The California Energy Commission (CEC) released the Staff Assessment and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SA/DEIS) this week for the Abengoa Solar Project. Overall the assessment lines up with what was a relatively good site location by Abengoa Solar--disturbed agricultural land. The mitigation plan calls for roughly 120 acres of land to be purchased and set aside for conservation, which is far less than the thousands of acres required to mitigate the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the eastern Mojave Desert. Biological surveys of the site only spotted one desert tortoise, but they did identify several species of special status birds, such as the western burrowing owl and LeConte's thrasher.
Of more concern to the State of California, however, is the projects proposed pumping of over 2,000 acre-feet of water per year to cool the plant, which amounts to over 700 million gallons of water a year (see previous post). Interestingly, the CEC determined that the pumping of ground water at such levels did not violate State or Federal environmental policy, but it did run contrary to the State's water policy. The CEC proposed Abengoa Solar alter its design or cooling process or institute unspecified water conservation measures. The CEC did not specify, so I assume there will be more guidance on this matter after the CEC consults with the applicant.
If the Abengoa Solar project does proceed with a "wet-cooling" design, the site could include large evaporation ponds, where the used water would be dumped. This could harm biological resources since the water could be contaminated with chromium or selenium, and endanger birds that would be attracted to the water source. Even if the water is properly purified, it would be a source of water for ravens, which would than prey upon nearby tortoises.
The ideal outcome of the CEC's review of Abengoa would be to applaud the company for choosing a nearly ideal site--disturbed land--but require the company to use dry cooling, sparing hundreds of millions of gallons of precious desert groundwater from being cycled through an industrial plant and then left to evaporate in the desert heat and potentially poison wildlife.