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

Giant Kern County Solar Project Officially Dead

Killer of solar projects, the Mohave ground squirrel | Image: Louis Agassiz Fuertes, printed in Natural history of the ground squirrels of California, California State Printing Office,1918

The California Energy Commission just dealt the final death blow to a proposed solar project that was once one of the most controversial in the California Desert. With no one making any moves to object, the CEC terminated the application process for the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project, which would have generated 250 megawatts on almost 4,000 acres of public lands in the western Mojave.

Tuesday's move by the CEC will surprise no one: the project has been effectively dead for some years. The proponent, Solar Millennium, filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and was liquidated by 2013. The Bureau of Land Management revoked the project's right to use public lands even earlier, in 2011, a year after the CEC staff recommended against approving the project because of the damage it would do to the desert's wildlife.

But today's action does close a chapter in the early history of utility-scale desert solar projects, and it's worth remarking upon as the end of an era -- and as good news for one of the Mojave's rarest mammals.

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As ReWire has mentioned fairly often, Solar Millennium was an early casualty of the plunging price of photovoltaic panels over the last five years. Along with other now-defunct solar thermal companies such as Tessera, Solar Millennium's parabolic trough thermal technology just couldn't compete with cheap photovoltaics.

Before its bankruptcy, Solar Millennium had planned to put about 1,500 acres of parabolic trough mirrors and support infrastructure on the Ridgecrest Solar site along Brown Road south of Ridgecrest. The problem was that the land, under BLM management, was home to about 40 federally Threatened desert tortoises. It was also an important connectivity corridor for the Mohave ground squirrel, a state-listed Threatened species.

Concerned over those species as well as others such as the burrowing owl and desert kit fox, the CEC and BLM took the unusual step in 2010 of recommending against the project as proposed. They did so in a hybrid document that served both as the CEC Staff Assessment and the federal Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). The CEC staff and BLM also proposed that if the project was approved despite their concerns, that Solar Millennium be required to preserve at least 10,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat as mitigation for the project.

The Ridgecrest project had been one of a number of utility-scale solar projects that had been "fast-tracked" for streamlined approval. The Staff Assessment/DEIS was a stumbling block, and Solar Millennium stumbled hard. In order for the project to qualify for Department of Energy loan guarantees and grants through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a.k.a. "Stimulus funding," all the project's permits needed to be in order by the end of 2010.

After the agencies voiced their concerns, it was clear several months out that Solar Millennium wouldn't be meeting that deadline. Solar Millennium's representatives proposed an agency hearing schedule in April that essentially took the project out of consideration for fast-track status and ARRA funding.

It was downhill from there. By July, Solar Millennium's representatives asked the CEC to suspend the project for two years so that company biologists could examine the site's wildlife issues more closely. The BLM revoked Solar Millennium's pending Right Of Way to the land in March 2011. In the summer of that year, Solar Millennium announced that it was redesigning the project to use photovoltaic panels instead of trough thermal technology. Though the company was doing the same with some of its other California desert projects, notably the massive Blythe Solar project near the Colorado River town of the same name, in Ridgecrest's case the firm said that the redesign would also reflect concerns about wildlife, and avoid habitat and connectivity areas.

That launched a short-lived battle of the agencies. The CEC usually has jurisdiction only over power plants that use heat to generate power. Photovoltaic panels don't use heat. Kern County, which at that point had never seen a renewable energy project it couldn't rubber stamp, announced that it now had regulatory authority over the project instead of the CEC. But Solar Millennium, likely thinking of its existing organizational investment in the CEC process, invoked a little-known provision of the law that established the CEC (§ 25502.3 of the Warren Alquist Act, to be unnecessarily precise) to go through a voluntary CEC certification process.

Which never happened. In February 2012, bankruptcy proceedings began for Solar Millennium, which had fallen victim to the catastrophic shakeout in the solar thermal industry. In that same month, in a letter dated February 16, Solar Millennium's attorney Scott Galati told the CEC that the firm Solarhybrid AG had bought the Ridgecrest project from Solar Millennium and would be building it as a photovoltaic facility.

That was the last formal contact the CEC had from anyone claiming to want to build the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project. Solarhybrid went bankrupt in June 2012. And the project has sat, suspended with no owner, on the CEC's docket since then.

So there are no surprises in this week's final termination of the project. It's just the last bit of paperwork in what was, at the time, an unusual process: the CEC and the BLM each turned down a large desert solar project because of its likely effect on wildlife.

The Mohave ground squirrel was unavailable for comment.


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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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