August 25, 2011 - At a California Energy Commission business meeting yesterday morning, the full Commission decided to hear the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project waiver request soon, and hear more arguments from intervenors and other parties on whether CEC should keep the case even though it has been redesigned from solar thermal to photovoltaic. It will be precedential said one of the Commissioners. This is the first time an applicant has used an obscure provision in the Warren Alquist Act, which authorizes CEC to review and license thermal power plants, potentially allowing an applicant to voluntarily waive the exclusion.
A Kern County Planning Director argued that Kern County has all authority over PV projects, so CEC should reject this request. Kern County has over 1,000 megawatts of photovoltaic projects approved, and 3,000 more in the approval process.
Center for Biological Diversity made a comment that they oppose this project and the request should be rejected.
No hearing date was determined yet, but written briefs by all parties will be accepted by the Commission soon for review.
Solar Millennium told the Commissioners that they want a similar waiver for their giant Blythe Solar Power Project, which they are similarly redesigning from solar thermal to photovoltaic (at least the first 500 of 1,000 MW).
June 29, 2011 - During a California Energy Commission workshop on June 21, 2011, Scott Galati, attorney for Solar Trust of America LLC, subsidiary of Solar Millennium AG, clarified that the project redesign to photovoltaic would help make the project smaller, to be able to build only south of Brown Road, and thus allowing potential connectivity of Mojave ground squirrels with a smaller project footprint. California Department of Fish and Game said this was the main significant impact that was unmitigable, the connectivity issue between two core areas of the rare squirrel, that the original project would block.
But even this smaller project would still occupy a Mojave ground squirrel Conservation Area which is south of Brown Road, and Desert tortoises are still dense here. Questions were raised by Western Watersheds Project concerning the higher than expected numbers of tortoises found on the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project, causing problems and delays. A similar situation could occur at the Ridgecrest site.
WWP, Desert Tortoise Council, Center for Biological Diversity, and Basin and Range Watch asked CEC to dismiss the project. But CEC told everyone that this workshop was only to determine whether the project should be allowed to move forward and redesign, and whether a Mojave ground squirrel study should still be done.
Mr. Galati persisted that they are removing the connectivity issue by taking away the constriction north of Brown Road, and reducing the project size; so if connectivity is not blocked, they argued they should not be required to undertake a $1.5 million Mojave ground squirrel study.
On the question of whether the California Energy Commission can take on a non-thermal powerplant application, this has yet to be decided. The Warren-Alquist Act states that the CEC has jurisdiction over thermal powerplants over 50 MW, including solar thermal plants. But CEC could wave this by the request of Solar Millennium. It was pointed out by a CEC staff member that CEC can have adjudicatory proceedings that do not necessarily set a precedent. Thus CEC could take the case on, but would not always have to take other photovoltaic applications. Whether this would be challenged, however, remains to be seen.
June 17, 2011 - In a letter dated June 17, Solar Trust of America asks the California Energy Commission to keep its Ridgecrest Solar Power Project application active, as it explores a redesign to reduce impacts.
The letter states, that "the redesign is intended to reduce the overall project footprint by reducing the generation output and utilizing photovoltaic technology. Reduction of the footprint would include no development on the north side of Brown Road and no encroachment into the primary wash area. Such a redesign would avoid impacts to the Desert Tortoise habitat located north of Brown Road and would also avoid restriction of the connectivity corridor identified by Staff for the Mohave Ground Squirrel. Additional benefits of a smaller PV project would be reduction in grading, reduction in water requirements, smaller visual effects, and less lighting."
Solar Trust of America said it is also considering other sites within the Ridgecrest area and is working with the Bureau of Land Management to identify appropriate sites. Additionally, the company is participating in the Desert Renewable Energy
Conservation Planning Process as it pertains to the Ridgecrest area.
