Legislation Excuses Calico Solar Plan From Tortuous Approval Review

The state Assembly has approved legislation that will allow the Calico Solar plant to proceed toward completion without having to  obtain approval from the county and other local regulatory agencies.
Environmentalists, concerned about the possible impact the proposed 663.5-megawatt plant will have on desert tortoises, golden eagles,  bighorn sheep and other fauna and flora that inhabit the desert valley where the development is to occur, had opposed the project.
The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council maintain that the project, proposed by K Road Power on 4,604 acres of public land in the Pisgah Valley north of Interstate 40 roughly 37 miles east of Barstow, will prove particularly ecologically damaging. They wanted the project to go through a tortuous environmental and land use review process.  The project was originally intended to utilize a cutting-edge process for converting the heat of the sun to drive a turbine and generate electricity. In that form the project’s then-sponsor, Arizona-based Tessera Solar, in 2010 obtained from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar approval for the project and qualified for federal stimulus money to defray a portion of the cost of the project. But last year, Tessera sold the project to New York-based K Road Power. K Road has elected to abandon the original design, which involved parabolic mirrors to catch the sun’s rays and produce heat, and instead substitute photovoltaic cells.
As first proposed, the Calico Solar plant was to employ SunCatcher units, computer controlled parabolic mirrors. The SunCatchers were to track the sun during daylight hours and focus an intense beam of light, i.e. heat, onto a glass tube filled with a synthetic petroleum product known as therminol. Therminol, based on its grade and rating, is capable of absorbing heat up to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. The therminol was then to be pumped across the outside of the differing chambers of a Sterling engine to heat gases within those chambers to drive the engine’s pistons. The engine would then turn a turbine to  generate electricity.
Tessera’s design was an improvement upon a similar computer-guided parabolic mirror solar ray-focusing set-up that heated therminol, which was then routed into a heat converter that was brought into contact with water to create steam, which was used to run a turbine. It was believed the use of the Sterling engines would boost the efficiency by as much as 17 percent over the steam driven turbine approach.
In October 2011, K Road abruptly switched to a plan to employ pho-tovoltaic panels on the project.
Part of the rationale for changing the technology stemmed from the September bankruptcy filing of Sterling Energy Systems, which rendered ready availability of the Sterling engines problematic. Another factor was the decrease in the cost of photovoltaic cells over the last three years.
While the photovoltaic cells will not generate as much electricity as the mirror/therminol/Stirling engine configuration, they can be erected and brought on line much more quickly. Originally planned to generate 850 megawatts, the plant has been pared back to 663.5 megawatts. When fully operational, the project will provide electricity sufficient to power about 250,000 homes. Environmentalists maintained the change in the project proposal necessitated an entirely new project application and approval process.
In March, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes authored emergency legislation, AB 1073, a bill to allow the Calico Solar project to receive state approval to change the technology without having to again go through the project approval and environmental certification process. The bill passed the state Senate 28-2 on March 28. On May 10, it passed 56- to-10 in the Assembly. Upon being signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, AB 1073 will allow Calico Solar to apply for project approval directly to the California Energy Commission, which is favorably disposed toward renewable energy projects. San Bernardino County and its land use division will have no formal say in the process. Brown lobbied for the bill’s passage.
Opponents sought to have the bill defeated at the Assembly committee level. But Fuentes and Assembly leaders pulled the bill from committee on May 7 and sent it directly to the floor, declaring it “urgent” legislation to ensure that the Energy Commission would hold hearings on the project prior to a June 20 deadline.
While the passage of AB 1073 comes as a decided blow against environmentalist opponents of the project, K-Road yet faces a few hurdles. The company currently has no power purchase agreement with a utility for the project, no established financing and no construction start date. It also must stand down a pending lawsuit by environmentalists. Upon approval of the project by the Energy Commission, K-Road nevertheless will have turned a corner in the battle to move the project forward.

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