News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

What Happens When A Developer Abandons A Desert Solar Project?

Bulldozed, abandoned and barren | Photo: Chris Clarke

It was once lauded as the "nation's largest solar project": a gigawatt of solar thermal generating capacity on just under 6,000 acres of desert. The governor of California and the Secretary of the Interior shook hands on the site and spoke of a new solar future imposed on the desert. That was before the developer went bankrupt. Now, the site stands seemingly abandoned, a drift of blowing dust and invasive grass where once there was thriving desert.

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I visited the Blythe Solar Power Project's site this weekend with Alfredo Figueroa, convenor of the Blythe-area group La Cuna De Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, which sued in 2011 to halt construction on the project due to feared damage to nearby geoglyphs.

That was before the project's developer, the German firm Solar Millennium, went under in 2011 after a series of legal and financial setbacks. Eventually it couldn't pay the rent it owed Bureau of Land Management.

During the usual auctions that accompany corporate bankruptcies the Blythe Solar Power Project was bought at auction by energy developer NextEra. NextEra intends to develop the site as a photovoltaic solar facility after some redesigning. But right now, there's nothing to indicate anyone intends anything with the site. The bulldozers scraped more than 100 acres of facility footprint before the money ran out, not counting more than four miles of access road averaging about 200 feet wide, itself another hundred acres of scraped desert. (That access road destroyed a piece of rock art very important to La Cuna de Aztlan, about which I'll be writing more soon.)

Aside from the places where the desert was scraped away, there is no sign of impending plans for the site. No fences keep travelers or off-roaders off the square of barren desert dust. No warning signs or surveyors stakes indicate a work in progress. Though the earthmoving removed the desert's protective cover of vegetation and desert pavement, no erosion control measures are in place to soften the impact of wind and water. The wind across the site blows dust likely laden with valley fever spores toward the heavily Latino town of Blythe, a few miles east.

Freeway-scaled access road cut through microphyll woodland | Photo: Chris Clarke

Right outside the margins of the disturbed earth lies seemingly healthy desert, with desert pavement pediments and vegetation typical of the Mojave-Sonoran transition zone. Widely spaced creosote with sparse but thriving buckwheats and bunch grasses occupy the middle elevations of the alluvial fans. In the washes, mature ironwoods and palo verdes perhaps millennia old take advantage of the extra moisture brought by flash floods -- except where the road has carved through a wash, as broad as a freeway.

The desert nearby lives, for now. Unchecked erosion degrades the land both upwind and down. The scar in this piece of desert will chew its way slowly uphill, loosing dust and debris to blow eastward.

NextEra reported in October to the California Energy Commission (CEC) that it was meeting with local environmental groups to reconfigure the project, moving it away from ecologically important and culturally significant areas. (Figueroa reported no such meetings; though I attempted to contact NextEra for an update, they didn't get back to me before press time.) The CEC assigned a new hearing officer to manage Blythe Solar proceedings a few weeks ago. It may be that the site will, at some point in the next two years, be expanded, fenced off, and developed as a solar power generating facility.

If so, at some point it will have outlived its usefulness. A decade later, this site may look more or less like the bulldozed portion does now, except with more scrap metal.

All the large solar power projects proposed for or being built in the California desert have a life expectancy. It may be 30 years, or 50 years, but it's shorter than a human lifespan. At some point the power towers will have to be removed, the mirrors and the photovoltaic panels recycled, and if the economics and technology of 2065 don't warrant utility scale solar -- as they largely do not now -- then these sites will all be permanently altered. Perhaps we will know better by then how to revegetate a desert landscape; perhaps we will be able to plant 500-year-old yuccas and 1,200-year-old creosotes from seed.

We don't know how to do that now, and so we will struggle to heal those sites once the solar developers abandon them.

If we replace a parking lot with solar, we definitely know how to put a new parking lot there once the solar is obsolete.

A nearby section of this desert, untouched by bulldozing. | Photo: Chris Clarke

I couldn't help thinking this weekend that I was looking at the future of the California desert, right there under my feet, in the dust and the invasive red brome.

A short hike north of the scar in the earth that is the current Blythe Solar Power Project is the site of the McCoy Solar Energy Project, a 750-megawatt NextEra project when completed that will occupy almost 13 square miles of this same stretch of desert. The Interior Department released the project's final Environmental Impact Statement in December. It may issue a final record of decision at any time. At present, only a third of the McCoy project has a power purchase agreement. If both projects are ever fully completed, they will adjoin to form a huge swath of solar on the eastern flank of the McCoy Mountains, where they will produce power for a few decades. In announcing the publication of the project's EIS, the Interior Department lauded McCoy Solar as "one of the largest solar energy projects on public lands in the California desert."

The red brome awaits, and it is patient. In one year or a hundred, it will overtake McCoy Solar the way it has overtaken Blythe.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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