Concentrating solar power mixed signals

Bright Source

Several CSP projects set to go live this year, but sector faces serious challenges at Palen and elsewhere

Nearly a gigawatt of concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) plants should be completed and come online in the United States by the end of 2013, according to the latest “U.S. Solar Market Insights” analysis released last week. Two plants that have been highlighted by SolarCurator—BrightSource’s Ivanpah and SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes–should be commissioned and sending electricity to the grid by year’s end.

One of the other CSP operations, Abengoa’s 280MW Solana parabolic-trough/molten salt storage-based project in Arizona, is reportedly in testing mode and closing in on commissioning, according to a report in CSP World. “They brought it up the other day and there was some vibration in one of the turbines,” said Pat Dinkel of Arizona Public Service. “Normal stuff. (The turbine vendor) rebalanced it. They are making nice progress. It looks very positive for the plant coming online in the next month or so.” Abengoa is also making progress on a pair of projects half way around the world in South Africa: the 50MW Khi One site in South Africa, a power tower-style facility featured in a fresh CSP Today post, as well as the 100MW KaXu Solar One plant, which will use parabolic-trough technology.

But as the SMI report and other industry observers note, the CSP sector faces serious challenges, with several projects having been postponed or cancelled outright. The latest setback to the concentrating contingent has come via the massive first installment (1600-pages-plus) of the California Energy Commission’s massive Final Staff Assessment (FSA) about the proposed 500MW Palen Solar Electric Generating Station, jointly developed by Abengoa and BrightSource on nearly 3800 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management holdings west of Blythe, CA.

The proposed project “would have significant environmental impacts in the area of visual resources even with the implementation of staff’s recommended mitigation measures,” according to the CEC press release. “The project would also not comply with all applicable laws, ordinances, regulations, and standards in the area of visual resources. Commission staff also found that it is uncertain that recommended measures for avian species will mitigate the potential impacts to less than significant in the area of biological resources.”

Chris Clarke of KCET’s ReWire blog, a consistent critic of many large utility-scale solar projects’ deleterious effect on delicate desert ecosystems, drills down into the CEC’s initial assessment. He pays special attention to the potential impact of the proposed CSP power towers’ “solar flux” on eagles and other bird species. He points out that despite the troubling findings in the initial document (the other two parts of the FSA, dealing with air quality and cultural resources, will be released within the month), the CEC may still approve Palen when it makes its final decision.

“Once the full FSA is released, the CEC will hold evidentiary hearings on the project before issuing a decision,” Chris writes. “In the past, the commission has regularly approved projects despite staff concerns about non-mitigatable environmental impacts, citing “overriding considerations”–essentially saying that generating renewable energy takes precedence over protecting wildlife, cultural, and visual resources. Even if its own staff constructs a compelling argument against approving Palen, the commissioners would be true to form if they went ahead and greenlighted the project anyway.”