Federal efforts to permit nearly a dozen large-scale solar-power projects in California by year's end moved a significant step forward last week as the Bureau of Land Management rolled out a detailed environmental review for one of the largest plants proposed to date -- a 750-megawatt concentrated solar facility in the Colorado Desert.
When completed, Stirling Energy System Inc.'s $2.2 billion Solar Two project is expected to include 30,000 solar dish systems across more than 6,100 acres of federal land -- making it the largest project to move this far through the federal permitting process.
At full capacity, Solar Two could generate enough electricity to power more than a quarter-million homes, according to a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) released last week by BLM and the California Energy Commission.
The proposed plant, in the Imperial Valley about 14 miles east of El Centro, is one of nine commercial-scale solar projects in California that the Interior Department has placed on a fast-track permitting schedule for 2010. Plants that break ground by the end of the year can qualify for lucrative stimulus grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The other two solar projects to reach the draft EIS stage are the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Station, a 400-megawatt solar power plant in the Mojave Desert near San Bernardino County, and the 45-megawatt Lucerne Valley Solar Project in San Bernardino County. BLM and CEC issued a draft EIS for BrightSource Energy Inc.'s Ivanpah project in November and Chevron Energy Solutions' Lucerne Valley project this month.
Together, the nine fast-tracked solar projects have a total generation capacity of 4,580 megawatts -- enough to power about 1.6 million homes, according to federal estimates.
A final EIS on Stirling's Solar Two project should be completed in the next few months, said David Briery, a BLM spokesman in Sacramento.
Stirling has secured a 20-year power purchase agreement with San Diego Gas & Electric, and the electricity produced at Solar Two will power homes and businesses in the San Diego metropolitan area about 100 miles to the west. A 10.3-mile-long electricity transmission line would be built to help bring the power to market, according to the EIS.
"We're expecting to have the permits in hand by late summer and to get this project into construction by the fall," said Sean Gallagher, vice president for market strategy and regulatory affairs for Tessera Solar North America, Stirling Energy's sister company involved in project planning. "It's a big project and it's a lot of work, and we've taken the approach of let's cooperate and make sure we address everyone's issues up front."
Some of those issues involve environmental impacts, including questions about water availability in the arid Imperial Valley and potential impacts to species like flat-tailed horned lizards, burrowing owls and peninsular bighorn sheep.
Environmental groups monitoring the Solar Two project and other fast-tracked proposals in California say Stirling appears to be addressing such issues in a proactive and thoughtful manner. For example, 1,039 acres of the proposed project site are already disturbed and being used as BLM-sanctioned off-roading trails.
"I think Stirling Solar Two is ... headed in the right direction," said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation group. "I'm optimistic about the project."
Still, efforts to build large-scale solar projects in the Southern California desert have met resistance from environmentalists worried that the federal push to expand renewable energy will damage or destroy pristine natural resources.
A prime example is the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Station in the Mojave Desert.
BLM's draft EIS for that project, released last November, concluded that with proper mitigation the Ivanpah plant would not cause significant harm to the 4,073 acres of undisturbed desert where it would be sited. But BLM also found that the project could destroy rare plants and permanently alter prized views from the nearby Mojave National Preserve, as well as potentially harm federally protected desert tortoises that would be relocated to make way for the project (Land Letter, Nov. 12, 2009).
Last week, BrightSource submitted a revised project plan that reduces the project size by 12 percent in an effort to trim the number of desert tortoises that must be relocated and to avoid an area of rare plants. The revision will also result in scaling back the amount of electricity capacity from 440 megawatts to 390 megawatts, according to the company (Greenwire, Feb. 12).
Environmental groups who have opposed BrightSource's plans to locate the plant in the Ivanpah Valley were cautiously optimistic about the revised plan.
"I think from our perspective, we're happy they are starting to work to address some of the issues we've been raising for more than year," said Delfino, the Defenders of Wildlife official. "But our feeling is there is more work to be done. The project is still proposed in a high-density area for tortoises."
Delfino said her group has pushed for BrightSource to move the proposed project closer to a nearby federal highway where there are fewer tortoises.
"No matter where you put this project, you're going to impact tortoises. It is inevitable," she said. "The question is are you going to impact lower-density or higher-density populations?"
Water is key
Meanwhile, Stirling Energy's Solar Two project must address some big environmental questions, too, including nagging questions about water supply.
BLM's analysis found that the project would require 10.4 million gallons of water annually to wash solar panels, provide dust control and support other plant operations.
But, the agency said, such a need could not be met by the region's existing surface or groundwater.
"Water studies showed that the aquifer is significantly overdrafted and that new well permits are not being granted," the draft EIS states.
There is, however, plenty of available wastewater, and Stirling has proposed a novel approach that could allow for the use of treated sewage water to meet its demand.
The treated wastewater would come from nearby Seeley, Calif., where Stirling would pay to upgrade the town's wastewater treatment plant so that the water meets state requirements for reuse. The company would also pay to train plant operators to use the new equipment and build an 11.8-mile underground water pipeline to the plant, according to the EIS.
In addition, the company is working to reduce its water demand "by developing alternative mirror washing methods and schedules," according to the EIS.
Another concern cited by BLM is that the project would occupy a site that "supports a diversity of mammals, birds, and reptiles, including some special status wildlife species, such as flat-tailed horned lizard (FTHL) and burrowing owl." The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing whether the lizard should be added to the federal Endangered Species List.
Rare desert bighorn sheep also occupied part of the project site as recently as last spring, but federal and state wildlife officials believe the sheep were "flushed" onto the property by off-road vehicles and do not normally use the area to forage or as a migration route.
Much of the 6,140 acres of BLM land, and another 300-acre parcel of privately owned land, would need to be graded to make way for the solar power systems.
BLM and the California Energy Commission, which are jointly handling the environmental assessment of the project, have proposed that Stirling purchase 6,619 acres "of habitat suitable for these listed species" to compensate for the loss of habitat at the project site. Including surveys and fees, the total cost for the mitigation would run $5.7 million, according to the EIS.
Gallagher, the Tessera Solar official, said BLM has identified several nearby inholdings -- private parcels within federally managed land -- that would be suitable to transfer lizards.
Lastly, the project would require two 2.5-million-gallon evaporation ponds to store wastewater, causing concern among regulators that the ponds will attract animals that prey on the flat-tailed horned lizard and other species. Stirling has proposed to build fences around the structures and overlay the ponds' surface areas with netting to prevent predators from accessing them.
"We made a conscientious effort to take a responsible approach to the siting of this project, and we've tried to work closely with the environmental groups to make sure that at least some of them can support this project," Gallagher said.
Click here to read the draft EIS.
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.