Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The World's Catch 22 with Alternative Energy Schemes

While there is no doubt the world needs safer alternatives to the conventional energy technologies they've been using, the present rush to schemes they've been pursuing have their own disadvantages as well. Just my personal feelings and opinion of course.

Image: BHE Renewables

Topaz Solar Farms construction site, Carrisa Plains, CA

Take a moment, 2.40 minutes to be exact and watch the video of the Topaz Solar Farms construction site which is located on the Carrisa Plains of Central California. Almost close to four years of ongoing construction, plus three years of planning and permitting, the $2.4 billion, 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm is the first of this size in operation. Then when it is finally finished it will be primed to sell power to California utility PG&E. The project is owned and operated by MidAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. It's a huge ocean of over 9 million solar panels on a massive amount of once agricultural land.

There is no doubt or argument that mankind has got to pursue some  kind of healthier energy alternatives to the present failed not so ecological system they have used from the beginning of energy generating systems from the industrial revolution onward. As always, many things humans pursue comes at an ecological price and while Wind and Solar are being touted as the answer to everything wonderful with Eco-Green, there are high costs here as well from an ecological standpoint. Problem is, it is popular today for many who are involved in such money making eco-schemes to demonize anyone who may criticize such projects where unforeseen ecological consequences were never well thought out. The potential for profit and unbridled pursuit of wealth tends to put race horse blinders on such individuals where instead of responsible peripheral vision, we get planners and investors with tunnel vision. Point such concerns out to these industrialists and their proponents and all manner of insults, derogatory name calling and labeling people with legitimate concerns as nothing more than Anti-Science. This is of course the usual cowards way out when no viable answers are forthcoming. This is also a popular tactic in other areas of industrial science where big business interests must be defended at any cost. I'll list a number of my own personal concerns, many of which I have read about and some of which very little attention has been addressed. The NASA pictures below illustrate not only how the landscape has changed, but also the decline of vegetation with regards the present severe drought.

NASA Photos of Change where Topaz Solar Farm is located
Water Issues: unwashed Solar Panels don't generate as efficiently as clean ones
Sandia National Laboratory

Mr Twister mirror washing machine is the most cost-effective

 method of cleaning mirrors at Kramer Junction solar plant
 in the Mojave Desert, USA.

Image: iClean Endinburgh
This is a huge issue and far bigger than when it was first brought up by many environmental organizations over a decade ago. Presently the region of western United States and in particular, California, are in the middle of one of the worst droughts in the history of the state. Water is becoming more and more scarce and getting more and more expensive. The question that keeps coming up is where will they get water from in the future ? It has become important for another Industrial Science backed business model, Agriculture, to sink deeper wells and tap into already vastly depleted underground aquifers. Latest News Headlines are "San Joaquin Valley is Sinking." And yet out in the Mojave Desert far removed from Aqueduct infrastructure for irrigation needs, they have tapped into deep previously untapped aquifers for their Solar Panel washing maintenance needs. Not cleaning is not an option for success. These solar farms have also been constructed in a way that has completely destroyed the biological soil crusts which actually help keep the desert's dust down. Now those dust storms have increased and dirty panels DO NOT function well. 


So industrial equipment is needed for industrial cleaning of Solar Farms. This requires massive amounts of water from unsustainable sources. I say unsustainable because there is no way to replace what has been pumped deep from within the earth. The other dangers are the lowering of water tables which can also dry up the very few precious artesian springs that remain throughout the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran Desert environments. Countless wildlife [animals, birds, reptiles, etc] are terribly dependent on such natural watering holes. Even desert plants with the deep root systems which redirect water distribution through hydraulic lift for other surrounding plants may also be in trouble. See, there is this thing called domino effect and lack of foresight to envision any dire consequences in the future. 

Pressure Washing Phoenix - Power Washing Phoenix AZ 

The worst target areas are of course the obvious ones, Deserts in the southwest. One also has to consider that these same scenarios are going to play out across the globe in like semi-arid and arid habitats. Europe has big plans for creating Industrial Solar complexes in the Sahara Desert in North Africa that will be the size of some of their own small to medium countries within the E.U. Google the Net and you will see all types of businesses have sprung up around this industry in the form of various maintenance services like the one above in and around the Phoenix area of Arizona. So where do they get their water ? Ideally that water needs to be as clean and purified as possible. Human drinking quality if possible. Then there are those automated cleaning systems within city infrastructures and services from companies offering self-service hands off gadgets which only require one minute washing and one minute rinse from sprinkler heads. Having been in the landscape irrigation maintenance system business, I can assure you the heads will always require some type of tedious regular maintenance of keeping mineral deposits and other debris out of those jets. Water waste is almost always assured.

