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

Riverside County Has Significant Concerns Over Large Solar Project

Rio Mesa Solar project, artist's conception | Image via California Energy Commission.

Riverside County has weighed in on the California Energy Commission's initial assessment on the proposed Rio Mesa Solar project, and it's fair to say the County has some significant concerns over how BrightSource Energy's 500-megawatt solar thermal plant would affect the county's wildlife, historic sites, and public health and welfare.

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The project would occupy about 3,800 acres of land southeast of Blythe, most of it owned by the Metropolitan Water District. It's come under fire for its potential effect on both migratory birds and a surprisingly rich fossil deposit found on the site.

The California Energy Commission, which is the lead agency in the approval process for the plant, released a two-part Preliminary Staff Assessment (PSA) in September and October. That PSA has been collecting comments since. Riverside County's comments were submitted earlier this week.

The PSA itself went into significant detail in describing the potential negative effects the plant would have; Riverside County's comments make it clear the county's concerns extend past those mentioned in the PSA. From the county's comments:

Notwithstanding CEC staff's efforts, the PSA falls short in a number of areas including: (1) visual impacts, (2) impacts to County roads and a mechanism to enforce travel restrictions; (3) a detailed facility closure plan; (4) the analysis of the Rio Mesa [project's] compliance with the County's General Plan and land use ordinances, (5) public health impacts, (6) fire impacts, and (7) the socioeconomic impacts to County services.... According to CEC staff, the Project will not be consistent with several [local laws and regulations] and would result in Significant, unmitigable adverse environmental impacts in Biological, Cultural and Visual Resources

One of the concerns expressed by the county is the height of the towers proposed for the project. Rio Mesa, using BrightSource's proprietary solar thermal technology, would surround two 750-foot-tall towers with hundreds of thousands of mirrored heliostats. Those towers are far taller than allowed under county zoning regulations

Any solar power plant conditionally permitted in the County must also comply with the development standards of the zone. The height of the Project remains a significant concern under both the zoning ordinance and the General Plan. The two 750-foot tall concrete towers of the Project do not comply with the height limits of either the W-2 or NA zones. In most cases, a variance would be required under Section 18.27 of Ordinance No. 348 to exceed those height limits, the approval of which would compel the County to find that:
[B]ecause of special circumstances applicable to ... [the] property, including size, shape, topography, location or surroundings, the strict application of th[e] ordinance deprives such property of privileges enjoyed by other property in the vicinity that is under the same zoning classification.
The required basis for such a variance cannot be made for this Project.

An additional problem is modifications BrightSource would make to the Bradshaw Trail, a popular 4-wheeler destination and important historic route between the Colorado River and the Salton Basin:

The County is also concerned about the historic passageway in the Project site now known as The Bradshaw Trail. The Bradshaw Trail is significant as a pre-historic trail; as a route often traversed in the Spanish colonial Californio period; and as a wagon and stage route from 1862-1877. Its importance spans thousands of years, and along its course are important cultural, archaeological and historical resources. To indicate that the portion of The Bradshaw Trail impacted by the Project is not significant opens the way for "chopping up" the remaining Trail and the prospect of further loss of Trail continuity. This needs to be evaluated further.

The county's concerns about the effect the project will have on the visual character of the Rio Mesa area are worth quoting at length:

The Project, on its own and also in combination with existing and foreseeable future projects within the immediate project viewshed, will contribute to significant unavoidable cumulative visual impacts. Project impacts, in combination with existing and foreseeable future solar and otherdevelopment projects within the 1-10 corridor in Riverside County, will contribute to a perceived sense of cumulative industrialization of the currently open, undeveloped desert landscape of the eastern Chuckwalla Valley and Palo Verde Mesa, and impact views of scenic resources experienced by 1-10 motorists, local residents, and recreational visitors within the Project viewshed.

The County agrees with CEC staff that the significant visual impacts cannot be mitigated. As noted at length above, the County further agrees the Project will be inconsistent with several important policies of the Riverside County General Plan. County residential, agricultural, and open space areas in the Project viewshed will be strongly impacted by effects of bright glare from the Project However, the County does not believe the proposed mitigation is sufficient to off-set the vast changes being imposed on the residents within the vicinity of the Project. The proposed "off-site landscape screening' mitigation in Condition of Certification Vis-2 is not sufficient. It is unrealistic to assume that trees able to grow in the harsh, windswept desert environment of the Palo Verde Mesa would provide suitable screening. Since these impacts cannot be fully mitigated, the residents should reap some benefit from the Project that they will live with, and see, daily. The residents in the vicinity of the Project should receive some greater benefit.

Further, the County is concerned about the effects of bright glare along recognized scenic and historical recreational areas, including the Bradshaw Trail, Palo Verde Mountains Wilderness Area, and Cibola National Wildlife Refuge. The PSA recognizes that these areas "would experience a decline in [scenic and recreationai values due to bright glare." The landscape setting of the Project has a mostly natural character. The Project would "be a visually dominant and highly intrusive feature that would degrade the scenic qualities of its surroundings.' Even though these areas may not be under the County's jurisdiction, these scenic and historical recreational areas are Important to County residents and County tourism, on which much of the local economy of that area depends. The County also remains concerned about the scenic viewshed along the historic Bradshaw Trail. The County asks for stronger efforts to minimize and fully mitigate the visual impacts of the Project.

Riverside County has been in the news over the last two years for its efforts to exact a user fee on large desert solar projects in its borders. The county is home to the largest of the Solar Energy Zones established by the Interior and Energy Departments: the 147,910-acre Riverside East SEZ. In light of expenses the county will incur to provide infrastructural support to remote industrial development as well as feared lost income from the effects of development on tourism, the County has enacted a $450-per-acre annual fee for desert solar development, a move that is less than uniformly popular with solar developers. Rio Mesa's fee under this arrangement would be more than $1.7 million annually.

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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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