BLM advances large-scale project left for dead last year

Source: Scott Streater, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, October 27, 2017

The Bureau of Land Management, in a rare move under the Trump administration, is advancing a commercial-scale solar power project in Southern California that appeared dead last year after its Spain-based developer went bankrupt.

BLM is scheduled to publish a draft supplemental environmental impact statement analyzing the Palen Solar Power Project. The photovoltaic solar plant is proposed to be built on about 4,200 acres of federal land in Riverside County, according to an advance notice in today’s Federal Register.

EDF Renewable Energy Inc. last year filed a permit application with BLM to revive the project, which would have the capacity to produce about 500 megawatts of electricity — enough to power roughly 150,000 homes and businesses.

EDF’s proposal came after the previous project developer, Seville, Spain-based Abengoa Solar, filed for bankruptcy protection last year (E&E News PM, June 24, 2016).

Abengoa had originally proposed building a 750-foot-tall power tower and 85,000 heliostat mirrors that would move with the sun, heat water and create steam to drive electric generators.

But EDF filed a permit application for a new version of the project, which abandons Abengoa’s solar trough proposal for photovoltaic solar technology, the Federal Register notice says.

The proposed project also includes construction of a 6.7-mile-long, 230-kilovolt power line that would connect the project to the Southern California Edison Red Bluff substation.

Publication of the draft supplemental EIS tomorrow will kick off a 45-day public comment period, according to the Register notice. The project will also require amending the California Desert Conservation Area plan.

BLM is partnering with Riverside County on the environmental review.

“The BLM is committed to supporting responsible energy development, including for transmission, that stabilizes the grid and strengthens America’s energy infrastructure,” Beth Ransel, BLM California Desert District manager, said in a statement. “We welcome opportunities to help make public lands work for local communities.”

BLM has scheduled a Nov. 14 public meeting on the project in Palm Desert, Calif.

Proponents of previous versions of the project have argued it would help California meet its renewable portfolio standard. But Native American tribes and environmental groups have argued in the past the site is not appropriate for a utility-scale solar project.

Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in Oakland, Calif., said the group will need to read the entire draft supplemental EIS before it can draw any conclusions.

“The Center is looking forward to reviewing the new proposal for this PV solar project, and particularly the alternatives that could avoid habitats associated with rare Desert washes and sand dunes,” Belenky said today in an email.

The advance notice states the actual project footprint is about 3,100 acres, and BLM’s preferred alternative “avoids the central and largest desert wash and incorporates a more efficient use of the land for the solar array.”

The draft supplemental EIS comes at a time when the Trump administration has called for increased domestic energy production but has focused on advancing oil and gas development and mining activity on federal lands.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last month questioned whether large-scale solar power development is a wise use of public land (Greenwire, Sept. 28). Speaking at a Clean Energy Week conference in Washington, Zinke said land used to host solar panels has no other use outside of energy production, adding that rooftops — not public land — are the best platforms for producing solar power going forward.

BLM officials said last month the agency is not turning away from solar project development despite Zinke’s comments.

They noted the Palen solar project is one of three large-scale solar proposals in California that BLM has targeted to be approved by 2019, along with First Solar Inc.’s 300-MW Desert Quartzite Solar Project and Recurrent Energy’s 450-MW Crimson Solar Project — all in Riverside County.

Katharine MacGregor, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, told a House Natural Resources subcommittee last summer the Trump administration is “supportive of all energy jobs” (E&E Daily, June 30). MacGregor added, however, that Interior will not be “engaged in picking winners and losers in any way” — a common jab from Trump administration officials at President Obama’s unprecedented push to spark commercial-scale renewables development.

The Obama administration approved 60 solar, wind and geothermal power projects on federal lands that will 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 power projects.

Renewable energy development on federal lands has slowed under the Trump administration, which has approved one renewable energy project — First Solar’s 210-MW White Wing Solar Project in Arizona. That project is on private land, and BLM’s right-of-way grant was limited only to allowing a 3.5-mile-long transmission line from the photovoltaic power plant to cross federal land.

Christopher Mansour, vice president of federal affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said the industry is pleased to see continued movement on solar projects.

“America’s public lands are meant to be for the benefit of the people and we’re happy to see continued interest by BLM in the important purpose of domestic energy production,” Mansour said in a statement.

For the Palen project, the move by EDF Renewable Energy is just the latest in a long and bizarre saga that has seen the project left for dead at least twice over the past six years.

After the original project backer, Solar Trust of America LLC, went bankrupt in 2011, Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy Inc. purchased the rights to the Palen project at a 2012 bankruptcy auction.

BLM then prepared a draft supplemental EIS analyzing the cumulative environmental and visual impacts of the newest proposal, which involved using solar thermal technology. BrightSource Energy later backed out, and Abengoa took over. But Abengoa filed for bankruptcy protection and transferred ownership of the project to an EDF subsidiary while the company underwent a reorganization, including selling off assets.

The project was essentially left for dead in early 2016 after the California Energy Commission denied a request by EDF to extend by one year a deadline to begin construction of the planned photovoltaic solar project.