Image: Solar Power World
Solar Power World: "Fighting Dirty: Manual Washing vs. Automatic Cleaning of Solar Modules" 
WEEDS: Grassland Fires and Herbicides

Image: KSBY News
Remember the story at the top of this post on the Topaz Solar Farm complex which was so vast across the Carrisa Plain and growing ? In that video at the minute mark 1:35, I noticed another issue with the potential for problems and that was the dried foxtail grasses underneath the Solar Panels. Well, well, well, lo and behold on July 2nd, 2015 just this past month there was a grass fire on that site which the cause is still under investigation. The suspect electrical problems and sparks under one of the panels. The potential for wildland fires and weeds was a given, but just how will these giant industrial solar farms deal with these weeds ? Well, there is not a whole lot of info out there on that question. Other than a couple of photos on the internet and honorable  mention in some literature, there's just not a lot of information out there. But the grass fire is still under investigation with speculation it was something electrical under the panels. Of course no mention of possible employee cigarette being discarded, but then what self-respecting employee would jeopardize his own job anyway by doing something stupid like coming forward ?
Fire Breaks out at Topaz Solar Farm
This also happened a couple years earlier at Intel's Solar Farm site near Folsom, California where dry dead grass caught fire when landscapers were trying to clean the areas underneath the panels. Here is a link to that event with video. Now in the video, the firefighters and news people were calling the plant material brush, but trust me, it started in the dead grass. Brush may have been on the outlying borders of the solar panels, but the fire started in dry dead grass under panels.
Grassland fire has the incredible potential for wildfire destruction, even more so than chaparral as it can accomplish the damage in a faster shorter amount of time before help arrives. Take a look at the photos of Morgan County Colorado's "Last Chance Fire" and what happen to the electrical infrastructure:
Flickr: "Morgan County Colorado: "Last Chance Fire"

photo by Knut Loschke

This a photo of a Solar Farm near MarkranstĂ€dt, 

Germany in 2011. It's a weed-ridden solar installation.

Both these photos above and below are examples of overgrown weed infestation in regions where far more rainfall is recorded. Namely Germany and Canada. So how do they deal with such weed management ? Conventionally speaking, the scary scenario is the usual industrial science-based chemical herbicide control through spraying. What scares me is we aren't really necessarily talking about Roundup by Monsanto here. We're talking something far more dangerous if the Solar Farm industries really want to cut corners and save lots of money so that their bottom line looks much better to investors. How does that happen ?? Scroll down, look at the Oil Field and I'll let you in on a secret and personal story.

Thin-film, fixed-tilt power plant in Ontario, Canada 

Take a close look at any oil field anywhere in Southern California and notice there are little to NO WEEDS anywhere. Why ??? The companies cannot afford any type of vegetation fire [especially grass fires] any where near their dangerous volatile oil wells. An oil well fire is both dangerous and expensive to put out. With that in mind, in 1989-90 when I worked for Coors-Biotech, it was my job to work closely with our distributors of our natural solvent, most of whom were chemical distributors. One of our distributors lived in Santa Barbara California and his customer base was mainly the Oil Industry. He told me back then that his Oil Company clients demanded a type of chemical herbicide which had a seven years minimum guarantee of not only killing the weeds but would also sterilize the soil so as to not allow anything to grow on that land for at the very least seven years. I remember how that spooked me. The idea that Chemical companies such as Dow, DuPont or Monsanto had the ability to invent such a creation that would completely destroy all biological life in the soil for such an incredible long duration. Shouldn't have been surprised. Remember Agent Orange ???  In Vietnam there are literally still chemical effects of the junk the US Military sprayed there, especially around former US Air Force bases. Vegetation was considered an aid to the enemy. See the photograph below and the bluish tint around oil wells ? This is a dye they put into the herbicide to identify areas already sprayed with the chemicals. Seriously, take an opportunity, drive up to Bakersfield and surrounding Oil towns and communities and see for yourself what the Oil & Gas Industry has done to the landscape. Once again, I just don't trust what may be used in the future on Solar Farm sites which can ill afford multi-billion dollar equipment destroyed in a grass fire. BTW, wildfire was always a known issue for Topaz Solar Farm as you can see in the link below. Herbicides are mentioned along with grazing, but they make no mention of just what would be used.
Wildfire Management Plan: Topaz Solar Farm, San Luis Obispo County, California

Image: Percy Feinstein/Corbis

Overlooking Chevron's Kern River oil field with the Sierra Nevada in the background, March 30, 2015  
Unintended Consequences of Solar Farms on Wildlife
Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System Image via

Image - PLOS ONE
 There are recently other more serious unintended consequences which have come to light, even in a literal sense. Birds, Bats and millions of flying insects are being almost disintegrate when flying over or near some of these Solar Farms. While the Solar Farm operators have always known about the deaths, they have played down the numbers in the past. But recently researchers have found that video surveillance is the most effective method for detecting animals flying around solar power towers, according to a study of various techniques by the U.S. Geological Survey and its partners at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System facility in southeastern California. As you see here in the photo on the right, something was instaneously zapped from the sky.

National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory
Below are some important links. First from PHYS-ORG which is the easier read, then from PLOS-ONE has much more deeper research with more than a dozen videos of birds, bats and insects getting burnt to a crisp instantly. One timelapse shows insects by the 1000s being zapped, it looked like fireworks.
PHYS-ORG: Videos reveal birds, bats and bugs near Ivanpah solar project power towers
PLOS-ONE: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Wildlife Detection and Observation Technologies at a Solar Power Tower Facility
Where should Solar Farms be located & whose backyard ???
Photo courtesy Laura Cunningham, Basin and Range Watch

As of 2010 Energy Developers had presented the federal Bureau of Land Management with 75 applications to build solar facilities within the Mojave desert.

