Palen Solar Photovoltaic Project Back

Palen Dunes

^The Palen Dunes sand transport corridor which may be threatened by a large fenced 3,500-acre utility-scale solar project. The Palen-McCoy Mountains and wilderness are in the distance.

October 26, 2017 - Riverside County CA - The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is set to release a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement with a 45 day comment period, for a proposed 500 megawatt photovoltaic solar power plant near Desert Center, Riverside County, California. The Right-of-Way application area comprises about 4,200 acres, with a proposed project footprint of about 3,400 acres. The proposed project also includes construction of a 6.7-mile single circuit 230 kilovolt generation interconnection (gen-tie) transmission line connecting the project to the Southern California Edison (SCE) Red Bluff Substation. EDF Renewables is seeking to build the project. See the Federal Register notice pdf.

The project site is partially within a sand-transport corridor, and past incarnations of the project have been controversial because of this. The area also has a good population of Mojave fringe-toed lizards.

BLM and Riverside County will hold a public meeting on the Project DSEIS/SEIR/LUPA on November 14, 2017 from 4 to 6 pm at UCR Palm Desert Center Room B200 located at 75080 Frank Sinatra Drive, Palm Desert, CA 92211.

Comment deadline December 10, 2017.

New Palen Solar PV Project Reactivated With Little Public Notice

June 21, 2016 - Palm Springs CA - The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the re-awakened 500-megawatt Palen Solar Photovoltaic Project (formerly a concentrated solar thermal project, see below) for 4,200 acres of undisturbed desert ecosystem west of Desert Center in the Chuckwalla Valley of Riverside County CA. See the BLM notice mailed to a few parties.

Basin & Range Watch has long been an intervenor in the former California Energy Commission proceedings (CEC), although the CEC does not review photovoltaic solar projects, only those that have a thermal energy component. In 2015 the project switched owners and the CEC had made a decision on jurisdictional matters to continue reviewing the case once the applicant changed the technology, but then denied a request to extend deadlines of the project in the matter of amended reviews. This means the CEC opted out of any further review, leaving the BLM as sole permitting agency along with Riverside County.

A scoping meeting will be held June 29, 2016 from 3:30 PM to 5:30 PM at the Palm Springs City Hall, Palm Springs CA 92262.

Comments will be collected until July 18, 2016.

This is a very short notice for a single public meeting for so important a project in the California Desert. We were only made aware of it by our extensive network of desert advocates, not by receiving a BLM notice. BLM should place this notice on their website. Public meetings should also be held in Blythe CA.

EDF Renewables is proposing single-axis tracking photovoltaic panels, but does not have a Power Purchase Agreement with a utility yet for the project that we are aware of.

Raised From the Dead: Palen Solar Project Back

Palen desert

^Project site at sunset.

June 10, 2016 - Riverside County CA - The Palen Solar Power Project returns from the dead (again)! The Bureau of Land Management will process the application this summer. Since 2010, the Palen solar project has been proposed for the Chuckwalla Valley, Riverside County, west of Blythe, California. It started as a Concentrated Solar Thermal Plant parabolic trough design. The company, Solar Trust of America, went bankrupt and the application was sold to BrightSource and Abengoa. They planned on building two 750 foot power towers and later reduced the plan to just one tower. Both BrightSource and Abengoa ended up having their own financial issues and the project lacked a competent thermal storage plan. The project was later sold to EDF Renewables and converted to photovoltaic solar panels.

The California Energy Commission denied the application from EDF Renewables so now the project is being reviewed by BLM only.

It will still have big impacts on desert dune ecosystems as a whole, Mojave fringe-toed lizards, cultural resources and birds will most likely be killed hitting the panels. The BLM gave a presentation about the project at the Desert Advisory Council meeting in May.

From the BLM California Desert District Advisory Council Meeting: Palen Solar Power Project: EDF Renewable Energy submitted an application and Plan of Development, dated December 22, 2015, for a 500 MW photovoltaic solar generating facility. The project would be constructed entirely on BLM lands within the original project footprint and consist of a single solar field with two smaller adjacent solar fields, a main access road from the Corn Springs off-ramp, and a 230kV generation tie-line extending from the project switchyard to the Red Bluff Substation. The BLM is beginning processing of this application.

California Energy Commission Votes Against Granting Extension for Project

February 11, 2016 - In a surprise 5-0 vote the California Energy Commission denied an extension to the new owners of the Palen Solar Power Project, at a business meeting on the 10th. Commissioners heard comments by Andrew Bell, attorney for EDF Renewables (parent company to Maverick Solar LLC which recently acquired the Palen solar project). The Commissioners ruled on Petitions for Extension of Deadline for Commencement of Construction, and transfer of ownership of the project.

Past Intervenors were present and made comments to oppose transfer and extension of the deadline to begin construction: Center for Biological Diversity made very good arguments. Colorado River Indian Tribes and Basin & Range Watch also made comments.

Missed Deadlines

The petitioner EDF had missed the deadline for filing transfer of Palen Solar Electric Generating System I from Abengoa after that company's insolvency troubles, as well as missing the deadline for an extension of beginning of construction, but the attorney for EDF said the filing was "one minute thirty-four seconds late" due to website-uploading glitches. Commissioner Karen Douglas reminded EDF they could have come a week earlier to ask for an extension if the company needed time.

There is a five-year construction deadline statute where permits become void, and the Palen Solar Power Project has passed the five-year mark.

EDF pleaded that they had in fact filed their requests in a timely manner, or if a few minutes late, had done due diligence in their internal discussions on how to best move forward with this concentrated solar power project. They now sought to turn the project into a photovoltaic facility. They further requested a three month time frame to prepare an amendment to the original Staff Assessment.

County Concerns

The County of Riverside made a comment to the Commissioners, saying how they opposed the request for an extension of the project and allowing it to switch to photovoltaic technology. The county is mapping their lands for solar siting (from a grant given by the CEC), and they want local jurisdiction under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Jurisdiction Over Photovoltaic Projects

Attorney Lisa Belenky of Center for Biological Diversity made excellent comments about a new CEC regulation that may revisit the jurisdiction question at a later date, on whether the CEC should license photovoltaic projects. Belenky asked that this important question be held in a fully public manner with hearings and comment periods. The Commissioners later assured those present that they would make this a public process if the question was to be discussed.

The statute that governs the California Energy Commission (the Warren-Alquist Act) explicitly only gives the CEC the ability to license thermal power plants, and not photovoltaic plants. In 2011 there was special legislation (SB 226, amending PRC 25500.1) that allowed CEC to oversee conversion of certain Fast-track solar projects from thermal to photovoltaic — the Calico and Blythe solar projects were part of that but Palen was expressly not allowed to use that legislation because it never had a Record of Decision (ROD) for an approval from the Bureau of Land Management. The Center argued that since Palen was not a Fast-track project and never got BLM approval, it is a dead project.

"Don't kick the can down the road while deciding about jurisdiction," Belenky said to the Commissioners.

