California Legislature OKs disputed solar power plant in desert

Despite strong opposition from environmentalists, the California Assembly on Thursday approved controversial legislation that allows a solar energy developer to bypass local agencies in seeking to build a large-scale solar power plant in a valley that is home to desert tortoises, golden eagles and bighorn sheep.

The environmental groups see K Road Power’s proposed 663-megawatt Calico Solar power plant as one of the most ecologically damaging renewable energy projects in the California desert.

If Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill as expected, San Bernardino County government will have no formal say in the process. Neighboring Kern County also opposed the bill out of concern that Calico Solar posed a threat to local control of projects that can occupy hundreds and sometimes thousands of acres.

Under the bill, approved by the Senate in March and passed 56-10 in the Assembly, Calico Solar may now go directly to the California Energy Commission with its application for approval. Environmental groups believe that the commission is predisposed to overlook their concerns because its mission is to help the state meet one-third of its electricity needs from renewable resources by 2020.

State and federal government officials have generally worked alongside environmental groups to help the budding solar industry build plants across the California desert. The fight over Calico was a highly visible exception.

Opponents had thought they could defeat the bill in an Assembly committee. But before the panel could act, Assembly leaders pulled the bill from committee Monday and sent it directly to the floor, declaring it an "urgent" measure that justified the extraordinary step. K Road said it needed quick action because it faces a June 30 deadline to apply for approval from the Energy Commission.

The Assembly’s move unleashed a torrent of telephone calls and bluntly worded Assembly "floor alerts" urging a "yes" or a "no" vote on the bill. Brown’s office lobbied for the bill.

The project has been troubled from the start. It was originally proposed as an 850-megawatt Tessera Solar concentrating thermal power plant on a 8,230-acre site in the Pisgah Valley, about 37 miles east of Barstow. The site was later reduced to 4,613 acres to create a corridor for desert tortoises, a threatened species.

In 2010, just a few weeks after the project lost its power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison, K Road acquired it from Tessera with plans to convert it to photovoltaic technology.

Today, Calico Solar has no power purchase agreement with a utility, no financing and no construction start date, and it faces a lawsuit by environmentalists. But with the Energy Commission’s approval, the project could become an attractive acquisition for a big solar developer.

The bill, AB 1073, was introduced by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar. Fuentes’ office said the purpose was simply to clarify Calico Solar’s status under a bill approved last year.

That bill, SB 226, gave the Energy Commission – rather than local authorities – exclusive jurisdiction over five non-controversial solar projects. Those projects had gone through the application process, then decided to switch technologies from solar thermal to the less expensive photovoltaic process. Lawmakers believed the change was not significant enough to warrant another round of regulatory scrutiny.

Calico Solar was omitted from that legislation because the Sierra Club had filed a petition with the California Supreme Court challenging the Energy Commission’s approval of the project, Fuentes’ office said. The Supreme Court later refused to hear the case, effectively removing the reason for omitting Calico, his office said.

"My bill is a simple follow-up measure," Fuentes said. "It will create 600 jobs and help California meet its renewable energy goals."

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, expressed frustration over the vote and the decision to send the bill to the floor without a hearing in committee.

"It is disappointing to see California leaders put a corporation’s interests ahead of the public’s interest," said Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife. "Backroom deals between lawmakers and corporations that cut the public out of important decisions are the wrong way to build our clean energy future."

The site is far from pristine. It is bordered by Interstate 40 and a transmission line, and has roads, a railroad line and gas pipelines running through it. Yet a variety of rare and threatened plants and animals cling to existence among its creosote bushes, arroyos and sand dunes.

"It may not be the most beautiful place in the world, but if you are a tortoise or a Nelson’s bighorn sheep, it is critical for the survival of your species," Delfino said.

Environmental groups recently filed a lawsuit in federal court to block Calico Solar.

V. John White, a lobbyist and consultant to energy companies, says he found the Legislature’s actions perplexing. "This is a curious project to fast-track, given that it is controversial and facing litigation," White said. "It is going to make the renewable energy industry look bad in the end because it is an overreach."