Builder Wants Riverside County Solar Project Back on Table

Artist's impression, Palen Solar Electric Generating System | Photo: CEC

The companies behind a rejected solar project that would place boilers atop two 750-foot towers near Interstate 10 in Riverside County want their proposal back on the table, according to documents filed with the state's energy agency.

The Palen Solar Electric Generating System (PSEGS), which BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar (doing business as Palen Solar Holdings, a.k.a. PSH) want to build on almost 2,800 acres of desert land west of Blythe, has been suspended since January, after a preliminary decision by the California Energy Commission recommended rejecting the project.

In January, the CEC agreed to suspend the project at PSH's request rather than deny it outright. PSH was invited at that meeting to reopen the proceedings if the company was able to address the CEC's concerns over the project's environmental and cultural impacts. Now, PSH says it's ready to address those problems and wants Palen back on the table.

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In its request, formally considered a motion to reopen the evidentiary record on Palen, PSH asks the CEC to restart consideration of the project, with the discussion incorporating information the company has provided the agency since January.

The new information has been provided based on suggestions in the December CEC document that recommended against approving the power tower project. In that document, called the Presiding Member's Proposed Decision, CEC commissioner Karen Douglas cited concerns about burn injuries to birds from the project's concentrated solar flux, as well as the project's impact on local cultural resources and the fact that the project as described lacked capacity to generate power after dark by storing the sun's heat.

The CEC had previously approved a solar thermal power plant on the site that would have used parabolic trough mirrors to concentrate solar energy on a thermal transfer fluid. The original backer of the project, Solar Millennium, sold the project to BrightSource after it went bankrupt in 2012. BrightSource redesigned the plant, and it's those design changes that were the subject of the negative Proposed Decision due to their perceived environmental and cultural impacts.

In the Motion to Reopen, PSH cites new data provided to the CEC on comparative bird mortality at BrightSource's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, along with NextEra's Genesis Desert Sunlight solar projects. Ivanpah, which went online in February, is of similar (though significantly smaller-scale) design as the proposed Palen project, with tens of thousands of mirrored heliostats reflecting sunlight toward three power towers.

It was avian mortality at Ivanpah in 2013 that mainly prompted concern over Palen's likely impact: according to PSH's tally, Ivanpah's death toll during 2013 significantly surpassed those of Genesis and Desert Sunlight -- neither of which incorporate power towers in their design. (Genesis is a parabolic trough mirror setup, while Desert Sunlight uses First Solar's proprietary thin-film photovoltaic panels.)

During 2013, 160 birds were found injured or dead at Ivanpah, compared to 139 at Genesis and 83 at Desert Sunlight. So far in 2014, Ivanpah's biologists have recorded 42 dead birds, compared to seven and four at Genesis and Desert Sunlight, respectively.

The sheer visual prominence of Palen also prompted concerns over native cultural values in the desert in east Riverside County; PSH is proposing to spend money on workshops and coordinating committees, purchase and restoration of important cultural sites, and fencing to prevent vandalism.

Opponents of the project are likely to argue that such mitigation does little to address the drastic change in visual resources important to local Native people. (A public hearing on the project's cultural issues has been scheduled for April 8 in Palm Desert.) Opponents are also likely to ask for a full year's worth of data on avian mortality at Ivanpah collected under more rigorous standards, which started in November.

And one request in PSH's Motion to Reopen is especially likely to raise eyebrows: the company is asking CEC to limit discussion of alternatives to the project -- the parabolic trough design first approved by CEC, as well as a photovoltaic alternative mentioned in the Proposed Decision -- so that said discussion is, in PSH's words, "limited to the infeasibility of project alternatives."

If PSH's request is granted, approval of the once-moribund plant coould come as early as June.

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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