New Environmental Review Needed

Ms. Belenky also commented that the environmental review should be re-started from the beginning, that most surveys and analysis were undertaken years ago, and more recent analysis was only piecemeal. Essential new information, as well as the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), has come to the fore and has not been analyzed.

EDF argued that their new PV project would have no new significant impacts, a point we disagree with.

Commissioners' Decision

After going into a closed session for deliberation for about 15 minutes, the Commissioners returned with a unanimous vote denying the petitioner's request for an extension of the project's commencement of construction. This essentially denied the project developer any opportunity for a review and license with the CEC.

Commissioner Douglas told EDF they should go forward with their project with the appropriate permitting agencies (the county and BLM). She pointed out that the CEC record was over five years old and involved issues such as solar flux from a power tower, different from photovoltaic technology. Much of the record would need to be updated. She said the developer could go back and gather more information about their project, and in the future come back to the CEC and ask about the jurisdictional issue.

EDF was between a rock and a hard place on this one--the California Public Utilities Commission now prefers new solar projects to be concentrated solar thermal with storage to help balance out the grid, but everyone knows how expensive those are so EDF wanted to do cheaper photovoltaic.

Is Palen Dead?

We never say never. Perhaps EDF will regroup and go the county and restart their review, but they were hoping to piggyback on the extensive record and environmental review already built up during the CEC proceeding.

New Palen Owner Seeks 6 Month Extension and Switch to Photovolatic

December 23, 2015 - Maverick Solar has petitoned the California Energy Commission (CEC) for an extension of the deadline for commencement of construction by 12 months, following another extension to June 2016 for the developer to submit a petiton to amend the project. Also the developer is seeking to switch to photovoltaic technology, from solar trough CSP technology.

See the CEC petition >>here.

Change of Ownership of Project

December 16, 2015 - On December 15 Palen SEGS I LLC petitoned the California Energy Commission for a transfer of ownership of the Palen Solar Power Project to Maverick Solar LLC out of San Diego, a subsidiary of EDF Renewable Energy (formerly enXco). EDF Renewable Energy is the US subsidiary of EDF Energies Nouvelles, an arm of the large European utility EDF group. The company develops photovoltaic solar and wind projects. The Palen project will likely move to a PV technology, from CSP.

The company also requested a 12 month extension of the start of construction date.

Abengoa Starts Insolvency Proceedings

November 27, 2015 - The Spanish solar company's shares dropped as it announced insolvency proceedings; it has four months to reach a deal with creditors or potenitally face bankruptcy. This brings into question whether the company has the ability to continue to develop the Palen Solar Power Project which it recently took over from BrightSource Energy. Abengoa needs to have its new plan of development to the California Energy Commission by December 22, 2015.

Palen Proposed to be "Peaker" Plant With Storage

September 9, 2015 - The California Energy Commission held a public hearing today to consider whether to grant Abengoa's request for an extension and to file a petition to amend the original application. Environmental groups and tribal representatives had requested a whole new application be required of the company since the design has changed again and years have gone by since the original Solar Millennium application was filed.

Center for Biological Diversity said there is significant new information, such as about surface hydrology. Impacts to the other large solar projects in the area (Genesis and Desert Sunlight) from flooding has led to much new information about how these projects impact desert landscapes, and this has never been evaluated. There would be new impacts to the Mojave fringe-toed lizard as the rarity of its habitat has become more apparent. New impacts to cultural resources have also been found since the original application.

Basin & Range Watch made comments that the project would up its water use with thermal storage, and pointed out that the applicant a few years ago said a solar trough project was not feasible on this site. Now they say it is.

At the end of the hearing, however, the Commissioners granted the extension and request of Abengoa to file a petition to supplement the original application. It must be done before December 22, 2016 when the permit expires.

Abengoa explained it would change the solar trough design to use new updated technology and more efficient troughs, resulting in a smaller footprint of land that would need to be graded. Molten salt tanks would be added by the power block but Abengoa intended this project to be a "peaker" plant that would be a minor reconfiguration, providing a capacity product to the market that is flexible during peak hours like a peaker natural gas plant. Therefore the solar field could be smaller since so much extra energy would not be stored (into the night hours).

Abengoa Switches From Power Tower to Solar Trough Technology

August 27, 2015 - Attorneys for Abengoa sent in this letter to the California Energy Commission (CEC) to announce they were changing their design of the Palen Solar Power Project from power tower to solar trough technology, which would have molten salt storage. This may complicate the review, as other trough plants using thermal salt storage need wet cooling instead of dry cooling technology. The Solana project in Arizona requires 3,000 acre-feet per year of groundwater for their wet-cooling towers. The Mojave solar trough project at Harper Lake CA uses 2,000 acre feet a year. This is a large amount in drought-striken California, and is considerably more than the BrightSource solar power tower asked for with dry cooling technology.

Since it is has been five years after the original application, Abengoa must go back to the drawing board according to CEC policy. The CEC has permitted a solar trough design at the site already -- the former Solar Millennium project. The Bureau of Land Management never finalized that environmental impact statement, however. The project is in a Solar Energy Zone designated under the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement review.

And You Thought Palen Was Dead

November 4, 2014 - Chuckwalla Valley, Riverside County CA - The Palen solar project, formerly 750-foot-tall solar power towers proposed by BrightSource Energy and the Spanish company Abengoa, is back. The project would forego natural gas apparently and instead build molten salt storage.

According to Abengoa's website: Abengoa, an international company that applies innovative technology solutions for sustainability in the energy and environmental sectors, has agreed to a deal with BrightSource Energy under which Abengoa will acquire BrightSource Energy's interest in the Palen Solar Energy Generating Station (PSEGS) project. Upon finalization of the purchase transaction, Abengoa will become the sole developer of the project. The Project will continue to use tower technology, but Abengoa intends to propose its molten salt tower proprietary technology, incorporating large thermal energy storage capacity. Details of the transaction have not been disclosed.

Palen Solar Power Tower Project Withdrawn

September 29, 2014 - Unexpectedly, BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar withdrew their Palen Solar Electric Generating System project in a brief letter to the California Energy Commission on September 26. No reason was given. The project had been plagued by issues ranging from high potential bird mortality from solar flux, which is unfolding at the Ivanpah solar project, to cultural concerns by local tribes.

Other looming problems involved the Energy Commission's recommendation to integrate thermal storage into the solar power tower design, something which the developers admitted would take time to engineer. The first out of two power tower was on the verge of approval by the full five member Commission, after a yes recommendation by the two Presiding Members of the Commission recently. The second tower would need to have thermal storage to come before a review in the future.

The Desert Sun reported that BrightSource senior vice president Joe Desmond explained that the companies chose to withdraw the application in part because the project was unlikely to be completed by December 2016, meaning it wouldn’t qualify for a 30 percent investment tax credit that expires at the end of that year.

Energy Commission Recommends License for First Tower

September 12. 2014 - The two commissioners of the California Energy Commission (CEC) presiding over the hearing and review of the Palen Solar Electric Generating System (PSEGS) have written their Revised Presiding Member's Proposed Decision which recommends phase 1 be licensed, one solar power tower. Then a second power tower with thermal energy storage may be built in the future if the petitioner BrightSource Energy seeks to amend yet again. The decision will be passed on to a vote of the whole five commissioners for final approval.

