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Weird Twist For Riverside County Solar Project

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Parabolic trough mirrors at a Harper Lake solar facility | Photo: z22/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License

If the Palen Solar Power Project was a soap opera character, the Internet would be ridiculing it for having long ago passed the point of believability. The proposed solar project in eastern Riverside County is facing a cliffhanger filing deadline next week, with its owner in the process of going bankrupt.

Late Tuesday, whoever's writing the script for this soap opera introduced a new wrinkle: the project is being sold to its fifth owner, and a state agency is being asked to give the project a new lease on life -- but neither the new owner nor the current one has met that agency's clear conditions to keep the project alive.

The bankruptcy of current owner, Spanish company Abengoa Solar, is the second among owners of the Palen Solar Power Project. If this were a soap opera, the obvious conclusion would be that Palen is cursed. (In real life, it's actually the next solar project east that might have been built on an Indian burial ground.)
 

Tuesday's petition by Abengoa filed with the California Energy Commission announced that pending the approval of a bankruptcy court, Palen will be purchased by Maverick Solar, LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of EDF Renewable Energy. EDF is a major player in the mid-sized utility-scale renewable market, with nearly 100 projects either built or in the pipeline. 16 of those projects are in California, six of them solar and ten wind, adding a total of 1,300 megawatts and change to the state's renewable generation capacity.

Palen, which was approved by the Energy Commission in 2010 as a 500-megawatt parabolic trough project, would be by far the largest project of any kind owned by EDF, whose current largest project, the 300-megawatt Blackspring Ridge wind project in Alberta, it owns jointly with Enbridge. EDF's largest solar project to date is the 143.2-megawatt Catalina Solar project in Kern County near Rosamond.

That would make Palen a substantial stretch for EDF not only in generating capacity -- with Palen four times the size of the company's largest solar project to date -- but in technology as well: Palen has been approved as a parabolic trough project, while EDF's expertise is in photovoltaic projects.

That may or may not be an issue for EDF. The real looming problem -- hence the soap-opera-style cliffhanger -- is that the Energy Commission had given Abengoa a deadline of December 22 to submit a detailed petition describing how the company plans to add a thermal storage component to Palen. Thermal storage would allow Palen to generate electricity even after the sun goes down.

The petition submitted Tuesday, a week before the deadline, has no such description. Instead, it's merely a notification to the Energy Commission that EDF's Maverick Solar is willing to buy the project pending approval by a bankruptcy court, and a request that the Energy Commission give EDF until December 16, 2016 to start construction.

Without that petition to amend the project to include thermal storage, the Energy Commission had said that Palen would be as dead as such projects ever get. Anyone wanting to build solar on that site near Joshua Tree National Park would have to go back to square one in the permitting process.

Will Abengoa or EDF file that thermal storage petition by Tuesday December 22? Will the California Energy Commission relent and allow the project another year to get started? Will the bankruptcy court approve EDF's buying the project. We'll have answers to these and other questions in the next episode of The Perils of Palen.

For those of you who haven't been following the Palen Solar Power project assiduously, here's the recap.

2010: The California Energy Commission gives the German firm Solar Millennium approval to build the 500-megawatt parabolic trough Palen Solar Power Project in the east Chuckwalla Valley in Riverside County. Solar Millennium plans to build the project with Chevron Energy Solutions.

2011: Solar Millennium, whose solar thermal projects are suffering from competition by increasingly cheap photovoltaic panels, files for bankruptcy in December.

2012: Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, designer of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System south of Las Vegas picks up Palen at a bankruptcy auction. The company announces it's going to redesign the plant to include two 750-foot solar power towers, and petitions the Energy Commission to amend Solar Millennium's original permit.

2013: BrightSource brings Abengoa on as a construction partner to build the Palen project, now renamed the Palen Solar Electric Generating System. As regulators examine BrightSource's other power plant proposals in the California desert, concern mounts over possible threats to wildlife from solar power towers' concentrated solar flux. That concern increases as BrightSource's Ivanpah plant begins generating flux, with injured birds resulting. in November, the Energy Commission's staff recommends against approving BrightSource's design modifications. In December, the Commissioner presiding over the Palen decision agrees with staff in a proposed decision to deny the design changes.

2014: Ivanpah is now online, and bird injuries there begin to make world headlines. BrightSource and Abengoa express concern that further delay in approving the project will mean missing out on expiring federal renewable energy tax credits. A federal wildlife forensics lab issues a report on bird deaths at solar facilities that says solar power towers pose a unique threat to birds. Energy Commission staff release an estimate that says Palen would pose twice as much risk to birds as Ivanpah. In September, after frantic negotiations between the Energy Commission and the companies, the Commission proposes to approve a modification of the design change with just one power tower. Just a few days later, BrightSource pulls out of the project.

2015: A struggling Abengoa, whose financial liabilities are becoming ever more discussed in trade publications, says it needs continued tax incentives to build Palen, which it will redesign yet again back to parabolic trough technology. After several months of Abengoa asking the Energy Commission for extensions, the Commission grants a deadline of December 22 by which time Abengoa needs to file a redesign of the project with thermal storage. If Abengoa doesn't meet that deadline, Palen is dead. Abengoa files for bankruptcy in late November, then announces sale of the Palen Project to EDF Renewable Energy a week before the Commission's petition deadline.

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