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California Set to Approve Controversial Solar Plant

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Palen as imagined with two towers | Image: California Energy Commission

The California Energy Commission gave tentative approval Friday evening to a reconfigured solar power plant in Riverside County that opponents say potentially poses a serious risk to migrating birds.

At 4:55 p.m. on Friday, September 12, the commission announced a preliminary decision to approve what is essentially half of the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System, which would have placed 170,000 of mirrored heliostats on just under 3,800 acres of land adjacent to Interstate 10. Those heliostats would have focused sunlight on boilers atop two 750-foot towers -- the tallest structures between Los Angeles and Phoenix.

In Friday's decision, the commission gave preliminary approval to a version of the project that would include just one tower and about 1,900 acres of heliostats, and leaves the way open for Palen's owners to build the second half of the project in the future.

(Releasing news on a Friday is a time-honored method used by government agencies to attempt to limit press attention paid to controversial decisions, though just between us, we at ReWire don't recall the last time we heard of news being released at 4:55 p.m.)

Friday's decision, officially called a Presiding Members Proposed Decision, now goes through a 30-day comment period: the commission is expected to make a final decision on the project on October 29. Most observers expect a rubber-stamp, though technically the commission could modify or reject it.

Palen had come under intense scrutiny during the permitting process as evidence mounted that the similar Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is injuring birds due to the concentrated solar energy focused by that plant's heliostats. The intensely focused light, which turns to heat when it strikes solid objects, has apparently caused serious and disabling burns to feathers, skin, and eyes, causing injuries that usually prove fatal.

Each of Ivanpah's three units is significantly smaller than a single unit at Palen, with towers less than 460 feet tall compared to Palen's 750, meaning that the area of dangerous solar flux around each of Palen's towers would be significantly larger than those around Ivanpah's towers.

In July, CEC staff testified that each of Palen's towers would pose approximately four times the danger to birds as their counterparts at Ivanpah. That would mean that even with a single tower, Palen would pose greater potential danger to birds than all three units of Ivanpah combined.

In Friday's decision, commissioners admitted that the project would cause damage to wild birds that could not be prevented or mitigated:

[W]e find that, like the permitted Palen Solar Power Plant (PSPP), the PSEGS and, to a lesser extent the Reduced Acreage Alternative with Solar Power Tower Technology, will result in significant environmental impacts that cannot be mitigated for visual resources and cultural resources. Unlike the PSPP, we have also found that the PSEGS and the Reduced Acreage Alternative project with Solar Power Tower Technology would very likely result in significant and unmitigable impacts to biological resources, mainly due to the Solar Power Tower Technology's introduction of solar flux danger to avian species. These impacts cannot be avoided or substantially lessened through feasible mitigation measures or project alternatives.

It then goes on to say that benefits to the state of California as a result of building the project -- including "local" energy generation, a reduced carbon footprint for the state, and jobs -- overrode the project's damage to the environment.

The project's location about six miles southeast of Joshua Tree National Park has long raised concerns over its impact on the park's beleaguered wildlife, and Joshua Tree's champions were quick to decry the proposed decision.

"As a former superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park and somebody who cares deeply for the California Desert, I'm disappointed," said retired Joshua Tree Superintendent Mark Butler. "PSEGS, even in a modified form, will irrevocably harm Joshua Tree National Park's sweeping scenic vistas, as well as migrating and protected bird species like the golden eagles that travel through the park."

Seth Shteir of the National Parks Conservation Association called the decision "as dangerous as it is disheartening for wildlife, scenic vistas and our responsible renewable energy future." In a press statement, Shteir challenged the adequacy of the project's environmental review:

The reconfigured Palen project has not received a full and comprehensive environmental review, but merely a supplemental environmental review, which is inadequate due to the drastic change in solar technology, potential impacts and plan of development. It is fair to demand such a review from a solar power tower proposal that would kill migrating eagles, raptors and songbirds from deadly solar flux, caused by radiating heat from the solar panels, and avian collisions.

At least one neighbor of the Palen project is speaking out against the decision as well. In an interview with the Palm Springs Desert Sun, Chuckwalla Valley farmer Donna Charpied called the Friday proposed decision "unconscionable and despicable," adding: "There's just one conclusion I can come to: local, state, and federal governments hate the desert."

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