The Palen preliminary environmental report — first impressions

June 28th, 2013 | by K Kaufmann | Comments

California Energy Commission staff were under orders to have their preliminary staff assessment for BrightSource Energy’s Palen project ready to roll on June 28, and they appear to have gotten it in just under the wire. I received an email at 3:29 p.m. on the 28th, announcing the 1,367-page report had been posted on the commission’s website.

The PSA, in commission-speak, is essentially the draft environmental impact report for the 500-megawatt solar thermal project which would put two 750-foot-tall solar towers surrounded by 170,000 reflecting mirrors or heliostats on about 3,800 acres of public land, located a quarter of mile off Interstate 10, about 60 miles east of Indio and just 10 miles east of the tiny town of Desert Center. (Computer simulation below from the BrightSource website.)

A quick recap — BrightSource bought Palen from bankrupt Solar Trust of America last year. The project had, at that time, already been approved by the Energy Commission but was waiting for a final go-ahead from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The origial project had been planned as solar thermal using parabolic troughs, and the change to solar towers required a repermitting. BrightSource is pushing hard to have the repermitting completed this fall, hence the June 28 deadline, which is already a month late from the original deadline for the report, which was in May.

Given the timing, Friday afternoon, I have not had the time to dig into the whole report, but did do a quick read of the Executive Summary, which is a relatively manageable 33 pages.

A few things jump out.

First, the report is not complete. Table 5 on page 1-5 notes additional information is needed to determine impacts and their possible mitigation for several key sections of the report, including air quality and greenhouse gases, biological resources, cultural resources, traffic and transportation and geology and paleontology.

Based on the information available, the most unsettled of the topics above could be cultural resources, which refers to prehistoric and historic sites, particularly sites of cultural importance to Native American tribes.  Additional information is coming in, but staff’s initial findings are that the site contains 49 sites eligible for inclusion in either the national or California registry of historical places.

 ”Staff concludes that the (Palen) construction impacts, when combined with impacts from past, present, and reasonably foreseeable projects, would be cumulatively considerable for cultural resources at both the local I-10 Corridor and regional levels. This analysis estimates that more than 800 sites within the I-10 Corridor, and 17,000 sites within the Southern California Desert Region, would potentially be destroyed. Mitigation can reduce the impact of this destruction, but not to a less-than-significant level.”

The destruction here, I think, refers to the cumulative impacts, not Palen per se.  For the project in and of itself, the report says commission staff has proposed minor changes to the permitting conditions for cultural resources, recommends striking one that was the result of “disjointed” environmental analysis schedules and developed a new one. Obviously, this will take some additional reading.

The project could also put a dent in desert tortoise habitat, resulting in the loss of 3,974 acres of habitat, some of it classified as critical. BrightSource will have to mitigate the loss by buying land of comparable habitat. The mitigation ratio for critical habitat would be 5 acres to 1 acre; for land outside the critical zone, the ration is 1 to 1.  The total amount of land BrightSource will have to buy for tortoise habitat mitigation will be 4,683 acres.

The elephant in the room, so to speak, are the two 750-foot-tall solar towers, which the report says, will have significant visual impacts that cannot be mitigated. This is not however a deal breaker. The report says staff will propose modifications to the conditions of certification to minimize visual impacts to “the greatest feasible extent.”  Again, more digging in the report will be needed to find out exactly what this means.

Another point that will need looking into is a statement in a section on worker safety and fire protection on page 1-18.

“Recent incidences at a solar tower power plant in California have raised concerns about operating procedures within the tower, worker conditions, and emergency response to incidents in the solar power tower. Staff needs further information and clarification regarding how the project owner proposes to operate the two proposed (Palen) towers to properly assess worker safety and fire protection at the (project).”

To the best of my knowledge there is only one other solar tower project actually under construction in California, as per a list on the Energy Commission website, and that is the BrightSource Ivanpah project in east San Bernardino County.  I emailed BrightSource late Friday afternoon to get a comment on this and got a call back at 9 p.m. from Joseph Desmond, the company’s vice president for governmental affairs,  who said the solar tower referred to in the report is not Ivanpah.

“We simply don’t know what project it’s referring to,” he said.

Looks like I won’t be the only one calling the Energy Commission on Monday to clarify the situation.

The other important point to note is that the release of the report on June 28 starts a 30-day public comment period, which ends on July 29. Full information on how to submit comments can be found again on the commission website here. The link is to a 12-page document; you’ll want to look on the seventh page.

I’d be interested in hearing from folks on what you think of the report, what jumps out at you, what needs more digging into. My email is k.kaufmann@thedesertsun; my twitter feed is @kkaufmann.

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