During Thursday's meeting of the Steering Committee at the Bureau of Land Management Ridgecrest Field Office, representatives of Solar Millennium LLC presented their updated plan for developing a solar-thermal power plant southwest of Ridgecrest turn it into electricity at a plant that would straddle both sides of Brown Road west of its intersection with Highway 395 and South China Lake Boulevard.
Solar Millennium eliminated a major source of opposition to its plan, confirming earlier announcements that it has agreed to use dry cooling instead of wet cooling at the new plant. The design change will reduce the plant's water use from more than 2,000 acre-feet per year to around 250 acre-feet per year. For comparison, the average local household uses approximately two-thirds of an acre-foot per year, and pumping by all local water users is less than 30,000 acre-feet per year.
The second major change in the company's plan is a two-thirds reduction of its size and power output to just 242 megawatts - still enough for an estimated 125,000 homes and nearly as large as the solar fields at Kramer Junction. After studying the site in detail, company planners determined that the natural wash and other geographic limitations of the site made much of the land unsuitable for development.
That has left the BLM concerned about the amount of land that Solar Millennium plans to request from BLM, said BLM Field Manager Hector Villalobos. He questioned why the company needs 2,000 acres when the footprint of the plant will be much smaller.
The plant won't require that much land, said Jessie Audette, vice president of development for Solar Millennium. The company intends to request much more land than necessary to give it room to rearrange portions of the plant as planners become more familiar with the site - something they have already had to do and expect to need to do again. Once the plant's footprint is finalized, they will give up claim to any unneeded land.
Rainer Aringhoff, president of Solar Millennium, acknowledged that the switch to dry cooling will impact the plant's efficiency and ultimately its profitability. Combined with a drying up of government incentives for solar power and the fact that California utility companies don't pay more for "clean" energy than for fossil- fuel sources, company planners had been reluctant to make the switch but bowed to concerns from the Indian Wells Valley Water District and others.
One reason why Solar Millennium continues to pursue a local solar plant is that our valley recently showed the highest level of usable solar radiation ever recorded in the United States. That solar energy is known as insolance and is measured in kilowatt-hours per square meter per year.
The proposed site registered an average annual insolance of approximately 3,100 over more than a year of measurement - higher even than previous local measurements. The Kramer Junction plant along Highway 395 receives only about 2,800 per year, as does the Interstate 40 corridor near Barstow where Solar Millennium is also developing solar plants. Most locations in California and the rest of the country receive far less.
The reading of 3,100 insolance for the proposed IWV site prompted one member of the public to repeat a term he had previously heard, that the IWV is the "Saudi Arabia of solar."
Aringhoff acknowledged that such a comparison is reasonable. Although other places may be hotter, the IWV has the optimum combination of clear skies, dry air and high elevation that maximize insolance.
Capt. Mick Gleason (USN-Ret.), former commanding officer of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, noted that our valley may expect to see many solar-power projects in the future because of its high insolance. Eventually, that could lead to a significant impact on the scenic open spaces of our desert valley, he said. And he suggested that some kind of compensation for the people who live in the community should be considered as part of the environmental review process.
Aringhoff pointed out that the community will benefit
from the economic impact of the plant's construction and operation - as
many as 800 jobs during construction and 70 ongoing jobs for the plant's
operating life. In addition, the plant will reduce pollution - something that benefits everyone.
Gleason acknowledged Aringhoff's points but reiterated his view that the planners should consider more direct compensation for the impact of solar-power development on the community.
A recurring theme of questions from other members of the public was about how the activities at the site will affect nearby residents and those who access the area for recreation.
One of the questions was about a letter sent to property owners by AECOM Environment, a contractor for Solar Millennium handling much of the environmental-scoping work. The letter asks property owners to cooperate in a survey of their land for natural resources, archaeological resources and noise levels, and some property owners got the impression that they were required to allow access.
Property owners are not required to allow access, said Elizabeth Copley, a program manager with AECOM. Solar Millen-nium is required to perform surveys of the land around the proposed site and must send certified letters asking for property-owner permission to access a property.
Property owners can grant access if they wish to be included in the survey.
Another member of the public was concerned about access to recreation through the proposed site, which sits atop several existing trails that connect to popular areas around Black Mountain to the southwest.
The Solar Millennium team seemed unaware of the number of trails that cross through the site - some of which cross through adjacent private land and may represent legal rights of way.
Nicole Tenenbaum, senior project manager for Solar Millennium, stressed that the company is willing to ensure that access to areas outside the development is not affected by the plant.
Access is one area that will require additional scrutiny, Villa-lobos added.
Some people at the meeting, including Water Board Member Peggy Breeden, acknowledged Solar Millennium's effort to reduce its water use but asked questions about what more it might be able to do to reduce water consumption.
Company representatives ex-plained that the 250 acre-feet per year currently proposed is a very-low- water-consumption plan. More than half of it would be used for washing dust off the mirrors - an essential process for efficiently harnessing solar energy - and the remaining amount would cover water for drinking, washing, cleaning, and other miscellaneous uses.
The amount is so small that planners expect to truck the water in instead of constructing a pipeline to the site or digging a well.
The News Review asked if the company and the water district could cooperate to make the plant "water neutral" - an analogy to "carbon neutral" approaches that offset carbon dioxide emissions by taking other measures like planting trees to absorb as much or more carbon dioxide than is produced.
A "water neutral" approach could involve providing a small amount of power to the water district, which would use the power to treat brackish water unfit for drinking and turn it into potable water - increasing the amount of potable water in the local aquifer by the same amount used by the plant.
Solar Millennium and water district officials said they had not discussed such an approach.
The company plans to be ready to file necessary documents with regulatory agencies and begin a year-long environmental review in July.
The public will have a chance to comment during that process, and company officials have proposed additional public meetings in Ridgecrest, Inyokern, Mojave and Lake Isabella.
If the project does not hit a snag, construction could begin in fall 2010 and could be finished in 2013.