BLM moving forward with world's largest solar power plant

Posted: Dec 21, 2012

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Desert solar

The Obama administration is nearing final approval of what would become the world's largest solar power project on a strip of Southern California desert near the McCoy Mountains that could eventually power hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected today to announce that the Bureau of Land Management has completed a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the McCoy Solar Energy Project, which would sit on more than 4,300 acres of mostly public land in the Colorado Desert, about 13 miles northwest of Blythe, Calif.

BLM is scheduled to formally publish the final EIS in the Federal Register on Monday, paving the way for Interior to issue a record of decision and a right-of-way grant early next year authorizing Juno Beach, Fla.-based NextEra Energy Resources Inc. to build the power plant.

Once built, the solar plant would have the capacity to produce 750 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power more than 225,000 homes. "If it's all built as planned, it would be the largest solar plant in the world, and obviously the largest solar plant on public lands," said Jeff Childers, the BLM project manager overseeing the federal review of the McCoy project in Moreno Valley, Calif.

Steven Stengel, a NextEra spokesman, said today in an emailed response to questions from Greenwire that the company wants to complete construction of the first 250 MW phase of the McCoy photovoltaic solar power plant by 2016.

Stengel said in the email that the company is "very pleased the project has reached this stage" in the permitting process.

The McCoy solar plant would be the largest ever built but the second-largest solar project ever approved by BLM, behind the 1,000 MW Blythe Solar Power Project approved in late 2010 just south of the McCoy plant site. The future of the Blythe proposal was cast into doubt after project proponent Solar Trust of America LLC in April declared bankruptcy, placing the McCoy project next in line to become the world's largest.

NextEra Energy purchased the rights to the Blythe project during the Solar Trust bankruptcy proceedings, Stengel said, and the company plans "to file permitting documents" with BLM and the California Energy Commission, including a revised plan of development, "in the first quarter of 2013."

BLM's "preferred alternative" in the McCoy final EIS is a combination of NextEra Energy's original proposal and a scaled-back version that reduces the project's footprint and adjusts the boundaries to avoid habitat for the federally threatened Mojave Desert tortoise. Part of the revised layout includes shortening the length of the transmission line connecting the McCoy plant to Southern California Edison's Colorado River Substation to about 12 miles long.

The McCoy project is one of nine solar projects identified by BLM as priorities to complete the federal permitting process by the end of the year. In addition to the McCoy solar plant, BLM officials say they are working to finish final authorization by year's end of the 100 MW Quartzsite Solar Energy Project in southern Arizona.

The final EIS for the McCoy project continues the Obama administration's ongoing efforts to use federal land to develop renewable energy resources such as solar, wind and geothermal power.

Much of the recent solar power development has occurred in California, which has a renewable portfolio standard that requires investor-owned utilities in the state to provide 33 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020.

A total of 570 MW of solar power has been installed in California during the first three quarters of 2012, according to statistics provided by the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Collectively, the state has 2,430 MW of installed solar-power capacity -- the most of any state. And SEIA estimates at least 3,100 MW of utility-scale solar projects are under construction in the state.

Ongoing environmental issues

But these large-scale commercial solar power projects have sparked questions about the possible impacts to sensitive wildlife and wildlife habitat.

The McCoy project site sits within one of 17 solar energy zones (SEZs) finalized by Salazar in October -- the Riverside East SEZ. The SEZs were chosen because they contain superb solar resources and access to existing or planned transmission and would minimize harm to sensitive wildlife and habitat (E&ENews PM, Oct. 12).

The SEZs are part of a broader Obama administration solar plan that provides a framework for landscape-level planning and should result in "faster, smarter utility-scale solar development" in the Southwest, Salazar said in October.

But Ileene Anderson, a staff biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity in Los Angeles who has followed the McCoy project, said the proposed site is in an area that raises concerns about threatened Mojave Desert tortoises, desert bighorn sheep and golden eagles.

Rainwater flowing off the low-elevation McCoy Mountains nearby makes for good desert tortoise habitat, Anderson said, and provides a foraging area for golden eagles.

BLM and the project proponent have shifted the project boundaries from the 7,700-acre proposal evaluated in the draft EIS for the McCoy project released in May (Greenwire, May 25).

The boundaries of the project have also been shifted as much as a mile on the original western boundary to avoid Mojave Desert tortoise habitat, said Childers, the BLM project manager.

Anderson said doing so "is an improvement to avoid sensitive resources." But, while Anderson said she needs to read the entire final EIS, she remains concerned that even with the reductions in the project footprint, it "will still destroy intact [tortoise] habitat and the ephemeral washes coming down from the McCoy Mountains."

A handful of tortoises have been found at the site, and BLM has identified a 1,733-acre "potential tortoise translocation area" about a quarter-mile west of the project site, according to the final EIS. But it does not appear there are many tortoises that need to be relocated, and the final EIS estimates "low concentrations" of tortoises, mostly in the northwest portion of the project site.

Childers estimated no more than two tortoises will need to be relocated. He said NextEra Energy would purchase and preserve about 4,300 acres of tortoise habitat in the region to offset the tortoise habitat affected by the project site.

Anderson also expressed concern that as many as 4,700 acres of "prime foraging area for golden eagles" could be lost, which could then "decrease the sensitive desert eagle population, too."

But BLM said it has worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service and with the California Department of Fish and Game to make sure those issues were discussed early in the planning process and have been addressed.

Building clean, green

The project represents a landmark achievement for Interior.

Salazar is scheduled today to conduct a teleconference with reporters to discuss the McCoy Solar Energy Project and the year-end tally of renewable project permitting on federal lands in 2012.

Since 2009, BLM has approved 34 renewable energy projects, including 18 solar, seven wind and nine geothermal projects.

These projects cover a total of 1.3 million acres of federal land. If all are eventually built and brought online, they will have the capacity to produce 13,788 MW of electricity, or enough to power nearly 5 million homes and businesses.

The 18 solar power projects approved on public land since 2009 have a total capacity to produce up to 6,126 MW of electricity, or enough to power 1.8 million homes, according to federal data.

The Obama administration announced in October that it has already met a goal set in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that called for approving 10,000 MW of solar, wind and geothermal projects on federal land by 2015.

In addition to these projects, BLM in the past two months alone has issued a final environmental review for the Desert Harvest Solar Project -- a photovoltaic plant that would cover 1,044 acres of BLM land in Southern California's Riverside County near Joshua Tree National Park and have the capacity to power about 45,000 homes and businesses -- and a draft review for the 300 MW Stateline Solar Farm Project proposed to be built on 2,143 acres in San Bernardino County, Calif., about 2 miles south of the Nevada border.

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