road.

Then in the 1980s, cars became more efficient, they had air conditioning. They could travel 350 or more miles on a tank of gas. It put State Line right out of business.

When three casinos were built at State Line in the 1990s, the story goes that Whiskey Pete was accidentally plowed up. (He was buried in an unmarked grave, standing in his boots, holding a bottle of moonshine). An army of one-armed-bandits, and an off-ramp were also installed. (No off-ramp, and a hamlet dies.) The wide spot in the road was now in business. In 1996, State Line was christened Primm, after one of the casino owners. I used to think it was Pimms. Tiny bubbles in the mind.

Other than tacky casinos invoking bison and a dangerous roller coaster, Primm didn't have much else to it—other than the Mojave Desert. There's a racetrack in the middle of the dry lakebed, and some pretty convincing water mirages too. A mirage once made doubly weird when someone sailed across the dry lakebed on a wind surfer.

They say old Whiskey Pete was reburied in a cave—some say it's somewhere deep in the Kokoweef Caves. I like to think of him buried standing up with a full bottle of moonshine at the ready in each hand.  One for that mad miner, Earl Dorr, and his underground river of gold. Ya never know who's gonna drop by. Primm's casino workers lived in seriously temporary housing—trailers—until 2004. And the gambling population was transient, and gone-bust, to say the least.

Geologist and author of A Geologist's notes on the Ivanpah Mountains, Desert (1961), and Later Mining History of the Mescal Range, Ivanpah MountainsPaul Patchick summed up the history of the Kokoweef Caves in 1961:
In the 1920s a miner named E. P. Dorr explored a cave high up the side of Kokoweef Peak. Later, in a sworn affidavit, Dorr reported an amazing discovery—and a lost mine legend was born. Deep under Kokoweef Peak, he said he found a swiftly flowing subterranean river; lining its banks were sands rich in gold.
The legend grew. "Facts" became scarce. The cave entrance was dynamited shut…there were stories of Dorr going insane, of murdered men, of men buried alive, of rich assay sheets. —Paul Patchick
Dorr got a rather dubious tilt o' the hat when a hallucinogenic sage was named after him.

Salvia dorrii, or Dorr's sage, literary inspiration for Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, aka Ute tobacco sage, is a mild hallucinogen used in Native American ceremonies and herbal medicine. —Wiki photo
We can now mindlessly drive from LA or San Francisco all the way to Las Vegas without ever stopping or overheating. Priuses can make it to the US border. Either one. It doesn't matter. And judging by the way they so self-righteously drive, the sooner they reach the border, the better. About the only thing non-negotiable on a road trip these days is the strength of one's bladder. And even that's negotiable.

But as as you descend into the Las Vegas basin, enroute to Primm, you'll pass not only the world's largest thermometer—but also, the world's largest solar array, at Ivanpah. Hard to miss it. Since 2010, Primm has had a stable population of about 2000 more engineers from Bechtel Construction Co. working on the solar plant. What would Whiskey Pete say? I assume they'll be leaving Primm soon as the solar plant is nearly finished.

Driving back on Highway 15 from Las Vegas after the Highland Games in April, as we approached Mountain Pass, near Nipton, we saw the middle tower of a vast solar array light up and it was like the Eye of Sauron shining across the desert.

Tower One blowing off a little steam.Wiki photo
When a tower lights up, it looks like there's enough harnessed sunlight to make a death ray. I wondered if I'd fried my eyes by looking at it—it was pretty mesmerizing. That eerie sight got my fingers Googling when I got home.

I used to call the area around Ivanpah Nipton (after the ghost town) or Yates Well, before I found out the name of the valley via an article on the solar array—suddenly worlds collided.

I was horrified to discover that the Saruon-like triple tower I've been eyeing for the past couple of years, is one and the same. Horrified because I had heard of the desert tortoise exodus and relocation, horrified because the solar plant is so VAST, and horrified again because it's on one of my favorite stretches of Interstate 15—and it's pristine desert from Valley Wells to Primm.

And so, now I want to know more. A lot more. No real reason, other than because it's there.

The three towers. According to Off-Grid, the world’s biggest solar power collector is being built next to the tiny town of Nipton, CA (pop. 60), ironic because Nipton is an off-grid town—deriving 85% of its energy from solar panels. —Wiki photo
Imagine my surprise when I discovered Google was a partner of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (SEGS), co-owned by NRG Energy, and Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, in San Bernardino County.

This modern-day solar Sauron has three towers, not two—and the towers are NINE stories tall (over 475 ft). Each tower array (80 to 90% built) holds about 50,000 software movable mirrors on stilts, to track the sun. Each day workers install about 500 mirrors, or heliostats, each panel measures 70 square feet. So far, a total 173,500 heliostats have been installed.

