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Agency Staff Urge End to Desert Solar Project

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Artist's rendition, Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System | Image: BrightSource Energy

The handwriting may be on the wall for BrightSource Energy's long-mothballed Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System, as senior staff at California's state energy agency are urging that the proposed project in Inyo County be formally abandoned.

Hidden HIlls would occupy almost 3,300 acres of private lands on a swath of desert east of Death Valley National Park called Charleston View. The plant would generate up to 500 megawatts of solar energy using tens of thousands of mirrored heliostats aimed at boilers atop two 750-foot towers. Opposition due to concerns over the plant's effect on wildlife, groundwater, cultural and historical resources, and viewsheds caused delays in the California Energy Commission's consideration of the plant, and those delays prompted BrightSource to put Hidden Hills on the back burner two years ago this month.

Since then, the project has remained in a kind of bureaucratic suspended animation, neither moving forward nor abandoned. But that may now change. On Thursday, senior staff at the California Energy Commission formally proposed that commissioners kill the project once and for all.

Commission staff cited lackluster updates by BrightSource representatives as a main reason for killing the project. They also pointed out that a new renewable energy planning policy in Inyo County would keep a plant like Hidden Hills from being built anywhere in the county.

The original suspension of the project expired on April 3, 2014, at which point BrightSource requested a year-long extension. During that discussion, Commission staff had requested that the company provide more detailed information in the quarterly reports it was required to file with the Commission.

But in their recommendation to kill the project, Commission staff express sharp dissatisfaction with subsequent reports by BrightSource:

Since the 2014 Order was issued, Applicant has continued to file quarterly status reports that are single-page pro-forma statements devoid of substantive or useful information regarding the status of the project, or of activities relevant to its status...the singular substantive piece of information that could be found in Applicant's status reports is that Applicant has withdrawn its request for transmission with the Cal ISO. This single piece of information is not evidence that Applicant is diligently pursuing or making progress regarding its application; on the contrary, it suggests dormancy or abandonment.

Commission staff also point out that Inyo County, in its recent amendment to the County's general plan that governs renewable energy development, has effectively banned large solar thermal projects like Hidden Hills, requiring that utility-scale solar power plants built in the county use photovoltaic technology.

That's at least in part due to the fact that photovoltaic solar would use less of the county's scarce groundwater resources than solar thermal projects like Hidden HIlls. Charleston View, where Hidden Hills would be built, is in a groundwater basin connected to the Amargosa River, whose already overdrafted watershed supports a startling number of rare species such as the Shoshone pupfish and the Amargosa vole.

California Energy Commissioners do have the power to override Inyo County's General Plan and approve the project, which the Commission's staff points out in their recommendation:

The county, local residents, intervenors, environmental groups, and the federal Bureau of Land Management... are currently left uncertain as to whether the county's newly adopted plan for photovoltaic solar development is controlling, or whether the Energy Commission will ultimately override that plan to license Applicant's project. In this context, Applicant's failure to comply with even the most basic duties of its suspension orders, and respond with substantive information about project progress, are factors the Commission should consider before, once again, renewing suspension for a project that would have high adverse impacts if located at the proposed site.

Commissioners are likely to decide soon whether to accept their staff's recommendation to kill the project.

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