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California Gives Go-Ahead to Blythe Solar Plan

The California Energy Commission (CEC), following the recommendation of its own staff, has approved the proposed shift of NextEra's Blythe Solar Power Project from concentrated solar power (CSP) to solar photovoltaic (CPV).

Blythe originally was proposed in 2010 as a 1-GW CSP project (parabolic trough), backed by a $2.1 billion DoE loan guarantee. Then-project owner Solar Millennium decided to switch to PV technology in 2011, part of an industry-wide shift away from utility-scale CSP as PV prices plummeted and CSP's economics became less attractive. Last spring Blythe's new owner NextEra submitted a revised plan that would shrink Blythe by more than half to 485 MW of solar PV.

In mid-December the CEC internally recommended that the Blythe project be approved as a 485-MW solar PV, believing that potential "cumulatively significant" environmental impacts would be outweighed by its benefits, including its contribution to the state's Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) and economic and jobs benefits.

And so yesterday the CEC voted unanimously 5-0 to approve the Blythe project. Construction is projected to take about four years and cost $1.13 billion.

Paired with the CEC's staff recommendation in December about Blythe was with a less-favorable opinion of another proposed utility-scale solar project, the 500-MW Palen Solar Electric Generating System with two solar thermal power towers, also originally designed by Solar Millennium and now owned by BrightSource and Abengoa, which would take nearly three years to build at a cost of roughly $2 billion. CEC staff's concerns include "significant environmental impacts" even with recommended mitigation measures, from "solar flux" (essentially cooking birds in mid-flight as they pass through the solar-reflecting field) to whether the mirrors might appear as a body of water and attract overhead birds down into collisions.

The CEC originally was supposed to rule issue a final vote on Palen earlier this month, but BrightSource and Abengoa, which already revised and scaled back the Palen plan to address various concerns from reducing land and water usage to eliminating an extra transmission line, asked for a delay until later this spring to conduct further assessments, so the CEC's scheduled Jan. 7 meeting became a discussion of further input from the CEC, stakeholders, and other interested parties.

Lead image: Thumbs up, via Shutterstock

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