Palen meeting preview: Issues to watch include worker safety, fossils

July 16th, 2013 | by K Kaufmann | Comments

The California Energy Commission will hold a public hearing on BrightSource Energy’s 500-megawatt Palen project, which could put two 750-foot solar towers, surrounded by thousands of reflecting mirrors, 60 miles east of Indio, on a site just off Interstate 10. (Computer simulation image below from the BrightSource website.)

The hearing kicks off at 9 a.m. in Sacramento, but you can dial by calling 866-469-3239. The meeting number is 923 510 434, and the meeting password is palen*2013.

The announcement for the meeting said it will cover a range of issues, from hazardous materials and impacts to soil and water resources, as well as worker safety and geological and paleological resources.

I spent a some time digging into the commission’s preliminary staff assessment of the project — essentially, a draft environmental impact report — and found a couple issues that bear watching.

As noted in my previous blog post on the Palen report, commission staff raised worker safety and emergency response questions related to ”recent incidences at a solar tower power plant in California.” BrightSource officials said, the reference could not refer to its Ivanpah project in eastern San Bernardino County, which is scheduled to go online later this year.

The worker safety section of the report (see pages 4.14-21-4.14-24) does briefly mention Ivanpah, but it said, staff had found a total of 30 incidents requiring an emergency response — including fire, medical, rescue or hazardous material incidents — at solar plants operating in San Bernardino since 1998.  To find a major incident at a solar thermal plant in San Bernardino County, they had to go back to 1990, when a fire broke out at the 80-megawatt SEGS 8 facility near Harper Lake, a solar thermal plant using trough technology that was one of nine similar, relatively small plants built in the 1980s and still operating.

The 1990 fire required “a large part of regional resources from four different fire districts,” the report said. “The fire is the largest incident that has occurred at a solar thermal plant in California and demonstrates the magnitude of fire department resources that can be required to respond to a fire at a large thermal solar facility. The inability to quickly control this event had ramifications for the projects finances and reliability — it took almost two years to bring the SEGS 8 heaters back on-line and supplement the solar field generation — and resulted in a ‘draw-down’ of emergency response resources in the northern part of San Bernardino County.”

A draw-down, the report explains, is “when emergency response teams vacate an area to respond to an emergency, thus leaving that area without adequate fire and emergency response services.”

With two large-scale solar projects already under construction in the Riverside East solar zone — the 148,000 acres of federal land between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe where Palen would also be located — emergency response is an ongoing issue. The report uses the SEGS 8 fire as its current worst-case scenario, one that could be superceded by an incident at Palen’s proposed solar towers, which the report notes, are much more complex technology.

The Riverside County Fire Department has a single, four-man station in Desert Center on the western edge of the Riverside East zone, and other first-responders are farther away still — the Coachella Valley to the west and Blythe to the east.

The commission gives BrightSource two alternatives. The company could pay the department $1 million for facilities improvement plus $313,333 per year for the life of the project to cover services and cumulative impacts it could have on emergency response services.

The other, and more interesting possibility, is for BrightSource and other solar developers in the zone to form an industry group that would collectively negotiate with the fire department on payments for new facilities and services, which could then be shared proportionately by the companies.

“The association would be able to raise funds, negotiate payment for emergency response services with the RCFD, and audit county and district fire department portection/emergency response expenditures to ensure that funds go towards associated emergency response needs.”

Another concern raised in the report (see page 5.2-10) surrounds the likely existence of prehistoric fossils lying below ground surface at the project site. Soils under the site date back to the Quaternary age, which started 2.6 million years ago and covers the coming and going of various ice ages, according to information on the National Geographic website.

The Palen project was originally developed by now-bankrupt Solar Trust of America as a solar trough project, which would have required significant grading that, in turn, would have allowed monitoring of the soil for any fossils or other historic artifacts that might turn up. Such an incident occurred at NextEra Energy’s Genesis project in 2011 when tribal artifacts were unearthed requiring temporary suspension of construction on part of the project and additional test excavations.

The problem at Palen is that with its redesign as a solar tower plant, after BrightSource bought it from First Solar last year, the site will be mowed but not graded. Then the pylons for the 85,000 mirrors that will surround each tower — 170,000 in total — will be driven into the ground with “vibro-insertion methods” to a depth of about 12 feet.

“This method of construction does not utilize excavation and there is no retrieval of subsurface soils or any fossils contained within those soils,” the report says. “In effect, any fossils that are in the path of pylon insertion would be permanently destroyed with no recovery, discovery or scientific benefit.”

No subsurface studies have been conducted over the Palen site, according to a June 17  document recording conversations between commission staffer Casey Weaver and staff at the Bureau of Land Management. The document also notes that a long bone from a saber-tooth cat had recently been found on the site of the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight project, under construction a few miles north of Desert Center.

The general consensus was of the commission and BLM staffers was that BrightSource would have to do a subsurface evaluation of the site, which will include hiring a paleontologist familiar with the area and digging several test pits at different locations on the site.

“We also agreed that the number of pits should be statistically significant (capable of adequately characterizing the solar field) but cost effective (i.e. not an excessively vigorous academic study).”

I expect spirited debate on this and other issues on Wednesday.





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