Federal regulators are nearing final approval of what would be the largest solar power plant in the world, a milestone that sets a new standard for the industry and marks a major advancement in the Obama administration's efforts to expand renewable energy production nationwide.
The Bureau of Land Management has issued a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Blythe Solar Power Project in southeast California. When fully operational, the solar thermal power plant would have the capacity to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power roughly 800,000 homes.
The final EIS, which is considered the last federal regulatory hurdle before a record of decision authorizing construction, is open for public comment through Sept. 18. The California Energy Commission, which must also render a decision on the Blythe plant, formally recommended this month that the project be approved.
"We're already beginning work on the record of decision, on compliance monitoring plans, on getting all the paperwork together for the rentals and reclamation, and our hope is to package it all together for one big signing" as early as October, said Holly Roberts, associate field manager for BLM's Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office in Palm Springs, Calif.
Solar Millennium LLC, the Oakland, Calif.-based project developer, said it will take at least six years to complete all four phases of the $6 billion project, which will be located on 7,025 acres of BLM land in Riverside County, about eight miles west of the city of Blythe.
When completed, the Blythe plant would nearly double the current 585 megawatts of installed commercial-scale solar generation nationwide and would have a capacity to generate nearly three times the electricity produced at the country's largest solar facility -- the nine-unit, 354-megawatt Solar Energy Generating Systems plant in Kramer Junction, Calif., according to statistics provided by the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Uwe T. Schmidt, Solar Millennium's executive chairman, called the project "a bold statement" about solar power's potential and his company's ambitions to lead the industry.
"A 1,000-megawatt plant is a grand undertaking," Schmidt said. "But the benefits are so positive. The Blythe facility will take some 2 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year. We will be doing our part [in] improving the overall environment of our planet."
A bright future
The Blythe project is also a significant step for federal efforts to expand renewable energy from sources like wind, solar and geothermal power, with the Southern California desert poised to become the solar capital of the world.
"This project will be the signature project for the industry," said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "It gives the industry a level of credibility that we haven't had to date simply because solar has been small scale. But if projects like this can move forward, it will show the country we do not need to be dependent on toxic energy sources any more, and we can rely on solar to provide a large portion of the country's energy."
Indeed, that vision has already taken hold on the federal level.
Since Aug. 1, BLM has issued final EISs for five commercial-scale solar power plants that, once built, will cover nearly 26,000 acres of BLM land in the Southern California desert and produce enough electricity to power roughly 2.4 million homes.
The Blythe plant is the fifth of nine proposed solar projects in California that BLM has placed on a "fast-track" permitting schedule with hopes of getting the projects under construction by the end of the year. Projects underway by year's end can qualify for lucrative federal grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
A final EIS for a sixth solar plant -- the 250-megawatt Genesis Solar Energy Project -- is expected to be released for public comment on Friday, said Roberts, the BLM associate field manager.
The Genesis plant, proposed by NextEra Energy Resources LLC, would sit on 1,800 acres of BLM land in Riverside County, about 25 miles west of Blythe.
All together, the nine solar plants would cover 41,229 acres of BLM land and have the capacity to generate 4,580 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power 3.8 million businesses and homes, according to federal estimates (Land Letter, Aug. 12).
"I think Blythe and the others will help the U.S. reclaim our position as the world's leader in installed industrial-scale solar," Resch said. "It makes a very clear statement that the U.S. will be the center of all solar development going forward."
For a project of its size, the Blythe proposal has drawn relatively little environmental controversy.
The project site is dominated by Sonoran creosote bush scrub, and only a handful of endangered Mojave desert tortoises have been spotted. Still, construction and operation of the plant could result in "individual tortoises being crushed or entombed in their burrows," according to the final EIS, and some tortoises will need to be relocated.
Roughly 7,000 acres of Sonoran scrub that is used for foraging by golden eagles and other species would be graded to make room for the solar equipment, according to the final EIS. Regulators say such habitat is notoriously difficult to restore and could take as long as 3,000 years to completely recover from a project of Blythe's size (Land Letter, March 18).
Solar Millennium will have to purchase a 7,000-acre desert tract as mitigation for the lost wildlife habitat, either turning the land over to BLM or paying for the long-term management of the site, Roberts said.
In addition, some environmentalists are concerned about the project's impacts on ephemeral desert washes through which water from nearby mountain ranges flows across the site to the Colorado River. The Palo Verde Mesa Basin where the plant would be built is considered a tributary to the Colorado River, which is one of the most regulated waterways in the West and a vital freshwater source for millions of people.
The company plans to build five "engineered channels" that are designed to reroute this water to flow around the project site.
"We want to make sure they engineer these correctly so that the downstream impacts are minimized," said Ileene Anderson, a staff biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity in Los Angeles.
But she added: "Considering the project is adjacent to existing development, in this case agriculture, that site has not given us as much heartburn as some of the others. I can't say we're supportive of the project, but in the hierarchy of projects that impact rare species, it doesn't have as many impacts."
Click here to read the final EIS.
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.