Palen Project – Courtesy BrightSource Energy

California Energy Commission On Palen’s Negative Impact

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PM1The California Energy Commission’s environmental analysis of the Palen CSP project is only the most recent of many set-backs for a company that many think of as the flagship of Obama’s Industrial solar fleet. According to the executive summary, the negative impacts on “Cultural resources,” “land use,” and visual resources all need to be mitigated.

One of the report’s more disturbing concerns pertains to the increased potential for accidents caused by solar glare. Here are some quotes:

  • “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data estimate solar glare causes nearly 200 fatalities and thousands of motor vehicle accidents each year (NHTSA 2008).”
  • Though the quote above does not specifically refer to solar projects: “According to Clifford Ho, a leading researcher and spokesman on this subject, ‘solar glare caused by reflections from solar energy installations can occur at varying times in unexpected locations….. [Both glint and glare] can result from reflections of light on solar energy components such as PV modules, concentrating solar collectors/mirrors and receivers”
  • “The reflection from a mirrored surface such as a heliostat is a direct image of the sun and can thus produce light intensities similar to those associated with looking directly into the sun. If the reflected energy from a heliostat were to shine directly at oncoming traffic along the line of sight it could produce impairment similar to that caused by driving directly into the sun at sunset. The proposed PSEGS project is located in very close proximity to I-10. The maximum speed limit on I-10 is 70 miles per hour. Thus, the available reaction time is very limited when a collision hazard is present. Therefore, any significant visual impairment associated with glint or glare from the proposed PSEGS project on I-10 would pose a serious risk to public safety.”

The biological report is not good either:

  • “In order to build the facility, the plants, animals and soil of the native desert acreage are damaged and destroyed, which releases CO2. Presently, there is still dispute among scientists as to how to accurately measure the benefits and the loss (Campbell et al. 2009).”
  • “The Palen Project “would permanently diminish the extent and value of native plant and animal communities in the region. Staff has therefore concluded that the PSEGS project would not provide any noteworthy public benefits related to biological resources…”
  • The Commission’s staff could not “quantify the potential risk” of bird injuries, or fatalities, as a result of “exposure to solar flux, such as burning or blinding.”
  • “Populations of many of the desert’s sensitive plants and animals were considered relatively stable until recently, as the push for renewable energy development has placed many populations at risk. Renewable energy projects are part of the solution to climate change, one of the biggest environmental challenges of our time; however, renewable energy development has its own ecological consequences and portions of “the Sonoran and Mojave deserts of California bear the brunt of these effects. Energy providers have submitted project applications that would collectively cover more than one million acres of the region (BLM 2010)”

The Palen project’s visual impact “could not be mitigated to less than significant levels” and “the project’s contribution to significant cumulative visual effects would be cumulatively considerable when combined with the effects of other renewable and development projects along the I-10 corridor, within the Chuckwalla Valley, and within the California Desert Conservation Area as a whole.” The Joshua Tree National Park and Morongo Basin communities would suffer because of it.

The cultural impact assessment will be released this week. Though we can only guess as to the contents, the Commission has indicated there are issues and the Palen project is one of six industrial scale solar projects that the La Cuna de Aztlan has opposed because of the effect on Native American sacred sites. The last of the lawsuits arising from that conflict – against the Genesis solar project – will go to court in a little over a week from now.

BrightSource Energy has been in the center of this conflict since the beginning. Most of their projects have failed. As a consequence, the company has not received that 30% upfront cash grant – which some critics have referred to as a form of corporate welfare – and if Palen does not go forward, BrightSource will be batting 1 (possible win) – 4 (losses).

The exception is Ivanpah, which was 96.9% complete as of it’s last compliance report.

One has to wonder what the cumulative effect of all these failures has on the company’s bottom line.

The company’s SEC filings are disappointing. These start in 2009 and the first application for registration was made in April 2011, but there are no Quarterly or Annual reports. More than two years have passed and, as Bloomberg points out, “BrightSource Energy Inc (BRSE:US) is pending listing.”

In a recent MarketBrief, from July 24, BrightSource was still raising money, having received “ … $15M of a $35M private offering” and also that “Brightsource Energy Inc did not disclose revenue figures according to the SEC Filing detailing the transaction.”

Is there any significance behind BrightSource’s decision to seek a partner – the Spanish company Abengoa – for the Palen project?

What effect would BrightSource’s collapse have on the US government’s crusade to put industrial scale projects in the desert?

Are industrial scale solar projects really the best solution to address the challenges arising from Climate Change?

(Photo at top of page: the proposed Palen Project – Courtesy BrightSource Energy)

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