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California Supreme Court Tosses Solar Project Lawsuits

The California State Supreme Court has tossed out two lawsuits challenging the state's approval of the Calico Solar project, which drew the ire of Sierra Club over its proposal to use public land that is home to wildlife such as big horn sheep and golden eagles.

The court denied Sierra Club’s lawsuit without comment Wednesday and did the same for another lawsuit from California Unions for Reliable Energy. The court rulings are crucial win for California Energy Commission, which started to face legal challenges after approving Calico and eight other solar power projects totaling about 4.1 gigawatts last year. The commission approved the projects within four months partly to ensure the project developers would be able to meet the filing deadline for a federal program that covers 30 percent of a project’s cost. California also requires its utilities to get 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020.  

The commission worked with the federal Bureau of Land Management to fast track some of these projects because they are proposed to be built on BLM land. As a result, several environmental and community groups filed lawsuit not only against the commission but also the federal government.

"We are pleased that the State Supreme Court upheld the Energy Commission's power plant review process for the Calico Solar Project. Our commitment to renewable energy sources maintains California's leadership in this vital, growing sector of the world's economy," said Robert Weisenmiller, chair of the commission, in a statement.

The rulings aren’t so surprising for Sierra Club, a spokesman said Thursday. Calico has a new owner that wants to change the scope of the project, a move that could alter the Sierra Club’s stance on Calico, said David Graham-Caso, Sierra Club's deputy press secretary. Two days before Sierra Club filed the lawsuit last Dec. 30, Tessera Solar announced it had sold Calico to K Road Sun for an undisclosed price.

“I can say that we judge projects individually. So if a project is going to change, then we will need to take a look at the environmental assessment of the new project,” Graham-Caso said. "We opposed the Calico project as an example of what not to do with a project." 

The project comes with an electric grid interconnection agreement for 850 megawatts. Tessera initially wanted to build all 850 megawatts, but the commission cut that to 663.5 megawatts to minimize its impact on wildlife.

When K Road Sun first announced its purchase of Calico, it said it would like to use solar panels for 750 megawatts of the $3 billion project, which is set for BLM land near Barstow, Calif. The remaining 100 megawatts would use stirling engines that use mirrors to concentrate and direct sunlight to heat up hydrogen gas inside what’s called a “power conversion unit” in order to run a 4-cylinder engine that in turn drives the generator to produce electricity. Tessera was going to use the 25-kilowatt SunCatcher system from its sister company, Stirling Energy Systems, for the Calico project.

K Road Sun said using solar panels will not only make it easier for it to line up projecting financing but it also will reduce the project’s environmental impact. But exactly how the impact will be minimized is unclear.

The company submitted an application on March 22 to modify the project, and the commission plans to hold a hearing on the application on April 20. In the public hearing notice, the commission said K Road isn’t asking the commission to change the project’s size, boundary or generating capacity. The only request is to change the technology mix so that 563 megawatts of the project will use solar panels mounted on single-axis trackers while the remaining 100.5 megawatts will use SunCatcher.

K Road will have to go through a similar permit amendment process with the BLM. Southern California Edison had originally planned to buy power from Calico, but the utility canceled the power purchase agreement late last year around the time when news surfaced that Tessera’s parent company was having trouble securing money to build the project and the project would legal challenges.

California’s renewable energy mandate is making it home to some of the largest solar farms being proposed in the country. BrightSource Energy is building a 392-megawatt solar farm in the Mojave Desert. Earlier this week the U.S. Department Energy announced the award of a $1.6 billion loan guarantee to BrightSource for the project. NRG Energy also snagged a $1.2 billion loan guarantee from the federal government for a 250-megawatt solar farm that will use SunPower’s solar panels. NRG also has committed to invest $300 million in BrightSource’s project.

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