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

A Symbolic Win for Solar Panels: Large Desert Project Clears Hurdle

Site of the Blythe Solar Power Project | Photo: Chris Clarke

Friday was a busy day for the California Energy Commission (CEC). As we reported Friday, the Commission released a negative proposed decision on a controversial solar project in Riverside County. But at the same time, the CEC sent out a tentative "thumbs up" on a solar project 40 miles due west that has been every bit as controversial.

Just minutes before releasing a proposed decision that would scuttle plans for the Palen Solar Electric Generating System, the CEC's presiding commissioner recommended the agency approve a redesign of the Blythe Solar Power Project (BSPP) just west of the Colorado river town Blythe.

Once lauded as the "largest solar project" ever approved for public lands by the Department of The Interior, BSPP has been cut down dramatically from its original design. Originally slated to cover 7,000 acres of old-growth desert habitat with 1,000 megawatts' worth of parabolic trough generation, the project will now generate less than half the power using a little more than 4,100 acres of photovoltaic panels and supporting infrastructure.

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The redesign was initiated by the project's original owner, Solar Millennium, in response to what it said was parabolic trough's increasingly uncompetitive costs. That was in 2011, a year after both the U.S. Department of the Interior and the CEC had approved the original design. Solar Millennium went bankrupt at the end of 2011, and the Florida-based company NextEra Energy Resources bought the project in 2012.

Friday's recommendation by the CEC concerned amendments to the agency's 2010 approval of the project as originally designed. Aside from the smaller footprint, changes in the new design include somewhat less need to completely level the project site (a result of moving to PV panels from parabolic troughs) and a shift of the developed area away from the foothills of the McCoy Mountains and their bighorn sheep habitat.

It's BSPP's effect on local cultural resources that's generated the strongest opposition to date. The ground clearance for the original version of the project, done before Solar Millennium went under, destroyed and damaged several geoglyphs. Local cultural activists like Alfredo Figeuroa, founder of the group La Cuna de Aztlan, maintain the damaged geoglyphs were ancient, and crucially important to Native tradition and understanding of the landscape. The Bureau of Land Management's archaeological staff counter that the geoglyphs were relatively recent and thus of limited cultural importance.

That may seem an odd argument on BLM's part: few would venture to say that a Christian church property couldn't be quite significant to its adherents because the church buildings were built in 1982. But even granting the argument, the geoglyphs are far from being the only culturally significant part of the landscape that might be affected by the Blythe Solar Power Project. The Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT), which intervened in the CEC proceedings on BSPP's design amendment, put it quite strongly in the Tribes' Opening Brief on the project in late November:

Since the agencies' approval of the original project in 2010, CRIT has become increasingly concerned about the impacts of utility-scale renewable energy projects within the ancestral homeland of CRIT members. These massive projects have begun to transform a sacred cultural landscape into an industrial one. Access to sacred sites has been or is threatened to be impeded; culturally important plant and animal species are being impacted by construction and solar flux; and prehistoric archaeological artifacts have been destroyed or boxed up for curation at distant facilities.

The proposed decision on BSPP concedes that the destruction of cultural values on the land may be considerable:

The project may permanently change and/or result in the destruction of cultural resources, both known and as yet unknown, contributing to a cumulatively considerable impact which will be mitigated to the extent possible, but may not be fully mitigated.

The CEC also admits that the project may very well pose a risk to wildlife through collisions with solar panels, potentially as a result of large solar arrays' resemblance to open water. That's a topic ReWire has covered in some depth, and the more solar facilities there are in the desert, says the CEC, the greater the risk becomes.

Blythe is of special concern in this regard. Not only is it relatively close to the Colorado River, an important bird migration corridor, but it's adjacent to the proposed McCoy Solar Power Project, another NextEra deal that would add another 4,200 acres or so of PV panels and associated development to the total. Birds migrating along the Colorado would see what appeared to be a sprawling chain of lakes just to the west, making collision injuries a near certainty.

Nonetheless, the CEC document recommends approving the design changes anyway:

[W]e find that overriding considerations warrant the approval of the amended project as mitigated.... We further find that the amended project is required for public convenience and necessity and that there are no more prudent and feasible means of achieving such public convenience and necessity.

That's not the final hurdle for Blythe: the CEC has to formalize the proposed decision within the next 30 days. That's likely a formality, but the federal assessment of the project won't be. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for Blythe is now being drawn up by the Bureau of Land Management, and its unlikely that a final thumbs-up from the BLM will come before we're well into 2014.

All in all, though, NextEra certainly got better news on its amendment of a Solar Millennium project than Palen Solar Holdings got on their old Solar Millennium property, which the company intended to fit out with 750-foot-tall power towers. Call it another symbolic win for photovoltaic panels over solar thermal.

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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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