Solar Trust of America then goes on to argue that under the Warren Alquist Act (the law under which the California Energy Commission operates), it may still opt to "waive exclusion" from jurisdiction by the CEC. In other words, since the CEC normally only licenses thermal plants (such as solar thermal), and not photovoltaic plants (which have no steam turbine component for generating electricity), Solar Trust seeks to voluntarily go through the CEC siting process.
The Solar Trust of America letter interprets the law as, "The logical conclusion is that the Warren Alquist Act allows an applicant to voluntarily elect to file for a License at the Commission for a proposed facility that would otherwise be excluded from the exclusive siting jurisdiction of the Commission," including solar photovoltaic powerplants.
Why Solar Trust of America would seek this is not clear, but perhaps they believe the project has a better chance of approval under CEC than under another lead agency, even though CEC has indicated its opposition for siting a power plant at this site in the desert. The southern part of the project area still places the project in a Mojave ground squirrel Conservation Area, and tortoises are still in high density here.
March 24, 2011 - In s surprise letter to the California Energy Commission, Solar Millennium asked that its Ridgecrest Solar Power Project application be put on temporary hold, not withdrawn, until the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Planning Process be finalized. The outcome of the DRECP is crucial for determining whether a recommended Mojave ground squirrel conservation area and connectivity corridor is designated in the area of the project site.
Solar Millennium also requested that it not undertake an expensive and lengthy 2-year Mojave ground squirrel study, but instead wait for the outcome of the DRECP. The company requested a suspension of 18 months.
January 25, 2011 - In a surprise move, Solar Millennium sent a letter to the California Energy Commission asking to withdraw its application for the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project, "effective immediately."
Citing the cost of a proposed Mojave ground squirrel study and the likelihood of CEC staff continuing to recommend against approval of the project even with a positive study outcome, the company decided it would be economically unviable to continue.
Solar Millennium also brought up the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) being prepared, the draft recommending the project site be made into a conservation area for the ground squirrel, and the final version of this plan would probably come out before the decision on the project.
Many Ridgecrest residents were jubilant on the news, especially because of a dire concern of groundwater pumping that the project would have needed for construction and operation in this critically overdrawn basin.
December 2, 2010 - Story in the Ridgecrest Daily Independent.
November 9, 2010 - The Energy Commission put out a report update on their website stating that they were still concerned with the location of Ridgecrest Solar Power Project on Mojave ground squirrel (MGS) connectivity habitat, as well as desert tortoise habitat.
“Although the proposed MGS study will provide valuable information and data regarding the habitat and movement corridors of the MGS, staff continues to believe the site chosen by the applicant for the Ridgecrest project contains important biological resources that are deserving of protection,” the CEC report stated. “Staff remains concerned that approval of the project will lead to significant and immitigable impacts to not only the Mohave ground squirrel but also to the desert tortoise.”
August 27, 2010 - REVISED SCHEDULING ORDER AND ORDER GRANTING APPLICANT’S REQUEST TO CONDUCT A TWO-YEAR BIOLOGICAL STUDY:
By a letter dated June 30, 2010, applicant Solar Millennium LLC (Applicant) asked the Energy Commission and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to suspend their respective proceedings related to the Applicant’s proposed Ridgecrest Solar Power Project (RSPP). The Applicant specifically asked for a two-year suspension to further analyze connectivity of the Mojave Ground Squirrel (MGS) on, and in the vicinity of, the RSPP site.
On July 8, 2010, the Committee conducted a Mandatory Status Conference that included discussion of the Applicant’s June 30 request and its possible impact of a two- year suspension on Commission and BLM processes and resources. Thereafter, by a letter dated July 13, 2010, the Applicant amended the June 30 suspension request and instead asked the Energy Commission and BLM to allow the proceedings to continue with modified scheduling milestones to accommodate the two-year MGS study.
In a status report dated August 4, 2010, Energy Commission staff (Staff) advised the RSPP Committee that it has no objection to the Applicant’s July 13 request and will coordinate a workshop to include BLM, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss the proposed MGS study. By a letter dated August 9, 2010, BLM granted the Applicant’s request to complete the two-year MGS study.
