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

Environmental Groups Question Rush on Solar Power Project

Artist'ss conception, Palen Solar Electric Generating System | Image courtesy BrightSource

As a developer of a large-scale solar energy project tries to rush approval by a California state agency, a couple of environmental groups are saying "not so fast."

In 2012, BrightSource bought the 500-megawatt Palen Solar project in eastern Riverside County from bankrupt developer Solar Millennium, which planned to use parabolic trough concentrating solar technology. It was given the green light by the California Energy Commission before Solar Millennium went under.

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BrightSource and its partner Abengoa, working as their joint venture Palen Solar Holdings, intend to build Palen with power towers, an almost completely different technology from Solar Millennium's mirrored trough tech. The CEC's approval of the project must therefore be revisited based on the new design. BrightSource filed a "Petition to Amend" CEC's certification in December, and that petition is now heading through the approval process. A preliminary staff assessment of the amended project is set to be released in two weeks, and hearings and public comment periods will take place starting in September.

The CEC held what's called a "status conference" on the project on June 3. The transcript of that meeting, which has just been made available online, shows that BrightSource is champing at the bit to get CEC approval of the project as early as possible. According to attorney Scott Galati, who represented Palen Solar Holdings at the hearing, the current schedule already impedes the project's schedule; if the developers don't get a green light until October or November, the window for doing autumn tortoise surveys onsite will be over, with the next such opportunity in March.

Though Palen Solar Holdings is thereby inconvenienced in its plans to fire up the plant by June 2016, said Galati, it can still make that deadline despite the inconvenience of the public hearing schedule as long as it can close financing for the project by the end of the year.

But there's a problem: the CEC staff have asked Palen Solar Holdings for data on the project's potential impact on cultural resources that would take longer to generate than Palen would prefer, threatening the venture's relationships with those all-important lenders. From Galati's testimony on June 3:

So, the earliest we think we can get out in the field is late June to early July. And obviously, the amount of work is about a four-week effort in the field during the very, very hot time.

So, we're stuck with doing a lot of offsite hiking in the heat of the summer in the Palens and the Cockscomb [sic] Mountains to identify potential rock art so that, if rock art was found in some sites like that, and I apologize, I am summarizing it -- it is more than just rock art -- an analysis can be done on indirect effects of being able to see the project site. I would point out that this is entirely within the visibility area of the first project. Granted, the visuals look different; we have two towers that glow.

As ReWire has mentioned before, visual resources are of critical importance to California desert Native people. The views from culturally significant sites are part of those sites, and changing those views as dramatically as Palen would can constitute a significant alteration to those cultural sites even if those sites are some distance away.

Palen's two power towers would be 750 feet tall. By comparison, the Morongo Casino tower in Cabazon, currently the Inland Empire's tallest building, is 330 feet tall. In Los Angeles, only the Aon Center and U.S. Bank Tower are taller. To the east, no building in Phoenix comes close: it's not until you get to Houston that you find a building along I-10 taller than Palen's towers would be. Those towers would potentially be seen from a significant distance, meaning that cultural sites relyiing on visual resources over a wide area could be affected.

Galati asked the commission to allow its staff to come up with an assessment without the full set of data staff had requested on cultural impacts. "If I would have known that those data requests would have become so critical to the schedule," said Galati, "I would have objected on grounds that they are not necessary."

The project's effect on birds is also at issue. The project's tens of thousands of mirrored heliostats would concentrate solar energy -- solar flux -- in a relatively small area near the power towers, potentially causing a threat to birds that fly through that area. (We've reported in depth on the solar flux issue as it was relevant to BrightSource's backburnered Hidden Hills project in Inyo County.)

According to Galati, giving the solar flux and birds issue the kind of hearing some might desire poses a risk of its own: unacceptable delay of the project and missing those bank deadlines. "We've already proposed a suite of mitigation for the avian impacts to try to avoid going through the long hearing processes on solar flux," said Galati. "I think we'll be able to do evidentiary hearings in one day."

Predictably enough, Palen's need for speed didn't sit well with some of the groups who have intervened in the CEC's proceedings. Attorney Lisa Belenky with the Center for Biological Diversity objected to the request for expedited proceedings in no uncertain terms that bear quoting at some length:

The company has made it quite clear that they are in a rush. That, however, has nothing to do with the requirements that the Commission must meet... [T]he avian surveys have not been completed yet.... the company has resisted doing full surveys that we believe need to be done, and we have written this in our status reports and gotten no response. So, if the company is in a rush, they should have done more work on these avian issues in particular earlier on.

However, the company now is saying, well, that's okay, because we'll just get the analysis and jump to mitigation, and we suggested all sorts of mitigation. Well, however, that is not how CEQA [the California Environmental Quality Act] works. And we absolutely object to that. We believe that the resources need to be fully analyzed and the impacts need to be fully analyzed. Before we can even begin to discuss mitigation, we must discuss avoidance as well. And that is true for all of the impacts to biological resources, not just the avian impacts.

[W[e would very much oppose the idea that the Commission could simply skip entire areas of gathering data that is necessary for the analysis, and skip over that and jump to mitigation. We absolutely will object to that and we will object now.

Among those other biological resources potentially affected by Palen are Mojave fringe-toed lizards, which rely on wind-blown sand habitat like that found on the project site, and desert kit foxes, which are suffering an epidemic of distemper that seems to have originated near the Genesis solar project one valley to the east of Palen.

Intervenor Kevin Emmerich from Basin and Range Watch echoed Belenky's concerns, adding:

We're reading a lot of interesting information about power towers, and how they create thermals, and that can actually attract some raptors, and it's going to be very -- well, it's just a big concern to see how that's going to impact the populations of that area. [T]he lake effects from the heliostats might actually serve as a way to attract birds and actually get caught in that solar flux effect. We are aware that there have been surveys about twenty miles just around the Cockscomb [sic] Mountain. They have found golden eagles and nesting golden eagles, and we believe that it would be really important to examine the impacts now of the project that was approved to the north, the Ivanpah Solar Project.

Regardless of whether the CEC accedes to Palen's desire to expedite the amendment process, that still leaves a major agency that's yet to approve the project: The Department of Interior. Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the public land on which Palen would sit, and has to approve a right-of-way for the project before it can proceed. It's exceedingly unlikely that the BLM would deny the project outright, but new data available on solar flux and birds and the fringe-toed lizards might tweak BLM's conditions for approval. A Record of Decision from the agency on Palen is expected in early January.


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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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