Fool me once, shame on you....
Last fall the California Energy Commission (CEC) and Department of Interior approved Tessera Solar LLC's proposal to bulldoze 7 square-miles of public land for a solar power facility in the central Mojave Desert. Both Washington and Sacramento acknowledged the significant environmental damage the project would cause to the pristine desert habitat, but rushed to approve it so Tessera Solar could qualify for over a billion dollars in taxpayer-backed stimulus funding. The government approved the project on the basis that Tessera Solar would install thousands of SunCatcher dishes--an unproven and complicated piece of machinery.
It turns out Tessera Solar may have misrepresented its ability to build the project in the first place, according to documents presented to the CEC. Not long after receiving the green light from the government, Tessera Solar publicly announced that it would not be able to build the project. That did not stop them from earning money at the taxpayer's expense. Tessera Solar LLC sold its permission to build on public land to another company, named Calico Solar LLC.
|A photo of the notorious SunCatcher dishes taken from the CEC Staff Assessment. Tessera Solar told government regulators that it could build thousands of these to fill up 7 square miles of public land. And then it admitted that this was not feasible.|
|The Calico Solar power project would stretch for miles up to the Cady Mountains in the distance, displacing or killing dozens of tortoises and a pocket of rare desert wildflowers that only grows in a few other places.|
Fool me twice, shame on me...
Calico Solar is now demanding that the CEC expedite its approval of the revised project. But there are two major problems. 1.) Calico Solar LLC's plans to use PV technology poses new environmental and hydrological problems, and 2.) the company claims it will still be able to install SunCatchers, even though nobody can prove that SunCatchers work or can be built on a mass scale.
Neither the CEC nor the BLM--the two governing bodies that control the future of the solar project--should have an easy time saying yes.
The CEC's approval of the original project last year expressed confidence in the SunCatcher technology, and the CEC's regulations require that it only certify projects that are feasible and available. According to the CEC Staff assessment:
"Applicant and Staff evaluated alternative generating technologies to the proposed project. Staff independently concluded that from an energy efficiency prospective, given the project objectives, location, air pollution control requirements, and the commercial availability of various alternative technologies, that the selected solar thermal technology [SunCatchers] is a reasonable selection."
The BLM even assessed that photovoltaic (PV) solar panels would do more harm to the desert than the proposed SunCatcher technology in its assessment of the project:
What makes matters worse is that the new company, Calico Solar LLC, seems like it is set up to fail."The utility-scale solar PV technology was eliminated from detailed analysis because it would require the entire site to be graded. This would result in a greater effect on biological and cultural resources than the Calico Solar Project, which would not require grading the entire site. It would therefore have greater environmental effects than the Proposed Action."
Calico Solar LLC is owned by K Road Sun. K Road Sun is owned by K Road Power. K Road Power is owned indirectly by somebody who apparently does not want to have their name on a disaster. All of these layers help protect the owners in case the project fails, which may be the expected outcome.
How many employees work for Calico Solar LLC?
According to testimony given to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on May 17, Calico Solar LLC's representative at the hearing self-identified as a "consultant" and rejected the "employee" title. The consultant is also the elected "Vice President," but he is not paid by Calico Solar LLC. He is paid by K Road Power Management, LLC. So who owns K Road Power Management? A Frenchman named William Kriegel indirectly owns K Road Power, according to the testimony.
If you still think it sounds like a good idea for the government to turn a blind eye to Calico Solar LLC's revised project, let me go a bit further.
Calico Solar's decision to use a high concentration of PV panels would require thousands more poles than would have been drilled into the desert soil if they only used SunCatchers (which apparently cannot be manufactured efficiently, anyways). Not only does this mean lots of dead tortoises and extinct wildflowers, it also means the soil underneath the panels cannot hold water during major storms. Storms in the desert may be rare, but they do happen.
These poles and panels are a problem for Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad, which runs through the project area. You may think a bunch of desert rats are the only ones that care about the fate of beautiful desert landscapes and gentle desert tortoises roaming the area. But BNSF also depends on intact soils and desert habitat to keep gushing rain water from wiping out its tracks, one of the few railways feeding the metropolis of Los Angeles. Calico Solar's PV panels would bring more water run-off, more disrupted soil, and higher chances of a severed railroad. A disrupted railroad--even for just a couple of days--could bring very bad consequences for Southern California's economy.
So it's not just fun and games when a company comes along, promises to build something that it cannot afford, and sells its permission to steal public land to another company that has zero employees and expresses little intent to respect other stakeholders.
The case of Tessera Solar and Calico Solar LLC should be a lesson to the CEC and Department of Interior. Take our public land seriously. Profiteers set on destroying our natural treasures at any cost should not have gotten as far as they did last year. And they should not be allowed to profit from misrepresentation, selling permission to build on public land to other speculators.
In a bit of irony, just down the road from the the site of the proposed Calico Solar power project is a little town called Daggett. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, miners and homesteaders chased dreams of riches hoping to turn desert soil into vast farms or striking the mother lode. The most honest ones invested their own sweat and tears, sometimes breaking even. But some scheming businessmen saw an opportunity to get money for nothing. They would bring investors from Los Angeles to this part of the central Mojave Desert, show them a patch of land and spin up their imaginations. The investors would put down money with promises of a handsome return--perhaps expecting to come back in a couple of years to see a blossoming orchard or a productive silver mine. The scam artists would disappear, and the investors would be left with nothing but their outrage.
We should be a country of wisdom an ingenuity, not scams and mirages. Solar technology means we can slap a solar panel on our rooftop and generate power just meters from the light bulb that is plugged into our wall. Why should we give up vast swaths of public land and billions of taxpayer dollars to private interests when the answer is right in front of us?