"A solar panel 100 miles by 100 miles in the Mojave Desert (USA) could replace all the coal burned to generate electricity in the entire U.S."
Louis A. Del Monta, Physicist, Author and CEO 

image: Solarindia
The picture at top is of the Mojave desert expanse which is considered a goldmine operation for the Solar and Wind power industry. Why ? Because as the quote above alludes to, this land is almost always considered a waste, worthless and good for nothing else. However, had the land been something like the photo at right from Solar India where huge tracts of some type of beautiful green forests were cut down and massive Solar Farms replacing it, there would be outrage and protests from all sorts of activists. Deserts somehow don't draw that much attention with the exception of a few people who have been watchdog on the Solar and Wind Industry's often unchecked activities. So deserts generally have gotten a pass when it comes to taking seriously their real worth. I have no problem with pursuing such ideas about Wind and Solar power, but the obsession with the rush for free land and potential for profiteering, which has gotten this world in trouble in the first place is the wrong motive if the justification is to ease climate change. For the most part I have a strong dislike of the industrial business model for anything. Just my opinion of course. The large scale operations that exist presently are totally unnecessary if you take into account the numerous ugly human infrastructure that already exists and could be utilized as space for alternative power generation. Take a look at examples I have always looked at below and how they should have been implemented in the Southwest's alternative energy schemes. 


Back in 2013, India inaugurated the first of a series of interconnected Solar Projects over irrigation canals which would not only generate power, but also slow evaporation of water from the irrigation canals. The entire network when completed will be over 85,000 kilometers or 52,816 miles long. This also implies that 11,000 acres of land can be potentially conserved along with about 5,000+ gallons of water saved per year. Now here is my question, How can a country like India which is poorer and if you believe the propaganda, more inferior technologically speaking as compared to the United States, how can they come up with such innovative clever ideas ? For one thing, they do not have the land area to waste  on massive land gulping Solar Projects as the USA does. They need every bit of arable farmland they can save to feed their population which is huge as compared to the USA. This is more of a corporate business as usual model. There is no reason the concrete lined All American Canal and Coachella Canal could not have such Solar infrastructure built over it. The advantages would be plenty of available water to filter, clean and purify for washing the solar panels and excess water draining back into the canal.

Image: Comaco Concrete Lining Technology

All American Canal, Imperial County

Every single canal aside from All American and Coachella should have a solar infrastructure built over the top not only to save land area, but also water. Also smaller, but large infrastructure network of their canal system like Westside Main Canal and Eastside Main and all smaller canals in between. Still, what is incredible, is that India has to come up with these simple brilliant ideas. One wonders what has been getting in the way of such planning over in the United States. There is no doubt that we need cleaner alternatives, but we need happier more aesthetically pleasing ways of accomplishing this. Then everyone can be happy.

Narmada Canal solar power project in India saves agricultural fields for farming

With the Imperial Irrigation Water District making deals to sell off water rights to San Diego just to the west along California's coast and less water for the conventional farming, many farmers in Imperial Valley are taking up farming solar as a business. Such projects on former farmland are the Signal Mountain Solar Project. Still, such areas will be weed prone and we wonder what methods will be used for such control. Traditionally, Imperial Valley has always relied on chemicals. Count on the status quo continuing here.

Signal Mountain Solar Project west of Calexico and almost a stones throw from Mexico 
Below are some more human infrastructure example which need no explanation.
South Korea Bikelane

South Korea running 20 miles between the cities of Daejeon and Sejong, they can be running down the median of a six-lane highway

Sonnenschiff solar city in Freiburg, Germany

Dragon-Shaped Solar Stadium in Taiwan is 100% Powered by the Sun  Read more: Dragon-Shaped Solar Stadium in Taiwan is 100% Powered by the Sun 

Photo: Clean Technica

Solar carports have a double benefit: generating renewable
 energy and reducing the island heat effect
And finally, Wildfire Danger Component variables most News Reports don't touch

Solar Panel fires are more common than I first thought when I wanted to address debris under solar panels on roofs and maintenance. Almost nothing out there on leaves, pine needles and other debris collecting under non maintained solar panels on home roofs and creating a wildfire hazard. Seriously, nothing! However there were numerous reports and pictures on electrical issues, fires and dangers for firefighters trying to put out fires on solar rooftops. Apparently there are numerous companies who jumped on board the climate change band wagon of solar craze, who took advantage of government grants and/or loans in the USA & around the world and have since gone bankrupt leaving customers with junk panels which are grossly inefficient and dangerous reputation for starting fires, even after supposed fixes and corrections are made. As I stated, I was originally only interested in the maintenance issues for homeowners and wildfire, but clearly there is far more dirt behind the scenes than mere leaves. Below is a commentary of one such dangerous issue with Solar Panels.
"When a panel fails, fire is a real danger." 
 "We have had roofs burn. On the composition it has burned and the actual panel catches on fire," said Owens.
"In fact, it could have very well been an open flame underneath here with vegetation," said Kauffman.   
At a dual solar generating and panel testing station in sunny Davis, BP panels fail regularly. "One day, the worst happened when flaming debris hit the grass below." 
 "Caught the grass on fire and there was a breeze blowing and that grass actually turned into a grass fire that burned and burned about 25, 30 acres of crops," said Bill Brooks of Brooks Solar Engineering.

Below here is what I was more concerned with as far as maintenance issues because I used to work with and maintain client rooftops and rain gutter drainage problems in the landscape on some of the commercial properties we maintained. The worst problem I ever encountered are the rain gutter designs of aluminum awnings associated with Mobile Homes. They are almost impossible to clean without a hose with intense pressure jet nozzle and even then it's time consuming, messy and wastes tonnes of water. If you don't clean them then the rainwater will never drain down the spouts and the buildup always allowed for weeds to grow and die with the onset of summer. Big time fire hazard and there are literally millions of these Mobile Home Awnings with these problems everywhere throughout Southern California. 

