California Energy Commission: Solar Facility Raises Environmental Concerns

Published October 31, 2013

A proposed $1.13 billion solar-energy project in the desert 225 miles east of Los Angeles will likely create significant environmental harm, the California Energy Commission reported. The Commission released its findings in mid-October in the second part of a two-part environmental assessment of the proposal.

Second Attempt at Project
At stake is the future of the proposed 485-megawatt project to be built on 4,070 acres of federal land located approximately eight miles west of Blythe, California. The project is in its second iteration. In September 2010, the Commission approved the 1,000 megawatt Blythe solar project, which was to use solar thermal parabolic trough technology. But in 2011, the original developer, Solar Millennium, went bankrupt and, in June 2012, filed an amendment with the Commission to change the technology for the project to solar photovoltaic.

The new owner, Florida-based NextEra, downsized the project and retained the solar photovoltaic technology. With the original plan having been scrapped, the Commission delivered its environmental assessment of the revised proposal. The first part of the assessment, released in late September, found the project’s direct environmental impacts on air, water, and public health “would be less than significant” with the implementation of recommended mitigation measures.

Significant Cumulative Impacts
The newly released second part of the assessment, however, is more troubling. The analysis determined the project would have “significant cumulative environmental impacts in the areas of biological resources, cultural resources, land use, and visual resources even with implementation of staff’s recommended mitigation measures. The project would have direct impact in the area of cultural resources. Unmitigated impacts would require the Commission to adopt override findings if the project is approved.”

The Commission’s report is not the final word on the state’s decision on whether to approve the project. The state may still authorize the project, though it may portend stricter environmental standards for this and other renewable energy projects. The federal Bureau of Land Management must also sign off on it.

No Impact-Free Energy Energy
“The bloom of infatuation with anything renewable by the California Energy Commission appears to finally be fading,” said Tom Tanton, director of science and technology assessment at the Energy & Environment Legal Institute. “It’s nice to see renewable energy projects receiving a small dose of the environmental scrutiny imposed on conventional energy facilities. We should applaud fairness and equal scrutiny.”

Tanton noted there is no such thing as energy production devoid of environmental impacts. All types of energy production should be judged on a level playing field, Tanton emphasized.
“There are, of course, disparate economic and reliability impacts that someday need to be evaluated,” Tanton explained. “Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend that will eventually extend to wind energy as well.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]), is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.