SOLAR POWER: Blythe-area project faces price challenge – Press

August 25, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Opposition from the military and questions about the price of electricity produced are the latest challenges facing BrightSource Energy Inc., a company that has six commercial solar energy developments planned or under construction in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

A state analysis found that electricity from BrightSource’s Rio Mesa solar farm, planned on 6.3 square miles west of Blythe, would be expensive and “highly uncompetitive.”

The Department of Defense has lodged objections against another BrightSource project, called Siberia, and says it would compromise Marine training operations. The development would be within a 22-square-mile patch of public land just north of the Marine Corps’ Twentynine Palms training center.

The hurdles are detailed in a report prepared for the California Public Utilities Commission, which had been scheduled Thursday, Aug. 23, to consider several power-purchase agreements between Southern California Edison and BrightSource. The proposed agreements were removed from the agenda the day before the commission meeting.

The matter has been rescheduled for the commission’s Sept. 13 meeting.

The PUC staff report recommended that the commission reject a proposal for Edison to buy electricity from the proposed Rio Mesa project because the cost Edison would pass on to its customers would be too high. The development would generate electricity with thousands of mirrors that would focus heat on two “power towers,” creating steam to turn turbines and make power.

The Rio Mesa project “compares poorly on price and value relative to other solar thermal projects.” The evaluation was based on confidential price information submitted to commission staff.

Kristen Hunter, a BrightSource representative, declined to comment specifically on the report.

“It is our policy not to discuss ongoing regulatory matters outside of the formal process,” Hunter said in an email.

She added, though, that getting the power-purchase agreements approved is a key step in developing an energy project.

Edison officials did not respond to an inquiry made to their media office.

Richard Little, a fellow at USC’s Price School of Public Policy, said power purchase agreement can make or break a developer’s ability to finance a project. An approved purchase agreement shows the project will generate cash once it goes into operation, he said.

“Certainty in financing is a huge issue,” Little said. “Investors want to know when they will get their money back.”

Frank Maisano, a Washington, D.C.-based energy expert for the Bracewell Giuliani law firm, said an initial commission staff finding that the power is too costly is often part of a negotiation process between energy providers and utility regulatory commissions. It is not unusual for purchase agreements to be pulled from agendas so the parties can have more time to work on them.

Maisano and Little both said that California needs commercial-scale projects like Rio Mesa if the state is ever to meet its legislative requirement to get 33 percent of its electricity from alternative sources such as solar, wind and geothermal by 2020. The mandate was approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to slow the pace of climate change.

“The cost of green energy may be higher electricity prices,” Little said.

The PUC staff report recommended approval of agreements for Edison to buy power that would be generated by two other proposed BrightSource projects: the 19-square-mile Sonoran West solar development, near Blythe in Riverside County, and the Siberia project, named for a railroad siding just off Interstate 40 between Barstow and Needles.

Unlike Rio Mesa, the report said, Sonoran West and Siberia would employ molten salt energy storage systems that continue generating electricity after sunset.

The Siberia project, however, was targeted in a letter the Department of Defense submitted in July.

It would be built in an area of restricted airspace and require creation of an “avoidance area” that would “significantly detract” from the Marine Corps training efforts, military officials said.

The letter also said the rising heat from the project would interfere with the ability of pilots to use infrared viewers during nighttime operations and make pinpointing targets more difficult and potentially unsafe.

The military officials added that the Marine base uses 2,000-pound bombs in training missions near the solar project and that the concussions could damage the mirrors that harness the sun’s power. The military would thus have to curtail training near the solar project, they said.

The Rio Mesa, Sonoran West and Siberia projects all are subject to pending environmental reviews overseen by the California Energy Commission.

Energy commission staff members are scheduled to meet with BrightSource representatives onTuesday, Aug. 28, to discuss how the Rio Mesa project affects birds that could fly into the hot zone around the power towers.

The commission staff also has asked for more extensive investigation of fossils at the property. So far, a paleontological consultant has found more than 800 vertebrate fossils there, including a rabbit and a tortoise that lived there more than 10,000 years ago.

Follow David Danelski on Facebook at and Twitter @DavidDanelski

Comments are closed.