Image: manufactured Home Pros

I seriously find this subject hard to believe that nobody has lost a house due to leaves, needles and other debris collecting in the spaces between the solar panels and the house rooftops before. The photo at top is what I dealt with every single fall in preparation for winter rains. Even in open air spaces with no trees nearby, tree leaves and other debris blew high up on the wind currents from great distances and collected under awning tight spots. That's just the nature of the world we live in. Maintenance and cleanliness is a must. But the other danger I found is electrical shock to firefighters because every single little photovoltaic cell continues to produce electricity as long as there is sunlight hitting them. Hence this is a very real danger to firefighters on rooftops and they are aware of this. Spraying water on such electrical panels is a risk as well.

There are clearly without question great uses for solar power in many applications, especially areas of remote road signs and equipment like earthquake monitoring devices, etc. But there are also drawbacks. I haven't even touched on the issues with dangers to wildlife from both the  Industrial Solar projects and Industrial Wind Turbine projects, but they are very real. You can google that and other info as well. But caution needs to be taken when you are searching for the right manufacturer and system design. There have been clearly many bad experiences by large seemingly reputable solar companies who have shafted homeowners, investors as well as the Governments. The dire circumstances regarding climate change and need for alternative energy from what mankind has been pursuing and ruining the earth is very real, but you should also be well aware that the public relations behind the alternative energy movement is also taking advantage of this dire need for marketing their business for profit purposes as well. Short cuts are taken for maximizing profits. Should be no surprise here since it is that way when it comes to  merchandising anything across the globe. That's the reality of the world we are forced presently to live in. The pursuit of eco-green innovation and solutions however never seems to require humans to alter their own personal resource wasting lifestyles and I can tell you with extremes in climate change, both extreme in temperatures with both heat and cold, the demands for energy will skyrocket at more costs. Pursue a greener lifestyle, but also take a grain of salt to all the sales pitches on alternative energy ideas, especially when someone is trying to sell you something they manufacture. Historically everything humans have done comes with a price and unforeseen consequences, no matter how good the sales pitch and pretty the picture they paint on it. It's called do your own Homework people!

Warning Update 2017: Be wary of Solar Scams
I'm updating this here with something that has taken place at my mum's house in El Cajon California. Telemarketing Solar companies have been pestering my elderly mother about getting solar on her roof and pitching fable about all the money she will save. Prior to moving to Sweden in May 2006, I planted California Sycamores in her backyard to create a cool shady environment. It has and she no longer needs to turn on that industrial sized Airconditioning unit mounted on the backyard side of her roof. Now since the Solar Salesman told her that she needs to get rid of the of the Sycamor trees, there have been Tree Service people coming by and telling her she needs to top those trees in half because they are too big and dangerous. That is bunk. Most of these tree service companies are hack jobbers which no skill whatsoever in creative artisitic sculpting. Below is a historical photo gallery of how these young native trees were started from one gallon pots in 2005 and trained to have their root systems drive deep into the alluvial soils and reach the water table where no watering is required. 

Photograph is mine winter of 2004

The photo above is from 2004. Notice the dormant Texas Umbrella Tree behind the roof with 1000s of messy berries still clinging to the tree and an immense fruitless Mulberry just to the right of the Texas Umbrella. Both were removed and I set out to create a native woodland garden landscape in here backyard that would eventually be watered far less to not at all. I was a landscape supervisor then for a property management company and as a practice I have always preferred one gallon container trees as opposed to anything larger. Most people demand larger container size because they desire instant landscape. No one has patience anymore, but the reality is a one gallon tree if properly trained will far surpass the larger five to twenty-five containerized tree at some point in the future. I learned watering strategies from lessons learned during El Nino wet periods where I observed how large old growth Sycamores and cottonwoods establish themselves in normally dry wash stream beds where most of the time surface water is lacking. The El Nino patterns suggests providing young trees with as much water as they desire the first two or three years, then only water supplement in winters thereafter if winters are drought dry and normal rainfall is missing. Below is what took place.

Photograph is mine 2007

This is 2007, exactly one year after I left for Sweden in 2006 and came back for a summer visit in June 2007. Look at the phenomal growth. This is exactly what occurs during an El Nino wet period in the southwest. This almost never occurs in dry washes during ormal rainfall periods, generally if a seedling appears it won't make it through summer because it fries and subsoil moisture is low or non-extistent. 

Photograph is mine 2011

Fast Forward to 2011 and you can see the same patio area has large shady treescape. The photo below you can also see the trees are now visible above the roof line.

Photograph is mine 2011

The photograph below is of the trees from my mum's backyard looking towards the house. Her backyard is a third of an acre. She now leaves the back sliding glass door open with large screen and allows very cool breeze to blow through, even on days close to 100 Fahrenheit or 40 Celsius. She has cut the electric by over 100 dollars a month. I'm not saying Solar is bad, I'm saying their are other options to go eco-green and save money.

