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CSP Progress Report: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Some of the planet's biggest solar energy plants are about to come online in the U.S., showcasing the promise and potential of both large utility-scale solar energy and in particular concentrating solar power (CSP) technology.

CSP has had a long road to commercialization, largely falling out of favor as costs and pricing have been overwhelmed by plummeting solar PV metrics, though it's carved out what should be a competitive sweetspot in very high-insolation areas in various regions. Three CSP plants in the U.S. long in development are back in the news this week, though not for the same reasons.

Final Countdown for Ivanpah, Solana

Four months after declaring it was in its final days of construction and doing steam blow tests, the 392-MW (370-MW net) Ivanpah plant in California's Mojave Desert now has achieved "first sync" with its first unit station, meaning it's produced output and synched it to the power grid and showing "operational readiness." Tests for the site's Unit 2 and 3 stations will happen "in the coming months," according to NRG Energy. Ivanpah has PPAs in hand with Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for its Unit 1 and Unit 3 stations, and a PPA with Southern California Edison (SCE) for the site's Unit 2. Project backers include Brightsource with its "power tower" technology and Google with its wallet; Bechtel is the EPC firm.

Meanwhile, Abengoa's Solana plant near Gila Bend, Arizona, a 280-MW parabolic trough plant that features six hours of thermal energy storage (molten salt), also is entering final testing stages after three years of construction. Local reports indicate the project already has been sending power to the grid and should reach full capacity in October. The Solana project has a 30-year, $4 billion PPA with Arizona Public Service (APS) to purchase all of the site's power. For interested parties in the vicinity, Abengoa and APS are said to be offering sneak-peek tours in the coming days.

CEC: Concerns And Uncertainty About Palen

Another CSP project in California doesn't have such good news, though. The California Energy Commission's (CEC's) final environmental analysis of the Palen solar plant delivers some bad news for the project: the CEC says it will "have significant environmental impacts" for visual resources even with recommended mitigation measures, and would not comply with all related laws, ordinances, regulations, and standards. The CEC also expressed doubt that recommended measures will significantly mitigate impacts to avian species.

Earlier this year Brightsource mothballed two other planned large CSP projects, Rio Mesa and Hidden Hills, to direct its attention to Palen, which encompasses twin 250-MW solar plants each with 85,000 heliostats focused on a receiver atop a 750-foot-tall power tower. This project has already been revised and scaled back to address various concerns, from reducing the land and water usage to eliminating the need for an extra transmission line. If and once Palen gets approved, construction would take nearly three years and cost roughly $2 billion.

Specifically the CEC cites concerns about impacts to biological resources including "Sonoran creosote bush scrub, sand dunes, desert washes and other native plant and wildlife communities." Adding fencing won't help spare habitats because it will keep out most terrestrial animals, and noise and activities at the site will further drive them away. The CEC also expresses concern about impacts to birds and bat species -- most notably, bald and golden eagles -- from "solar flux" (essentially cooking them mid-flight) to sky reflections in the mirrors that might appear as a body of water, attracting them down into collisions. Lethal and sub-lethal injuries "would be significant," the CEC says, though acknowledging that no mechanism to quantify this potential exists." The CEC's concerns about visual impacts include "substantial adverse impact to existing scenic resource values" in the area, from the Chuckwalla Mountains and Interstate 10 to the south, Joshua Tree National Park and Route 177 to the west/northwest, and Palen McCoy Wilderness to the northeast.

This CEC filing isn't a proposed decision on the project, but it will represent the CEC's testimony at commission hearings to review the proposed project. As KCET's Chris Clarke points out, CEC's staff concerns have been overridden in past project approvals. Further CEC assessments related to the Palen site about cultural resources and air quality/greenhouse gases are due in coming weeks.

Lead image: Walking on endless stairs, via Shutterstock

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