November 23, 2010

Battle Over Desert Wildlife Not Over for Cali Solar Project

Did California regulators move too hastily to approve a series of big solar power projects that, if built, would put massive glass, steel and concrete equipment on thousands of acres of desert land in order to churn out solar electricity? That question hangs over one such project from Tessera Solar now that the California Energy Commission has withdrawn its approval.

The commission issued an order late last Friday to suspend its approval in order to deal with what could be a legal challenge from more than one group, Reuters reported. The commission approved the 663.5-megawatt Calico project only last month, and did so after reducing the footprint of the project by nearly half.

Tessera initially wanted to build an 850-megawatt power plant on 8,230 acres, but the commission gave its nod for 4,613 acres in the Mojave Desert in order to reduce the project's impact on the desert tortoise and other wildlife. The company has a contract to deliver the electricity from the project to Southern California Edison.

The decision to set aside its approval came after the California Unions for Reliable Energy filed a protest contending that the commission didn't issue the necessary findings about the project's environmental impact. The Sierra Club apparently also is considering a legal challenge. The commission is set to discuss the protests next month.

We've pointed out that legal challenges are likely for big solar power projects, not just because of their size and environmental impact, but also for the speed with which regulators approve them. The Calico project was the seventh solar power plant proposal approved by the commission over a two month time frame. The commission said it was in a hurry to license solar power projects so that their developers could qualify for a federal rebate for 30 percent of the project's cost. Developers must begin construction before the end of this year in order to qualify.

Federal regulators are doing the same with solar projects proposed for public land in California, Nevada and Arizona. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed off on six projects in October alone.

To gain state and federal approval, many project developers have had to downsize their projects, agree to use less water, and set aside land for desert creatures. BrightSource Energy, which became the first of this cluster of developers to start construction, had to cut its Ivanpah project in the Mojave Desert to 392 megawatts from 440 megawatts to leave more room for the desert tortoise.

And it looks like environmental concerns won't be the only reason to delay solar project development. Northrop Grumman has filed a protest against a First Solar project in Los Angeles County because the defense contractor believes the project could interfere with the testing of its technologies to shield aircrafts from radar detection, reported the Los Angeles Times.

First Solar has gotten a preliminary approval from the county for the 230-megawatt, AV Solar Ranch One project, and it wants to start building before the year's end. Utility PG&E has agreed to buy the electricity from the project. First Solar is getting some big political help in this matter, however. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is brokering a meeting among First Solar, Northrop and the Pentagon.

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Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Environmental Command

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