Photograph is mine - 2013

Today, although I do not have a photo, the trees are huge and double this size that you see in the photograph from 2013. The very idea that trees need to be topped is ludicrous and asinine. And this is where I have issues with Solar Companies. Sales-pitching people to rid property of shade trees, plaster their roofs with industrial eye pollution panels so that so-called free electricity can run your air-conditioner. All I can say folks is use your BRAIN & THINK !!! 😔

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Day of the Triffids" or "Monolith Monsters" ? (Mexican Fan Palm - Washingtonia robusta)

Korny 1950s Sci-Fi flicks beautifully illustrate some of today's dangerous landscape practices that have gotten out of control

Courtesy of Civano Nursey, Tucson, Arizona

Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia robusta)

Well, not exactly "Day of the Triffids" or "Monolith Monsters", but you wouldn't know that by some of the bad public relations they are receiving lately. And yet it is fair to say there are certain maintenance challenges and wildfire dangers that people should be aware of and educate themselves about before installing them in their landscape. A century ago when it came to landscape palms in California, two were the most prominent, the native California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) and the Canary Island Date Palm (Phoenix canariensis). Both have pretty much fallen out of favour with Southern California landscapers and gardeners. Why ? Well, the date palm is messy and when young a major challenge when it comes to space. Also extremely difficult to prune or trim because at the base of the palm frond where it's attached to the tree trunk are some of the most vicious spines you'll ever not want to tackle. The native California Fan Palm is much cleaner maintenance-wise, but it also when mature after some years will also produce date fronds, though much smaller dates. It does have one advantage in that it is much slower growing, but that is also why it was replaced by the Mexican Fan Palm which is much faster growing and provides instant landscape for the Nurseries, landscapers and homeowners who want instant tree. Nobody has patience any patience anymore. Today, it's almost impossible to find a nursery that carries the California Fan Palm and even many native plant nurseries don't carry them or if the do, they are limited and sell out quickly. And while the Mexican Fan Palm has become the typical landscape symbol and taken over the California popularity contest, there are also some major problems with this palm tree.

The Monolith Monsters (1950s monster invasion movie)

image: Desert USA
It was 1957 in a desert town where a geologist found a mysterious rock which grew bigger and propagated itself when it came into contact with water. Towards the end of the movie these monolithic black crystal spires move down this canyon headed for the town. Now where do you suppose these writers got such a crazy idea for such a Sci-Fi script ??? Oh yeah, it's a common sight on the desert side of mountain ranges in SoCal. You can even visit the Palm Springs name sake, Palm Canyon as seen in the photo at right. There are however three negative things to be said about the presence of the Mexican Fan Palm in Southern California's landscape. First it easily escapes the urban landscape and naturalizes into the wilds of Southern California. Second, because of the ease of naturalizing, it has become so invasive that it has smothered many native riparian habitats which effects all the native wildlife. Third, it has become a major component of wildfire spread and loss of homes. This palm tree explodes like a Roman Candle and over a period of 30 minutes while burning can create innumerable sparks or embers which may travel as far as a mile depending on the extreme high wind conditions causing spot fires ahead of the main fire. It and other non-native trees like Salt Cedar or Tamarisk have changed the physical barrier of a riparian habitat which while not fire proof, always could slow a fire down, but it's presence acts as a sort of transportation bridge to newer drier vegetation on the other side of a valley. This naturalizing ability was mentioned a while back in an article in the L.A. Times:
LA Times: "When many of us think of Los Angeles, there’s a palm in the picture. That palm is likely Washingtonia robusta, the Mexican fan palm."
But the region’s palmy past is seeding trouble. “Most of the dates fall nearby,” says licensed herbicide applicator Bill Neill, “but some will eventually go down the storm drains into the river channels.”
And there is another serious problem with this palm so easily invading the infrastructure of Los Angeles, San Diego and other Southern California city's storm drain outlets.
Mexican fans also reduce the flood-control capacity of the L.A. River (and others). Any vegetation will slow water flow, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rips out invasives before it touches native plants. “Willows don’t burn easily,” says Corps ecologist Carvel Bass, “but fan palms and arundo do, and they don’t contribute to the habitat in any positive way.”
While the Mexican Fan Palm does have some wonderful qualities as an ornamental in the landscape, there are those fire safety issues which everyone should understand. They seriously need to have their dried coat of fronds trimmed by professionals. They are dangerous for rookie inexperienced homowners to do this themselves. It's dangerous also for the professionals, this is why so many of them die each year and their business insurance is insanely high. Therefore, watch this video below which is about eleven minutes long and illustrates the tree's ability to create 1000s upon 1000s of burning embers as high as 100 feet in the air and during horrific Santa Ana wind events that are common in Southern California, can blow as far away as a mile and start spot fires, or even house tract in neighbourhoods on fire as was the case with the Witch Creek Fire in 2007 which burned numerous homes in the Rancho Bernardo area of San Diego. On December 25th, 2014, LAFD Engine 68 on scene at Mansfield Avenue & Venice Boulevard in Mid-City encountered a palm tree on fire up against high-tension power lines. Unable to put water directly on the fire due to the high voltage, they requested Department of Water and Power to shut them down. With high winds gusting up to 45 miles per hour fanning the flames, millions of embers flew across Venice Boulevard, threatening cars, businesses and other palm trees down the block. An additional Task Force was called in to handle the flying ember problem that started to collect and pool around the edges of buildings and roof-tops. Firefighters knocked down the burning embers with hand-lines at trash piles across the boulevard and in the alley behind other properties. Eventually Engine 68 set up a stream with its “wagon battery” below the power lines, knocking down most of the fire. 

How Mexican Fan Palm has taken over the city of San Diego, wildlands between housing tracts
I've always wanted to do historical documenting of this tree's spread, mostly because I've never found where anyone else ever has. That is to document the massive invasive takeover within the city limits of San Diego, California by the Mexican Fan Palm, not only in wet riparian stream beds, but also up dry washes and canyons where water traditionally hasn't always present or available. At least before housing and human water wasting changed all of that. Again, thus far I've never seen or heard any authority in San Diego County mention any of this before.

