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

Kern County Solar Project Comes All the Way Online

Catalina Solar from above | Photo: Google Maps

The 900-acre Catalina solar power plant in the Mojave Desert section of Kern County is completed. The plant's owner EDF Renewable Energy announced this week that the 143-megawatt plant has "reached commercial operation."

In other words, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) customers can now flick a switch and witness the power of this fully armed and operational solar photovoltaic generating station.

The plant, built by the engineering firm Bechtel for EDF Renewables, has a 25-year power purchase agreement with the San Diego utility. The facility's solar panels, which include a mix of different photovoltaic technologies, occupy about a square mile of the western Mojave Desert near the Antelope Valley hamlet of Willow Springs.

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A portion of the facility has been delivering power to SDG&E since December. The Catalina Solar Project is adjacent to EDF's 140 MW Pacific Wind project, operational since last year. Though the projects were built separately, their close proximity allows them to share some transmission infrastructure. Kern County, which led the projects' environmental review process under the California Environmental Quality Act, treated the two as a single project for purposes of their Environmental Impact Report.

Sited on private lands that had previously been used for a combination of grazing and off-road vehicle use, the Catalina plant escaped much of the environmental scrutiny devoted to similar desert solar projects.

Despite its history of use, the land now occupied by Catalina Solar and Pacific Wind had been habitat for San Diego horned lizards, burrowing owls, golden eagles and Swainson's hawks, and several other species of concern. In 2011 the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) formally noted that some wildlife surveys for the project had not always been conducted in accordance with state protocols, and challenged the project biologists' contention that neither the Bakersfield cactus or the Mohave ground squirrel occurred on the site. The cactus is a state- and federally listed endangered species, and the squirrel is listed by the state as threatened.

Catalina Solar generates power with a mixture of thin film photovoltaic panels, including Solar Frontier's Copper indium gallium selenide units and Cadmium telluride panels from First Solar. EDF Renewable Services, which previously went by the name enXco Service Corporation, will operate the facility.


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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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