Thus, for good cause shown, the Committee hereby GRANTS the Applicant’s request to modify the AFC scheduling milestones to accommodate the two-year MGS study.
The Committee further ORDERS that: (1) The Revised Committee Schedule dated June 8, 2010, be vacated and superseded by the attached Revised Committee Schedule:
(2) All RSPP communications involving Staff shall continue to be subject to statutory and regulatory ex parte requirements. All written communications with Staff shall be docketed and in-person and telephone communications with Staff shall be summarized in docketed records of conversation; and
(3) The parties, including any intervenors, shall submit quarterly status reports to the Committee on or before the last day of September, December, March, and June, commencing with September 2010, until such time that the Committee orders otherwise.
Letter sent to Intervenors from CEC, should appear on this page.
August 18, 2010 - In a letter from Deputy Director Terry O'Brien of the California Energy Commission dated August 4, 2010, the CEC informs Solar Millennium that the Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT) is working to designate conservation areas in the West Mojave Desert to lessen impacts on the Mojave ground squirrel, a state protected species endemic to a small area of California.
Potentially by fall of this year the stakeholders of REAT will determine which areas are important for habitat and connectivity for the ground squirrel, and the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project site may be on the list for preservation as a conservation area under the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan under development.
Solar Millennium sought clarification on this action because it did not want to invest money and time (potentially years) in studying the particular site in Indian Wells Valley for Mojave ground squirrel connectivity, if the site would just be made into a conservation zone.
The CEC letter said, "At this time the staff can only reiterate what we have stated on numerous occasions at workshops and committee conferences. Namely, that we believe the project site chosen by the applicant for the Ridgecrest project contains important biological resources that are deserving of protection and that we remained concerned that approval of the project will lead to significant and immitigable impacts to Mojave ground squirrel and desert tortoise that do not justify the development of the site. We believe it preferable, based upon what we know today, to preserve this site and surrounding area as opposed to developing it. Of course, our views regarding preservation could change if the resource agencies (California Department of Fish & Game and US Fish and Wildlife Service) as well as the Bureau of Land Management reach a different conclusion going forward with work on the DRECP."
August 12, 2010 - The Army Corps of Engineers through the Environmental Protection Agency is turning out to be the hardest critic of large-scale solar projects, recently issuing scathing letters on many of them, including Ridgecrest Solar Power Project:
From the Ridgecrest Daily Independant: For decisions regarding right-of-way approvals for such projects, the agency recommends the BLM consider a broader range of reasonable alternatives to avoid and minimize adverse environmental impacts.
The letter states such alternatives could include alternative technologies, reduced project footprints at proposed sites, and alternate sites on and off BLM land, including inactive landfill or other disturbed sites that may offer advantages in terms of available infrastructure and less vulnerable habitats.
“For example, the Garlock Road alternative, evaluated as a California Environmental Quality Act alternative, would be located on disturbed private land and would be less impacting,” stated the letter. “While the Garlock Road Alternative is outside BLM jurisdiction, EPA recommends that the final environmental-impact statement fully evaluate this alternative, or another less damaging alternative not on or off BLM land, in accordance with Council on Environmental Quality NEPA-implementing regulations which state that agencies 'include reasonable alternatives not within the jurisdiction of the lead agency,'” the letter said. “If all evaluated NEPA alternatives for a given project result in significant impacts, we recommend that BLM consider that project in the context of the larger universe of proposed projects and select the no-action alternative, which would not preclude consideration of the Garlock Road alternative by the California Energy Commission.”
The EPA said the proposed Ridgecrest project is an example of such a case.
July 8, 2010 - In a status conference call today, the California Energy Commission explained the request recently by Solar Millennium to suspend its Ridgecrest Solar Power Project for two years while the company designs and undertakes a study to gather more data about the imperiled Mojave ground squirrel (Xerospermophilus mohavensis).