Google Earth: Interstate 8 Freeway just west of College Avenue

Image: Google Earth
These two photo locations above and to the right are the Interstate 8 freeway and College Avenue overpass. The photo above from Google Earth is just west of the College Ave overpass. The photo to the right is on the south side of I-8 and exists to San Diego State University. When I was a small kid in the early 1960s, those palm trees in the creek bed didn't exist. I know because almost few times a month our family often drove back and forth over this route on our way to the beach or to visit a great uncle who lived in Allied Gardens off Navajo Road. However, one day in the middle 60s, I noticed some young palms on the north side of I-8 in the top photo. Also a couple on the south side where the creek bed routed from. Further upstream all the way into the city of La Mesa, they kept getting even bigger. Over the several next decades they all just got bigger and more numerous. Further up the road it was obvious where the source of the seed came from. 

Image: Google Earth

This is the the old former Alvarado Trailer Park on Alvarado Rd in La Mesa which is now called the San Diego RV Resort. Before the change, I seem to recall the old park as going down hill, like so many other older trailer parks in that county which originally started out as roadside Auto Kamps for travelers later converted to permanent residential trailer parks. But back in those early days, almost every single one of them planted a Mexican Fan Palm in each small lot or trailer space. This Resort now has greatly reduced and thinned out considerably the Mexican Fan Palms from what it once was. When I was head landscaper for the property management company in San Diego before moving here to Sweden, one huge mobile home trailer park in El Cajon on Bradley Avenue was also loaded with these palms. The owner of that Mobile Home Park was also a board member of the San Diego Wild Animal Park and years back donated many of them in the early development of the San Diego Wild Animal Park which has since changed it's name to Safari Park. That old Mobile Home Park still has some, but not as it originally did. They are a maintenance nightmare and expense to have professionals come out which is the only was to have it done. But that Trailer Park up on Alvarado Rd in La Mesa was definitely the source of seed for everything down stream. These trees over a life time can produce millions upon millions of seeds. There is something more interesting that most folks living there probably don't know about that first photo next to Interstate 8, although many do, especially the college kids. It's a location below those palms along the freeway which drops off dramatically and is named Adobe Falls.

Here is a link map to the Adobe Falls area along I-8

Adobe Falls Open Space & SDSU Expansion
It's unfortunate that the majority of youth who visit here have zero respect for the natural beauty of the area. Clearly the area has that exotic attraction factor going for it, but after all the drinking and partying they engage in, they leave it a complete mess and have ruined most of the namesake adobe tan bedrock strata loaded up with graffiti. The photo to the right here is at the top of Adobe Falls just before it takes the plunge down the canyon. I highly doubt that most people are even aware that the palms are all non-native and unnatural to this area. The stream drops sharply and meanders down and around through the valley on it's collision course with the real San Diego River which comes out of Santee, Lakeside and Cuyamaca Mountains to the northeast. But what most don't realize is that every single side canyon on both sides of I-8 is loaded with hundreds of these same large Mexican Fan Palm colonies up and down all the dry washes. Actually the washes are not all that dry any more as they have been utilized by the building industry and city as part of the municipal storm drain infrastructure, Hence the reason for so much extra water which allows palms to thrive. The other reasons for water's permanent presence is basically public wastefulness. Washing cars, watering landscapes, and any number of ways and reasons people use and waste water. Thousands of small curbs and gutters all collectively trickling their cargo together into larger culverts and other flood control channels all meeting upstream and contributing to what was and technically is Alvarado creek. Many references will call this water course north of SDSU as the San Diego River, but Adobe Falls is on Alvarado Creek, not the San Diego River. Alvarado Creek joins the San Diego River at the mouth of that canyon at a district of San Diego called Grantville. They even have a Trolley Station there now. Now let's venture a little further west of Adobe Falls and visit one of the many watershed tributaries along either side of that canyon east of Grantville.

Image: Google Earth

The photograph here is again brought to us from Google Earth. This is about halfway between Waring Road and College Avenue on the south side of Interstate 8 freeway. The bridge you see is fairly new as it is the newer extension of the San Diego Trolley line. So from this east bound shoulder lane looking back up the hillside here of homes just west of SDSU there are a number of tributaries to the main canyons and these were historically almost always dry, except of course now that has all changed with the water run off from public streets above. This is also a north facing slope so evapo-transpiration is going far less than on the south facing slope on the north side of this same canyon which is almost totally lower growing coastal sage scrub. Notice the Mexican Fan Palms. There are actually far more extensive long colonies than the photo here gives credit for. But this is common all the way to the Pacific Ocean on both sides of the greater part of the wide Mission Valley. A simple drive and exploration of canyons and side streets can verify the massive extent to which Mexican Fan Palm has taken over all canyon courses that flow down to Mission Valley. Now lets take a short side trip to the opposite side of Interstate 8 freeway to Waring Road which travels up Navajo Canyon up to Allied Gardens. 

