Coming to a Desert Near You: Big Solar Projects! Is This Really Necessary?

Welcome to the new Mojave Desert, a place where land containing 1000-year-old plants, desert tortoises and other animals is scraped clean to make room for giant solar mirrors and heliostat towers that can nearly blind it’s human residents with reflected sunlight.

If you think this can’t happen right here in our local High Desert, think again. And, concerns are being raised all over California questioning if this is all really necessary.

I drove the I-15 to Las Vegas a few weeks ago, and felt physically ill at the sight of the Ivanpah solar power project. When cresting the hill from California heading into Primm, Nevada, the light is almost blinding, and the magnitude of scale is shocking to behold.

Unfortunately, should Southern California Edison’s Coolwater-Lugo power transmission plant be approved, it could pave the way for projects similar to this being built in our own local desert areas.

That’s because SCE would justify the transmission plant’s existence as “necessary” to transmit power from the many proposed solar projects, and also the North Peak Wind Project. Utility companies such as PG&E in northern California and SCE in southern California have included as “certain” generation projects that do not yet have environmental permits or approved power purchase agreements (PPA).

Following a December 2012 staff workshop of the Joint California Energy Commission (CEC) and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on renewable resource portfolios for the California ISO (CAISO)Transmission Planning Process, the following comments were made by the City and County of San Francisco:

• Scenarios presented at the December 19 workshop, demonstrate that there is no need for additional expensive transmission capacity in the Kramer Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ) and the Imperial CREZ (such as the Coolwater-Lugo project—estimated to cost $542 million, and the West of Devers project—estimated to cost $650 million). No additional transmission capacity in the Kramer CREZ and the Imperial CREZ is shown to be needed in a cost-constrained scenario, the environmental scenario and the high distributed generation (DG) scenario. Where both minimizing costs and minimizing environmental impacts lead to the same result, there is little justification to choose a different path. Moreover, there is ample transmission capacity available to achieve the State’s 33% RPS goals without expensive new projects in the Kramer CREZ and the Imperial CREZ.

Four equally applicable points to the portfolios were presented:

1. Transmission costs in California are growing at an unprecedented rate.

2. Scenarios developed for the purposes of planning must present clear transparent cost information so that any benefits of a particular scenario can be weighed against their costs; moreover, it is essential to include a cost constrained scenario in any analysis.

3. Lax criteria for including projects in the commercial interest scenario have the effect of indicating a need for expensive transmission facilities that are not, in fact, needed.

4. The process for development of planning scenarios and Commission input into the CAISO transmission planning processes must be more transparent and provide adequate opportunity for input by stakeholders, particularly consumer advocates.

Thus, scenarios that minimize costs and minimize environmental impacts, both show no need for new transmission in the Kramer CREZ and Imperial CREZ. Given that minimizing costs and minimizing environmental impacts are both among the highest priority state goals, there is no justification to proceed with the two projects.

Nonetheless, Commission staff presented as the base case a “commercial interest” scenario that indicates a need for additional transmission in the Kramer CREZ and Imperial CREZ. The “commercial interest” scenario is highly suspect. It includes as certain, generation projects that do not yet have environmental permits or approved power purchase agreements (PPA). Such projects are in fact highly uncertain, and no adequate justification for liberalizing the criteria for including uncertain projects in the commercial interest scenario was provided. Moreover, the commercial interest scenario includes generation projects that likely should have been rejected as uneconomic, particularly if the costs of transmission were accurately considered.

For example, the asserted need for the Coolwater-Lugo project is primarily driven by the Abengoa Solar’s Mohave Solar project, a 250 MWs project. In approving the Mohave Solar power purchase agreement (PPA), the Commission recognized that considering the high cost of transmission associated with this project, its total cost would be prohibitively expensive.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System disburbed over 5.5 square miles of federal land in the northeastern Mojave Desert, and was formally opened February 13, 2014 after years of regulatory and legal disputes over a multitude of environmental concerns.

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) issued a report on the project, citing water concerns, damage to visual resources, and impacts on desert species.

Utilities owned by PG&E Corp. and Edison International agreed to buy electricity from the Ivanpah plant under 25-year contracts.

Utility-scale solar plants have come under fire for their costs–Ivanpah costs about four times as much as a conventional natural gas-fired plant but will produce far less electricity—and also for the amount of land they require.

Experts have estimated that electricity from giant solar projects will cost at least twice as much as electricity from conventional sources. But neither the utilities that have contracted to buy the power nor state regulators have disclosed what the price will be, only that it will be passed on to electricity customers.

BrightSource moved tortoises found on the property during construction, but environmentalists have raised concerns that relocated tortoises are more likely to die due to the stresses involved.
BrightSource has also installed fencing to try to keep wildlife out of the area. In 2010, the project was scaled back to 392-megawatts from the original 440-megawatt design, as supposedly to avoid building on the habitat of the desert tortoise.

During the trial of the plant in September 2013, 15 of the 34 dead birds found at the plant had heavily burned feathers, which were burned and charred in flight by the intense radiation from the heliostat mirrors. Possible bird kill mitigation strategies are being considered, and regulators are attempting to determine how many bird deaths would be considered “excessive” enough to order a temporary shutdown of the plant.

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