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End of the Line for the Palen Solar Project

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Dunes on the site of the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System | Photo: California Energy Commission

The Palen Solar project, proposed for almost 4,000 acres of Riverside County near Joshua Tree National Park, has been on bureaucratic life support for years. On Wednesday, the state's lead energy agency finally pulled the plug.

Project owners Maverick Solar, who bought the project from the ailing Spanish firm Abengoa in December, had asked for an extension on the California Energy Commission's 2010 permit to build the project north of Interstate 10 at the east end of the Chuckwalla Valley. That permit, which technically expired in 2015, had been extended to give Abengoa a chance to redesign the project to include thermal storage. Solar with thermal storage has been a long-time goal of state energy planners, as it would allow solar electricity to flow into the state's grid when the sun isn't shining.

But instead of submitting those design changes on time, Abengoa instead began selling off its holdings prior to bankruptcy proceedings in Spain. Maverick, a subsidiary of the energy firm EDF Renewables, asked the Commission for time to redesign the plant to use photovoltaic panels instead of heat to generate power. That ruled out any thermal storage component for the plant.

That was a misstep on Maverick's part: according to the Warren-Alquist Act, the 1974 law that established the Energy Commission, the Commission only has authority over power plants that use heat to generate power. Wind and hydroelectric plants are out of the Commission's bailiwick, as are photovoltaic panels.

A number of California counties took pains to point out that if the Commission bent the Warren-Alquist Act to issue a permit extension for a PV plant, that would intrude on those counties' regulatory turf. riverside County filed an extensive legal comment with the Commission pointing out that the Commission lacked jurisdiction over PV plants, and San Bernardino and Kings counties signed on.

The California Energy Commission has been working diligently over the past few years to build good working relationships with California county governments, especially those which -- like San Bernardino and Riverside -- are part of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan area. Even if the Commission had felt inclined to allow Maverick yet another extension on Palen, the likelihood that it would willingly damage its relationship with desert counties in a turf battle would have been remote.

For that and other reasons, the Commission made it official on Wednesday: Palen Solar's 2010 permit is no longer valid. That means any solar plant now proposed for the site needs to start at the beginning with permitting and environmental review, which may be less attractive as the price of urban solar continues to drop.

We've been covering the Palen Solar project pretty much since we launched Rewire in 2012, and we put together a short timeline of the plant's many changes in ownership and design in December. At about half a dozen points during that period Palen has seemed doomed, and on each of those occasions so far the project has come back from the near-dead.

And indeed, it's entirely possible that Maverick, or someone else, will propose a solar power plant on the Palen site, starting the regulatory process from square one either with the Commission, or with the Bureau of Land Management and Riverside County. But that will essentially be a new project, and if that process started today it'd likely be 2021 before any fences went up on site.

Until then, the Palen Solar site remains available for the fringe-toed lizards and desert kit foxes, who have lived there all along.

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