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Federal Deadline Sets Off Rush to Approve Solar Plants

Of all the ways that California is attempting to reduce its carbon footprint, perhaps none will have a more dramatic, or immediate, impact than that of solar power.  

Up to 200 solar energy projects, are seeking, or have received, approval to be developed in California. Most notable of these are nine large-scale projects in the state's own Empty Quarter � the Mojave and Colorado  -- where state and federal officials are on the verge of inking approvals on more than 4,100 megawatts worth of solar thermal farms. Collectively, they represent nearly ten times the amount of solar capacity installed in 2009, and enough energy to power roughly 2 million homes. 

One recently approved project, the Blythe Solar Power Project by the Millennium Solar, will eventually produce up to 1,000 megawatts a day, making it the largest solar power plant in the world. Companies like Millennium boast that jobs these projects will eventually create are good news for the state's nascent "green economy." And, perhaps more importantly, they are expected to provide heaps of clean energy that can help the state curb its greenhouse gas emissions and meet the goals of laws such as AB 32. 

The 21st century equivalent of oil fields, these plants will not pierce deep into the Earth's surface. However, many environmentalists still approach them with suspicion. 

"It is absolutely crucial that we get moved on to a renewable-based energy economy as soon as possible," said Chris Clarke, co-founder of Solar Done Right, a coalition of activists and experts concerned about the pace of industrial solar power development. "The problem is that�these giant remote utility-scale solar projects�are not spending our fairly limited economic and technological resources in a way that is going to sufficiently reduce our carbon burden on the planet."

The projects' operational sizes range from a few hundred acres to more than 7,000 acres, and their total rights of way are more than 34,000 acres � roughly 53 square miles. These projects represent huge footprints that inevitably impact the local environment and its plant and animal species. But despite concerns, all nine projects appear to be moving towards approval by the end of the year. Six have already been licensed by the California Energy Commission, and three others are expected to face votes by the end of the year. 

Clarke's group contends that companies like Millennium are building the desert mainly because they see profits in long-distance transmission. Clarke advocates local, small-scale solar generation like rooftop collectors. 

This unusually fast pace of project review and approval was spurred by a grant program for renewable energy projects included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 � a program with a deadline of December 31, 2010. Generous by any standards, the ARRA grants cover up to 30% of a project's cost, which is a major incentive for the private developers behind these multi-billion-dollar projects. The California Energy Commission estimates that the grants could total up to $2.8 billion if all of this year's applicants are approved and get built.

But it's not just a sweet deal for developers that's pushing this sense of urgency. The State of California is also trying to meet its own set of deadlines. Public utilities in the state are, by the end of this year, supposed to derive at least 20% of their energy portfolios from renewable sources. Most are not expected to meet that requirement in part because of lack of generating capacity, but the state hopes that these solar projects will help utilities meet those targets relatively soon.

To usher these projects along, the Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Land Management have teamed up with the state to create a fast-track program to process and approve large-scale renewable energy projects. They've targeted projects that were far enough along in their applications and reviews and have been plugging away over the past few months to ink approvals.

"Collaboration with the state on that was a very big deal" said Erin Curtis of the Bureau of Land Management's media relations office in California. 

The nine projects in the fast-track program are solar thermal projects, those that use vast arras of mirrors to concentrate sunlight to turn gas- or steam-driven turbines. Photovoltaic plants, which convert solar energy directly into electricity, were not included in the program as they only require county approval. However, three additional photovoltaic projects situated on federal land within California are also currently under review by the Bureau of Land Management.

The fast-track program has greatly reduced the amount of time it takes to process these applications by performing state and federal environmental reviews at the same time, something Curtis said hardly ever happens.

"We made a concerted effort to make sure these processes were in as much alignment with each other as possible," said Curtis.

Through the fast-track program, reviews and approvals have been cut down to just 9-11 months. By comparison, the typical application and review period for a project like a natural gas plant is about 18 months. But those projects typically cover only about 30 to 50 acres, and are far less complex than solar plants, which can cover upwards of ten square miles. The greater size means more people are involved in reviewing and approving the project. It can also mean that the projects' impacts on the land can be significant.

"The project sites are very large," said Karen Douglas, chair of the California Energy Commission. "The potential biological impact, the potential cultural resources impact, the potential water use impacts are significantly different than what you'd find in a natural gas power plant."

And that can mean different in a worse way. Despite clearing CEQA and NEPA environmental impact reviews, some impacts remain too much for environmental groups. The Sierra Club, the California Native Plant Society, the Center for Biological Diversity and a number of other groups, including Clarke's Solar Done Right, have spoken out against some of the projects up for review or already approved.

"Most of the technologies basically remove all the native vegetation and scrape the area completely clean. And in most cases, little to no wildlife can live in the same site as the project," said Barb Boyle, senior representative for clean energy solutions at the Sierra Club.

Joining seven other environmental groups, the Sierra Club has been protesting one of the plants that was just approved by the California Energy Commission in September and then by the Bureau of Land Management in October. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System would be a 370-megawatt facility situated on a 5.6-square-mile project site in the Mojave Desert near the border of Nevada, which is also a habitat and migration path for the desert tortoise. 

The environmental groups have challenged the developer, BrightSource Energy, to alter the project's location to reduce the impact on the tortoise, a threatened species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service estimated that there were about 32 desert tortoises on the entire site, but a recent removal and relocation effort by the company found 17 tortoises on one portion of the site, a number that indicates there are far more than 32 on the total project footprint. 

In light of these recent findings, the California Energy Commission has been petitioned to reconsider its approval of the project, a hearing that was scheduled after press time. Several Native American leaders have also voiced concerns over historical sites and ceremonial grounds within the project's footprint. BrightSource Energy declined to comment. 

But the environmental groups recognize the irony of stalling or even outright opposing such renewable energy projects. In fact, as Boyle said, they want these projects to be approved, just in a better way.

"These are projects that have a very large impact and we are very concerned to see them put in the right kinds of places where they'll have the least impact on endangered species, and on issues like water quality, air quality and so forth," said Boyle.

Douglas at the California Energy Commission contends that the environmental review process for these projects is very thorough, and bats off the suggestion that environmental concerns have been overlooked in the rush to get these projects approved. But she also recognizes that information about projects and their review processes could be better explained to the various constituencies and stakeholder groups that are concerned about these projects.

The Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game have teamed up to create a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a stakeholder-driven process to draft a long term plan for conservation and energy development in the Mojave and Colorado deserts. Douglas said this is one of the ways the state hopes to improve its process for planning renewable energy projects in the future.

"The real value of that kind of planning exercise is it forces stakeholders and government agencies -- including both state and federal agencies, which is critical -- to work together to get on the same page for what renewable energy we expect to see and how we ensure that long term conservation is achieved," said Douglas.

She hopes that these sorts of outreach efforts will help refine the state's planning process. And with the 2008 executive order that will require public utilities to derive a full third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, the state's likely to have a lot more of these planning decisions to make over the next several years.

Contacts:

Barb Boyle, Senior Representative, Clean Energy Solutions, Sierra Club http://sierraclub.org,  916.557.1100

Chris Clarke, Co-Founder, Solar Done Right http://solardoneright.org/

Erin Curtis, Media Relations, California Office of the Bureau of Land Management http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en.html, 916.978.4622

Karen Douglas, Chair, California Energy Commission http://www.energy.ca.gov/ 916.654.4989

BrightSource Energy http://www.brightsourceenergy.com/, 510.250.8162

--Nate Berg

 

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