$1B Palen Solar Project Gains Fed Approval for 500 MW PV, Side-Steps California Energy Commission

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The decade-old 500 MW Palen Solar Project has finally won decisive federal approval to go ahead as an estimated $1 billion photovoltaic project in the California desert after years of controversy and varied ownership. The November 1 approval by the US Bureau of Land Management also side-steps years of regulatory consideration of the project by the California Energy Commission, when the plant was still being proposed as a solar thermal project. 

Palen project area (BLM photo)

No CEC approval is now needed for the project, says Amber Beck, an agency spokesperson. BLM notes that its decision to approve the project constitutes an amendment of the California Desert Conservation Area Land Use Plan.

The Palen project is planned for Desert Center, in Riverside County, within a BLM Solar Energy Zone and Development Focus Area specifically marked for utility-scale renewable energy development, according to San Diego-based EDF Renewable Energy, the new project owner. BLM has approved the project use of up to 3,140 acres of BLM-administered lands. Construction of the project now is expected to take approximately 30 months. EDF has built over 200 projects generating 7.7 gigawatts of renewable energy.

BLM and Riverside County published a joint Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report assessing the environmental impacts of the project in October 2017.

Because the plant will operate as a PV solar facility, the project’s environmental footprint is smaller than the solar trough-plus-power tower design that was previously proposed for the project site. 

The switch in technology also should lessen environmental opposition to the project, since the twin 750-foot tower design was a key focus of groups like the Sierra Club. The PV design will use 20% less land and use 86 to 95% less water than the previously proposed trough project, EDF’s project description indicates.

EDF also received authorization from the BLM to construct a seven-mile single circuit 230-kilovolt generation interconnection transmission line that will deliver power through the Southern California Edison Red Bluff Substation.

BLM reports that “The Palen Solar Project advances the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s priorities of sustainably developing America’s energy resources and ensuring energy dominance, while also modernizing infrastructure and creating jobs in local economies.” 

BLM also notes that “the project is expected to provide enough energy to power about 130,000 homes and employ more than 1,000 individuals during the project’s peak — with a construction-related, on-site workforce of more than 550 individuals. The Palen Solar Project will result in a private infrastructure investment of $1 billion, with $67.3 million in annual indirect economic benefit during construction.”

Economic & Planning Systems, an engineering firm hired by EDF to analyze the economic impact of the project reported in October 2017 that, “In total, the Project’s multiplier effects in the County’s economy are expected to result in a total of $318.4 million of economic output, supporting 1,200 job-years and $125.9 million of employee compensation (including benefits) over the construction and operations periods.”

The Palen project was initiated a decade ago by Chevron Energy Solutions subsidiary Solar Millennium, as a solar parabolic trough technology project. Brightsource Energy later proposed to replace the original parabolic trough proposal with a new solar tower proposal consisting of two power towers and associated heliostat arrays. BrightSource subsequently sold its share of the project to Abengoa Solar, which in turn sold its rights to the project to EDF.

BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land located primarily in 12 Western states, including Alaska, the agency indicates. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation. The agency’s mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. Diverse activities authorized on these lands generated $96 billion in sales of goods and services throughout the American economy in fiscal year 2017. These activities supported more than 468,000 jobs, the agency notes.

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Charles W. Thurston

Charles specializes in renewable energy, from finance to technological processes. Among key areas of focus are bifacial panels and solar tracking. He has been active in the industry for over 25 years, living and working in locations ranging from Brazil to Papua New Guinea.

Charles W. Thurston has 78 posts and counting. See all posts by Charles W. Thurston