Image: Google Earth

Once again, here's a Google Earth of Waring Road well north of Interstate 8 freeway and just before you drive out of the canyon to the Allied Garden's flat plateau area. The canyon on the left is yet another example of how Mexican Fan Palms have taken advantage of an unnatural circumstances and crowded out the native dry canyon vegetation, but this canyon is no longer dry. It is fed from waste water and storm runoff from the city neighbourhoods above. This has been replicated throughout the entire city and surrounding municipalities. Of course the City's use of the natural geography and dry washes makes sense because these gullies and canyons  efficiently divert flood waters during rainstorm events to keep streets safer and drier. Now I say flood waters because the collectively, all storm water buildup is made by all man the made concrete and asphalt surfaces which eventually come together and causing the flooding. In this Allied Gardens region there are also a number of other plants which have ultimately invaded San Diego's natural riparian corridor of infrastructures and made them a hostile environment to not only native biodiversity, but wildfire hazard to human habitation during these present times of later day mega-wildfires. For example there are three major invaders along with the Mexican Fan Palm, Arundo Cane [Bamboo or sugar cane looking plant], Brazilian Pepper [water loving, unlike the California Pepper which prefers drier circumstances, hence lack of invasive qualities even it will naturalize sporadically] and last but not least the Salt Cedar or Tamarisk [also another major player in not only riparian ruin, but wildfire spread]. The other problem appears to be that in some locations, these fan palms are becoming a storm drain nuisance by hindering flood water movement by impeding it's flow. Here is a photo below where some Fan Palm removal has been taken in Navajo Canyon Open Space.

Image by Eric D. Bier

Navajo Canyon Open Space below Allied Gardens

A slow drive up Waring Road and glancing side to side and you'll just about find them everywhere. Clearly at the top of the plateau where all the 1950s housing tracts are located, people have them in yards everywhere. The Mexican Fan Palm is a heavy producer of seeds and hundreds of seedlings can be found almost anywhere. One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to plants is the mis-label or mis-identification of trees of the same species and generally [believe it or not] by those who are supposed to be experts. I wrote about this earlier where San Diego Safari Park botanical experts have labeled American Sycamore or London Plane tree as California Sycamore in the Chaparral habitat exhibit. I've seen many Retail Nurseries do the exact same thing. 

So what's the Difference between the two ???
California and Mexican Fan Palm are always incorrectly identified in journals, government reports and science literature. The two couldn't be more different despite some of the obvious similarities in physical appearance. For one the Mexican Fan Palm comes from Mexico, is more slender trucked, eventually getting 70' - 90' or 100' foot tall or more. They are probably the most iconic tall skinny palms seen around Hollywood and other Los Angeles' boulevards, Riverside city streets and orange groves around Redlands, etc. Take a look at the picture to the right. One negative about the fronds and maintenance, unlike the fatter trunk California Fan Palm, the Mexican Fan Palm will shed their fronds in wind storms which creates a dangerous pedestrian or homeowner hazard below. Fire has nothing to to with them falling although they will fall off when on fire and blow far away from the tree creating spot fires well ahead of the main fire front line. The native California holds almost all their fronds throughout life unless they catch fire of course. The leaf frond of the Mexican is also much smaller and brighter green.

The California Fan Palm on the other hand has a much fatter or larger diameter trunk than slender Mexican Fan Palm. The California Fan Palm is also not as high, perhaps to 60 foot. The fronds are a duller olive green and not as bright green as the Mexican Fan Palm. Those fronds are also much much bigger and wider spread than Mexican. The growth of the California Fan Palm is far more slower than the Mexican Fan Palm and this is why they have mostly fallen out of favour with the professional landscaper and their clients who want instant landscape. The reasons you see them in older neighbourhoods of Southern California is because that was the only palm available other than the other icon Canary Island Date Palm, which also naturalizes very well behind the Mexican Fan Palm. There is just no patience anymore for waiting for a tree to actually become a tree. The California Fan Palm also doesn't necessarily naturalize as well as it's Mexican cousin on the western side of the Southern California mountains. not that they can't, but it's not as common. Interestingly, another problem in identification could also come from the fact that both of these Fan Palms will hybridize very easily which I found out in the 1980s-90s was a problem for growers dealing with purebreds in Coachella Valley. 

Call you tell which are California and which is Mexican Fan Palms

Now as a quick example of what I am talking about when it comes to experts who should know better when it comes to plant identification, take a good read of this city of San Diego canyon rehabilitation and maintenance planning report. When you scroll down to page 35, notice the photograph of Rancho Bernardo Canyon and the reference to the trees described as California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) which in reality are clearly Mexican Fan Palms. Not even any mention of the Canary Island Date Palms presence there either. There is simply no excuse for mistakes like this where the city hires expensive experts to do their studies. This is the same irresponsible work that was done by supposed experts  at the San Diego Wild Animal Park's chaparral exhibit. The term California Fan Palm in this instance can be likened to the California Pepper Tree designation. Neither of these trees are natives, but their favoured place in our history of California landscapes is done by humans who as time goes on simply forget the history and consider them as indigenous as they consider themselves. But highly paid experts have no excuses.
It wouldn't be right if I neglected to mention another kool Fan Palm native to Baja California
Mexican Blue Fan Palm (Brahea armata)

