BLM advances another major project for Calif. desert

Source: Scott Streater, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, August 13, 2018

The Bureau of Land Management has completed a draft analysis of a massive solar project in the Southern California desert that would rank among the nation’s largest photovoltaic power plants.

The agency will publish a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) in tomorrow’s Federal Register for the Desert Quartzite Solar Project, which would cover about 3,800 acres of federally managed lands in Riverside County, just southwest of Blythe, Calif.

The draft EIS also includes a proposed amendment to the California Desert Conservation Area that’s needed to build the solar plant and to allow a portion of a 3-mile-long, 230-kilovolt power line connecting the plant to Southern California Edison’s Colorado River Substation to be routed outside of a utility corridor.

The project would sit within the boundaries of the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone — the largest of 19 SEZs in six Western states finalized by the Obama administration. The SEZs are areas that were determined suitable for utility-scale solar projects.

Riverside County, which must also issue a conditional use permit to allow the project to use about 160 acres of private lands, is conducting a separate environmental impact report.

Publication of the draft EIS and draft land-use plan amendment documents in tomorrow’s Federal Register will kick off a 90-day public comment period running through Nov. 8.

The $1 billion project proposed by Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar Development Inc. would have the capacity to produce up to 450 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 117,000 homes and businesses.

The photovoltaic solar plant would also use “battery storage” technology that would allow it to provide electricity to the grid after the sun sets.

A First Solar spokesman could not be reached for comment.

First Solar first submitted to BLM a right of way application for the project in December 2013, and an EIS started about two years later (Greenwire, March 6, 2015).

At that time, the company estimated the project would have a 300-MW capacity. But “advances in photovoltaic solar technology will allow the installation of additional megawatts on the same footprint,” according to the draft EIS to be published tomorrow.

Push for solar

BLM is currently evaluating solar projects with a total capacity to produce about 3,000 MW of electricity in California and Nevada.

Desert Quartzite is one of three large-scale solar proposals in California that BLM has targeted to be approved by 2019, along with EDF Renewable Energy Inc.’s 500-MW Palen Solar Project, and Recurrent Energy’s 450-MW Crimson Solar Project — all three of which are in Riverside County.

The size of the proposed Desert Quartzite project isn’t unprecedented.

BLM announced last month that it would prepare an EIS evaluating the Gemini Solar Project in Nevada. If built, it would have the capacity to produce up to 690 MW of electricity, or enough to power nearly 210,000 homes and businesses.

The Gemini Solar Project, proposed by Redwood City, Calif.-based Solar Partners XI LLC, would be among the largest power-producing solar plants ever approved on federal lands (E&E News PM, July 13).

But the Desert Quartzite project is another example of the Trump administration’s recent effort to develop renewable energy projects — not just oil and gas drilling projects — on federal land.

They still have a long way to go to match the Obama administration, which approved 60 solar, wind and geothermal power projects on federal lands. If all are built, they are projected to have a total capacity to produce about 15,500 MW of electricity — enough to power more than 5 million homes and businesses.

Of those approved projects, 36 were solar.

In addition to the Desert Quartzite and Gemini Solar projects, BLM in May announced it would analyze the 250-MW Yellow Pine Solar Project, proposed to be built about 32 miles west of Las Vegas (Greenwire, May 31).

That project, which would have the capacity to power about 75,000 homes, is still out for a 90-day public scoping comment period running through Aug. 28.

BLM, also in May, announced it had completed its review of a 500-MW solar power project in Southern California that was once left for dead after its Spain-based developer went bankrupt (E&E News PM, May 17).

And in April, BLM announced it plans to establish a new leasing zone for large-scale solar power development in southern Nevada — the 1,800-acre Dry Lake East Designated Leasing Area, about 10 miles northeast of Las Vegas (Greenwire, April 13).

BLM is currently working on a resource management plan amendment and an environmental assessment studying the impacts of commercial-scale solar power development in the region.

The bureau in March also announced it will partner with California on a joint analysis of the 350-MW Crimson Solar Project (Greenwire, March 9).