The battle over who can say yes to solar farms

In an unusual request unpopular with many, solar company Solar Trust of America just might get its wish to get a solar project permitted through a state commission instead of the usual route through cities or counties. The move is important to watch, because it could pave the way for other developers to do the same, and in the process, expand the state’s role in shaping solar energy development.

An advisor assigned by the California Energy Commission to consider Solar Trust’s request issued a proposed decision late Monday that sides with Solar Trust of America, which contends that a provision of a state law gives developers the option to seek final approval of photovoltaic power plants from the commission even though the commission traditionally doesn’t oversee projects that use solar panels.

The company petitioned the commission back in June of this year, a request that drew strong opposition from the commission’s staff, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and several counties such as San Luis Obispo, Imperial and Riverside. Critics say Solar Trust shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose which government agency it could get the permit from with the least hassles.

Local governments also looked dimly on Solar Trust’s request because they traditionally have the final say on licensing photovoltaic power plants, unless the project is located on public land. San Luis Obispo County, for example, is home to two large solar projects: a 550 MW project being developed by First Solar (s FLSR) and a 250 MW project under construction that will use SunPower’s  (s SPWR) solar panels.

Solar state law

State law clearly says the state commission is in charge of licensing thermal power plants that are 50 MW or larger. What is less clear is whether there is an opt-in clause that allows developers of solar farms using solar panels to seek permits from the commission as well. Typically, the use of solar panels would send a project to the local agency that oversees any construction plans in its territory. The exception is when the project is on public land, and in that case the state or federal agency in charge of managing the land would be the permitting authority.

Solar Trust is seeking regulatory approval for Ridgecrest Solar Power Project. The company originally planned to use a concentrating solar thermal technology for the 250 MW power plant, and that would’ve entailed the use of mirrors to concentrate and direct the sunlight to produce steam, which is then used to drive a turbine and generator to produce electricity. The original project underwent the scrutiny of the commission and the Bureau of Land Management, which got involved because the project would use federal land.

It became clear that the commission was unlikely to approve the original Ridgecrest project mainly because of its impact on the Mojave ground squirrel. Solar Trust abandoned the project in January 2011, but then decided it would be willing to reduce the size of the project and use solar panels, which it said would reduce the need for land grading and water. The company then elected to continue the permitting process at the commission. The request is unusual, because without the commission’s involvement, Solar Trust would deal only with the BLM and maybe Kern County if the project spills over non-federal land. Solar Trust hasn’t filed an application for the new project, so the project’s scope is not publicly known.

But sticking with the commission could conceivably help Solar Trust secure the necessary permit to move ahead with Ridgecrest more quickly since it has been working through the state process for a few years now. Staying with the commission also could benefit its other proposed projects. The company is developing two other solar farms in California that received commission’s approval last year. Totaling 1,500 MW, these two projects were also meant to be solar thermal power plants at the start. Solar Trust’s parent company, Solar Millennium, is selling these projects to Solarhybrid, which plans to use solar panels instead.

The commission is scheduled to consider the proposed decision on Solar Trust’s request on Dec. 14. If it goes along with the proposed decision, the it could end up getting similar permit applications from other developers, particularly those who have talked about switching from solar thermal to solar panels. The commission approved nine solar thermal power plants in 2010, and the developers for five of them, including Solar Trust, are looking at using solar panels for part or all of the projects. The rapid fall of prices for solar panels this year has made them more appealing to developers.

On the other hand, the commission might not see a big increase in its caseload just because it approves Solar Trust’s request. The proposed decision makes it clear developers have a choice to seek approval from the commission, but they also could just stick with local governments, which could very well provide a shorter and more expedient regulatory process.

Photo courtesy of First Solar