The decision recommends a reduced acreage alternative, which the Energy Commission says will reduce and outweigh significant impacts, but still must override the worst impacts as unmitigable: cultural impacts, some biological concerns, and visual resources.

The Reduced Acreage Alternative would further reduce the project footprint to approximately 1,960 acres.

But the CEC writes, "In light of the foreseeable future Application for Certification on the second phase of PSEGS, we have decided to leave intact the analysis of both phases of the PSEGS project. We believe it is beneficial to the public and potential future applicants to be apprised of the environmental impacts and mitigation analysis of both phases of the PSEGS project, even though we are only certifying the Reduced Acreage Alternative." This will make it easy for BrightSource to come back in the future to petition to amend the project again for a phase 2 power tower with thermal energy storage when this becomes feasible.

Not wholly able to generate electricity from the Sun, the plant would also burn natural gas. The unit would contain two natural-gas-fired boilers to assist with daily startup of the power generation equipment and to preserve energy in the steam cycle overnight. The unit would contain the following boiler equipment:
• One 249-MMBtu/hr (Million Metric British thermal units per hour) packaged natural- gas-fired auxiliary boiler for startup and cycle augmentation, capable of producing 185,000 pounds per hour (lb/hr) at 770°F and 650 psia; and
• One 10-MMBtu/hr natural-gas-fired “night preservation” boiler to maintain system temperatures overnight, capable of producing 10,000 lb/hr at 500°F and 175 psia.

The PSEGS would use natural gas to fire its auxiliary and nighttime preservation boilers. SoCal Gas would supply natural gas for PSEGS via a new pipeline that would extend southward from the site and interconnect with an existing SoCal Gas transmission pipeline located just south of I-10. The new gas pipeline approximately eight inches in diameter and 2,956 feet long.

In addition to an air-cooled condenser to cool the system, a wet-cooled system would also be used. This evaporates groundwater significantly more.

The solar plant would use 201 acre-feet per year of water for process use, mirror washing, dust suppression, and potable water. That amounts to 179,078 gallons per day.

Bird Mortality and Solar Flux

Bird and insect deaths will occur: according to the decision: "The PSEGS project will introduce several factors that could result in mortality, morbidity, and reduced reproductive success in birds, bats, and insects. Potential impacts of the operating facility to birds, bats, and insects include physical injury resulting from collision with power towers, heliostats, or other project infrastructure features, electrocution, and disorientation (disturbance from lighting, mirror reflection, etc.). Ocular damage, hyperthermia and, depending on period of exposure and level of flux, burning and other heat-caused damage to internal and external body parts, as well as residual damage (morbidity) may occur to bats, birds, or insects that enter the airspace over the heliostat field where elevated solar flux exists."

The solar flux will have impacts: "Operation of the PSEGS would concentrate the sun’s radiant energy (flux or solar flux) over the heliostat field. Flux levels increase approaching the power towers and occupy the airspace over the heliostat fields. Any species of bird, bat, or insect that enters this airspace and is exposed to concentrated solar flux is at risk of injury, latent mortality on or off the project site, and mortality within the project footprint. The type and severity of damage experienced is not predictable; however, it is directly linked to the duration of exposure and the intensity of the flux encountered. While safe limits of flux have been established for humans and the adverse effects of exposure well documented, little information exists to help understand what levels of flux may be safe for bats, birds, and insects."

The Energy Commission staff "recommends that additional data should be collected from ISEGS before approving the PSEGS facility at this time. The data should be scaled up to account for the size of the facility and corrected for important factors such as searcher efficiency and scavenger removal rates. The data should be corrected to adjust for birds that are injured yet are able to fly off the site and avoid detection. Staff argues that none of the mortality data provides any potential for mass mortality events if flocks of birds fly through the flux field. Staff considers this a predictable event based on the large flocks of birds detected at PSEGS during autumn 2013 surveys, and that many of these species have flight characteristics or behaviors that would expose the birds to elevated levels of solar flux."

And about the numbers -- "Staff calculated that the PSEGS flux field would occupy 3.8 times the volume of the ISEGS flux field on a per-tower basis. Staff found that avian mortality increased nearer to the tower. Finally, Staff found that the 250-megawatt solar tower at 240 meters high, as is proposed for PSEGS, would present a risk that is 3.7 times higher per tower than that presented by a 125-megawatt ISEGS solar tower at 120 meters g. (7/30/14 RT 276:5 – 277:14.) Nevertheless, Staff did not offer any estimate for avian mortality due to solar flux."

BrightSource may write a check and get away with uncontrolled bird slaughter:

"Staff did not recommend adoption of the project owner’s offer of 1:1 habitat offsets for avian and bat species. While acquisitions are valuable and ensure long-term preservation of habitat, Staff believes that the requirements of BIO-12 are equally conservative, ensuring acquisition of high quality habitat for the Desert Tortoise that would also benefit avian species. Additionally, the stated selection requirements would likely “nest” or overlap with the Desert Tortoise offsets and, therefore, would not ultimately result in acquisitions further than already recommended within BIO-12. Habitat acquisition is a useful tool. However, when attempting to mitigate potential ongoing losses of such a mobile and diverse group of vertebrates such as migratory birds, in particular, and insects and bats to a lesser degree, restoration and enhancement of habitat may prove more useful than placing conservation easements. Restoration of habitat is one of few means of “creating” new habitat and has the possibility of expanding both abundance and, in some instances, the range, of birds, bats, and insects. (Ex. 2000, p. 4.2-165.)

"The Petitioner offered $500,000 towards funding various habitat enhancement and conservation actions, and Staff has also recommended this. However, rather than payment of a lump sum, Staff recommend that the project owner fund an interest- bearing account to achieve this same goal. Monies held in an interest-bearing account would be managed by a non profit investment entity (e.g., a community foundation such as the Imperial Valley Community Foundation) from which only annually earned interest and fund management fees may be distributed; that is, the investment vehicle would be designed and managed as an interest-bearing account. (Ex. 2000, p. 4.2-165.)

"Staff testified that a minimum annual benefit of approximately $50,000 would be necessary to fund bird mitigation actions during the operational life of the project. Staff testified that in order to yield approximately $50,000 annually, the project owner would need to provide approximately $1,500,000 into an interest-bearing account. The recommended funding amount was determined by considering three primary factors:

"1. A reasonable/achievable rate of capitalization (4.0%per annum);
2. Adequacy of the amount of the investment to allow for portfolio diversification;
3. An annual funding amount of significant benefit to the affected resource (Ex. 2000, p. 4.2-166).

"The actual funds needed to support this program may vary. While this approach is more costly than originally proposed by the Petitioner, Staff believes the approach is reasonable and may provide indirect benefits to the project owner, primarily that funds would be available to the project owner at the end of the project, annual payouts would not incur tax liabilities, the program would provide not only annual revenue for an extended period but does so in a fiscally responsible manner, and the level of funding is expected to provide a significant, demonstrable, and measurable mitigation value that is linked directly, both spatially and temporally, to facility operation. (Ex. 2000, p. 4.2-166.)

