Major Solar Energy Project in Riverside County Could Be Doomed

Artist's conception, Palen Solar Electric Generating System | Photo: Palen Solar Holdings | California Energy Commission

The California Energy Commission (CEC) is likely to deny approval to a major Riverside County solar power project that has been criticized for posing an unacceptable risk to birds and other wildlife.

In a proposed decision posted on the CEC's website Friday afternoon, Commissioner Karen Douglas -- who presided over the CEC's assessment of the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System (PSEGS) -- proposed that the CEC refuse to amend a permit that Palen Solar Holdings would require in order to build its proposed on 3,800 acres of land in the Chuckwalla Valley west of Blythe.

In the document, technically referred to as a Presiding Member's Proposed Decision (PMPD), Douglas cites mounting evidence of harm to wildlife from the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System south of Las Vegas, which has a similar though smaller design to that proposed for PSEGS, as reason to deny the project's permit amendment.

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The amendment to the permit would have been necessary since Palen Solar Holdings, a joint venture of BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar, acquired an unbuilt solar project on the site that the CEC had approved with a radically different design. That project by Solar Millennium would have generated power using parabolic trough mirror technology. BrightSource bought the project in 2012 after upheaval in the solar industry forced Solar Millennium into bankruptcy. BrightSource then redesigned the proposed project to incorporate its in-house solar power tower technology, in which tens of thousands of mirrored heliostats would focus sunlight on boilers atop two 750-foot towers less than two miles from Interstate 10.

That design has been the subject of increasing scrutiny for posing a serious potential risk to birds and other flying wildlife from the concentrated solar energy -- "solar flux" -- would surround the power towers. As the Ivanpah project ramps up toward going online, the numbers of dead birds found with burn injuries on the site has climbed.

The crux of the PMPD is contained at the end of the 1,022-page document, in a section entitled "Override Findings," which reads:

We conclude, in the BIOLOGICAL RESOURCES section of this Decision, that currently there is insufficient scientifically deduced information about actual avian impacts from power tower solar flux. However, other evidence in the record about avian species mortality from solar flux, including preliminary compliance monitoring information from the Ivanpah project, convinces us that the benefits of the PSEGS modified project do not outweigh its significant adverse environmental effects. When we compare the PSEGS' entire suite of benefits against its suite of impacts, we find that the impacts outweigh the benefits. Accordingly, the Petition to Amend the Palen Solar Electricity Generating System is DENIED.

It isn't quite time to stick a fork in Palen: The full Commission can still choose not to accept the PMPD and grant Palen Solar Holdings the amendment it needs to start building PSEGS after all. The chances of that happening are likely slim, however. In order to approve the project's amendment, the Commission would have to ignore not only the PMPD but the Final Staff Assessment prepared by the CEC's staff, which also recommended against granting the amendment to Palen Solar Holdings.

The PMPD recommends denying the amendment "without prejudice," meaning that Palen Solar Holdings could revamp the project's design and re-submit it. Given that the PMPD's objections to the project design regard the power towers themselves, and that BrightSource has historically demurred from involving itself in non-power-tower projects, the chances of coming up with a revised project that would be mutually satisfactory are probably slim.

In any event, Palen Solar Holdings has been up against some tight deadlines for Palen's financing, making much of the fact that if the project wasn't approved by both the CEC and the Bureau of Land Management by January, the resulting issues with lenders and power purchase agreements might doom the project. Given those deadlines, unless the full Commission decides to override the PMPD, today has brought very bad news indeed for Palen's backers.

It may also be bad news for the company Solar Reserve, which is trying to secure funding for its Rice Solar Energy Project, an already-approved 150-megawatt solar power tower project not far from the Palen site. Official recognition of the threat solar power tower projects pose to wildlife almost certainly won't play well with potential investors.

ReWire will be looking through the 1,022-page PMPD and reporting in more depth on Monday.

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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