Desert Solar Project Faces New Delay

The Palen Solar Electric Generating System, artist's conception | Photo: BrightSource Energy

The people who want to build the 500-megawatt Palen Solar Electric Generating System in Riverside County have made no secret of the fact that delays in approval could doom the project. If the 3,800-acre concentrating solar facility doesn't win approval by January from both the state and federal governments, the facility might not be built in time to start delivering power to the utilities that have signed contracts with the builders, and that could make lenders reconsider their support of the project.

If you look through the transcripts of California Energy Commission (CEC) meetings discussing the Palen project, it's not hard to find pointed references to that pressing schedule made by representatives of Palen Solar Holdings (PSH), the joint venture of BrightSource Energy and Abengoa that proposes to build the $2-billion-plus project 35 miles west of Blythe.

But now those very transcripts may add to the delay all by themselves.

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The CEC approved a previous version of the Palen project in 2010, back when the project was owned by the German-owned company Solar Millennium. The version approved by the CEC involved using parabolic trough technology to generate power.

Solar Millenium went bankrupt when plummeting photovoltaic panel prices made parabolic trough technology less competitive; BrightSource bought the project in 2012 and redesigned it to use its homegrown power tower and heliostat design, later bringing on Abengoa to actually build the thing. The current design would put about 160,000 billboard-size mirrored heliostats around two 750-foot towers with boilers at their tops. The mirrors would focus solar energy at the boilers, which would generate steam to turn power turbines.

The CEC is now considering whether to approve an amendment to its original certification of Solar Millennium's design. That process has already taken longer than PSH would have preferred. The federal government shutdown in October hasn't helped: the Bureau of Land Management is working on the federal environmental assessment for the project, and it's now at least 16 days behind schedule. PSH has already missed the fall window for tortoise clearance from the project site, which needed to happen in October and November: the soonest biologists can take on that unpleasant task would be in March.

And now a delayed CEC transcript is complicating things. (Here's where things get slightly more wonkish, but bear with us.) During the week of October 28 the agency held evidentiary hearings in Palm Desert to discuss how the shift to power tower technology would affect wildlife, visual resources, archaeological and cultural resources, and public safety issues among other issues. The hearings were attended by CEC staff, PSH, intervenor groups such as Basin and Range Watch and the Colorado River Indian Tribes who've taken a serious interest in the project, and expert witnesses called by all of the above.

We reported on one day of those proceedings, which took place October 29, earlier this week.

At the time, we noted that the hearing transcripts for October 28 weren't yet available. That seemed unusual, but not horribly so: the CEC usually makes transcripts of its hearings and other meetings available online in about a week, but the agency does on occasion take two weeks to upload those transcripts.

As of this writing, on November 7, October 28's transcript is still offline. CEC press spokesperson Sandy Louey tells ReWire that the transcriptionists are still working on the document, and that she expects it'll be available Friday or early next week.

But in the meantime, one of the intervening groups has said the transcript's unavailability is interfering with its ability to participate in the hearing process. After evidentiary hearings are held, intervenors use information gathered during those hearings to file legal briefs with the CEC -- opening briefs making their cases why the project should be approved, changed, or denied, and rebuttal briefs arguing with other parties' positions.

On Wednesday, Lisa Belenky, an attorney with intervenor the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and CBD's Southern California biologist Ileene Anderson formally requested that deadlines for delivering those briefs be extended due to the delay in the transcript. The request said that those deadlines had been set under the assumption that hearing transcripts would have been made available by the end of October, and asked that those deadlines be pushed back by four days.

Opening Briefs are now due November 18, and Rebuttal Briefs are due November 25, 2013. However, as stated at the pre-hearing conference and again at the evidentiary hearings, the briefing deadlines were set with the assumption that transcripts from the evidentiary hearings would be provided within 3 days. To date, the transcript for the first day of evidentiary hearings on Monday, October 28 has not been provided -- 9 days (7 business days) later. The transcript from the second day of evidentiary hearings on Tuesday October 29 was provided yesterday, on November 5 -- 7 days (5 business days) after the hearings. In light of these delays, the Center requests that the briefing deadlines be continued at least 4 days--with opening briefs due on Friday, November 22, and rebuttal briefs due on Friday, November 29.

Four days may not seem like much of a delay; CBD's fellow intervenors Basin and Range Watch, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, and California Unions for Reliable Energy all signed on to support the extension. CEC's staff agreed, though it suggested the extension be only two days long to account for the four-day weekend over the Thanksgiving holiday, during which time no one would be available to approve and post the briefs to the CEC's website.

PSH attorney Scott Galati's response was not so sanguine.

Palen Solar Holdings objects to the extension of the briefing deadlines. Over 90 percent of the evidence that any party needs to rely on is marked as an exhibit. The transcripts are helpful but not a prerequisite for preparing the majority of any brief. The parties have had over 18 days to prepare briefs since evidentiary hearings have concluded and one week with the official transcripts is sufficient time to cite to the record for support.

It's worth noting that a span of time that seems "sufficient" to a corporate attorney may not be so for staff of a less-well-funded NGO, Indian tribe, or group of volunteers to respond to a complex set of documents. Shortcutting the established public comment process always works in favor of the parties that have the most capital to throw around.

Whether the CEC will grant the extension remains to be seen. Either way, this conflict illustrates pretty well just what's at stake when state agencies weigh a corporation's financial needs and the public interest as being of equal importance.

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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