News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Hearings on Large Solar Project May Proceed Without Federal Input

Palen Solar Electric Generating System, artist's conception | Photo: BrightSource Energy

As the federal government shutdown drags on through its third week, scheduled hearings by a state agency on a massive solar project in the California desert may lack input and guidance from a number of federal agencies charged with ensuring the project doesn't pose a danger to wildlife or public safety.

The California Energy Commission has scheduled three days of evidentiary hearings on the Palen Solar Electric Generating System for late October, and even if the shutdown ends before the hearings federal agency staff will be hard pressed to participate, as they scramble to catch up on a nearly month-long backlog. If the government's shut down, those agency people have been expressly forbidden to attend.

The hearings are open to the public, and are intended to provide interested people with a venue for airing their concerns and comments about the 500-megawatt solar project, which would include very bright solar power boilers atop 750-foot towers next to Interstate 10 in Riverside County's desert. But the federal shutdown has already adversely affected the public's ability to comment on the project, even if those members of the public aren't furloughed feds.

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The Palen Solar Project, being jointly developed by BrightSource Energy and Abengoa, was bought from its original owners Solar Trust in 2012 and redesigned to use BrightSource's proprietary solar power tower technology. Though the CEC and the Interior Department had signed off on the project, the design changes require reevaluation of the project's effects by both state and feds.

In order for a member of the public to offer a substantive comment at the hearing, that member of the public has to have access to detailed information about the project. Of the most authoritative sources of analysis of the project, the CEC's staff assessments on the original and amended versions of the project and the Interior Department's Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Draft Supplemental EIS, only the CEC documents are currently available to the public: The Interior Department's documents have been offline since the first of October.

While the CEC's assessments of the Palen project are informative and quite extensive, much of the scholarly material the state staff references in areas like groundwater use and soil erosion was generated by USGS staff. Unless that material was published in a peer-reviewed journal not affiliated with the U.S. government, it is likely unavailable for checking, as much of the USGS's website is closed for the duration of the shutdown. Likewise, all existing and previous supporting documents generated by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are offline until Congress reboots the government.

The BLM has been in the process of developing a Draft Supplemental EIS for some months; as ReWire reported last week, the shutdown is taking place during that document's public comment period. An Interior Department source speaking on condition of non-attribution told ReWire that the BLM would very likely extend that comment period for at least the length of the shutdown, though details would necessarily have to wait until the shutdown ended.

The USFWS, which issued a Biological Opinion (BiOp) and Incidental Take Statement on the project's first draft in 2011 (of which ReWire just happened to save a copy) was likewise in the process of drafting a revised BiOp for the BrightSource version of the project when the shutdown occurred. That process has been delayed by at least the length of the shutdown. The original BiOp said that USFWS expected 12 adult and subadult members of the threatened desert tortoise species would be killed by construction, along with up to six juveniles and "a relatively small but unquantifiable number of eggs." Differing construction methods and altered project footprints will likely change that assessment in the revised BiOp, though to what degree it's hard to say.

And it'll be especially hard to say as a member of the public in front of the CEC at an evidentiary hearing if the federal government's websites are shut down, and agency staff strictly forbidden from attending.

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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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