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Unusual Delay For Palen Solar Project

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Near the Palen Solar site | Photo: Ron's Log/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In an about-face, the proponents of a large solar project in the desert portions of Riverside County have asked for a delay in a state agency's final decision on the project. In a filing with the California Energy Commission (CEC) on Monday, Palen Solar Holdings (PSH), which wants to build a 500-megawatt concentrating solar project halfway between Blythe and Indio, is asking for at least a several month delay before the CEC makes its final decision on the project.

Earlier in December, the CEC committee evaluating the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System (PSEGS) proposed that the agency not approve a permit modification that would allow PSH to build two 750-foot solar towers on the site at the east end of the Chuckwalla Valley, citing concerns over the design's threat to birds and other wildlife.

Though it wasn't a final decision by the CEC, which had been scheduled to rule on the project in January, December's proposed decision on PSEGS has been widely seen as dooming the project as proposed. Now, Palen Solar Holdings has asked for --- and obtained -- several months of postponement on that final decision while data on bird mortality is collected from the similar Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino County.

This marks a 180-degree shift in policy by PSH, a joint venture of BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar. Throughout the CEC's proceedings that led to the negative proposed decision December 13, PSH consistently noted that any delays in approval of the project could doom it, due to financial and construction deadlines the partnership had to meet for the project to be fiscally feasible.

December's preliminary thumbs-down by the CEC, which came in the form of a 1,021-page Presiding Member's Proposed Decision (PMPD), changed all that. The PMPD cited the mounting but still incomplete evidence that Palen's design -- similar to but on a greater scale than BrightSource's Ivanpah project, now nearing completion -- poses a serious risk to flying wildlife from its concentrated solar radiation of "solar flux." Without more knowledge of the scope of the solar flux threat, said the PMPD, the Commission can't adequately assess whether Palen's power tower design posed a risk to wildlife that outweighed its benefit from providing solar energy to the state's utilities.

In its request Monday, PSH suggested that a few months' worth of data on bird mortality from Ivanpah might address the agency's concerns:

As the Committee is aware, avian data is currently being gathered at the Ivanpah project (ISEGS). PSH believes that this data, coupled with avian data from projects employing other solar technologies, will be important for the Committee to consider before ultimately reaching a decision on the PSEGS Amendment. PSH believes that a delay in the schedule to Spring 2014 is prudent to relieve the Staff and parties from expending resources while such data is gathered.

PSH asked that the CEC either cancel a January 7 meeting at which the CEC had planned to render a final decision on PSEGS, or change it to a hearing for further comment on the project. The CEC granted that request on Monday. The January 7 meeting remains scheduled, but as an opportunity for public comment.

When in Spring does PSH plan to present evidence in its favor on risk to wildlife from Palen? The company doesn't say:

In order to keep the Committee apprised, PSH proposes the filing of monthly status reports beginning January 2, 2014 in which PSH will update the Committee on its progress and when it plans to move to re-open the evidentiary record to present the data identified in the PMPD.

Regardless of how that wildlife data from Ivanpah turns out, this is a face-saving coup for PSH. Most observers suggested the PMPD was unlikely to be overruled by the CEC, which would have essentially killed the project. Now, with an unspecified deadline for reopening the case, Palen may well be joining BrightSource projects like Rio Mesa, Hidden Hills, Sonoran West, and Siberia in the company's roster of ventures that technically haven't been canceled but live only on paper.

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