Solar Power Tower Company: Our Competitors Kill Birds, Too

A peregrine falcon like this one has already been a casualty of solar flux in a desert solar plant. | Photo: Sergey Yeliseev/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In a glance through a solar power tower developer's latest missive to the state agency considering its application for a Riverside County Project, ReWire spotted something interesting. The company seems to be throwing its solar industry colleagues under the bus on the issue of harm to wildlife from desert solar projects.

The note comes from Palen Solar Holdings (PSH), which wants to build the 500-megawatt Palen Solar Electric Generating System (PSEGS) in Riverside County west of Blythe. The company, along with other interested parties, are filing briefs on the project with the California Energy Commission (CEC) in a complex process we described last week.

The note, a 25-page legal response to critics the developer filed Monday with the CEC, contains a couple of assertions that raised ReWire's eyebrow: the developer agrees its power plant would create "significant and unmitigatable impacts" to wild birds, and defends itself by saying standard solar panels wouldn't really be any better.

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PSEGS would occupy 2,794 acres of intact old-growth desert habitat on public land in the Chuckwalla Valley. The project would surround two 750-foot power towers with 170,000 billboard-sized mirrored heliostats that would focus reflected sunlight on boilers atop each of the towers. Evidence is mounting that the resulting concentrated solar flux poses a serious risk to wildlife, as would the 2,500 or so acres of mirrors resembling surface water.

The PSH reply brief spends much of its 25 pages rebutting statements made by the CEC's staff and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in their opening briefs, both of which ReWire described in some detail last week. Among the charges made by CBD were that it would be improper and possibly illegal for the CEC to approve a project based on mitigation for unknown impacts to wildlife: we just don't know enough, CBD's brief said, to gauge the effect of the project on local birds and other flying animals. Deferring analysis of wildlife impacts until more science comes in but approving the project anyway would be, CBD said, a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA)

PSH's brief challenges CBD's take on the legality of the deferral, but it does so by agreeing that PSEGS would be very bad for wildlife:

CBD ignores the fact that both PSH and Staff agree that even with the implementation of the conditions of certification, the PSEGS has the potential to result in significant and unmitigatable impacts to avian species... the conditions of certification include performance standards that are based on acquiring real-time data on bird use and behavior at the PSEGS site when the facility is operational. The plans prepared in accordance with the conditions of certification do not allow modification of the Commission['s] ultimate conclusion that the PSEGS will result in significant avian impacts. It is this data that will inform the alternative means of mitigating the impact.

If ReWire had to boil that down to one sentence, it would be this: Once we find out how many birds we kill, we will come up with ways to reduce that risk.

Raising ReWire's other eyebrow was a subsequent challenge to CEC staff's recommendation of an alternative design for the project, one which relied on photovoltaic technology rather than power towers, thus eliminating the solar flux hazard. PSH's reply to that assertion began with a blunt section heading reading "PV Alternative Would Still Result in Significant Unmitigatable Avian Impacts."

PSH quotes the CEC staff as saying, in staff's opening brief,

Under the Solar PV Alternative, with implementation of all feasible mitigation measures, indirect and cumulative collision impacts could remain significant after mitigation.

PSH blows right on past that "could" and makes it a "would":

Therefore, approval of the PV Alternative would NOT reduce impacts to avian species to less than significant levels ...

Emphasis in original.

PSH makes a defensible point here. ReWire's colleague K Kaufman at the Palm Springs Desert Sun published an update Monday on water bird deaths at Riverside County PV and solar trough facilities. The problem with "lake effect" mortalities, which ReWire first reported on in July, is still continuing.

There has long been a bit of a rift between BrightSource Energy, co-owner of PSH with Abengoa Solar, and some PV firms. At a September 2011 scoping meeting for the proposed First Solar Stateline PV project in the Ivanpah Valley, First Solar's project lead Mike Argentine sought to reassure members of the public that First Solar was receptive to their concerns, and the phrase he chose to convey that message was "We're not BrightSource." ReWire wonders how PSH's apparent pointing a finger at projects like the Desert Sunlight project First Solar is building a few miles away from Palen will go over.

In any event, there's one thing PSH says in its reply brief that it can't do in order to reduce wildlife mortalities: shut it down when unusual concentrations of birds pass by. Such a temporary shutdown, called "curtailment," was suggested and mainly dismissed by CEC staff during previous hearings.

On the face of it, curtailment is a likely approach to pulse migrations of larger species coming through the area. Waves of turkey vultures have been seen coming through the Chuckwalla Valley, for instance, with hundreds, sometimes thousands of birds at a time passing the Palen site.

But PSH says, in rebuttal to hearing testimony by Basin and Range Watch's Kevin Emmerich, that shutting down the plant would endanger the company's financial health:

[A]ny form of curtailment requirement would render the PSEGS unfinanceable (and likely put PSEGS into default under its existing power purchase agreements). Such an approach is simply not necessary and would involve speculation in violation of CEQA principles.

Once the plant starts up, in other words, it will keep going, and going, and going.

For the record: A previous version of this article misstated the size of turkey vulture sightings in the Chuckwalla Valley. The error stemmed from a misreading of my notes. I've made a correction and linked to a source of more information.

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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