"Alternatively, the project owner may pay $50,000 annually to fund the conservation activities for the life of the project. If the project owner elects to make annual payments, the annual payments would be adjusted for inflation. (Ex. 2000, p. 4.2-166.)"

Cultural Concerns

The Energy Commission unfortunately chose to ignore the strong concerns of the native tribes who value this land, and issued an override of significant impacts under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The decision reads in part: "The Reduced Acreage Alternative may also permanently change and/or result in the destruction of cultural resources both known, and as yet unknown, contributing to a cumulatively considerable impact that will be mitigated to the extent feasible, but may remain significant after such mitigation....The PSEGS project’s direct and cumulative impacts to cultural resources are borne disproportionately by Native Americans. "

Birds Igniting in Midair: CBS News Reports on Ivanpah and Palen Solar Power Towers

August 18, 2014 - CBS News headlines the controversy over bird deaths at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System raised by biologists:

California Energy Commission Evidentiary Hearing

August 10, 2014 - Blythe CA - Basin & Range Watch intervened in the California Energy Commission (CEC) proceeding of this petition to amend the original Palen solar project application after BrightSource Energy bought the application from now bankrupt Solar Millennium. The current project would involve two solar power towers that would superheat water into steam to turn steam turbines in power blocks. Hundreds of thousands of mirrors (heliostats) in circles around the towers would aim sunlight onto the receiver of the tower to heat the water into steam.

The California Energy Commission held an evidentiary hearing in Blythe over two long days, July 29 and 30, 2014, where all intervenors, the petitioner BrightSource Energy, staff of the Energy Commission, and the public gathered. Intervenors include Basin & Range Watch, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT), and Californians for Renewable Energy (CARE) - La Cuna de Aztlan. More >>here.

BrightSource Working to Revive Project

February 4, 2014 - The California Energy Commission (CEC) on January 23, 2014, released a decision that the petitioner Palen Solar Holdings could work to gather new information in order to make the solar power tower project viable in the Commission's opinion. The petitioner had requested a delay in the final full commission decision on whether to end the application process, and the CEC granted this.

At a Committee conference, specific directions were given to gather data on reconfiguration and new mitigation measures. Palen Solar Holdings sent a letter to the CEC saying they were gathering this new information. BrightSource and the Spanish company Abengoa are the parent companies seeking to design and construct the solar project.

The following material will be submitted according to the petitioner:

• A comparison of avian mortality data reported by projects utilizing various solar technologies.

• A more detailed description of the benefits of the PSEGS, including the potential to incorporate thermal energy storage at the project in the future.

• A more detailed description of why the No Project Alternative and the Photovoltaic
Alternative are infeasible alternatives to the PSEGS.

• A proposed modification to a cultural mitigation measure that more appropriately provides mitigation directed towards tribal spiritual and cultural values while also providing mitigation for the State’s interest in recording historically important sites.


Palen Solar Electric Generating System: Denied


December 13, 2013 - During a business meeting in Sacramento today the California Energy Commission recommended that the application for the Palen solar power tower project by BrightSource Energy be denied.

From the Decision ('s_Proposed_Decision.pdf) page 972:

“We conclude, in the BIOLOGICAL RESOURCES section of this Decision, that currently there is insufficient scientifically deduced information about actual avian impacts from power tower solar flux. However, other evidence in the record about avian species mortality from solar flux, including preliminary compliance monitoring information from the Ivanpah project, convinces us that the benefits of the PSEGS modified project do not outweigh its significant adverse environmental effects. When we compare the PSEGS' entire suite of benefits against its suite of impacts, we find that the impacts outweigh the benefits. Accordingly, the Petition to Amend the Palen Solar Electricity Generating System is DENIED.”

National Park Service Comments on the Palen Solar Power Towers

November 18, 2013 - As Joshua Tree National Park lies within view of these proposed 750-foot solar thermal towers, the National Park Service gave comments on the project's impacts: >>download the 183 KB pdf.

California Energy Commission Evidentiary Hearing

November 4, 2013 - Basin & Range Watch was an intervenor at the California Energy Commission (CEC) evidentiary hearing in Palm Desert on October 28 and 29, 2013. This is the last phase in the licensing review by the state agency as it carries out environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for a thermal power plant. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is undergoing a parallel review under the National Environmental Policy Act since the project is on federal land.

Other intervenors include Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Colorado River Indian Tribes, and Californians for Renewable Energy.

The now defunct company Solar Millennium had originally proposed this project, using a solar trough technology to heat steam in a power block. BrightSource Energy later bought the project, and along with Abengoa, is currently seeking a license to build a solar power tower facility. Thus the current hearing addresses the changes to a project already approved by the CEC (but not yet by BLM). The project will cost close to $2 billion to construct.

The Quechan representatives and Colorado River Indian Tribes were outraged because this power plant has similar properties to the Genesis Solar Energy Project where a village site and cremation site were found. The tribes wanted no project and made eloquent speeches for hours about how important the area is to them and their history and traditions.

On alternatives, we had proposed Westlands Water District contaminated brownfields as a site to analyze to place this massive solar project, instead of living desert ecosystem. But the CEC's response was that it was "too far away" for the Energy Commission to consider. We asked them if there was a specific mileage distance that was in CEC policy that limited the distance considered for an alternative? Answer: No. Distributed generation such as rooftop solar was not discussed.

The visual landscape will be changed drastically in the area, with two 750-foot tall glowing power towers and hundreds of thousands of mirrors reflecting sunlight over five square miles. Everyone admitted these represent significant unmitigable impacts, so an override will probably be doled out (the CEC has given itself the power to override significant impacts in CEQA if deemed in the public interest). CEC had not addressed the impact to hikers, campers, and recreationists in the nearby wilderness areas and Joshua Tree National Park. CEC had a condition that there will be a 1-800 number for people to call in case they see an errant flash glare from a mirror or blinding light from the glowing receiver. Drivers on I-10 can call this number. We also brought up curtailment -- turn the heliostats up so they don't glint as much to people on the ground during certain times. Riverside County was on the phone and interjected that they wanted to make sure an expert on heliostat operation was on the phone.

^The solar power tower under testing at Ivanpah Valley, CA.

CEC said they admit birds will be killed by the solar flux at the power towers. Mitigation has yet to be determined. Adaptive Management was said to be the main way to deal with bird kills, as the problem will be deferred and studied. No one seemed to know what to do about this.

Center for Biological Diversity expert witness herpetologist Al Muth showed a fantastic photo of a 6-foot-high chainlink fence near Palm Springs covered to the top with a mound of sand. The proposed solar array will be partially in the path of a sand transport corridor at Palen, with chainlink fences around the heliostat field. They could get buried in a similar fashion. The topic of downwind sand habitat was highly contentious: how the fences will or will not stop the sand flow and degrade Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat. Dr. Muth gave testimony that the sand on the downwind side of the project will deflate and stabilize eventually, and lose quality for sand-dwelling species as has happened in the Coachella Valley.

