Calif. refuses to extend lifeline to troubled project

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, February 12, 2016

The state of California has dealt a major blow to a long-proposed utility-scale solar power project, deciding the owners of the planned Palen Solar Electric Generating System missed a deadline to file a revamped plan of development, meaning the new owners must start the permitting process over from scratch.

The five-member California Energy Commission voted unanimously in a hearing today to deny a request from a subsidiary of San Diego-based EDF Renewable Energy Inc. to extend to June 2017 a deadline to begin construction of the planned photovoltaic solar project.

By ruling unanimously that the project missed a Dec. 22 deadline to file a new plan of development for the project, originally approved in 2010, Maverick Solar Enterprises LLC must start completely over.

Abengoa Solar, the Seville, Spain-based renewable energy giant that is restructuring in an effort to avoid bankruptcy, agreed in December to transfer ownership of the Palen project to Maverick.

Palen SEGS I LLC, the Abengoa subsidiary that had been developing the project, in December filed a petition seeking more time to begin construction and transfer ownership of the proposed project to Maverick.

It’s not clear whether Maverick intends to file a new application and build the project on roughly 1,900 acres of federal land in Riverside County, Calif.

Proponents have argued the project — expected to be capable of producing as much as 500 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power roughly 150,000 homes — would help California meet its renewable portfolio standard and advance President Obama’s 2013 Climate Action Plan.

But the commissioners said they could not overlook the missed Dec. 22 deadline to file a plan of development, instead on the deadline day asking the CEC to grant a six-month extension to the deadline to begin construction, to June 15, 2017, from Dec. 15, 2016.

The CEC approved the original Palen Solar project in 2010, kicking off a mandatory five-year deadline to begin construction that was already extended one year by the commission.

“New owners should be given time to wrap their arms around the project,” Andrew Bell, an attorney representing EDF and Maverick Solar, told the commission at today’s hearing.

Bell said the company showed “good cause” to warrant an extension by filing in December a petition to transfer ownership and to extend the construction deadline.

He said the company is working on a new plan of development to change the technology proposed at the site to photovoltaic from solar thermal.

But CEC Commissioner Karen Douglas and others said the approval last year to push back by one year the deadline to begin construction required that the company file a new plan of development by Dec. 22 that also included added thermal energy storage to the plan, which would allow the power plant to supply electricity to the grid after dark or on cloudy days.

Missing that deadline means the one-year extension is rescinded, and the CEC’s 2010 approval is void.

Douglas encouraged the project developers to submit a new application. “I don’t want you to be discouraged in your work in California from this license not being extended,” she said.

Commissioner Andrew McAllister added, “You definitely should feel free to come back … with a new project.”

But the commission’s denial was a victory for the project’s many critics.

Among them are the Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT, which in formal comments to the CEC last month raised numerous concerns about impacts of the project on cultural resources in the region. They asked that the project begin the state permitting process from the beginning (E&ENews PM, Jan. 8).

A representative of CRIT asked the commission today to deny the extension request.

So did the Center for Biological Diversity, which argued that Abengoa and its subsidiary had not made any moves to begin construction, and that that had little to do with Abengoa’s financial woes.

Lisa Belenky, a CBD senior attorney, noted that the commission’s approval of the project is more than 5 years old and that the new owners are proposing a different technology than what was originally approved in 2010.

“We believe that the commission should not just kick the can down the road on this,” Belenky said.