Palen Developers Pull Project Plug

By Published On: October 2, 2014

Two weeks after a California Energy Commission committee recommended the proposed Palen Solar Project in the Riverside County desert be significantly downscaled, the project’s developers decided to abandon the project altogether—at least for now. “After carefully reviewing the proposed decision recommending approval of one tower, we determined it would be in the best interest of all parties to bring forward a project that would better meet the needs of the market and energy consumers,” said BrightSource Energy marketing & government affairs vice president Joe Desmond. On Sept. 26, developers BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar filed a notice with the Energy Commission to withdraw their petition to amend the design of the Palen Solar project. The notice came 14 days after the siting committee overseeing the licensing recommended scaling Palen back from its planned two 750-foot, 250 MW solar towers to just a single tower and reducing the land area from 3,000 acres of heliostats to 1,900 acres. The developers, however, left the door open for possibly reconfiguring the project. The siting committee’s recommendation to downsize the project, released Sept. 12, is a revision of a proposed decision originally issued in December 2013. That revision indicated the siting committee was against permitting the project. The committee cited, among other things, concerns over the danger that the project’s “solar power tower” technology would present to birds. Last year, and again in January, the committee argued for denying the solar thermal project on the basis that the impacts of the project outweigh the benefits. In September’s revised decision, the siting committee admitted that the reduced acreage alternative would still cause unmitigated environmental impacts, but determined that the benefits of the project would outweigh the impacts to birds and the environment. Project owner BrightSource bought itself some time by stating it would look at bird mortality rates at its similar Ivanpah solar project in the Mojave Desert. That project consists of three power blocks with 459-foot towers surrounded by 170,000 mirrored heliostats. Bird mortality rates associated with BrightSource solar towers became a significant issue last year because in the second half of 2013, dozens of birds were found dead at the Ivanpah site, most with scorched or singed feathers. The deaths may have been caused by the birds receiving high doses of reflected sunlight while flying over the heliostats, according to a report by a division of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. BrightSource claims that avian deaths are related to solar flux, not heat (Current, Sept. 11, 2014). The journey of Palen through the approval process dates back to 2009, when original owner Solar Millennium filed a permit for the project with parabolic trough technology as the planned source of generation. The application was approved in 2010, but in 2012, after a change of ownership, BrightSource subsidiary Palen Solar Holdings filed an amendment to switch from parabolic trough to “solar power tower” technology. Parabolic trough technology uses specially curved mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays onto a pipe running the length of the mirrors. Fluid running through the pipe is heated by the rays and used to heat water into steam. Solar power tower technology, on the other hand, uses a large array of mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays on a receiver atop a tower. The concentrated rays turn water pumped through the tower into steam, which drives a turbine. Environmentalists and other local opponents of the technology have decried the solar power tower technology, citing Ivanpah’s bird issues as a reason. BrightSource, however, has indicated that it has no plans to abandon the technology. “We believe concentrating solar power, and specifically tower technology with thermal energy storage, can play a key role in helping California achieve its clean energy goals by providing the necessary flexibility needed to help maintain grid reliability,” Desmond said. “In addition, we are committed to bringing projects to the market that follow sound and responsible environmental measures to ensure all impacts are avoided, minimized or compensated for properly.” The issue of whether to approve the siting committee’s downsizing recommendation had been scheduled to be heard before the full five-member California Energy Commission Oct. 29, but, the matter has been removed from the agenda. According to the Energy Commission, the developers still have the option of moving forward with Palen at a later date because they only withdrew their petition to amend the project, not the application for certification, which was approved in 2010. “That license is still valid, and project owner can file a new petition to amend the license whenever it wants,” Energy Commission spokesperson Michael Ward explained. Ward added that the applicant is still bound by rules requiring that either construction has to start on the project within five years of it being approved, or an extension must be requested. BrightSource declined to address whether the amendment petition may be re-filed, or extension to the build permit could be submitted.

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now