^Photo taken by Dr. Al Muth of a 6-foot high chainlink fence in the Palm Springs area covered by sand. BrightSource and Abengoa are proposing to surround their solar project by similar chainlink fences, partly in a sand transport corridor in Chuckwalla Valley.

Ileene Anderson of CBD argued well to have a system in place to pay for a kit fox monitoring plan to make sure another outbreak of canine distemper will not happen, as occurred at Genesis. She called a California Department of Fish and Wildlife representative up to testify how they will regulate this (no definitive answer).

CBD expert witness Pat Flanagan, who had worked as a biologist at the former Solar 1 power tower once in operation in Daggett, CA, gave testimony to the remarkable number of avian species in the area, brought up the issue of "land facets" (connectivity issues), and how she did not think the mitigation proposals so far would work. An adaptive management strategy was proposed by BrightSource and Abengoa of using such devices as plastic owls, trained dogs, and canons to dissuade birds from flying near the power tower.

Also see the article in the Desert Sun:

Bird Mitigation Proposed for Palen Solar Power Towers

October 25, 2013 - BrightSource Energy intends to scare the birds away from the solar flux around the operating power towers for the Palen Solar Electric Generating System in several possible ways. Some measures proposed include driving ATVs around, firing shot guns and cannons, dogs will be trained to scare birds away, as well as possibly trained falcons.'s_Rebuttal_Testimony_to_Intervenor_CBD's_Opening_Testimony.pdf

Summary of Potential Avian Adoptive Management Measures by Category:

--Facility habitat and prey control.

--Perch and nest-proofing.

--Netting or other enclosures.

--Dog, raptor other animal related deterrence. This could include trained falcons to chase birds away from the project.

--Actively managed radiocontrolled aircraft, water cannons, shotgun blasts, ATVs.

--Radar and long-range focused, bio-acoustics or visual deterrence. These could include strobe, revolving and amber barricade lights; reflective Mylar tape mounted as streamers or spans; stationary or mechanical pop-up scarecrows or effigies; black, white or other colored plastic flags; reflective Mylar balloons, including balloons marked with predator “eyespots” or that include suspended kites shaped like a hawk or an eagle; laser light emitted including hand-held units, kites, and kite-hawks and other mobile predator models; stationary predator models

BLM Meeting in Blythe

September 21, 2013 - Blythe, CA - The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held a public meeting to hear comments on their environmental review of the Palen solar project on public land in Chuckwalla Valley, Riverside County CA. Members of Basin & Range Watch attended. BLM expects to issue their Record of Decision on the project around January 17, 2014.

BrightSource Energy and the Spanish company Abengoa are proposing to develop the project, and BrightSource gave a presentation. Abengoa would construct the project while BrightSource would be the technology provider. We note that these large-scale solar thermal power plants have proven difficult to build, and this is not the first time Spanish expertise has been brought in to provide engineering and construction services. Solar Reserve brought in Spanish experts to help overcome problems encountered during the construction of the Crescent Dunes power tower near Tonopah, NV.

The Palen solar project has power purchase agreements from Pacific Gas & Electric to provide power to the grid. BrightSource is hoping to push for a 2016 completion date in order to qualify for the federal Investment Tax Credit for solar. The project would cost $2 billion plus to build.

The Ivanpah solar project was described as "generation 1" power tower technology, while the Palen power towers will be "generation 2."

Joshua Tree National Park would be 8 miles away from the project, so views from park areas will be a concern.

Total water usage according to BrightSource's estimates would be 7,160 acre-feet, and of that 1,139 af would be used for construction. Operational use would be 231 acre-feet/year, mostly for washing the mirrors and regeneration in the steam process. Two evaporation ponds would be 4 acres each.

A half-mile long 8-inch natural gas pipeline would go to the project boilers from a mainline owned by Southern California Edison. Natural gas would be burned in daily start-up of the plant and during cloudy days.

A difference between the Palen project and Ivanpah facility are in how the heliostats are controlled as they move during the day tracking the sun to bounce sunlight onto the tower. At Ivanpah the heliostat mirrors are all connected by wires along the ground to feed them power to move and direct their position; at Palen the heliostats will be wirelessly controlled and powered by solar power.

Basin & Range Watch asked about the recent bird mortality at Ivanpah, including a peregrine falcon that was apparently blinded by the intense solar flux during power tower testing, as well as other bird deaths at solar plants. How will these be prevented or mitigated? BLM representatives said there was a private meeting being organized for next week with BLM, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and bird experts to try to address those issues.

Local and Native American Concerns

Representatives of the local group La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle -- Alfredo Figueroa and Jesse Figueroa -- voiced their concerns about Native American sacred sites and culture in the region. Mr. Figueroa explained how the Palen project would be right in the middle of many sacred sites, in a wash from Corn Springs.

^Aztec Sickness (Save the Geoglyphs), singing by Jesse Alfredo, filmed by Robert Lundahl.

Quechan Historical Preservation Officer Arlene Kingery said the tribe opposed the Palen project, primarily on the grounds that the viewshed would be disrupted. The Quechan may request to try to locate burial sites on the project by using forensic dogs.

BLM said they will not officially take spoken comments on the record anymore, only written comments. This is controversial with people who drove hundreds of miles sometimes to reach the meeting.

^The project site outlined in red in Chuckwalla Valley.

^Yellow shows where the project will be visible from, including Joshua Tree National Park.

^Document explaining the meaning of sacred sites near Blythe, CA, by Alfredo Figueroa.

^The Big Maria Mountains and Palo Verde Mesa, showing the image of Tlaltecuhtli in the central domed mountain peak. There are dozens if not hundreds of such images that are read in the rocks like a book of history according to Alfredo Figueroa.

California Energy Commission Releases Final Staff Assessment

September 10, 2013 - The Palen Solar Electric Generating System Final Staff Assessment - Part A, at 1639 pages, was released as the environmental review process speeds ahead under the state agency.

Subjects covered include Alternatives, Biological Resources, Efficiency, Executive Summary, Facility Design, Compliance, Geology/Paleontology, Hazardous Materials, Introduction, Land Use, Noise and Vibration, Project Description, Public Health, Reliability, Socioeconomics, Traffic and Transportation, Transmission Line Safety and Nuisance, Transmission System Engineering, Visual Resources, Worker Safety and Fire Protection, Waste Management, and Soil and Water.

Go to the CEC Documents page and download the PDF file of the Final Staff Assessment:

See also the excellent post on Mojave Desert Blog:

Sand Transport Corridor an Issue Again

^Aerial view of a digital visualization of the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System with two power towers, looking southwest across the sand dunes of Chuckwalla Valley, across the I-10 highway, and the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley visible in the distance.

July 26, 2013 - During a two-day workshop held in Sacramento at the California Energy Commission (CEC) offices, BrightSource Energy discussed with various Energy Commission staff, biologists, agency reps, and intervenors how to crunch the numbers of mitigating impacts to resources at the Palen solar power tower project in Riverside County, CA.

85,000 heliostats would be built in each unit. One problem is that this particular design will block part of the sand transport corridor that moves west to east on blowing winds down the Chuckwalla Valley.