Connectivity concerns of this small squirrel were strongly raised by the California Department of Fish and Game, and supported by US Fish and Wildlife Service and CEC biologists, throwing doubt over whether the project could successfully find approval. The project would sit squarely in the middle of a valley where it narrowed at a pass between two steep mountain ranges which are not good habitat for the species.
Scott Galati, attorney for Solar Millennium, explained that the study was the only way the project could move forward and resolve the issue of connectivity: more data was needed. Solar Millennium plans on hiring Dr. Phil Leitner to undertake the study, a world expert on the Mojave ground squirrel, in consultation with the appropriate agencies. Galati said some in their company hold this part of Kern County as having some of the best solar insolation in the country, and having invested so much time and money in this location, they did not want to withdraw the project.
Suspension allows the company to continue to plan the project and have public input, but the CEC said it will remain largely inactive in the case until the suspension is lifted. In two years each technical staff person in CEC would re-examine the Staff Assessment to incorporate any changes that may have occurred. The CEC committee will revisit the schedule for any deadlines now pending and let the public know of new schedules for further discovery.
Bureau of Land Management said it needed to determine if it could actually accept the suspension, as the project is on the Fast-track list and other entities were involved; a precedent would be set if BLM made a hasty decision. The BLM Steering Committee at a June meeting voted 12-1 to approve a letter stating its opposition to Solar Millennium's proposed solar-power-plant project. Concerns raised were over water and Valley Fever (see The Daily Independent).
On July 14, 2010 the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) group will meet in Victorville, California, to discuss potentially making the Ridgecrest site, among others, a Conservation Area, removing it from energy development. Solar Millennium was concerned that no one in the solar industry will file any new applications until there is forward movement in the DRECP planning process. "We would like clarity now," Galati said, before they go ahead with a costly study. Yet Galati stated he was confident the information being developed by the DRECP group will not go stale, and that in two years Solar Millennium could build on it to continue the project. The DRECP includes CEC, California Department of Fish and Game, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and BLM.
California Native Plant Society Helps Out
May, 2010 - CNPS eNewsletter
The Rare Plant Treasure Hunt: By Amber Swanson - "Our efforts are also making an impact on solar energy site decisions. In a recent field trip to a proposed solar energy site at the El Paso Alluvial Plain near Ridgecrest, volunteers created a list of the flora of the site. This list was then cited by a biologist for the California Energy Commission in his recommendation of a 'no build' on this site partially due to the presence of preferred Desert Tortoise food there."
^Goldfields and Phacelia overlooking the project site by the Boulders. Art print by local artist Nancy Gooch of Ridgecrest. Copyright 2009 Nancy Gooch.
April 29, 2010 - The California Energy Commission announced today: "For good cause shown during the April 27, 2010, Mandatory Status Conference, the Committee hereby ORDERS an extension to 5:00 p.m. on May 21, 2010, of the Energy Commission deadline for the public and other agencies to submit written comments on the “Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Draft California Desert Conservation Area Plan Amendment” (SA/DEIS) or to supplement or revise previously submitted comments on the SA/DEIS."
"All comments must be directed in writing to Eric Solorio, Siting Project Manager at
California Energy Commission, 1516 Ninth Street, Mail Slot 15, Sacramento, CA 95814
or by email to email@example.com."
"Energy Commission Staff will address in a supplemental or revised Staff Assessment all
written comments submitted to Eric Solorio by the May 21, 2010, deadline."
"This Order does not alter the 90-day comment period established by BLM for public
submission of comments on the SA/DEIS."
The Final Staff Assessment will be published by June 30, 2010. Any remaining Staff Assessment sections or errata will be put out by no later than by July 16, 2010.
August 20, 2010, is the Prehearing Conference date and September 1-3, 2010, as the dates for the Evidentiary Hearing.
August 2, 2010, is the new deadline to file petitions to intervene.
