Has The Rice Solar Project Been Abandoned?

Removing tortoise exclusion fencing from the Rice Solar Energy Project site in June | Photo: SolarReserve

A solar power tower project proposed for a stretch of private land in Riverside County's eastern desert, and approved by state regulators in 2010, has been languishing unbuilt for four years due to lack of capital investment. Now the project owners' competitors are calling the project "abandoned." But is it?

The Rice Solar Energy Project, which would produce a maximum of 150 megawatts of power and include a molten salt storage component to produce power after sunset, was okayed by the California Energy Commission in December 2010. But since then owner SolarReserve, now wrapping up construction on the 110-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar plant near Tonopah Nevada, has been unable to entice investors to lay down cash to get Rice built.

The delay has been long enough that representatives of other solar power tower companies are calling the project "abandoned." But a SolarReserve representative tells ReWire that reports of Rice's death are greatly exaggerated.

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In public hearings discussing the nearby proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System, Palen Solar Holdings' Project Development Director Charles Turlinski used Rice as an example of the fiscal vulnerability of large solar power tower projects. Asked whether proposed project modifications would make it financially infeasible to build Palen, Turlinski said:

I do want to point out there is a fully licensed solar thermal power tower with storage project that was recently -- I don't know what the right word is, abandoned. The Rice project, just north of this project, had all of the pieces that we are talking about to make something feasible, a PPA [power purchase agreement], interconnection, and a fully licensed project. They couldn't finance that.

I can't speak for what the reasons were that Solar Reserve abandoned it or not, but it's an indication from a resource diversity mix, just from an industry mix that it's never a slam dunk, ever, that we can just take a license and finance a project.

But SolarReserve's Communications VP Mary Grikas told ReWire that Rice is still very much alive as far as her company is concerned. "The investment climate just hasn't been easy," said Grikas. "But we're still looking for funding. We still have a power purchase agreement with PG&E. And on a personal note, I'm just really excited about this technology."

SolarReserve's PPA with Pacific Gas & Electric specifies that the project will start delivering power to the Northern California utility by October 2013.

Grikas says that many of the workers currently finishing the final months of construction at Crescent Dunes hope to land jobs at Rice when the plant near Tonopah goes online. That's projected to happen by the end of 2014.

One obstacle to raising investment capital for Rice: there's simply no way the plant east of Joshua Tree National Park could be built in time to qualify for a federal investment tax credit on solar generating facilities. Under current law, a solar plant has to be online and generating power by the end of 2016 to qualify for the tax credits. Without those tax credits to boosting SolarReserve's revenues, it's a lot harder to make the case for investing in Rice.

"We're working to get the tax credit language changed to extend the eligibility period," Grikas told ReWire.

Despite Grikas' enthusiasm, one development at the Rice site in June suggests that SolarReserve may be becoming more pessimistic about its chances of building the project. Between June 10 and 18 workers removed more than 30,000 feet of tortoise exclusion fencing from the site, which had surrounded an area cleared of desert tortoises in the fall of 2013. Removal of the fencing means that if and when SolarReserve does find funding for Rice, some of that funding will need to be spent hiring expensive biologists to re-remove all the tortoises from the project footprint.

"We're just trying not to spend money on the project right now," said Grikas.

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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