Your Chance to Comment on the Palen Solar Project

Mojave fringe-toed lizard | Photo: Global herper/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Bureau of Land Management has released an update to its environmental assessment of the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System (PSEGS), and that opens a 90-day period in which the public can comment on the project and its environmental, cultural, and visual impacts on the surrounding desert.

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The document, a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), can be downloaded from the BLM's website. Though the BLM has already signed off on a Final EIS for the project, that was before BrightSource Energy bought the project from its bankrupt owner, Solar Trust of America, in 2012. Solar Trust intended to build the 500-megawatt power plant east of Joshua Tree National Park using parabolic trough concentrating solar technology: when BrightSource bought the project, it scrapped the trough idea and replaced it with its own power tower design. BrightSource and Abengoa will be building Palen as a joint venture named Palen Solar Holdings (PSH).

So the Supplemental Draft EIS is intended to bring the previous Final EIS up to speed to reflect the changes in technology.

Among the matters covered in the EIS, a potential new species of plant was discovered in 2009 within the project area. The plant, either a new variety or subspecies of four-winged saltbush (Atriplex canescens) or a new species altogether, was found by botanist and frequent ReWire information source Jim Andre, who runs UC Riverside's Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center in the Mojave National Preserve. Though assessing that new plant's rarity may take a year or more, the Supplemental Draft EIS notes that PSH consultants are treating the new saltbush as a rare variety of the more common species. Atriplex canescens doesn't do well if flooded late in the season, and the previous iteration of the EIS notes that many of the 920 discovered plants north of the project could conceivably be subjected to such flooding as a result of changes in local hydrology. As PSH won't be scraping the desert nearly as much as Solar Trust''s troughs would have required, that threat may be somewhat less with the new design. Time will tell.

Four other sensitive plant species have been observed in the project area, including the Harwood's Eriastrum, an annual wildflower known from only 13 other locations. Harwood's Erisatrum grows in so-called "stabilized dune" habitat within the project site.

That stabilized dune habitat is also crucial for the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, and 1,781 acres of that habitat would have been scraped away for Solar Trust's design. PSH's design has reconfigured the disturbed area to avoid much but not all of that vegetated dune habitat: only 187 acres are now within the "project disturbance" area. Still, 117 fringe-toeds were found within the PSEGS disturbance area in 2009 and 2010, and given that the lizards' response to perceived threat is to swim down into the sand and hide, development of even that amount of habitat poses an obvious problem for this species. So does the possibility that PSEGS will block sand transport from Clarks Pass to the north, eroding the lizards' sandy habitat downwind of the project.

ReWire will be going over the Supplemental Draft EIS in days to come, and we'll report if we find anything of note.

Members of the public have until October 24 to comment on the Supplemental Draft EIS for PPSEGS, and more information -- as well as the document itself -- can be found here.

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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