Big Solar Seeks Path of Least Resistance

The California Energy Commission (CEC) on 14 December will meet to consider a proposed decision that would allow solar companies to select whether to submit to local or State (CEC) review when building large photovoltaic solar facilities on public land.  This is important in the near term particularly for the Ridgecrest Solar power project, a proposed facility that would decimate a Mohave ground squirrel connectivity corridor and a robust desert tortoise population.  In the long term, the rule change would give big solar companies the ability to choose what they think will be the path of least resistance to build projects that destroy vast swaths of public land.    Although the CEC has previously opposed the Ridgecrest project, it's approval of several other projects has earned it a reputation as the place where solar companies go for fast-track approval that often ignores environmental and cultural destruction.  It's this reputation that makes people nervous about a regulation that let's solar companies choose the path of least resistance.

Solar Trust of America -- the front company for German firm Solar Millennium -- initially proposed the Ridgecrest solar power project in 2009, but the CEC staff assessment in March 2010 recommended against certifying the project because of its impacts on biological resources, including over 40 desert tortoises, Western burrowing owls, Mohave ground squirrel, and kit fox.  After some flip-flopping, Solar Millennium decided it wanted to make some marginal modifications and pretend that a redesigned project would not be as harmful.  The firm, which received approval for other solar projects in California and Nevada, also decided to switch from solar thermal technology to photovoltaic (PV) panels -- the same panels used more wisely on rooftop installations in cities.  PV panels are much cheaper than the solar thermal technology.

The CEC's founding legislation, however, is widely interpreted as not giving it authority to license PV projects, only thermal energy.  This put Solar Millennium in a bind.  It's projects already approved by the CEC as solar thermal projects would need to be submitted for additional review if they changed the technology to PV.  California's State legislature made this easy by passing a law that said any solar thermal projects approved by late 2011 that later wanted to convert to PV could stick with the CEC process.
Desert wildflowers in bloom on the site of the proposed Ridgecrest solar power project.
But this legislative fix  did not apply to Ridgecrest because that project was never approved.  So Solar Millennium identified a clause in the original legislation that it believes allows it to "opt-in" to CEC review even though it plans to use PV technology.  Why would they want to stick with CEC when it was the CEC that initially told them they didn't like the project?  It could be administrative ease -- the CEC is already familiar with the project and has on file the studies and proceedings, so the company should not have to re-create the wheel. 

Folks have a reason to be nervous about this solar project proposal, which Solar Millennium sold to German firm Solarhybrid along with its other projects.  The CEC staff stuck to their guns throughout the earlier review, noting the irreparable harm that industrial-scale development of these lands could do to Mojave Desert wildlife.  But solar companies have proven persistent and stubborn in attempts to get their way with public lands.  What these solar companies do not understand is that they have stumbled clumsily onto ecologically intact habitat that are vital to the health of our desert lands and provide enjoyment to citizens who prefer solar panels be installed on rooftops instead of on beautiful landscapes.

The hard-nosed and blind persistence by for-profit companies is what worries me about the CEC's proposed decision to let companies "opt-in" to CEC review.  Ridgecrest is one of the only large solar projects that the CEC has opposed, but several others were approved following a faulty environmental review process that underestimated presence of threatened species and ignored cumulative impacts.  Hopefully the CEC will follow a policy of "no-regrets" and stay true to its duty to protect our natural resources from unnecessary harm in the case of the Ridgecrest project.  By allowing PV projects to opt-in to CEC review, a dynamic may arise where companies seek to avoid local government regulations that may be more representative of local concerns and value placed on natural resources.   The CEC cannot ignore recent history -- it has earned a reputation for fast-tracking unnecessary destruction of public lands, using "override" designations to ignore significant impacts on threatened species and cultural resources.  Even if it has opposed Ridgecrest, it has taken several other steps in the wrong direction by approving Ivanpah, Imperial Valley and Blythe solar power projects.

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