Another Large Solar Power Project Canceled in California

Not gonna happen: artist's conception of the Rio Mesa solar project, now abandoned | Image: BrightSource Energy

A massive proposed solar energy project south of Blythe that was suspended by its backers in January was formally canceled on Monday. The Rio Mesa Solar Electric Generating System, which would have put two 750-foot-tall power towers on a bluff in view of the Colorado River, had attracted criticism for its effect on fossil resurces and wildlife, as well as the cost of the power it would have generated.

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In a notice filed with the California Energy Commission (CEC) on Monday, Daniel Judge -- general counsel for BrightSource Energy, the owner of the mothballed project -- formally withdrew the project's Application for Certification with the CEC, effectively killing the project. CEC must certify thermal power plants of 50 megawatts' capacity or larger before they can operate in the state of California/

The 500-megawatt project would have occupied about 4,000 acres of open desert, most of it owned by the Metropolitan Water District. Obstacles to the project arose almost from its inception, including the discovery of a world-class Ice Age fossil deposit, concerns over the effect of the project's concentrated "solar flux" on birds and other wildlife, and conflict with local Native people.

In October 2012, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) grudgingly approved one of two proposed agreements between BrightSource and the utility Southern California Edison (SCE) for power from Rio Mesa. In its decision, the CPUC cited the importance of developing solar thermal storage technology, a goal toward which (BrightSource maintained) Rio Mesa was a crucial intermediate step. But the CPUC made pointed remarks about the cost of the project's power saying in a draft resolution that the agreements "compare poorly on price and value relative to other solar thermal projects offered to SCE."

At that time, BrghtSource reps told ReWire that the company would be pushing ahead wth Rio Mesa, seeking another buyer for the power from the other half of Rio Mesa. By January that had changed, and the company asked the CEC to suspend the certfication process for the plant, saying it would be concentrating on its nearby Palen Solar Electric Generating System for the time being.

And now, with the withdrawal of BrightSource's application for Rio Mesa's certification by the CEC, that project moves off the back burner and into the dustbin. Which raises the question: will the same happen with Rio Mesa's near-twin, the now suspended Hidden Hills project in Inyo County? Stay tuned.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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