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

Riverside County Approves Large Desert Solar Project

The McCoy Solar Energy Project would occupy the desert shown in the right foreground. Cleared area is part of the Blythe solar project | Photo: Chris Clarke / KCET

A solar project that would cover almost six and a half square miles of the California desert near Blythe jumped one of its its final regulatory hurdles this week. On Tuesday, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors gave unanimous approval to the 4,096-acre McCoy Solar Energy Project, which would generate a maximum of 750 megawatts of power if it's completely built out.

Finishing the full project would require willing buyers for the project's power. At the moment, the project's owner NextEra Energy Resources has only found a taker for 250 megawatts, a third of the plant's eventual maximum output. Construction on that portion of the project is set to begin late this year, with the power going to Southern California Edison.

Filling up the buyer list for the remaining 500 megawatts may take NextEra some time, as California utilities get closer to meeting their obligations under the state law that requires they get a third of their power from renewables by 2020. In the meantime, the McCoy plant -- lauded in 2012 by the federal government as "one of the largest renewable energy projects" it had approved -- continues to raise environmentalist concerns.

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The project now lacks only a formal right-of-way grant from the Bureau of Land Management, which is essentially a formality.

Leading the strictly environmental concerns is a phenomenon noted at photovoltaic installations farther west, at which birds generally associated with bodies of water were being found dead in surprising numbers. (ReWire has reported extensively on the issue.) It's conjectured that photovoltaic panels look very much like open water to birds flying past. If those birds attempt a water landing, they can collide fatally with the panels or associated infrastructure; if they happen to survive the landing, they may have trouble taking off again without open water to use as a runway.

Even the scaled-down first phase of McCoy Solar would add about 2,000 acres of photovoltaic panels to the landscape, and unlike more remote facilities, McCoy will be just a few miles from the Colorado River, a major bird migration corridor.

Also of concern are the project's possible effects on the health of nearby residents. Solar plant construction that disturbs desert soil has been implicated in outbreaks of the disease valley fever, which is known to be present in area soils, and other respiratory complaints. In a March 10 letter to the Bureau of Land Management describing their organization's opposition to the adjacent Blythe Solar Project, La Cuna de Aztlan members Alfredo Figueroa and Patricia Robles relate that their neighbors in Blythe and the surrounding communities have been suffering due to solar construction. "Last spring," write Figueroa and Robles, "there were many complaints by the Mesa Verde residents of the bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses that related to the dust storms caused by the leveling of the pristine desert."

The group La Cuna has also spoken out against local solar development's effect on Native cultural resources, including geoglyphs that stand to be damaged or destroyed by construction at Blythe and McCoy.

Nonetheless, Riverside County's Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve the project's permits and development agreement, the first such project to be approved under what had been a controversial County initiative to levy per-acre development fees on solar projects.

Under the agreement reached Tuesday, NextEra will pay the county $150 per acre per year during the 30-year life of the project, an amount that will be adjusted annually for inflation.

Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who crafted the solar user fee policy, called the agreement "the result of amicable and smooth negotiations with NextEra and agreement on all issues and concerns. This project will put hundreds of people to work and we can look forward to long-term benefits to the county."

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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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