Blythe, Calico: Why the Delay in CSP Plants Converting to PV?

Dan McCue digs deeper to uncover what exactly the CSP to PV conversion entails and what this means for the CSP industry


By Dan McCue

When the largest solar- and wind-power operator in the United States buys an un-built, 1,000 MW CSP plant and announces plans to convert the whole thing to photovoltaic, people – particularly local general media outlets – sit up and take notice.

That’s particularly true if they’ve heard that a similar project has or will undergo a similar transformation.

Well then, a mounting consensus begins to hold, these developments must be harbingers of a larger trend!

But are they?

After talking to industry experts and insiders, the reality seems to be that at any given time and place, individual projects go their individual ways.

Last June, NextEra, based in Juno Beach, Florida, did indeed purchase the assets of bankrupt Solar Trust of America LLC, snapping up the high-profile Blythe project in Riverside County, California.

Steven Stengel, a spokesman for NextEra Energy, confirmed Blythe, which will be the nation’s largest solar plant when it is complete, is currently being re-permitted by state and federal authorities to reflect the conversion in technologies.

Asked via email how the planned change has affected the financing of the project and any loan guarantees that might have been extended to it, Stengel said “There is no loan guarantee in place for this project, now or previously.”

He added, “We are confident in our ability to finance the project at the appropriate time.”

Stengal went on to say, “[The] project complements our other solar plants along the Interstate-10 corridor and interconnections with the CAISO transmission grid.”

However, there is currently no start date for construction of the facility.

“It could begin after we have received the necessary permit amendments, however, it will not begin until after we have secured a customer for the output of the plant,” Stengal explained.

He added, “It’s not likely to begin before 2014.”

A similar timetable also applies to another project in the process of being re-permitted for a conversion from CSP to PV, the massive and also as-yet-inbuilt Calico Solar project being undertaken by K Road Power.

The petition to amend that project not only asks for permission to go from a mix of stirling engine CSP technology and solar panels to all photovoltaics, but also reduces the size of the project from just over 4,600 acres to about 3,850, and its generation capacity from 663.5 MW to 618 MW.

K Road bought the historically delayed project from Tessera Solar in 2010 after Southern California Edison canceled its contract to buy power from the project.

The following year, Stirling Energy Systems, manufacturer of the technology that was to be employed at the plant – giant parabolic mirrors that would heat hydrogen gas which would drive a generator to create electricity – declared bankruptcy, forcing the dramatic change in plans.

Officials from K Road did not respond to requests for comments, but Greg Miller, Renewable Energy Program Manager for the federal Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District, said construction of the Calico Solar plant will also not likely start until 2014.

Why the long timeline for a switch to already existing technology? Basically, because conversion of these large-scale projects is tantamount to turning a large ocean liner at sea - you’ll presumably eventually get to where you want to be, but it’s going to take some effort.

“Generally, solar projects that switch from solar thermal to PV would go to the local jurisdiction where the project is located since the California Energy Commission licenses thermal power plants 50 MW and larger,” said Sandy Louey, the agency’s information officer.

But that process didn’t apply in either the case of the Blythe or Calico projects because of two pieces of legislation.

“Blythe was eligible for [California] Senate Bill 226, which allowed the commission to retain jurisdiction over certain projects that the commission approved as solar thermal and later switched to PV only or a combination of solar thermal and PV, while Assembly Bill 1073 allowed Calico to use the Senate Bill 226 process.

Under that umbrella, the proposed amendments to both projects were filed with the commission in late June.

According to Louey, “Commission staff has not completed their review of either amendment, so a timetable for the processing of the amendments has not yet been developed. Thus, the commission cannot speculate whether the amendment process will be shorter or longer than a new certification.”

To date, two other solar thermal projects that the commission approved in 2010 – the Beacon Solar Energy project and the Imperial Valley Solar project – have also indicated they plan to switch from solar thermal to PV, but the status of those plans is very much up in the air.

As this article went to press, representatives of LADWP and AES Solar, owners of the respective projects, did not respond to requests for comment.

“Clearly, there are conversions from CSP to PV in the works, but whether you can call this a trend or not is not for me to say,” said the Bureau of Land Management’s Miller.

“We’re a land management agency, not market analysts,” he said.

As implied by Miller’s description, the bureau is the federal agency that grants project developers the right to build projects on land it manages. The grant is in reality, a granting of a right-of-way, rather than a lease.

“It grants a right-of-way for those lands for the purpose we authorize,” Miller explained.

Conversion of a project from CSP to PV technology means the agency has to revisit the developer’s intentions, taking the project, if not back to square one, then “at least to square seven,” he said.

“We ask them to submit an amended application for a grant that tells us what their proposed technology change is going to be, and an updated plan for development that tells us exactly what they are going to do, how they are going to do it and where they are going to do it,” Miller said.

“Then we review that to see if the National Environmental Policy Act process we used in considering the CSP project is still valid, or whether we will have to review the project again for a supplemental environmental impact determination,” he said.

Miller said K Road has provided the agency with a new development plan that is currently under BLM review, and that his office is moving forward with the development of a supplemental environmental impact statement for the project.

Interestingly, that process exposes project backers to something most developers of large-scale projects try to avoid – the reopening of their proposed project to public comment.

In this case, Miller said, the plan amendment itself requires a 90-day public comment period and the supplemental EIS requires an additional 45 days of public comment.

“It gets a little confusing to people because we are, effectively, approving two things at once: We are approving a right-of-way for a large-scale solar facility, and at the same time, we are approving the designation of particular parcel as suitable for solar development,” he said.

Asked about other activity in the desert region he oversees, Miller said the project that’s furthest along is the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, which was conceived as a CSP project and is staying one.

There are also two NextEra facilities in development, Desert Sunlight, which is strictly photovoltaic, and Genesis, which is a solar trough project and is staying that way.

All three are currently under construction.

Given the amount of the pre-construction work that goes into the conversion of a proposed CSP plant to PV, one would assume the companies involved as seriously committed to photovoltaics and aren’t anticipating further changes in the future.

“That’s our assumption as well,” Miller confirmed. “But the Bureau of Land Management is not in the business of speculating what the companies are going to do in the future. Our primary concern is looking at what they are planning today in terms of their plans for development.”


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The petition to amend can be found on the right side of the page, while the notice of the petition to amend is on the left side of the page.