Palen update — we and the birds will be able to see it

June 12th, 2013 | by K Kaufmann | Comments

If you put two 750-foot-tall solar towers in the middle of the desert — a little bit off Interstate 10, about 60 miles east of Indio — it’s likely they are going to be visible.

Keep in mind that the tallest building in Riverside County is the Morongo Casino in Cabazon, a mere stripling at 340 feet.

The solar towers in question belong to BrightSource Energy’s proposed Palen solar project, a 500-megawatt plant that would also put about 170,000 reflecting mirrors or heliostats, around the towers, all on public land in the Riverside East solar zone between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe — computer simulation from the BrightSource website below.

So if you want to know just how visible those towers will be, there’s a new map that was posted Wednesday on the project’s page on the California Energy Commission website. You can check it out here.

As might be expected, the towers will be widely visible along the I-10, especially for those heading east. But the map shows they would also be seen from a long corridor in wilderness areas of Joshua Tree National Park and from other federally protected wilderness areas — the Palen-McCoy Mountains to the north and the Chuckwallah Mountains to the south.

It will also be visible from a view point along the Bradshaw Trail, a 65-mile back-country trail that runs from Ripley, a farming community south of Blythe to the Salton Sea. The trail dates back to 1862, when it was part of the first road through Riverside County, built by William Bradshaw to link San Bernardino County with gold fields in Arizona.

Bradshaw Trail Map

The map is part of a flurry of documents that BrightSource has been submitting to the Energy Commission in recent days as it races toward a fall approval of the project, which the company has said it needs to ensure it can come online by June 2016 to meet the two utility contracts it has for Palen, at least one of which is with Pacific Gas & Electric.

BrightSource bought the project last year from its original developer, the bankrupt Solar Trust of America, which had originally envisioned the site with large solar troughs rather than solar towers and heliostats that BrightSource uses. The project had been approved by the state but was waiting for a final go-ahead from the Bureau of Land Management when Solar Trust went out of business; hence the need for repermitting.

Also online is a report on the results of a spring bird survey showing that the site has a health population of turkey vultures (1,201 sighted during the month-long survey), along with ravens (469 sightings), with most of the both species flying at heights below 200 meters. One meter is slightly over one yard.  Birds of special concern also seen on the site include Northern Harrier hawks (32 sightings); Swainson’s Hawk (114 sightings) and burrowing owls (10 sightings).

The height at which birds are seen is important here because environmental groups are concerned about bird deaths or injuries due to solar flux, the intense radiation coming off the mirrors.  

Commission staff is running about one month behind schedule at this point. The intial staff assessment — the commission’s term for environmental impact report — was originally due May 22, but is now targeted for June 28. The public will then have one month to comment, with the deadline set for July 29.

Whether the closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant announced June 7 will generate additional pressure or urgency to get the Palen repermitting completed quickly remains to be seen — as will how people react to the visual impacts of the towers. If history offers any examples, we can look to the windmills in San Gorgonio Pass, which were slammed as eyesores in the 1980s, when the first turbines were built, but are now considered iconic.

An article in CSP Today, a solar thermal industry website, suggests that projects with mulitple, possibly shorter towers are where the sector could be heading. CSP stands for concentrated solar power, industry speak for solar thermal. Multiple towers would allow projects to be built in phases, offer more stability for the grid – if one tower had to be take out of operation, another could back it up — and be more cost effective, some argue.

About 10 months ago, I visited BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah project — which has three solar towers — located in eastern San Bernardino County, right off Interstate 15 near the Nevada border. I remember my first glimpse of the towers, coming down the highway. I think my reaction was along the lines of — Holy cow. Those are big towers!

Yes, they change the landscape, but they add something as well. Big solar projects are impressive — the idea, let alone the reality, of power being captured from the sun and pumped out to thousands of homes — seems on one level to open up whole new worlds where fossil fuels and the greenhouse gases they produce are an ever-shrinking part of our energy mix.

The impacts on the environment — initial construction at Ivanpah had to be stopped when dozens more desert tortoises than expected were found at the site — can be harder to get one’s head around in the moment. Part of the reason is most people don’t fully understand the complexity and delicacy of desert ecosystems, the plants and animals that live here and their place in maintainng these vast wild spaces so many people love and fiercely protect.

I don’t have any answers but, like many people, will be waiting to see the Energy Commission’s report at the end of the month, and I’ll keep looking at the primary documents, from BrightSource, environmental groups and other stakeholders, piling up on the commission website.


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