Wednesday, March 7, 2012

SOLAR: Disagreements on Proposed Plant’s Wildlife Impacts

Wildlife experts and representatives of a company seeking to build a huge solar-energy field in eastern Riverside County sparred Monday over the extent of surveys to judge the project’s impact on migrating birds and eagles.
Alfredo Acosta Figueroa voices opposition to the Rio Mesa solar project

The Rio Mesa Solar Energy Generating Facility southwest of Blythe would consist of three solar fields and generate 750 megawatts, enough electricity to power 300,000 homes. The fields’ mirrors would focus sunlight on 760-foot-tall towers to generate steam.

Agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and consultants for the California Energy Commission, which has the ultimate say over the proposed project, have raised concerns that the project’s location near the Colorado River flyway poses significant risks to birds such as the bald eagle and yellow-billed cuckoo. Birds, they said, could crash into the mirrors or be burned by their heat.

But at an energy commission workshop Monday, BrightSource officials said the towers would be built in a way that dissipates the mirrors’ heat. A project in Israel with the same technology has been safe for wildlife, they said.

Wildlife officials, company officials complained, have a seemingly open-ended list of demands for more surveys on top of a year’s worth of studies on the project’s impacts.

“I’d just like the agencies to recognize that we feel we’re being asked to fund a science project and not just the impacts from our project,” BrightSource project manager Todd Stewart said at the workshop.

Scott White of Aspen Environmental Group, a consultant to the energy commission, said Rio Mesa’s effects on at-risk wildlife could span well beyond its 5,750 acres.

“The impact to listed species is a concern to CEQA,” White said, referring to the California Environmental Quality Act.

An energy commission panel will hold a status conference on the project next month. At that point, BrightSource and wildlife agency representatives will say whether they have reached a compromise on what, if any, additional studies are needed.

“We are hopeful we can go in front of the committee and say we have an agreement,” said Christopher Ellison, a BrightSource attorney.

The Rio Mesa proposal is the latest of several mega-solar projects in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that have highlighted the conflict between the state’s goal of dramatically increasing its supply of clean renewable energy and preserving wildlife habitat.


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