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Company To Withdraw Proposed Solar Tower Project in Inyo County

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Hidden HIlls Solar Electric Generating System, artists' rendition | Photo: California Energy Commission.

Stick a fork in the Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System. The 500-megawatt solar power tower project proposed for the Charleston View area in Inyo County, then put on the back burner in 2013, will be canceled by its owner, Oakland-based BrightSource Energy.

The news came in an email exchange published Friday on the website of the California Energy Commission.

The mothballed Hidden HIlls proposal had come under fire in recent weeks, as parties ranging from environmental groups to Inyo County have asked the Energy Commission to kill the project once and for all.

In the email published on the Commission's website, Commission staffer Ollie Awolowo -- an assistant to Commissioner Karen Douglas -- informs Douglas that according to BrightSource's Vice President for Government and Public Affairs Joe Desmond, the company will be abandoning its plans to build the proposed 3,280-acre solar power tower on private lands near the Nevada city of Pahrump.

The project's assessment process before the Commission had been "suspended" since April 2013, when BrightSource terminated power purchase agreements with the Northern California utility Pacific Gas and Electric. That move came after Commission staff warned the project would do significant damage to the area's environment and cultural resources, as well as visual resources.

In the two years since, BrightSource's smaller plant in the Ivanpah Valley has attracted worldwide notice for the toll it has taken on nearby wildlife, including bird mortalities from both collisions with mirrors and the facility's concentrated solar flux.

Hidden Hills' bureaucratic suspended animation status came up for renewal in April, at which point Commission staff recommended the project be terminated.

Instead, the Commission scheduled a hearing for Wednesday, June 3 to give BrightSource a chance to testify against terminating Hidden Hills.

That didn't sit well with conservation groups, several of which wrote letters to the Commission urging the project be terminated. It didn't sit well with Inyo County, either, which had just gone through a lengthy process -- partly funded by the Commission -- to amend its General Plan to plan for renewable energy development.

The region's limited groundwater resources were cause for concern. Charleston View sits within the larger Amargosa river watershed, which is home to endangered species such as the Amargosa vole and the Shoshone pupfish. Only so-called "dry-cooled" solar thermal plants are allowed in California, a restriction intended to conserve the state's water resources. But even more-efficient dry-cooled plants were feared to pose a threat of overdrafting the Amargosa basin's aquifers.

Due to concerns over groundwater, wildlife impacts and other issues, Inyo County specifically excluded tower-style solar power plants such as Hidden Hills from consideration in its Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment.

On Thursday, the County submitted a letter to the Commission asking that Hidden HIlls be terminated, saying:

In light of the Applicant's failure to take steps to resume proceedings in a timely fashion, coupled with the extensive planning efforts taken by the County, the County respectfully requests that the Committee grant Staff's Motion to Terminate Proceedings.

According to Awolowo, BrightSource's Desmond, who is currently traveling in China, is asking that the Commission cancel next week's hearing and says BrightSource will be filing a withdrawal of the project shortly.

When contacted by KCET, Desmond said that his company's decision to pull the plug on Hidden HIlls had more to do with changing solar technology than with opposition to the plant.

"It has become clear that future CSP projects need to include thermal storage capabilities as part of their design," Desmond told KCET. "The Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System application did not include those capabilities. Adding storage to the current design is a major change and would require that a new application be filed with the Energy Commission in order to properly consider the project's potential impacts. BrightSource believes concentrating solar power, and specifically tower technology with thermal energy storage, can play a key role in helping California achieve its long term clean energy goals."

"It makes sense to withdraw the current Hidden Hills application now and to submit a new application in the future," Desmond said.

"The citizens of southeast Inyo County and desert conservation groups have fought to protect the groundwater resources of the Amargosa Basin by opposing Hidden Hills for five years," said Patrick Donnelly, executive director of the Shoshone-based Amargosa Conservancy, which has long opposed HIdden Hills. "Inyo County heard these concerns, and adopted solar policy which protects groundwater from such developments, paving the way for today's welcome announcement.

"We are pleased that this threat to the communities, habitats, and endangered species of our region has been put to bed," added Donnelly.

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