News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Another Huge Solar Plant Goes Online in California's Desert

Genesis Solar Project | Photo: California Energy Commission

With a flick of a giant ceremonial switch but not much else in the way of fanfare, the Genesis Solar Energy Project has gone online in the eastern desert of Riverside County. The 4,600-acre project near Ford Dry Lake will generate up to 250 megawatts of power to be bought by the Northern California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E).

Approved by the California Energy Commission and the Department of the Interior in 2010, the project, built by NextEra Energy Resources 25 miles west of Blythe, hit speedbumps ranging from lawsuits to wildlife illnesses to unanticipated archaeological discoveries on the path to Thursday's figurative ribbon-cutting.

Among the dignitaries flipping the "switch" on April 24 at Genesis were CEC Commissioner David Hochschild and Michael Peavey of the California Public Utilities Commission. The event formally adds up to 250 megawatts to California's solar thermal generating capacity.

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Unlike the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System that formally went online in February, which uses thousands of huge flat mirrors to focus sunlight on boilers atop power towers, Genesis uses a far more thoroughly tested technology: parabolic trough-shaped mirrors that focus sunlight on a pipe running through each trough. That pipe contains a "thermal transfer fluid," which is heated by the focused solar energy and then transfers that heat to steam to run a conventional turbine and generator.

Genesis thus avoids causing the wildlife damage from concentrated solar flux increasingly seen at Ivanpah. Which isn't to say the facility is thus safe for wildlife: collisions with mirrors and other infrastructure, as well as the mirror field's resemblance from the air to a body of water, may well have contributed to bird mortalities documented at the project.

Genesis was also the focus of attention on another wildlife issue in late 2011, when desert kit foxes near the site were found dead and dying of distemper, a deadly disease that had not previously been found in the species. The source of the outbreak is still unknown.

Flash floods in July 2012 posed a minor obstacle to the project, as did a 2011 lawsuit over groundwater use by the labor group California Unions for Reliable Energy. That suit was thrown out of court in the Fall of 2011.

Likely the biggest speedbump for the project came in November 2011 when workers uncovered a large collection of Native cultural artifacts and former habitation sites, including what may have been an historic cremation site. Staff of the Bureau of Land Management described the find to representatives of local Native groups as "unprecedented."

Representatives of local tribes charged that the archaeological finds and the distemper outbreak showed that the federal government had cut corners in its environmental review of the project. Genesis had been one of the Interior Department's "fast-tracked" desert solar projects, with environmental assessment expedited in 2009 as Obama administration policy to promote utility-scale energy development on public lands.

Incidentally, though California officially had 250 megawatts more solar thermal generating capacity on Friday, April 25 than it had two days before, that wasn't quite reflected in the amount of energy coming into the state's grid. According to the California Independent System Operator, solar thermal energy flowing into the grid peaked at 582 megawatts on Wednesday, April 23 and 599 megawatts on Thursday, April 24, then dropped by about half to 257 megawatts on Friday. Just a reminder that that 250 megawatt capacity of Genesis, or any other utility-scale solar project, is a theoretical maximum and not a guarantee of performance.

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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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