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Massive Solar Power Project for California Desert Scrapped

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The proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System | Photo: Palen Solar Holdings

The consortium of solar companies seeking to build a 500-megawatt solar power tower project in Riverside County has formally withdrawn the project's application from consideration by the California Energy Commission.

The Palen Solar Electric Generating System had just received tentative approval from the Commission this month to build one of two planned 750-foot solar power towers in the eastern Chuckwalla Valley.

But on Friday afternoon, project owner Palen Solar Holdings formally withdrew its petition on behalf of the project, which likely means the project is dead -- at least for the foreseeable future.

Originally approved by the commission in 2010 as a large parabolic trough solar project, Palen changed hands in 2012 after its original owner Solar Millennium went bankrupt. Bought by BrightSource Energy, who later brought Abengoa Solar on as a project partner, Palen was redesigned to incorporate BrightSource's proprietary solar power tower technology, in which two 750-foot towers with boilers on top would be surrounded by tens of thousands of mirrors. The independently targetable mirrors, called heliostats, would have focused concentrated solar energy -- "solar flux" -- on the boilers, which would then have generated steam to turn turbines.

The project had come under fire for its potential threat to migrating birds from that concentrated solar energy after BrightSource's smaller Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System began burning birds that flew through that plant's flux fields. Commission staff had estimated that each of Palen's two towers would pose more risk to birds than all three of Ivanpah's towers combined.

After a contentious series of hearings in which environmentalists and Native activists challenged Palen's likely impact on wildlife, visual resources, and Native cultural values, the commission recommended in December 2013 that the project's tower redesign be denied -- then reversed itself this month when Palen Solar Holdings agreed to build the projct one tower at a time, with the possibility to add thermal energy storage capability to the project at a later date.

Friday's withdrawal came as a surprise to observers of the process. BrightSource Energy Vice President Joe Desmond told ReWire in a phone conversation Friday afternoon that the withdrawal was made after careful consideration of all the factors involved. "We're withdrawing the project in the interests of a renewable energy solution that best reflects the interests of all the stakeholders in this process," Desmond told ReWire. "We're grateful to the California Energy Commission for their meticulous and careful consideration of our petition to amend [redesign] this project."

A formal statement by Palen Solar Holdings released Friday, signed by Desmond, said:

After carefully reviewing the proposed decision recommending approval of one tower, we determined it would be in the best interest of all parties to bring forward a project that would better meet the needs of the market and energy consumers. We believe concentrating solar power, and specifically tower technology with thermal energy storage, can play a key role in helping California achieve its clean energy goals by providing the necessary flexibility needed to help maintain grid reliability. In addition, we are committed to bringing projects to the market that follow sound and responsible environmental measures to ensure all impacts are avoided, minimized or compensated for properly.

With the withdrawal in place, almost certain to be accepted by the commission, any new move to push the project forward would involve restarting the somewhat lengthy and cumbersome commission approval process. That is, unless the proposal was essentially identical to the earlier parabolic trough version of the project approved in 2010. It's worth noting that Palen Solar Holdings partner Abengoa Solar has extensive experience in building and operating parabolic trough solar power plants, including the Mojave Solar project near Harper Lake.

It'll be interesting to see how the project shapes up, if at all, in the next year. In the meantime, we'll have reaction to Palen's withdrawal from supporters and opponents on Monday.

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