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Hurdles for Solar Thermal Plants in Cali: Cute Animals, Red Tape

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When it comes to building solar thermal plants — massive projects that use mirrors and lenses to harness the sun’s heat for power — in California’s deserts, some of the more offbeat hurdles can be the biggest stumbling blocks. Take the cute animal catch: Todd Woody reports that solar thermal startup BrightSource has proposed to scale back its first plant — the first new solar thermal project in California in two decades — by 12 percent (and 23 percent in certain portions) to reduce the number of desert tortoises that would be affected.

The change would reduce the plant’s generation capacity to 392 MW from 440 MW, says Woody. The environmentalists quoted in the article aren’t satisfied (not a big enough change), but BrightSource says it can’t reduce the project any more and still get it financed.

Back in 2008 the CEO of Ausra, Robert Fishman, told me that the company had also encountered issues with endangered species, specifically the desert lizard, while looking for appropriate locations for construction. Fishman thought the solution to protecting endangered species and getting plants built would be to buy an equal-sized piece of land as the plant and keep it as a nature reserve.

I’m not sure if BrightSource is considering that approach, or if it would help to alleviate any disturbance for the 25 desert tortoises that inhabit the region where BrightSource aims to build its plant. While I fully support making sure clean power plants are environmentally sound and sustainable, high-profile cases like this often end up turning a spotlight on some of the more extreme environmentalists and give fodder to statements like those from venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who says the arguments from idealistic environmentalists can be sheer nonsense and damaging.

The other offbeat hurdle holding back BrightSource’s first plant is the boring stuff: permitting and siting of the plants and the transmission lines. Last year at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas BrightSource CEO John Woolard called upon policy leaders to roll up their sleeves and help speed the administrative processing along.

At an event on Thursday night, where the advisers to the California gubernatorial candidates shared their viewpoints on greentech and energy policy, panelists and audience members discussed ways that the candidates could help speed up the slow and lengthy permitting process for solar thermal plants in California. Previous widely reported comments from Woolard about how BrightSource is two years into what was supposed to be a 6-month process were echoed throughout the room as proof that the permitting system is flawed and needs to change.

For BrightSource both the cute animals and the red tape hurdles are major. To qualify for a loan guarantee with the DOE, reports Woody, BrightSource has to start construction before the end of the year.

6 Responses to “Hurdles for Solar Thermal Plants in Cali: Cute Animals, Red Tape”

    • No. The system has been rigged over the years to enable these interest groups to block fossil plants. The problem is that same system now incentivizes the same groups to block renewable plants. Unless you carve out some exception for renewable plants – which I don’t see happening – the same thing is going to continue to happen. These groups are so focused on their narrow slice of the pie, that they’re unwilling to sacrifice their interests for the greater good.

      Additionally, there’s no way to get it done through the legislative process. Republicans, who would normally be anti-regulation, will sit on their hands because it’s “green” energy. Democrats are too beholden to those traditional interest groups to block them legislatively.

      Large, determined foreign companies (think Abengoa or Siemens) will fight their way through the red tape and get some plants built eventually. All of these small US startups are going to wash out of the process unless they can sell their technology to a big player.

  1. Juliette Anthony

    No solar thermal plant that uses water for cooling and is planned for the Southern California desert stands a good chance of getting permitted in the current environment. At last week’s Photon International Conference in San Francisco, many solar developers were turning instead to smaller PV systems located on degraded land in order to avoid the CEQA process, the environmental obstacles, and the long permitting process, which eats up profits. Some large solar thermal plants are considering dry cooling, but that does not eliminate the endangered species habitat impacts. Solar PV is adaptable in size, typed of installation, and this year in particular because of the collapse of the Spanish market, falls into the lowest cost yet for panels. The ease of deployment has become a big issue in the solar world. My bets are on the flexibility of PV panel deployment in a contentious permitting environment.

  2. You want to hear something really crazy? San Bernardino county just filed to participate in the permitting process for Ivanpah, claiming that the offsets Brightsource would be purchasing to preserve habitat would curtail the amount of land that would otherwise be available for recreation or development that could have contributed to the tax base. I don’t know how anybody ever expects to get a plant built in this environment.