L.A. to Break Ground on Big Desert Solar Project

Artist's rendition, Beacon Solar project | Image: California Energy Commission

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and a handful of solar contractors will celebrate the start of construction Wednesday on the Beacon Solar Project near the Kern County town of Cantil. The 250-megawatt project will be built on land adjacent to State Route 14 four miles south of Red Rock Canyon State Park.

LADWP bought the property in late 2012 from NextEra Energy, which had planned to build a solar facility there using parabolic trough mirrors, a technology that concentrates the sun's energy. Instead, LADWP will be using photovoltaic, or PV, panels on the site, which means the remote project in the western Mojave Desert marks another milestone in the last few years' dramatic shift in the solar industry from solar thermal to PV. Since 2007, the price of PV has dropped dramatically, making solar thermal increasingly uncompetitive.

The project will be built by SunEdison and Hecate Energy, which both agreed to build additional solar power stations within Los Angeles city limits. These urban solar projects will total 50 megawatts.

Feds Asked to Rethink Energy Project Near Joshua Tree National Park

Eagle Mountain Mine, site of a proposed 21,000 acre-foot energy storage reservoir system | Photo: Chris Clarke | KCETLink

A desert protection group has formally asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reconsider its approval of a large pumped storage project near Joshua Tree National Park. In a formal legal request filed Monday, the Riverside County-based Desert Protection Society charges that FERC's approval of the controversial Eagle Crest pumped storage project violates several federal laws and should be reconsidered.

The group also says the project poses an undue threat to the Chuckwalla Valley's groundwater, as well as to wildlife including the Federally threatened desert tortoise.

The project, which FERC approved in June, would consist of two reservoirs holding about 21,000 acre-feet of locally pumped groundwater on the old Kaiser Eagle Mountain Mine property at the east end of Joshua Tree National Park. Environmental activists and the National Park Service have said the project would threaten the Park's desert tortoises by providing a gathering place for tortoise-eating ravens, and could permanently damage the Chuckwalla valley aquifer.

Proposed Solar Plant Would Kill More Than Twice as Many Birds As Ivanpah

Power tower at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System | Photo: sslopek/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A solar power tower facility proposed for Riverside County would kill or injure more than twice as many birds with its concentrated solar radiation as compared to an existing solar project in San Bernardino County, according to a document published by the California Energy Commission on Friday.

The document, which contains testimony from commission staff submitted as part of upcoming hearings on the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System, estimates that the dangerous zone of concentrated solar "flux" around each of the project's two 750-foot power towers would be twice as large as those around the three towers at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System near the Mojave National Preserve.

That would make each of the Palen towers almost four times as dangerous as their counterparts at Ivanpah, say commission staff, so that even with just two towers compared to Ivanpah's three, Palen would likely pose a 2.5 times greater risk to birds flying near the facility.

Federal Study Confirms Aviation Glare Hazard From Solar Project

Photos of glare from the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, taken from an airliner approximately 40 miles away | Photo: Mike Pasqualetti, Arizona State University, via Sandia National Laboratories

A federal laboratory has released its report on hazards from glare at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino County and the risk that glare poses to aviation in the area. That report isn't good news for those flying between L.A. and Vegas.

ReWire reported in March on complaints from pilots flying near the 390-megawatt solar power tower plant that the facility's tens of thousands of mirrors created intense and potentially hazardous glare that interfered with the pilots' ability to scan the air for nearby aircraft. In that month, Ivanpah's owner Energy Services, a division of NRG Energy, replied to state regulators that the glare was likely caused by mirrored heliostats that had not yet been "calibrated," implying that the issue would be largely fixed once the plant went online.

But a study from the Sandia National Laboratories published on the California Energy Commission website Thursday found that significant and potentially hazardous amounts of glare are created when the facility's heliostats are in what the operators call "standby position," the default position for heliostats not aimed directly at the plant's boilers.

Study: Rooftop Solar Customers Don't Raise Costs For Others

Solar parking at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum | Photo: time anchor/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A new study commissioned by the Nevada Public Utilities Commission finds that rooftop solar panel owners taking part in the state's ongoing net metering program won't be raising the electric bills of their non-solar neighbors.

The study, conducted by the San Francisco-based energy consulting firm Energy + Environmental Economics (E3), found that despite dire predictions from utilities in other states, net metering customers in Nevada will have "no substantial impact" on costs borne by non-solar ratepayers.

Instead, net metering customers will allow the state savings of somewhere around $166 million in avoided transmission network and generation costs, all of which would have shown up on Nevadans' electric bills.

Does LADWP Want to Charge Solar Customers For Grid Access?

Rooftop solar net metered with LADWP | Photo: Mike Spasoff/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A report from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power suggests that the utility doesn't want to expand one of its most popular rooftop solar programs unless it can charge participants more for using its power grid at night. But unlike its investor-owned counterparts elsewhere in the country making the same argument, LADWP would rather expand a different solar incentive program instead, and that program might well prove more effective in making Los Angeles a solar city.

That's the gist of part of a recent report from LADWP to the City Council, in which the utility's General Manager Marcie Edwards suggests that in order to expand the utility's "net energy metering" program beyond its current cap of 310 megawatts, LAWDP would need to "unbundle" the rate paid to solar customers for energy they put back into the grid. Edwards says that will keep utility customers who don't have solar panels from paying more than their fair share of the cost of maintaining the city's power grid.

The idea that non-solar ratepayers are paying more than their fair share of grid maintenance costs than customers with net metering arrangements has gotten a lot of traction nationwide in recent months, in part due to a push by the Koch brothers' American Legislative Exchange Council to make net metering an issue. Solar advocates point out that rooftop solar actually saves ratepayers money by reducing the need for new power plants and transmission lines. But LADWP may be carving out a third path in the controversy: pushing for an expanded feed-in tariff program as an alternative to net metering.

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