California Desert To Bloom With Solar, Hopefully

The federal Bureau of Land Management will be stamping its final approval on a series of giant solar energy projects in California over the next two months, marking 2010 as the year when the state allows its desert to bloom with glass mirrors, concrete and steel blocks and giant turbine generators to produce electricity from the sun.

The BLM plans to sign off on about half a dozen projects on its fast-track list, including the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System that the California Energy Commission approved yesterday. The federal agency is scheduled to issue its “record of decision” for Ivanpah, Imperial Valley Solar Project, Blythe Solar Power Project, Calico Solar Project, Genesis Solar Energy Project and Lucerne Valley Solar Project, said David Briery, a BLM spokesman, on Thursday.

The Lucerne Valley project will use solar panels. Most of the rest of the projects will use mirrors to concentrate sunlight to heat fluids for producing steam, which then turns the generators to produce electricity.

A few of the projects on the BLM list won’t likely get approval by the end of the year to meet a deadline for applying for a federal grant, however. BLM doesn’t expect to issue its final environmental impact report on First Solar’s (s FSLR) Desert Sunlight project until next February; final approval is likely to happen in April, Briery said. The Palen and Ridgecrest projects proposed by Solar Millennium also might not make it, since the developer still needs to submit more information to complete the environmental review.

Many of these projects overlap with the list of nine projects that the California Energy Commission has been considering – and likely approve – by the end of the year. A few on the commission’s list aren’t planned to take place on federal land, so they don’t require BLM’s approval. In addition to Ivanpah, the commission had given its final approval to Beacon Solar Energy Project (250MW) and Blythe Solar Power Project (1,000MW) and Abengoa Mojave Solar (250MW) over the last month.

The commission is on a roll to approve these projects, which will provide more than 4.3 gigawatts of generation capacities, so that the developers can apply for a federal grant that gives a 30 percent rebate on each project’s cost.

The program, courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is highly coveted by project developers because they could get the incentives sooner than they would with an alternative incentive program that provides a 30 percent investment tax credit. The grant program is eligible not only to projects that are put into service in 2009 and 2010, but also to those that begin construction before the end of 2010. Solar project developers have until Jan. 1, 2017 to complete their work.

Regulatory approval doesn’t guarantee the success of the projects. Some of the developers have had to scale back their original plans in order to minimize the projects’ environmental impact. Environmental groups also have been split on whether to support them. Some environmentalists have lobbied to move these projects away from pristine land to properties that had been previously used for agriculture or other human activities. Lawsuits against some of these projects might be inevitable.

For example, BrightSource Energy had to reduce the size of its Ivanpah project from 440 megawatts to 392 megawatts (370MW of which will be fed to the grid) in order to lower the power plant’s impact on desert tortoise.

Earlier this week, an energy commission committee held a hearing to consider an alternate design for the Calico project, proposed by Tessera Solar, because the project could have a big impact on the habitat of desert tortoises and bighorn sheep. Tessera already had agreed to cut the project’s size from 8,230 acres to 6,215 acres before the committee set the latest hearing.

Image courtesy of Rennett Stowe.

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