The permitting process for BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar’s stalled Palen Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) project has become rather like a good old-fashioned serial/soap opera.
Plot twists and turns arrive almost daily with email notices of the most recent documents filed on the project with the California Energy Commission. You can read it all on the commission’s website, but in the meantime, bear with me, this can get confusing.
The commission had originally scheduled a closed session for 1 p.m. Wednesday in Sacramento for a key vote on whether to grant the companies’ request to reopen the permitting process for the 500-megawatt plant. They had asked for a delay back in December after Commissioner Karen Douglas issued a preliminary decision that would have essentially killed the companies’ plans to put two 750-foot-tall solar towers surrounded by 170,000 reflecting mirrors on public land about 60 miles east of Indio, north of Interstate 10.
Palen’s former owner, the now-bankrupt Solar Trust of America, had won state approval for the project as a solar thermal plant using parabolic troughs. Since BrightSource purchased the project in 2012, it has been working toward repermitting it with its own solar-tower technology.
If the commission’s denial stands, the project could still be built as a solar trough project — once it also wins federal approval from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. BrightSource has argued that option is not feasible.
The meeting originally scheduled for Wednesday is itself now on hold until May 7, and in its stead, the commission will hold a public workshop at the same time and location — 1 p.m., Wednesday in Sacramento — to hash out a range of issues that Douglas raised in her proposed denial.
Information on how to listen in on the meeting online or by phone can be found here:
The key hurdle the companies must now overcome is convincing Douglas and the commission that the economic benefits of Palen will outweigh its environmental impacts. Douglas said the clean power and 2,300 jobs the project would generate were not sufficient to offset its visual impacts on tribal sites and trails in the region or the likely bird deaths that could be caused by the intense radiation from the thousands of reflecting mirrors.
The idea behind these public workshops is that they are supposed to allow an opportunity for discussion and compromise. But the reality tends to fall a bit short as was seen at the meeting held April 8 in Palm Desert focused on proposed mitigation plans for the project’s visual impacts on tribal sites.
BrightSource and Abengoa have proposed spending about $2.47 million on a mitigation plan that would include updated surveys on tribal trails and sites in the region around Palen, plus money to ensure tribal participation and other programs. The Energy Commission wants the companies to pony up more than $5 million, and the tribes are saying no amount of money can pay for the impact on the sites, which are sacred. There was no discussion of any compromise.
Judging from the documents filed so far, a similar standoff could occur Wednesday in Sacramento. BrightSource and Abengoa have filed a series of documents responding to specific questions raised by the commission, such as whether storage could be added to the project, something Douglas signaled back in January that could be considered a huge economic plus.
The filing on storage says, yes, it is possible and includes some drawings of how storage could be added, but then maintains it is not administratively feasible. Adding storage would require changes to the contracts the companies have with Southern California Edison to buy power from Palen, which would in turn require approval of the California Public Utilities Commission.
Such filings have the project’s opponents, both environmental and tribal groups, arguing that the companies have provided no new information that warrants a reversal of the proposed denial.
The recently released report on bird deaths at three solar projects in the Southern California desert, documenting the singeing and incineration of birds at BrightSource’s completed Ivanpah project, will likely be another flashpoint at Wednesday’s meeting. The report also documented bird deaths at two other projects, Desert Sunlight and Genesis, both located within 10-15 miles of the Palen site.
The companies filed two new studies of bird surveys at the project on April 10, which could raise more concerns. A fall bird survey conducted at six points at the project site between Aug. 20 and Dec. 13, 2013, recorded 16,808 birds flying through the site, the vast majority of them turkey vultures and small hawks, but also many small songbirds and water fowl.
A separate survey for water birds between Aug. 19 and Dec. 10, 2013, counted 3,169 birds, covering 77 unique species.
Palen appears to be a make-or-break project for BrightSource and Abengoa — and possibly for the future of large-scale solar tower projects in the desert. While in the past, BrightSource has shelved similar projects that have run into permitting delays, along with Abengoa, it is staying the course this time.
The question to be answered Wednesday is whether a middle ground can be found on any of these issues, allowing Palen to move forward or if, again, the meeting will be a recitation of the opposing views, leaving the commission to decide between them on May 7.