The death blow for Palen? California rejects BrightSource Energy's Palen plans

BrightSource Energy’s flagship Ivanpah project, in the Mojave desert, is near completion. But Palen, the only project in the company’s dwindling California pipeline, may be on its deathbed.

BrightSource hoped to convince state regulators with the California Energy Commission to allow it to move forward with Palen, a proposed 500 megawatt solar thermal power plant being jointly developed with Abengoa. But in a thousand-page long proposed decision released late Friday,  CEC staff rejected the Palen plans due to the potential for bird deaths from intense radiation, or solar flux, from the thousands of mirrors, or heliostats. The Desert Sun has followed this story closely, as has Chris Clarke at KCET.

“The committee finds that the amended project will also result in significant and unmitigable impacts to biological resources due to the risk of solar flux on avian species,” read the CEC staff report.  “The committee recommends denying the project amendment at this time, finding that the totality of the project impacts outweighs the totality of the project benefits.”

Palen was originally approved in 2010 as a parabolic-trough CSP plant developed by a subsidiary of Germany’s Solar Millennium. When Solar Millennium went bankrupt, BrightSource acquired Palen. In 2012, BrightSource asked the state for permission to change the technology to two 250-megawatt power towers and 170,000 heliostats.

Unlike the photovoltaic solar panels that are common on the roofs of homes and commercial buildings, solar thermal technology concentrates the sun’s rays to boil water and generate steam. Solar thermal, also known as concentrating solar power, or CSP, is land-intensive, requires access to transmission lines and typically faces several environmental reviews and permitting hurdles before projects can be built in the desert. BrightSource’s Ivanpah project faced several concerns about its impact on the desert tortoise, but as the project comes online the impact on birds – who have flown into the heliostats or been singed due to solar flux -  has become an even bigger issue.

Two other BrightSource projects — the proposed Rio Mesa solar plant in Riverside and Hidden Hills in Inyo County — were effectively mothballed due to permitting issues.

BrightSource didn’t have much in the way of comment Monday.

“We are currently reviewing the more than 1,000 page PMPD on Palen that was issued late on Friday,” said Joseph Desmond, BrightSource’s senior vice president for marketing and public affairs, in a statement. “Until that review is complete, we will not be providing additional comment.”

A rendering of the proposed Palen project.


Dana Hull Dana Hull (252 Posts)

Dana Hull covers clean technology and energy policy for the San Jose Mercury News. She often writes about electric vehicles, the smart grid, the solar industry and California energy policy, from RPS goals to Gov. Jerry Brown's big dreams for distributed generation.