Desert Solar Projects Will Change Hands

Palen Pass Road in the vicinity of the Palen solar project site | Photo: Ron's Log/Flickr/Creative Commons License

It's official: The Palen Solar Project, former brainchild of the defunct German-backed firm Solar Millennium, is now cleared to become a BrightSource project. The California Energy Commission (CEC) posted its "Order Approving Transfer Of Ownership" of the 500-megawatt, 5,200-acre Palen plant earlier this morning.

All that's left before BrightSource takes possession of the project east of Desert Center, California is a green light from the bankruptcy court overseeing Solar Millennium's dissolution, a near-certainty given that proceeds from the sale will be used to pay off Solar Millenium's creditors.

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Another Solar Millennium California desert venture, the one-gigawatt Blythe Solar Power Project, is in the process of being bought by the Florida-based solar firm NextEra. The firm is still seeking buyers for its Ridgecrest and Amargosa solar projects. The firm's U.S. branch filed for Chapter 11 protection in April, a few months after its main office filed for bankruptcy in Germany.

Solar Millennium's projects would have used parabolic trough solar thermal technology, in which pipes course through rows of mirrored troughs that focus the sun on a heat transfer fluid within the pipes. When heated, that fluid powers a turbine. In the months before to Solar Millennium's folding, the firm said it was reconsidering its reliance on parabolic troughs for the Blythe project given the dramatic drop in the cost of competing photovoltaic cell technology -- a primary factor in Solar Millennium's financial woes. Solar Millennium announced it would be replacing some of Blythe's troughs with PV shortly before it dropped the project altogether.

The Blythe project's probable new owner NextEra also owns a complex of parabolic trough installations near Kramer Junction and Harper Lake in western San Bernardino County, as well as a part of Riverside County's Desert Sunlight photovoltaic project, which NextEra and partner GE Energy Financial Services bought from First Solar in 2011. NextEra thus has years of experience in operating parabolic trough installations. If the company follows through on converting the Blythe project to PV, watch for pundits declaring their decision a death knell for parabolic trough.

The Palen project -- now set to be acquired by BrightSource subsidiary Palen SEGS -- will see an even more dramatic shift in technology: BrightSource is a steadfast promoter of its proprietary power tower technology, in which hundreds of thousands of mirrored heliostats focus sunlight on boilers atop towers ranging from 450-750 feet in height. BrightSource and the CEC have some negotiating to do over the terms of the project's approval. The environmental assessment process under which the Palen project was first approved by the CEC was conducted under the assumption that parabolic trough technology would be used.

Power tower technology's different configuration almost guarantees significant differences in some of the project's environmental impacts. The project would be located on Palen Lake, a dry lake east of State Route 177 that's an important link in the Chuckwalla Valley's sand transport corridor, and habitat for the sand-dependent Mojave frineg-toed lizard. The environmental community has already taken note of the discrepancy between Solar Millennium's technology and BrightSource's. A comment on the proposed transfer of ownership by the Center for Biological Diversity said, in part,

The Petition also states that "Nalep Solar Project I, LLC intends to file a Petition for Amendment with the Commission to utilize the BSE"s solar thermal technology on the PSPP site." Given Nalep's stated intention to seek a "amended" approval for an entirely different project utilizing different technology, it appears that Nalep does not seek to "transfer ownership of" the PSPP project as it was approved by the Commission at all, but rather, seeks "ownership" of the Final Decision in order to construct and operate an entirely different project. The new or "amended" project that Nalep "intends" to seek approval for has not been proposed to or evaluated by the Commission at all, was not considered in the Final Decision, and certainly was not approved in any sense in the Final Decision for the PSPP project.

"Nalep," "Palen" spelled backwards, was an earlier name for BrightSource's Palen subsidiary.

The transfer of ownership gives BrightSource its fourth large project in California, after the proposed Rio Mesa plant south of Blythe and the Hidden Hills plant across the California line from Pahrump, Nevada, and the firm's flagship Ivanpah project, now under construction adjacent to the Mojave National Preserve.

The Ivanpah plant has consistently been in the news over the site's unanticipated abundance of Federally Threatened desert tortoises: The Riverside Press-Enterprise's David Danelski reported this weekend that BrightSource and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are negotiating a $20 million mitigation agreement to cover the company's tortoise karma. It may be that the experience of having been given a PR black eye by California desert reptiles will make BrightSource more likely to take the fringe-toed lizard's needs more seriously at the Palen plant.

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For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
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