According to a study commissioned by the CEC and made available in July 2013, Geomorphic Assessment of Sand Transport for the Modified Project, by Nicholas Lancaster, Thomas Bullard and Jack Gillies the Desert Research Institute in Reno NV, "Modeling of the effects of the Modified Project on sand transport in the Palen Valley indicates that the Project has an increased level of predicted effects on sand transport, compared to the Applicant’s Reconfigured Alternatives 2 and 3. This is because the project footprint extends further east into the sand transport corridor.... The Modified
Project heliostat array is predicted to have a very significant effect on sand transport such that sand transport will be reduced by 93% at 1738 feet into the array."

Numerous Mojave fringe-toed lizards (Uma scoparia) were found in this sand transport corridor habitat, as these lizards prefer looser sand areas. Much habitat would therefore be destroyed by a project here, and indirect impacts would be large due to a modification of the moving sand habitat. A mitigation measure of land acquisition was proposed but the applicant will have difficulty finding enough private land to purchase, and instead a proposal to place money in a fund whereby Bureau of Land Management and California Department of Fish and Wildlife would try to restore habitat areas from off-roading and carry out weed removal.

The applicant proposed moving sand inside the fence of the project to re-supply the sand transport corridor. Other mitigation measures proposed were adaptive management and monitoring of the sand habitat being impacted. The applicant proposed surveying for fringe-toed lizards annually in the degraded habitat downwind of the project in a monitoring program. Dr. Lancaster recommended using satellite images to monitor changes in the landscape over time.

Also mentioned were ideas to build upwind "sand-catcher" fences ahead of the project to collect the sand before it blows into the project. This is a terrible idea, we believe, as yet more habitat would be impacted and modified.

CEC pointed out that a number of sand-dwelling plants would also impacted by reduction of sand transport.

Instead of avoiding the destruction of fringe-toed lizard habitat and indirect impacts, the discussion centered on future monitoring of the lizard habitat. The applicant offered 89 acres of mitigation land to make up for the impacts.

^Mojave fringe-toed lizard sightings mapped out against a model of how the solar project would block the sand transport corridor in the valley, shown as a brown "shadow" of the project and downwind blockage of sand flow.

Furthermore, Mojave fringe-toed lizards (MFTL) will be killed by road work, blading of desert, and truck transport on new roads in the desert, as has already happened at a transmission line project nearby. Surveys along along the Colorado River Substation access road associated with the Devers to Palo Verde 2 (DPV2) transmission line project in 2012 and 2013 showed a mortality rate of one fringe-toed lizard killed per day in the project construction area. According to a memo by HELIX Environmental Planning Inc., monitoring commenced in October 2012 at a rate of 6 days per week and ended in November 2012 when fringe-toed lizards were no longer active. Monitoring re-commenced in April 2013 at a rate of 5 days per week and ended in June 2013 when construction was
completed in this portion of the project. HELIX relocated a total of 304 MFTL (40 in fall 2012 and 264 in spring/summer 2013) and recorded 90 MFTL mortalities (9 in fall 2012 and 81 in spring/summer 2013) during the two seasons of monitoring. In fall 2012, a total of 29 days of monitoring were conducted, which resulted in an average of 1.4 MFTL relocated/day and 0.3 MFTL mortalities/day. In spring 2013, a total of 61 days of monitoring were conducted, which resulted in an average of 4.3 MFTL relocated/day and 1.3 MFTL mortalities/day.

^ Details of a large map by HLEIX Environmental Planning, showing Mojave fringe-toed lizard surveys and mortality along the Devers-Palo Verde 2 500 kilovolt transmission line construction project.

Mortality of fringe-toed lizards is cumulatively building higher and higher in the Chuckwalla Valley due to this and other transmission line projects, associated substations, the Genesis solar project, Desert Sunlight and Desert Harvest solar projects, and the Palen solar project proposal.

A few desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) burrows, a few live individuals, a burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia), and tracks and sign of burro deer (Odocoileus hemionus eremicus, a desert-dwelling race of mule deer) were found during spring surveys of the proposed gen-tie line and natural gas pipeline that would serve the solar project. Kit fox burrow complexes were mapped.

California Energy Commission Releases the Latest Environmental Review Document

June 30, 2013 - The California Energy Commission released its Preliminary Staff Assessment on an agressive schedule to meet deadlines sought by BrightSource Energy for its design change since taking over this project from bankrupt Solar Millennium. The PSA reviews the project change from a solar thermal trough design to power towers. Updated surveys for natural resources present on the site are also included.

The California Energy Commission has generously given the public a whopping 30 days to comment on the 1,367 page Preliminary Staff Assessment reviewing the proposed BrightSource Energy Palen Solar Power Project, which would construct two solar power towers on about 5 square miles of federal land. The project will impact birds, rare desert sand dune habitat, desert tortoise, archeology sites and be visible from the wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park. The expedited schedule will help BrightSourc Energye meet financing deadlines at the expense of valuable public resources. If you would like to help us, write the California Energy Commission at and request that “the comment period for the Preliminary Staff Assessment be extended an additional 60 days to provide adequate time to review the 1,367 page document.”

This notice is to inform you that the California Energy Commission (Energy Commission) staff has prepared a Preliminary Staff Assessment (PSA). The PSA contains the Energy Commission staff's independent evaluation of the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System (PSEGS) amendment. The PSA is now available for public review and comment. Under its certified regulatory program, Energy Commission staff has completed an independent assessment of the PSEGS Petition to Amendment (09-AFC-7C). The Energy Commission staff's preliminary conclusions are summarized in this notice. The Energy Commission encourages public participation in the review of the PSEGS Amendment (09-AFC-7C). The public comment period for this PSA begins now and will
continue for 30-days until 5:00pm on July 29, 2013.

See the CEC website under Compliance Documents:

Palen Solar Project Status Report

June 11, 2013 - Thanks to Chris Clarke at KCET ReWire for this summary of the latest meeting with the California Energy Commission on BrightSource Energy's Palen Solar Electric Generating System project >>here.

BrightSource, Abengoa Partner on Palen Project

March 20, 2013 - On July 11, 2012, the California Energy Commission approved a petition from Palen Solar I, LLC to transfer the ownership of the Palen Solar Project, from Palen Solar I, LLC to BrightSource Energy, Inc.

This week BrightSource announced it will be partnering with Abengoa (a Spanish company) to construct the 500-MW Palen Solar Electric Generating System.

The two solar thermal companies will work together to permit and finance the project, and Abengoa, as the engineering, procurement and construction contractor, will build it. BrightSource wants to have Palen in commercial operation by June of 2016 in order to qualify for federal solar tax credits that expire at the end of 2016. BrightSource acquired the project last year during the bankruptcy proceeding of former owner Solar Millennium.

The project will consist of two solar power towers with superheated steam to turn steam turbines, with a natural gas powered back-up. BrightSource has requested re-alignment of a natural gas pipeline lateral to the project.

Current project (March 2013):

^BrightSource solar power tower project, from PDF PowerPoint on CEC website >>here.


