Size of 'World's Largest' Solar Plant Cut By More Than Half

Aerial shot of Blythe Solar site, 2011 | Photo: Chris Clarke/ KCET

According to documents filed with the California Energy Commission (CEC) and posted on the agency's website, NextEra Energy Resources -- the Florida-based developer of the Blythe Solar Project in Riverside County -- will be slashing the size of its finished project from 1,000 megawatts to a maximum of 485 megawatts. The project, which NextEra bought in a bankruptcy "fire sale" when original owner Solar Millennium went bankrupt in 2012, has come under fire over its likely impact on Native cultural resources.

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The Blythe Solar Power Project was widely celebrated by fans of utility-scale solar development in the desert when it was approved by the Salazar-era Department of the Interior in June 2011. Its groundbreaking ceremony on June 17 attended by Salazar and California Governor Jerry Brown, the project was hailed as the world's largest solar power plant. "We're going to be the world leader in solar energy and all the jobs that that can create, so this is a very good day," Brown said during his speech at the ceremony.

But the real world rapidly undermined the project, which would originally have placed four 250-megawatt blocks of parabolic trough concentrating solar arrays on 6,000 acres of public land east of the McCoy Mountains. Caught between plummeting prices for photovoltaic panels on one hand and a lawsuit over the project's effect on culturally significant artifacts on the other, owner Solar Millennium petitioned the CEC to amend the project's permit to allow them to use much cheaper photovoltaic technology. The company then went out of business.

At present, the Blythe site is an unprotected swath of bulldozed desert soil. Under its slimmed down plans, NextEra would install 485 megawatts of PV panels on about 4,070 acres of the original project footprint. The area would include access roads for NextEra's adjacent McCoy Solar project, which would generate a maximum of 750 megawatts of power on 4,491 acres just north of Blythe Solar, of which about 4,014 acres is public land. Like its immediately adjacent neighbor, McCoy was lauded when it was approved last month as "one of the largest solar facilities in the world" by (now-former) Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Among the commenters who've noted the downsizing, long-time renewable energy reporter Todd Woody gets the context best in a piece at Quartz: the glory days of California desert solar are fading, partly due to opposition from enviros and partly because lenders are skittish about funding big solar projects far removed from energy users.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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