News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

Green Groups, Agency Staff Urge 'No' on Palen Solar Project

Solar flux at Ivanpah | Photo © David Budlong, used with permission

The science is still out on whether a proposed solar power tower plant in Riverside County would pose too much risk to wildlife to justify its renewable energy benefits, and the project should be delayed or rejected until we have more data on wildlife impacts.

Or at least that's one takeaway message in several opening briefs in the California Energy Commission (CEC) certification hearings for the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System (PSEGS), which BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar want to build on 2,794 acres of public land between Blythe and Desert Center.

In an opening brief filed Tuesday with the CEC as the agency's lengthy and controversial assessment process for the Palen project, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) charged that the agency is forging ahead with little apparent regard for the still-emerging wildlife impacts of the project's largely new technology. That point of view was echoed in a brief submitted by long-time solar watchdogs Basin and Range Watch, as well as in a brief offered by the CEC's own staff.

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CBD's opening brief is one of five on the PSEGS project published on the CEC website so far. These opening briefs, formal written arguments that parties in a CEC certification process, including intervenors in the process like CBD, introduce into evidence after the close of the agency's formal evidentiary hearing. And one, filed by the CEC's staff, will likely make PSEGS' backers even more unhappy than those filed by the enviros.

After opening and subsequent response or "rebuttal" briefs are filed, the Presiding Member of the CEC -- in this case, Commissioner Karen Douglas -- will issue what's called the "Presiding Member's Proposed Decision" (PMPD), which is a recommendation to the full Commission as to whether to approve or deny the project's certification. The Commission then will either accept or vote down that PMPD.

If the recent history of CEC evaluations of other proposed renewable energy projects in the California desert is any guide, Douglas' PMPD will most likely concede that PSEGS poses significant and unmitigatable risk to the environment, then approve the project anyway based on the "overriding consideration" that California needs more renewable energy.

That likely outcome has long been conventional wisdom among observers of the PSEGS certification process, and even became part of the official record in a recent hearing.

BrightSource and Abengoa, doing business jointly as Palen Solar Holdings (PSH), have been pressing for expedited schedules so that the joint venture can meet deadlines that are important to the project's funding. CBD's Lisa Belenky and Ileene Anderson point out in the group's opening brief that CEC paid what the group suggests was undue heed to similar deadlines in a previous iteration of the Palen project's certification, before BrightSource bought the project from the now-bankrupt Solar Trust of America (STA) and redesigned it wholesale. From the CBD brief:

Ironically, the earlier environmental review was rushed to a decision in December 2010 in order to facilitate the now-bankrupt company (STA) in meeting deadlines for public ARRA [Obama stimulus] funding; now, even though there is no "fast track" excuse for rushing the process, the applicant still insists that funding deadlines for the production tax credit should define the schedule and is pressing for a decision based on deadlines in its private contracts with a utility company and for interconnection with the grid... although those deadlines can be changed by the parties to the agreements. The Commission should not undermine needed environmental review in its rush to accommodate applicants.

As the CEC works through its hearing schedule on Palen, more information on the project's likely effects on wildlife has continued to come to light from PSEGS' sister project, now being readied to go online in the Ivanpah Valley. In a phenomenon that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service admits it had not fully anticipated, it would seem that the solar flux concentrated by the Ivanpah project's thousands of mirrored heliostats on its three boilers may well be attracting insects and the birds that eat them, creating what ecologists call an "ecological trap" that exposes wildlife to heightened risk of injury. Animals attracted to the project's zone of solar flux run the risk of injury and death from that flux's heightened temperatures.

As USFWS spokesperson Jane Hendron told ReWire in a recent interview, federal scientists are still gathering data on the ways in which wildlife interact with solar power tower projects like Ivanpah. PSEGS's solar flux risks would be significantly larger, with two 750-foot towers generating 250 megawatts of power each compared to Ivanpah's three 125-megawatt generators.

Despite this evolving science, charges CBD, CEC has deferred discussion of mitigation for PSEGS's wildlife impacts, putting the CEC into risky territory as regards its compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA):

Staff has recommended deferring the development of needed mitigation with no performance objectives and no provision to ensure that mitigation is feasible, enforceable or fully funded. This completely undermines CEQA's focus on accountability and implementation of mitigation measures.

In the brief, CBD made a suggestion for a way that CEC could operate within the strict bounds of the law in reviewing PSEGS:

If the Commission intends to use new monitoring measures and an adaptive management framework now being developed by FWS and other agencies at the Ivanpah project... then the Commission should suspend the procedure for this amendment at least one year until those measures and frameworks are developed and put in place and can be evaluated by the all parties. To continue to rush forward with the amendment for power towers when so little information is available is completely irresponsible.

As unpalatable as a year-long delay would certainly seem to Palen Solar Holdings, CBD's suggestion is actually moderate compared to the conservative, scientific approach recommended by another intervenor in the PSEGS certification. The group Basin and Range Watch, which was the first to sound the alarm about the solar flux issue some years ago, suggested a much more rigorous period of data gathering in its own opening brief on PSEGS:

Before the project is approved, an avian mortality study should be designed and undertaken for 3 years at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System during its full operation (not testing) to determine a baseline data set of how many birds are dying from solar flux and mirror impacts, a range of species, and times of day and month such deaths are happening.

Those inclined to write off opposition to PSEGS by CBD and Basin and Range Watch as the acts of self-described activists might be surprised to learn that the CEC's own staff essentially agrees with the groups.

In its opening brief, the CEC's staff urges the Commission not to adopt a statement of overriding considerations to approve the project as redesigned by BrightSource. Because of the solar flux issue and other problems with the power tower design, the agency's staff is recommending the CEC stick with the project design it approved in 2010. That would likely mean PSH would abandon the project, though another developer might well snap it up.

The CEC staff brief singles out bird deaths at Ivanpah as one reason for its recommendation:

[I]nformation from the Ivanpah project (which is about to begin commercial operation of three solar power towers) about avian species mortality from solar flux has caused Staff to have serious reservations about whether the benefits of the proposed modified project outweigh the significant adverse environmental effects.

Significant among the staff's other concerns are the likely visual impacts. For PSH's part, the would-be builders claim that adding two 750-foot towers with blindingly bright tops a mile from a heavily traveled cross-country highway would not make the project all that much more visually prominent than a fenced-off patch of 15-foot trough mirrors.

A finding of "overriding consideration" in favor of the power tower design, says the CEC staff brief, would ignore the fact that those considerations could be met with the original trough design or a similar design using photovoltaic panels.

We'll see whether Karen Douglas' Proposed Decision will reflect those concerns.

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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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