Former Solar Millennium parabolic trough project (early 2012):

^One of two proposed alternatives favored by Solar Millennium to get out of the sand transport corridor (orange-yellow-green bands). (From CEC Revised Staff Assessment)

Solar Trust of America Files for Chapter 11

April 2, 2012 - See story >>here.

Solar Millennium Considers Switching Project to PV

August 25, 2011 - Solar Millennium AG may change the design of its solar thermal plants planned for the US, Manager Magazin reported, citing an unidentified company spokeswoman. Erlangen, Germany-based Solar Millennium is considering switching plants in the Amargosa Valley near Las Vegas, and the Palen Solar Power Project in Riverside County, California to photovoltaic generation, the magazine said, citing the spokeswoman.

The company has already redesigned their Blythe Solar Power Project and Ridgecrest Solar Power Project from solar thermal parabolic trough to photovoltaic.

Final Environmental Review Statement Out

^Desert lily (Hesperocallis undulata) on the Palen project site.

May 15, 2011 - The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on May 13 released the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Palen Solar Power Plant project in Riverside County, California.

Palen Solar I, LLC (Palen), a wholly owned subsidiary of Solar Millennium, Inc., has requested a right-of-way authorization to construct and operate the proposed project on approximately 5,200 acres of public lands 10 miles east of Desert Center. The proposed project would construct a 500-megawatt concentrating solar energy generating facility, as well as a transmission line and associated facilities. The project would connect to the planned Red Bluff substation, which would connect the project to the Southern California Edison regional transmission grid.

The BLM's preferred alternative in the FEIS is a modified footprint alternative that includes an optional 240 acres of private land at the south end of the project. The preferred alternative would also include an amendment to the California Desert Conservation Plan. The FEIS analyzes three action alternatives, a no-action alternative and two no-project alternatives that would amend the CDCA Plan. If approved, construction would begin in late 2010.

The FEIS/Proposed CDCA Plan Amendment analyzes the site-specific impacts on air, soil, water, cultural and biological resources as well as land use, noise, visual resources and impacts on Joshua Tree National Park.

Publication of the FEIS and proposed plan amendment initiates a 30-day comment period on the FEIS and a 30-day protest period on the proposed plan amendment. Details on filing a protest can be found in the Federal Register Notice and in the FEIS, both of which are available on the project website,

For more information please refer to the project website, or contact Allison Shaffer, BLM project lead, (760) 833-7100 or Comments may be faxed to (760) 833-7199, or mailed to Allison Shaffer, Project Manager, Palm Springs South Coast Field Office, BLM, 1201 Bird Center Drive, Palm Springs, CA 92262.

Energy Commission Approves Project

^Project site.

December 15, 2010 - Today the California Energy Commission approved the 500-megawatt Palen Solar Power Project as well as the Rice Solar Energy Project, the smaller power tower at 150 MW. Center for Biological Diversity did a good job of opposing Palen, making a convincing case that CEC violated both the California Environmental Quality Act and their own Warren-Alquist Act, such as approving two project alternatives that Solar Millennium gets to choose from later. Also, parts of the Palen project are in two Wildlife Habitat Management Areas designated by Bureau of Land Management in their North Eastern Colorado Desert Plan, and part in a Desert Wildlife Management Area for tortoise habitat. BLM legally would need to approve a plan amendment to allow energy uses in these areas, and they do not even have a Final Environmental Impact Statement yet out for the project.

CEC summarily dismissed all these arguments.

We brought up the concerns that two prehistoric trails described by archaeologists cross and join on the project site, one from the Mule Mountains and one from the Palen Mountains, both going to the life-giving waters of Corn Springs across the valley to the south. Native people have long known of these trails and decry the destruction of these valuable cultural resources. BLM and CEC seem to ignore these features.

Also, groundwater pumping by the project would admittedly lower water tables, yet no analysis was done of the large Desert ironwood tree groves (Olneya tesota) in the region, and whether they would be impacted.

Plus the project would still directly impact much Mojave fringe-toed lizard (Uma scoparia) habitat. No assurance was given that private land-owners in Chuckwalla Valley who own sand habitats with the lizard would be willing to sell for mitigation lands.

Nevertheless, CEC attorneys tried to shoot down these arguments (in a manner that was not convincing), and the five Commissioners quickly voted to approve the project, adopting the Presiding Member's Proposed Decision.

One Commissioner brought up how Governor-elect Jerry Brown did indeed want a much more aggressive Distributed Generation goal of 12,000 MW (such as rooftop solar panels), but he still wants 8,000 MW of utility-scale solar, so "we have to approve this one," because Brown wants both. Also the usual overrides of biology, visual, and other resource concerns because of the urgency of climate change, the Great Recession that we are in, jobs needed, and "public convenience and necessity."

Energy Commission Recommends Approval

November 12, 2010 - Proposed Decision Recommends License for Palen Solar Power Project

SACRAMENTO - A California Energy Commission siting committee is recommending approval of the planned Palen Solar Power Project in Riverside County.

In its presiding member's proposed decision (PMPD) released today, the committee recommended either of two alternatives for the 500-megawatt facility that would eliminate impacts on biological resources. The project, even with mitigation measures, will contribute to direct environmental impacts to visual resources and to cumulative
environmental impacts in the areas of cultural resources, visual resources, and land use. However, the benefits of the project would outweigh, and justify a legal override of, those impacts. In addition, the committee determined that the project complies with all applicable laws, ordinances, regulations, and standards.

The PMPD is not a final decision on the project. The committee released the document for 30 days of public comment and will consider input before bringing the proposed decision to the full five-member Commission. The entire document can be found on the Commission's website at:

Palen Solar I, LLC, a subsidiary of Solar Millennium, LLC, is the applicant for the Palen Solar Power Project. The project would be located about 10 miles east of Desert Center and about halfway between the cities of Indio and Blythe in eastern Riverside County.

A right-of-way grant is being sought for approximately 5,200 acres of land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Originally, construction and operation of the 500-MW project would have taken up about 2,970 acres.

The two alternatives recommended in the PMPD reconfigured the project to significantly reduce impacts on the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, sand dune habitat, and sand transport corridor. One alternative disturbs 4,365 acres, while the other alternative would take up about 4,330 acres.

The project is a concentrating solar trough thermal electric generating facility with two adjacent and independent units of 250 megawatts each for a total capacity of 500 megawatts. The proposed project would use parabolic trough technology where parabolic mirrors are used to heat a transfer fluid which is then used to generate steam. Electricity is produced from the steam expanding through steam turbine generators.

The Palen Solar Power Project is among nine large solar thermal projects scheduled to go before the full Commission before the end of the year. More than 4,100 megawatts of solar power will be added if all nine projects are approved.

The seven plants that have already have been licensed are: 250-MW Abengoa Mojave Solar Project (Sept. 8); the 250-MW Beacon Solar Energy Project (Aug. 25); the 1,000-MW Blythe Solar Power Project (Sept. 15); 663.5-MW Calico Solar Project (Oct. 28); the 250-MW Genesis Solar Energy Project (Sept. 29); the 709-MW Imperial Valley Solar Project (Sept. 29); and the 370-MW Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project (Sept. 22).

