Trump admin approves massive Calif. solar project

Source: By Scott Streater, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Bureau of Land Management has approved one of the nation’s largest photovoltaic solar power projects in the Southern California desert — the first in a series of major renewable energy projects BLM plans to authorize this year.

The Desert Quartzite Solar Project would cover about 3,000 acres of federal land in Riverside County, southwest of Blythe, Calif., and have the capacity to produce up to 450 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 117,000 homes and businesses, according to an advance notice in today’s Federal Register.

A record of decision (ROD) approving the project, as well as an amendment to the California Desert Conservation Area plan, will be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register, ending a yearslong federal review. The $1 billion project could be operational by 2022.

BLM released a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project last fall (E&E News PM, Sept. 26, 2019).

In addition to ranking among the nation’s largest photovoltaic power plants, the project is also notable because it proposes to use battery storage technology that would “allow the facility to continue supplying energy to the grid for up to four hours in the evening after sundown,” according to that final EIS last year.

The Desert Quartzite project would be the largest power-producing solar venture the Trump administration has approved to date.

“It’s another step toward diversifying the energy supply,” said Casey Hammond, acting Interior assistant secretary for land and minerals management, in a statement. “In the Trump administration, we’ve been big supporters of the ‘all of the above’ approach.”

Hammond signed the ROD on Thursday, according to today’s Federal Registernotice.

But Desert Quartzite is only the third solar project BLM has approved in President Trump’s three years in office.

BLM has approved no wind or geothermal power plant projects the past three years, though the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs has advanced several large solar projects on tribal lands.

Desert Quartzite, however, is one of at least six major solar, wind and geothermal power projects BLM plans to approve in 2020, according to a priority project list (Greenwire, Jan. 2).

Among them are the 350-MW Crimson Solar Project — also in Riverside County, Calif. — which could be approved next month, and the 690-MW Gemini Solar Project in Nevada, which if built would rank among the world’s largest photovoltaic power plants. An ROD for the Gemini project is expected this spring.

Environmental groups have growing concerns about the impacts to wildlife habitat from the increased commercial-scale renewable energy development, particularly in the untouched desert regions of California and Nevada.

The Desert Quartzite project could affect more than 2,000 acres of habitat for the federally protected Mojave Desert tortoise, as well as habitat for the sensitive Mojave fringe-toed lizard, BLM says.

The Desert Quartzite developer — Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar Development — revised earlier versions of the project to avoid these sensitive areas as much as possible. That includes scaling back impacts associated with a 2.7-mile-long, 230-kilovolt power line connecting the proposed plant to Southern California Edison’s Colorado River Substation.

Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, said this effort by First Solar “helps” address some of their concerns.

“But we remain concerned about the impacts to the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, particularly the cumulative impacts,” Anderson said.

BLM says the Desert Quartzite project will “provide up to about $2.7 million in annual rent and fees to the U.S. Treasury” when the 30-month construction is completed. The project will generate up to 870 jobs during peak construction, the bureau said.

“The Department of the Interior supports moving forward with the Desert Quartzite solar project and other projects that help strengthen communities and promote energy independence,” Hammond said in his statement. “Responsible domestic energy production on Federal lands remains fundamental to our nation’s security.”