BLM advancing massive, once-abandoned Calif. project

Source: Scott Streater, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 18, 2018

The Bureau of Land Management is close to approving a large-scale solar power project in Southern California that was once left for dead after its Spain-based developer went bankrupt.

BLM is scheduled today to publish a final supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) and proposed land-use plan amendment that all but clears the way for the Palen Solar Power Project to be permitted and ultimately built.

BLM’s “preferred alternative” for the photovoltaic solar plant is a “reduced footprint” proposal that would cover 3,100 acres of federal land in Riverside County, according to an advance notice in today’s Federal Register.

EDF Renewable Energy Inc. in 2016 filed a permit application with BLM to revive the project, which if built will have the capacity to produce about 500 megawatts of electricity — enough to power roughly 150,000 homes and businesses.

EDF’s original proposal called for the project to cover about 4,200 acres, and earlier versions had raised concerns among some groups about potential impacts to sensitive desert washes and to Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat.

But the smaller project alternative “avoids the central and largest desert wash and incorporates a more efficient use of the land for the solar array,” according to the notice.

“The BLM is committed to supporting responsible energy development that stabilizes the grid and strengthens the nation’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.”

The final supplemental EIS and proposed land-use plan amendment will be formally published in tomorrow’s Register. But its publication in EPA’s Register page on Monday will kick off a 30-day public protest period.

Environmental groups that have followed the project say they want to read the final supplemental EIS closely but are cautiously optimistic.

The scaled-back plan will result in “more avoidance of the sandy areas, which host sand dune-dependent plants and animals,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Lisa Belenky, a CBD senior attorney who has followed the project, agrees that “it is good that BLM is proposing to choose an alternative requiring the project to avoid sensitive habitat in the large central wash.”

But Belenky said she “remains concerned about impacts to Mojave fringe-toed lizards and their habitat including sand dunes and sand transport corridors that could easily be avoided as well.”

The final supplemental EIS represents what’s likely the last chance for a project that was left for dead a little more than a year ago.

EDF’s proposal came after the previous project developer, Seville, Spain-based Abengoa Solar, filed for bankruptcy protection two years ago (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 that abandons Abengoa’s solar trough proposal for photovoltaic solar technology.

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

BLM is partnering with Riverside County on the environmental review.

In addition to getting permits from BLM and the county, EDF will also need BLM to amend the California Desert Conservation Area plan to allow for the commercial-scale project.

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

By way of contrast, the Obama administration approved 60 solar, wind and geothermal power projects on federal lands that would 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.

But federal renewable energy activity has been on the uptick the last few months.

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

And last month, BLM proposed establishing a new leasing zone for solar power in southern Nevada in the hopes of sparking more commercial-scale development (Greenwire, April 13).