Calico Solar Project Application Slammed By Railroad

Santa Fe train in the Mojave Desert east of Calico | Photo: SP8254/Flickr/Creative Commons License

K Road Solar's hopes of getting a routine approval to completely redesign the gargantuan Calico Solar Project were dimmed this week, as a powerful corporate neighbor objected in no uncertain terms.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), whose transcontinental rail line would be flanked by the Calico project, has submitted comments on a petition by K Road to amend the 2010 certification of the project granted by the California Energy Commission (CEC). BNSF's comments slam K Road for providing seriously incomplete information about the proposed redesign, and call on the CEC to send K Road back to the drawing board.

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K Road bought the project, slated for a huge stretch of the Mojave Desert near Ludlow, in 2011. The original developer, Tessera, won approval in 2010 from the California Energy Commission (CEC) for a design that relied on that firm's proprietary SunCatchers, Stirling engines mounted at the focal point of parabolic mirrors. SunCatchers were an engineering catastrophe, and Tessera went bankrupt in 2011. K Road bought Calico in December 2010, and -- according to BNSF's comments -- quietly planned to abandon SunCatchers without telling the CEC.

The original Calico Solar Project, submitted by K Road Calico's predecessor in December of 2008, envisioned 850 megawatts of Suncatchers. On December 1, 2010, the Commission's decision approving the Suncatcher version of the project became effective, subject to extensive Conditions of Certification. Shortly after project approval, it was revealed that serious doubts existed as to whether Suncatchers would ever be commercially available, a fact K Road Calico knew but never submitted to the Commission until the manufacturer of Suncatchers filed for liquidation under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.
K Road has since reduced the project's acreage to 3,855 acres -- less than half the project's original footprint -- and its planned capacity to 663 megawatts, all of which K Road plans to generate using photovoltaic panels. The reductions haven't kept environmental groups from objecting: Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club sued the Interior Department in March over the Bureau of Land Management's approval of the project on prime and intact desert habitat.

BNSF has been an opponent of Calico nearly from day one, citing concerns from alterations to the site's hydrology, as well as glare hazards and the possibility of electronic interference from power generation. Freight trains travel through the Calico corridor at speeds up to 70 mph, and passenger trains on Amtrak's Southwest Chief line at speeds up to 90 mph. Desert sun glinting from reflective surfaces in a large solar installation lining both sides of the track poses a threat says BNSF, to the safety of crew and passengers. Desert railroads (and highways, for that matter) rely on an extensive system of levees to divert and control flash floods that would otherwise erode roadbeds, possibly causing accidents. BNSF observes in its comments that K Road reduced the project's footprint by removing floodwater detention basins, and states in apparent incredulity that

K Road Calico does not even appear to acknowledge that large photovoltaic arrays are impervious surfaces, and they will be lined up in a way that will increase erosion by concentrating rainwater and channelizing runoff across the entire project site.

Elsewhere in the 13-page comment letter, BNSF observes that K Road has failed to comply requested data, has not yet described the actual type, technology, or configuration of the proposed PV panels, assumes greater rights-of-way to cross the railroad line than it has, and has in general not offered justification for the CEC to grant routine approval of the amendment that would allow the project to proceed without further review.

BNSF closes its comments by calling for more significant review of the Calico Solar Project, including public hearings and assessment of alternatives using different kinds of PV technology. This would be an expensive process, which just goes to show one should think very carefully before deciding to cross a railroad.

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