April 27, 2010 - In a public Status Conference call with California Energy Commission staff, Solar Millennium attorney Scott Galati announced that the project needed more time to work out contentious biological issues related to Desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel, and that he suggested moving the schedule back. This would place evidentiary hearings in September, and the final decision in early 2011. Solar Millennium made the decision to slow down after CEC staff argued that the biological issues on this site were difficult of not impossible to mitigate.
"We are no longer Fast-Tracked," he stated, "but we are still a renewable project and deserve priority."
In an unprecedented move by a solar company, Solar Millennium explained it was responding to the Energy Commission's recommended "no" approval in its Staff Assessment. Galati said he would be open to more workshops on biological issues in June, to be able to get an eventual "yes" decision from CEC.
CEC Project Manager Eric Solorio explained that "You're dealing with living organisms," and that it was a passionate subject to the staff biologists. He said CEC would be open at next week's workshops in Ridgecrest on biological issues, but that there were very site-specific concerns that were non-negotiable.
Jared Babula, CEC attorney, said that everyone will be in the room at the upcoming workshop, all biologists and agencies, "we can hash it out, " "who knows what can happen."
Commissioner James D. Boyd pointed out that it is still not impossible to reach an accommodation. "I've seen this before," he said -- a resolution can still be achieved.
April 15, 2010 - Public workshops have been announced by the CEC for the Solar Millennium project on Brown Road west of Ridgecrest.
Thursday, April 22, 2010 and Friday, April 23, 2010
Starting at 8:00am on both days
A second set of workshops will also be held on:
Monday, May 3, 2010 and Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Starting at 8:00am on both days
All workshops will be held at:
Ridgecrest City Hall
100 West California Avenue
Ridgecrest, CA 93555
Workshop Topics :The topics that will be discussed during the April 22nd and 23rd workshops are air quality, cultural resources, land use, soil and water, traffic & transportation, visual resources, worker safety & fire protection, and streambed alteration design goals. The topic for the May 3rd and 4th workshops is biological resources.
April 9, 2010 - Unprecedented so far for large Fast-tracked solar projects in the California Desert, the California Energy Commission has recommended the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project not be located at the Brown Road location due to concerns with a high density of Desert tortoise and potentially important Mojave ground squirrel habitat connectivity issues.
The California Energy Commission (CEC) is the agency responsible for approving utility-scale thermal power plants (such as natural gas, coal, biomass, and solar thermal plants that all use a steam turbine to produce electricity). The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will be responsible for granting a Right-of-Way permit for the public land that they manage. Both agencies are perparing their own environmental analyses in tandem, theoretically trying to match schedules to come out with a decision before deadlines this fall. Solar companies are applying for billions of dollars in Department of Energy Loan Guarantees, as well as American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Grants that will pay for 30% of construction costs. The companies must have all their permits in by December 31, 2010, as well as begin construction of the power plant facilities (apparently this means more than just grading a road on the site).
This schedule will be stressful on all parties to meet, owing to the requirement that tortoises be translocated off the project site during September and October only (moving tortoises before then would result in heat stress on the tortoises). They must be dug out of their burrows.
CEC and BLM in their joint Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement, conclude that "the project (would result in substantial direct, indirect, and cumulatively sugnificant impacts to biological resources. Specifically the project would reduce [Mojave ground squireel] connectivity (genetic linkage and other metapopulation functions) and eliminate high value [Desert tortoise] habitat that is important for recovery of the species. Since resources being impacted are tied to the physical location of the proposed RSPP site, and other sites or measures are not available to provide these habitat functions, these significant impacts cannot be reduced to levels of less than significant or fully mitigated. Because construction of the project would permanently destor this critical biological resource, staff beleives it is far more appropriate and important, given the biological significance of the site for the survival of DT and MGS that it be pereserved and protected instead of developed" (FSA/DEIS pages C.2-119 to 120).
See an excellent analysis on the Mojave Desert Blog >> CEC Staff Recommends Against the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project.
See an article in the San Francisco Business Times, which erroneously states that the Ridgecrest project is Solar Millennium's largest (the Blythe project is proposed to be 500 MW and around 7,000 acres).