Ivanpah will use 170,000 heliostat mirrors to focus solar energy on boilers in the three solar power towers with a planned capacity of 392 megawatts.Wiki photo
As we drove through the Ivanpah Valley and Nipton, the middle tower lit up. I later learned it was a "steam blow" to clean out the turbines in Unit Two. Though it's harnessed sunlight, I wondered—at what cost? I want to support solar power, but I also am distressed by WHERE they put it. On ecologically pristine desert habitat.

The Ivanpah Valley (straddling two states, CA & NV, and two counties, San Bernadino, and Clark Counties), is a large closed basin that stretches from Cima to Las Vegas, and includes Ivanpah (Dry) Lake, Roach Lake and the ghost towns of Nipton and Jean, where it joins the Las Vegas Valley. The valley is bordered by the Ivanpah Mountains, the New York Mountains, the Clark Mountain Range (in the distance), Spring Mountains, the McCullough Range, and the Bird Spring RangeWiki photo
Not only that, but I'm horrified by how few people's homes the solar plant will service—only 140,000 homes. And there's 22-25 million people in SoCal? Is the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (SEGS) an expensive albatross, or will it make California energy efficient?

The hefty price tag is $2.2 billion for 3500-acres-worth of desert to fuel 140,000 homes. I really suck at math, but when you see how much space the Ivanpah solar power facility takes up, it seems like a lot of desert is going to disappear in the next few years, thanks to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's schemes.

Five years ago, at a Yale University Climate Conference, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger said: "If we can’t use the Mojave Desert, then what the hell good is it?" And after a concentrated solar power (CSP) farm was blocked by Senator Diane Feinstein (D), Arnie growled: If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.” CSP sites use about of 500 million gallons of water a year for cooling. Not a good desert practice—and some 34 CSP farms are on the planning agenda. Schwarzenegger was frustrated with environmental regulations that were tying up solar development.

Sounds ominously like another California actor-governor Ronald Reagan's famous redwood tree quip: When you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen 'em all. (What got recorded: "A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?" Ronald Reagan opposing expansion of Redwood National Park in 1996.) Reagan topped that atrocity in 1981, when he was president, by famously declaiming that: "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do."

So when Actor Arnie became the Governator, he did Reagan proud: he rammed the Ivanpah solar project through, despite environmental regulations.

The triangle formed by the red line of Hwy 15, the CalNeva stateline and the Valley Wells sign is the Ivanpah Dry Lake. The array is to the left of Hwy 15, on the alluvial plain. Mo Hurley photo from a sign at Valley Wells

The Mojave is dotted with myriad mines, with poetic names like The Evening Star Mine—the only producer of tin ore (cassiterite, tin oxide). The Morning Star mine, the Clansman, active between 1927 and 1942, was a significant gold producer between 1988 and 1993. 

And the Mojave ghost towns: Murphy Well, Nipton, Kelso, Cima Station. I like saying the names of the more mellifluous ones: Ivanpah, Tonopah—well, maybe not Parumph! Whether Shoshone, or Northern Paiute dialects, pa(h), means water.
Highway 15 (the old Arrowhead Trail), on the "Lonesome Triangle"  crosses the Clark Range, at Mountain Pass at 4728ft. Clark Mountain (7841ft) with its limestone reefs, the tallest mountain in the region, is a sky island or high desert oasis with relic flora including White fir (Abies concolor). —Mo Hurley photo, Valley Wells
Lately I've been fascinated by the water and place names surrounding the Ivanpah Valley and Valley Wells area (my favorite rest stop on Highway 15), and so, one thing lead to another, on my great web chase to find out more about Mountain Pass, Cima and Ivanpah. Believe it or not, August is the wettest month in the Eastern Mojave. And we all know hot hot August in the desert is.

On Clark Mountain, whose talus slopes form the Ivanpah Valley, there are rare endemic plants (white fir (Abies concolor) —a relic species from 15,000 years ago, when the Mojave was temperate). Sky island plants not found elsewhere in the world (perhaps because the Eastern Mojave Desert also has the largest concentrations of rare earth deposits in the world—antimony, zinc, and molybdenum, not to mention copper, high-grade gold and silver ore.

I especially love Mountain Pass with its thick vegetation—venerable stands of barrel cactus, Joshua trees, pinyon-juniper woodlands, and it's a moisture trap in the Eastern Mojave. I suspect, that because of the unique geology, and rare earth deposits, there are also a few rare endemic plants—like with our serpentine soils in Marin.