The federal government and the State of California have established the need to increase the development and use of renewable energy in order to enhance the nation's energy independence, meet environmental goals, and create new economic growth opportunities.

More information on the proposed project is at:

Phreatophytes Not Ignored

September 27, 2010 - During a California Energy Commission workshop, Solar Millennium emphasized that it had pulled its project out of a large sand transport corridor along the northern part of the project area (see map above), where Mojave fringe-toed lizards (Uma scoparia) and many rare alkaline-sand-adapted rare plants dwell.

The California Energy Commission agreed that this would lessen the impact to the lizard to less than significant levels, although we still beleive impacts to the sand lizard will be huge. The area will be heavily disturbed, and predators such as Loggerhead shrikes will have more fenceline perches to nab the lizards. The project vivinity may become a sink for the local population.

But at the workshop, the Energy Commission botanist Carolyn Chaney Davis was most concerned about groundwater pumping to phreatophytes, arid-adapted trees with deep roots to access groundwater. Honey mesquite groves (Prosopis glandulosa) surround much of Palen Dry lake about a mile from the proposed project. Other deep-rooted desert trees in the area include Ironwood (Olneya tesota), blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida), and smoke tree (Psorothamnus spinosus).

A special plan community, the Alkali Sink Scrub, is even more endangered because the shrubs have shallower roots. This community is dominated by Iodine bush (Allenrolfea occidentalis) and Bush seepweed (Suaeda moquinii). These are wetland indicators of playa depressions with a shallow aquifer.

Scientists are not sure of the tolerance of these plants to chasing a lowering groundwater table down. Many phreatophytes have a dimorphic root system, with a shallower root area that can absorb brief rain runoff, and a deep root system to tap into groundwater during most of the year.

Hours were spent during the workshop in a debate between Solar Millennium and CEC, as Chaney Davis wanted a monitoring program to be carried out to see whether the Palen Solar Power Project's well's would impact the trees and alkali scrub nearby. Solar Millennium argued that the dry lake where the phreatophytes and alkali scrub grew was on a shallow perched water table in a playa clay layer, that was completely unconnected to the 150-foot deep groundwater on the alluvial fan under their project site, there fore they could not possibly draw down water in the plant communities of cenocern. Chaney Davis responded that the hydrology was speculative and she wanted monitoring as part of the project's certification. These valuable desert communities have been long ignored, and this time she wanted studies to see if the trees died over the next 30 years.

Solar Millennium said they did not want to be solely responsible for a few trees dying, as this could be due to the nearby agricultural wells. And putting in monitoring boreholes would only make financing the project more difficult, with added costs building up. CEC wanted to err on the side of caution, however. The issue was not resolved, and will be brought up again in further workshops.

^Honey mesquite at Palen Dry Lake.

^Alkali Sink Scrub at Palen Dry lake.

See Concern over spread of Sahara Mustard at the Blythe Solar Power Project >>here.

Cultural Issues Addressed in Video

July 29, 2010 - La Cuna de Aztlán (With Updated Comments By Chemehuevi Tribal Chairman, Charles Wood), video by Robert Lundahl.

June Site Visit Report


April Site Visit Report


Draft EIS Out

March 19, 2010 - From the Staff Assessment/Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Palen Project "1,735 acres of Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat would be eliminated". The California Energy Commission and Bureau of Land Management have estimated in its joint document that big solar will destroy 16 percent of all fringe-toed lizard habitat in the California Deserts. Members of Basin and Range Watch were on the site March 16, 2010, and we can confirm that this species is abundant there...well, not for much longer.

Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard (Uma scoparia)

The SA/DEIS states: "The PSPP would eliminate 1,735 acres of Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat in the northeastern portion of the Project Disturbance Area, an area of active wind-blown sand with relatively shallow sand deposits, as well as areas of deeper and more active
vegetated sand dunes. In addition to this direct and immediate loss of habitat, the
project would significantly affect downwind Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat (see Soil &
Water Appendix A). The northeastern portion of the Project interrupts the regional
wind-borne sand transport corridor that moves sand southeast and east along the
Chuckwalla Valley and toward the Colorado River (Soil & Water Appendix A, Solar
Millennium 2010a).

"Staff considers the direct, indirect, and cumulative direct effect of the Project to be
significant for the Chuckwalla Valley Mojave fringe-toed lizard population. The
cumulative impact of all the proposed projects would be to increase the already
fragmented distribution of the Mojave fringe-toed lizards, and to increase the risk of
extirpation of isolated populations within the Chuckwalla Valley. Staff's proposed
Condition of Certification BIO-20 recommends acquisition and protection of core
populations of Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat elsewhere in the Chuckwalla Valley.
Habitat acquisition would offset some of this habitat loss, although not to less than
significant levels, and cannot remedy the Project's interference with the sand transport
process. Staff considers impacts of the Project, as currently configured, to be significant
and unmitigable."

Fringe-toed lizards have been reduced or eliminated from small dune systems from off-road traffic and urban development in other areas, now this new threat faces these interesting lizards. (See also our story on Calico Solar 1 habitat >>Sand Lizards.)

Joint Staff Assessment/Environmental Impact Statement Released for Palen Solar Project in Riverside County

Released: March 18, 2010

The project is being jointly developed by Solar Millennium, LLC, and Chevron Energy Solutions.

The 484-megawatt facility, to be located near Palen Dry Lake in Riverside County. The project will utilize solar parabolic trough technology to generate electricity. With this technology, arrays of parabolic mirrors collect heat energy from the sun and refocus the radiation on a receiver tube located at the focal point of the parabola. A transfer fluid is heated (dangerous Therminol) to approximately 750 degrees Fahrenheit as it circulates through the receiver tubes, then piped through a series of heat exchangers where it releases stored heat to generate high-pressure steam. The steam is fed to a traditional steam turbine generator where electricity is produced. The 5,200 acre project site is located approximately 10 miles east of Desert Center, along Interstate 10, approximately halfway between the cities of Indio and Blythe in Riverside County.

For additional details on the Palen Solar Project SA/DEIS, click on:

Chevron Energy Solutions/Solar Millennium Palen Solar Power Plant

The Palen site is 10 miles east of Desert Center, California and a half mile north of Interstate 10. The proposed Palen Solar Power Project would consist of two parabolic trough solar thermal power plants, each of which would have a solar field comprised of rows of parabolic mirrors focusing solar energy on collector tubes. The tubes would carry heated oil to a boiler, which would then send steam to a turbine. The two phases would generate approximately 484 MW of electricity. The two power plants would share administrative buildings, parking areas, maintenance buildings, switch yards, bioremediation areas, wastewater treatment facilities, access and maintenance roads, and perimeter fencing. The project would also include a natural gas pipeline, communication lines, and a 230 kV transmission line. The total expected project footprint would be approximately 3,800 acres. During construction, the project would require approximately 1,100 acre-feet of water for dust control and soil compaction. During operation, the project would require approximately 300 acre-feet of water per year. CESSM proposes to use water from new wells. The Palen facility would be constructed in two phases.


^Old version of project.


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