Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rice Solar Project Tests the Definition of Wilderness

At face value, the Rice Solar power project seems much less harmful compared to other solar projects approved by the California Energy Commission (CEC), including the destructive Ivanpah, Calico or Imperial Solar projects.  The project is proposed for about 2.5 square miles of mostly privately owned land with low quality desert habitat.  The project could result in the death or displacement of approximately 7 desert tortoises,  a smaller impact compared to the 40 desert tortoises already found at the Ivanpah Solar project site.

If it receives final approval, however, the project's small 2.5 square mile footprint will host a giant tower rising 653 feet above the ground, that could project glare comparable to half the brightness of the sun, according to CEC analysis.  The tower and its glare will be visible from 737 square miles surrounding the project.   The project will be visible from four separate wilderness areas.

The orange shading depicts the 737 square miles of surrounding open desert from which the Rice Solar power project will be visible.  Map from CEC Draft EIS.
Similar receiver towers operating in Spain, although these examples exist near the built environment and not land valued for its wilderness qualities.
The Presiding Member's Proposed Decision -- which is the second-to-final step before a project can proceed with construction--expressed the CEC's intent to approve the project.  The CEC Staff, however, recently filed a statement urging the Presiding Member to revise their decision to acknowledge the significant impacts on visual resources.  The CEC Staff judged that the proposed decision downplayed the affect of the project on visual resources in the area.

The CEC Staff argued that the impact of the project's visibility from such great distances would essentially erode the value of surrounding wilderness areas, which provide a unique isolation from the built environment and allow Americans to enjoy nature in its pristine state.  The Staff expressed concern that downplaying the Rice Solar energy project's visual impacts would contradict the CEC's "policy disfavoring hodgepodge development of large solar energy projects and could encourage developers to target renewable energy development in remote and pristine areas. " (emphasis added) 

If the presiding member accepts the Staff's recommendation, they will at least revise their approval to acknowledge the significant visual impacts, and issue an "override finding," which is a policy tool used by the CEC to dismiss significant environmental or cultural concerns with the belief that a project's benefits (renewable energy) justify the loss of natural or cultural resources.  Alternatively, the presiding member could reverse their decision and recommend an alternative configuration for the project.   If the developer chose to use a different solar technology that does not involve the 653 foot tower, such as photovoltaics, the visual impacts would probably be greatly reduced.

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