Image: Google Earth

corner of Vulcan St & Danny St , El Cajon California, USA

I know, the yard doesn't look like much, but it use to before it was sold. For four years I walked back and forth from home to work as head landscaper and passed by this house on the corner of Danny St and Vulcan St in El Cajon California. Sometimes I'd just stop in front to gaze at this amazing blue fan palm. What really made the house and yard was this singular giant Mexican Blue Fan Palm standing all by itself in the lawn, much like the ones in the photograph at the right. The palm frond foliage is a beautiful unique blue green with gray haze. Even when it flowers, it's far more beautiful and impressive than the two palms I have described above. This one also had an amazing large diameter trunk as well, the largest I've ever seen. Apparently not long after this house was sold the new owner took a chainsaw to the Blue Fan Palm and removed all but what looked like a perfectly flat round table which they placed potted plants on top for a while. Eventually that stump decayed and they completely removed it as you can see in the above Google photo where the scar is still evident in the lawn. Aside from the shock one day passing by and seeing it being gone, I realized that as a result of the owner's ignorance, he or she lost out on many 1000s of dollars. Such large trees like this one are worth that kind of money because they are so rare to come by and take so long to grow. In that respect they are much like the large Sego Palms in value. The other draw back to these Palms besides people preferring green palms is that this palm is even slower growing than either of the Mexican or California Fan Palm. But apparently this guy didn't know that. One thing I did learn from the growers in Coachella and Thermal is that the Blue Fan Palm when dug out and hauled to a new location has to have it's roots burned to cauterize the wounds because otherwise the palm even if planted will bleed to death. The other fan and date palms you see hauled around on large flat bed trucks and planted do not have this problem. Speaking of hauling palms and planting whole large ready made trees, here is an amazing house transformation below in the Coachella Valley where older 1970s house was remodeled and yard transformed. Beautiful job and I'll close this post with this picture and link of the story underneath the photograph.

Ashley Hacksaw: "A Tour of our House the exterior"

In Defense of the Mexican Fan Palm (Washingtonia robusta)
While it's true I have targeted the Mexican Fan Palm here as the main subject of this article and referenced it's invasive nature as we have labeled it within this Southern California environment, the plant itself is not to blame. It's people. The palm isn't no more invasive than say the Salt Cedar is. The word invasive comes from another word more commonly used with human beings, "invasion". Take a look at the dictionary definition of this word: 
Invasion: "an act or instance of invading or entering as an enemy, especially by an army. the entrance or advent of anything troublesome or harmful, as disease. entrance as if to take possession or overrun"
Today it his becoming popular and hip to assign description of plants as sentient beings. They are not. While scientists utilize many metaphors and euphemisms in describing some of the incredible behavioural traits and complex sensory mechanisms within plants and their cooperation with each other in all  ecosystems, they do so through their genetic programming and sensory epigenetic mechanisms. They simply grow successfully or unsuccessfully within the environment they find themselves placed. When humans in ignorance change their environment it brings consequences. Rather than admitting error on their part, they tend to blame the plants, animals, birds, insects, etc etc etc by assigning to them negative terminology or labels normally used for people, in that they can now justify to their fellow human being why they should be allowed to pursue yet other irresponsible actions [mostly likely of a deadly stupid chemical or mechanical nature] in eliminating them, which often results in further unforeseen consequences. Mexican Fan Palms, like Canary Island Date Palms or Brazilian Pepper Trees are not scheming planning invaders, their sensor mechanisms are simply responding to the changes provided by people who in this case are merely wasting water. Take the water away and the plants will eventually decline in vigor and propagation of themselves will likely also cease. But homeowners and planners should bear in mind the present catastrophic circumstances of Climate Chance they [worldwide] have collectively created and now understand the newer need of  maintaining their landscapes accordingly. I'll have another post on human mistreatment of the natural world is a reflection on how they have treated each other throughout history. Stay tuned!

Update: "Say good-bye to Buena Creek's palm trees"
Image - Gig Conaughton - UT San Diego Staff Writer
"Standing out like sore thumbs in the midst of lush, green willow trees and native plants, every one of the huge palm trees in the environmentally-protected creek are brown from top to bottom, deader than doornails. 
Environmental groups said Friday that the public should not be alarmed. The nonnative palms -- along with towering Eucalyptus trees and fast-spreading Pampas grass -- are being intentionally killed off because they were threatening the creek's native willows, scrub and protected birds and animals."
(Source - San Diego Union Tribune) 
Update: December 15, 2017
NBC San Diego
NBC San Diego: Palm Trees Removed From Rice Canyon in Chula Vista
"A helicopter will be removing more than 80 palm trees from Rice Canyon in Chula Vista Friday.  The Mexican Fan palm trees, which can grow to 60 feet, hinder the growth of native plants, city officials said.  Crews began cutting the invasive trees Monday. Now, the helicopter will pick up the trees one at a time and take them to an area where they can be properly disposed.  Residents of Rancho del Rey Parkway may notice the noise of the helicopter until 4 p.m., officials said.
Further Important Reading References
Southern California and Palm Trees 
Important (September 2015)Update for Landscapers who have chosen Mexican Fan Palm over the California Fan Palm because of it's faster growth for instant tree 
California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) growth explosion with Mycorrhizal Fungi 
LA Times: Gardening Hangovers Part-II - Mexican Fan Palms
Piety and Perversity: The Palms of Los Angeles by Victoria Dailey
Examples of Fire Hazards 
Palm trees help spread fire in Yorba Linda



Jesusita Fire likely a sign of things to come Wildfires Drought, invasive weeds, warming put much of state at risk, experts say

Check out the video below of why it is so stupid to allow fireworks any time of year to the public. Trust me, palm trees are prime targets for these creeps

Adobe Falls, San Diego California - SDSU Area
Hidden San Diego: Adobe Falls
 The Daily Aztec: "Trespassers resort to Adobe Falls"
San Diego Reader: "Roam Adobe Creek Falls"
Navajo Canyon Open Space
Navajo Canyon Open Space Trail Map
San Diego Reader: "Navajo Canyon Open Space"