Those interested in the future of utility-scale solar development in the U.S. will be keeping eyes and ears on a series of public hearings this week. The Environmental Protection Agency is holding four sessions on its proposed regulations for cutting carbon emissions at power plants, with three set for July 29-30 in Atlanta, Denver and Washington, D.C., and the fourth, July 31-Aug. 1 in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, the California Energy Commission will also be holding three-days of public hearings July 29-31, with the outcome possibly determining the fate of the 500-megawatt (MW) Palen solar project and, with it, the future of concentrated solar-tower plants in the U.S.
The EPA hearings are obviously the more high-profile events, with the proposed regulations drawing support from many solar groups for their intent to provide individual states with flexibility to cut their power plant emissions by building on existing energy efficiency and renewable energy policies.
As noted in the Solar Electric Power Association’s statement on the release of the proposed regulations in June, implementation of the plan could also open opportunities for new utility business models and service offerings aimed at putting more solar and other renewables on the grid.
The lists of speakers at many of the sessions seem to tilt toward voices from environmental groups, with lawmakers, utilities, and fossil fuel interests also represented, as well as trade associations and regional economic development groups.
Unfortunately, it appears that people interested in following the hearings will not be able to listen in either through an online live stream or by call-in. At least at this point, no information on connecting to any of the hearings by web or phone is available on the EPA website.
On the plus side, you can dive into the 5,228 comments — out of a total of more than 300,000 received to date — that have been posted so far on the EPA’s Regulations.gov website. (Go to Regulations.gov, search on the docket number EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0602, open the docket folder and then scroll down to comments.)
Online and phone-in access will be available for the Palen hearings, to be held in the small town of Blythe, located near the California-Arizona border, about 40 miles east of the 3,800 acres of public land where the project’s two 750-foot solar towers and 170,000 reflecting mirrors would be located.
Palen has been stalled since December, when Commissioner Karen Douglas issued a preliminary decision recommending the project as proposed be denied. In a recent filing, project developers BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar admitted that the delays have made it unlikely they will be able to get one of the towers online in time to meet the terms of one of its two power purchase contracts with Southern California Edison.
The two companies maintain they are still committed to building both towers and, in the filing, envision the second unit being built at some undesignated point in the future, with energy storage. The lack of storage in the original plans for Palen was one of the points Douglas raised in her proposed denial.
The question now is whether these changes will be enough to swing the commission toward the project. On July 28, less than 24 hours before the hearings were set to begin, Energy Commission staff issued a statement reversing their previous recommendation to deny the repermit and instead taking a neutral stand.
A quick bit of history here. Originally owned by now-bankrupt Solar Trust of America, Palen won approval from the commission in 2010 as a concentrated solar power (CSP) project using parabolic-trough technology, similar to that now online at the 250-MW Genesis project located 15 miles east of the Palen site.
BrightSource bought Palen in the Solar Trust bankruptcy sale and started proceedings to repermit it as a solar-tower project, similar to its 377-MW Ivanpah plant, also on public land in the California desert, west of Las Vegas. Initially, the Palen repermitting was set for narrowly drawn, expedited proceedings.
But, that approach fell victim to unresolved environmental issues related to Ivanpah’s reflecting mirrors —specifically, complaints from pilots flying over the project about blinding glare from the mirrors and the hundreds of bird deaths, many due to the intense radiation, or solar flux, also from the mirrors.
The project faced additional opposition from Native American tribes who have said the visual impact of the 750-foot towers would do irreparable damage to a network of sacred trails and sites spread out across the desert surrounding the Palen site.
Douglas cited both the bird deaths and tribal impacts in her proposed denial, which stated the project’s potential problems would not outweigh its economic benefits, including the construction jobs it would create and the clean power it would generate.
Hundreds of documents supporting and opposing the project have been submitted and are available on the Energy Commission website. They make absorbing reading for energy geeks — for example, a proposal the developers have floated to mitigate potential bird deaths at the project by funding programs that spay and neuter feral cats, which cause many more bird deaths than reflecting mirrors.
If Palen is not repermitted, it could likely affect future prospects for similar solar-tower projects proposed for public land in the U.S. Already, CSP developers such as BrightSource have been refocusing on international markets, where fewer permitting barriers exist.
But, the commission staff's July 28 statement notes that building the project in two stages will first cut many of the environmental impacts, such as bird deaths, and allow further research and monitoring of impacts at Ivanpah. Adding storage to a second Palen tower would also require a plan amendment, triggering another careful review, the staff statement says.
The two-phase approach falls in line with another CSP industry trend toward smaller, one-tower projects.
Many CSP supporters believe the technology has a bright future, arguing that whatever challenges these projects may face, they have an important role to play in integrating renewables onto the grid.
Especially if coupled with storage, a future Palen could help smooth out the intermittent power generated by California’s increasing share of wind and photovoltaic solar and keep a steady flow of power on the grid with voltage support.
Based on past hearings for this project, this week’s sessions will likely be long, highly technical and occasionally emotional and contentious. But, for anyone wanting to understand what goes into permitting one of these mega-scale solar projects — the studies, the technical details, the efforts to find workable compromises — listening in for at least a little while will be essential.