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Feds to Update Environmental Impact Report for Blythe Solar

Access road to the Blythe Solar site in Riverside County | Photo: Chris Clarke

The U.S. Department of the Interior already signed off on a large solar project outside of Blythe in Riverside County in 2010, but significant changes to the project's design have prompted the department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to go at least part of the way back to the drawing board. On August 30 the BLM announced it would be preparing a new Environmental Impact Statement for the Blythe Solar Power Project, a 485-megawatt photovoltaic facility proposed for the eastern foothills of the McCoy Mountains just west of Blythe.

The project was first approved as a 1,000-megawatt solar thermal project proposed by Solar Trust of America, a venture of the German firm Solar Millennium, which planned to use solar parabolic trough technology to generate power on more than 7,000 acres of public land. The owners went under as plummeting costs for the rival photovoltaic technology made parabolic trough less cost-effective, and sold their interest in the project to the Florida-based NextEra Energy in 2012. NextEra reconfigured the proposed project to occupy 4,138 acres using more economical photovoltaic panels.

Though a smaller project could reasonably be expected to pose less of a risk of environmental impact, the devil is in the details: any new design will likely pose unique issues that should be assessed. Hence the BLM's reopening of the environmental assessment process, going back if not to square one, at least to somewhere around square five.

Technically speaking, the new environmental assessment process -- carried out under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the nation's landmark environmental law -- is an assessment solely of NextEra's proposed amendment to the project's right of way (ROW) granted to Solar Trust of America in 2010. As such, the assessment could potentially be handled to exclude from consideration those impacts which wouldn't change. But it's very likely that groups opposed to the project will avail themselves of the assessment's scoping period, which runs until September 30, to re-raise objections to the project that they feel were insufficiently addressed in the original Environmental Impact Statement.

Speaking of those opposition groups, ReWire raised some questions last week about a July meeting to discuss the Blythe Solar Power Project to which local Native groups were invited in a fashion that perplexed some participants. On Friday, ReWire heard from the BLM's Frank McMenimen, who'd organized the meeting. McMenimen said that meeting had been intended as an informal update for interested members of local tribes and other native groups, and that its focus was supposed to have been the Blythe project, but that NextEra's neighboring McCoy solar project came up during a discussion of the likely impacts to cultural resources shared by the two adjacent projects.

There will be less confusion about meetings that will come as part of this new Environmental Assessment process. A scoping meeting on the changes to the Blythe Solar Power Project have been scheduled for Tuesday, September 17, 2013, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. in the Community Room at Blythe City Hall. Once the scoping process is complete, the public will have the opportunity to comment on both the draft and final Environmental Impact Statements for the modifications to the project.

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