I have not found anything specifically linking Ivanpah Valley to endangered species—other than the desert tortoise. But this is s region of rare plants plagued with little moisture and a short growing season. Purple desert sage (aka Ute tobacco, or Dorr's sage), spiny menodora (olive family), desert elkweed, green gentian, or desert frasera—because moisture collects at the pass in the form of hail, snow, fog, and summer monsoons. Where Ivanpah Dry Lake and Valley Wells gets their water from.

The burros aren't native, but the mountain sheep and desert tortoise are native, as are threatened species. Some 200 threatened desert tortoises who called the upland slopes of Ivanpah Valley home, were relocated to other parts of the Mojave Desert—at a cost of $55,000 per tortoise. That's $11 million to move 200 tortoises. And they probably won't survive the move. To be fair to Ivanpah, the only grading done was at the site of the three towers and power facility, all the mirrors are on posts so the native vegetation is not harmed. So they say.

Since we make the Las Vegas trek from Oakland every year (my partner's a musician at the Las Vegas Celtic Games at Tule Springs), we always break the monotony of the drive by stopping off at odd places in the desert at whim—Zzyzx Road, for example.

The real Lake Mojave, or Soda Dry Lake, Zzyzx. (Not the reservoir in AZ.) Mo Hurley photo
I once went there in the early 1970s when there still was a bit of the dry soda lakebed—that I called Lake Mojave before the Arizona reservoir and dam was named—left, there was a Chinese junk (or similar boat) stuck in a shallow pool—all gone now.

Once both forks of the Mojave River drained into Barstow, and carved out the extraordinary riparian area, the Afton Canyon, designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. It's one of the few stretched where the Mojave River still flows above ground, enroute to the terminus lakebed. No, I don't mean Lake Tuendae, an artificial pool by CSU Fullerton's Desert Studies Center.

 Desert Studies Center. Lake Tuendae, last watering hole of the Mohave tui chub and the introduced Saratoga Springs pupfish, on the Boulevard of Dreams. Mo Hurley photo
The Ivanpah Valley was on my desert bucket list of places to explore. But now it's one vast solar array. And from the sound of things, it's a prototype—one of many. The ecologically sensitive Mojave Desert is under threat of disappearing under a series of vast solar arrays.

The California Energy Commission has approved 11 planned solar plants on public lands in California — that's about sixty-seventy square miles of desert. The entire Mojave Desert is 25,000 square miles. Lush and diverse by Mojave standards, the Ivanpah array is being touted as economic cost-competitive and reliable solar power. But factoring in the cost to build it, the huge transient energy loss in delivering to San Bernadino residents—and how few homes it serves—is it? Or is it all smoke and mirrors?

According to Off-Grid: 
Solar-power initiatives have fast-tracked large-scale plants, fueled by low-interest, government-guaranteed loans that cover up to 80% of construction costs. Those large-scale projects are financially efficient for developers, but their size creates transmission inefficiencies and higher costs for ratepayers. Modest-sized projects could provide an enormous electricity boost—at less cost to consumers and less environmental damage to the desert areas where most are located. California could derive a substantial percentage of its energy needs from rooftop solar installations, whether on suburban homes or city roofs or atop big-box stores. —Off-Grid
Wouldn't it be better to follow Nipton's example of small scale local solar collectives that provide power at the source—right where it's needed, on people's roofs. It would cost less, deliver more direct energy, and there would be no environmental damage to our deserts.


As World’s Largest Solar Thermal Plant Opens, California Looks to End Solar Wars After controversy over a threatened species delayed several large solar projects, state officials are trying to broker an agreement between conservation groups and solar companies on a path forward for renewable energy.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System  Now under construction, Ivanpah utilizes proven solar thermal technology and a low environmental impact design to power California’s clean energy. 

Take a Look at the World's Largest Solar Thermal Farm - Smithsonian

The Power—and Beauty—of Solar Energy | TIME.com

Ivanpah Solar Power Facility - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Former Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at UC Berkekey, Botanist Tom Schweich has some incredibly detailed pages on his site, EASTERN MOJAVE VEGETATION. He's spent some 15 years collecting and classifying Eastern Mojave plants. I spent an entire day traversing his links. I learned a lot about the Mojave. Definitely check it out.

Clark Mountain, San Bernardino County, California

World’s largest solar thermal plant is operational 

World’s First 24/7 Solar Power Plant Powers 75,000 Homes SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes Project in Tonopah, Nevada is quietly providing clean, green solar energy to 75,000 homes in the Silver State even when the sun isn’t shining.

When it isn't frying the birds mid-air.

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