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Saharan Solar, Part 1: A Wild-Eyed Vision

American readers of this blog will have noted that the rush to build utility-scale solar facilities is not confined to the desert Southwest, but has become a global phenomenon, as exemplified by the Spanish experience.  As Abengoa and BrightSource have proven these facilities can be constructed in the developed world, there has been an emerging interest in pushing for them in the developing world, as well.

The Trans-Mediterranean Vision

Enter: DESERTEC.  A wild-eyed, and possibly insane, dream of well-meaning industrialists from Germany, it proposed to finance a series of utility-scale solar and wind facilities across the Maghreb, and in particular the northern reaches of the Sahara.  They would then construct sub-Mediterranean power connections to EU countries, providing them with “cheap”, “abundant”, “renewable” energy.  Take a look at the map below.

DESERTEC's initial plan.  Nothing like that upbeat, can-do German attitude.

DESERTEC’s initial plan. Nothing like that upbeat, can-do German attitude.

It was madness.  Conceived in 2009, when it appeared that the economic crisis might be behind us, it had a proposed price tag of €400 billion.  One more time, that’s FOUR HUNDRED BILLION EUROS (about $550 billion at 2009 exchange rates).  While that’s a staggering amount of money in any context, imagine it in terms of European economies: it’s equivalent to the entire GDP of Belgium.  Incidentally, it’s about the same amount as Europe spent on oil imports in 2012.

Initially this project it was conceived by the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation, which emerged as a joint venture by the Club of Rome (a high-profile European think-tank that has inspired truly insane Illuminati comparisons) and Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan.  They then incorporated into the non-profit DESERTEC Foundation, which functions as both a think-tank and clearing-house, bringing together renewable energy research arms of Maghreb governments, such as Morocco’s CDER (Centre de Développement des Energies Renouvelables, possibly now defunct based on the ancient website), and University researchers from around Europe.

Dii's Investors, from www.Dii-eumena.com

Dii’s Investors, from www.Dii-eumena.com

Realizing that a non-profit alone couldn’t push through a project this big, the DESERTEC Foundation then participated in the forming of Dii (which ostensibly stands for the DESERTEC Industrial Initiative, though they rarely come out and say it), a limited liability German corporation which was to promote the project more directly through investment.  The companies involved in Dii are a veritable Who’s Who of European finance and energy, both private and public, including Deutsche Bank, Abengoa, First Solar, Terna (the Italian energy giant), the Spanish Red Eléctrica (which operates the national grid); hell even oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell got in on the action.

However, as the financial crisis persisted, investing in hyper-sized energy projects began to seem like a suspect idea.  Last year, the German tech giants Bosch and Siemens, who both have been instrumental in many solar projects both in Europe and the U.S., withdrew from Dii.

The other shoe finally dropped last week, when, in rather dramatic fashion, the DESERTEC Foundation withdrew from Dii altogether, citing “communication issues” (hat tip to Chris Clarke).  DESERTEC co-founder Thiemo Gropp cited Dii’s abandonment of the trans-Mediterranean transmisison element as the primary reason.  As to the loss of the huge corporate backing for DESERTEC, Gropp said that, “They are big names but they have produced small results.”  Pretty tough words to be hurling at some of biggest names in renewable energy in Europe.  Dii predictably  has fought back, essentially calling DESERTEC irrelevant.  But there is some validity to what Gropp says, as Dii has slowly backed down from the initial DESERTEC vision, as the economic situation has grown more and more perilous.  (I’ll have more on the dissolution of DESERTEC in a different post)

Morocco Goes It Alone (with a little help from their friends…)

European political wrangling aside, there is still a market for clean energy in developing countries, particularly with financial incentives such as Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) available.  That link goes to a pretty thorough explanation of CDM, but the basic principle, established in the Kyoto Protocol, is that rich countries can invest in “clean development” projects in poor countries, and earn tradable carbon credits which can be applied to carbon markets.  Since Europe has a functional carbon credit trading market, European governments and countries were quick to move in the face of DESERTEC intransigence.

A sign along the highway at the site for the Ouarzazate CSP complex.

A sign along the highway at the site for the Ouarzazate CSP complex.

MASEN, the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy, was more than happy to facilitate.  Thus was born the Ouarzazate CSP Project, a 500MW parabolic trough solar plant to be constructed just outside the desert city of Ouarzazate, Morocco.  The project is funded by a dizzying array of entities, including the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the EU itself, the European Investment Bank (the EU’s central bank), the German government, and the French government.  The project is owned by ACWA Power, a Saudi water and energy conglomerate backed by Saudi government money.  It will be executed by Acciona and SENER, two Spanish civil engineering firms which have been heavily involved in European utility-scale solar and wind projects, as well as Grupo TSK, a Spanish photovoltaic developer.

Not intending to be flip, it’s a bit surprising that Morocco actually has a fairly rigorous set of environmental review laws in place.  That, combined with money flowing from the World Bank and African Development Bank, and relatively strict CDM regulations, mean that the Ouarzazate plant has had a relatively thorough environmental review process.  The complete set of documents can be viewed here, but I’ll spare you the trouble, and review the particulars of the Ouarzazate CSP facility in the next post in this series.  You can also check out the Ouarzazate CDM certification here.

It should be noted that the CDM has drawn lots of fire, for enabling rich countries to continue polluting, while getting carbon credits on the cheap.  While Germany is funding this 500MW worth of solar in Morocco, with a total price tag of $2.65 billion, it is also adding a whopping 5,300MW of new coal-fired power plants in 2013.  After Fukushima, a reactionary German public decided they weren’t in favor of nuclear power after all, and decided to close all 17 nuclear reactors in the nation, which represented 22.4% of demand at the time.  While German deployment of solar, particularly on rooftops, is admirable, it’s just not a very sunny place.  And since DESERTEC’s ambitious plans for shipping solar energy across the Mediterranean appear to be twisting in the wind, countries like Germany apparently have little choice but to add more dirty coal to their energy mix.

Part 2 of this series will be coming shortly, with details from my site visit to the Ouarzazate Solar facility, or at least the patch of Sahara which will one day become that facility…

Detail of the heliostat access roads in concentric circles at Ivanpah.  Photo courtesy Jamey Stillings.

To Grade or Not to Grade…

Amongst the many site-based impacts of utility-scale solar facilities is the amount of terrain required to be graded, and how severe such grading needs to be.  The classic solar facilities like those seen at Kramer Junction, California, required a completely clean scrape- grading the entire site to a 0% grade, rendering it essentially a parking lot without the asphalt.  Newer facilities such as the infamous Ivanpah* SEGS purport to be an alternative, a kinder, gentler utility-scale solar facility, with far less grading than earlier designs.  But does it matter?

For our brief analysis here, we’ll take a look at three different facilities, employing three different technologies (all links go to BLM’s Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] pages): the Genesis Solar Energy Project, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, and the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm.  Genesis employs parabolic trough technology, the infamous Ivanpah (OK, I’m done for this post) utilizes concentrating power tower technology, and Desert Sunlight is a photovoltaic plant.

Parabolic troughs at Plataforma Solúcar in Sevilla province, Spain

Parabolic troughs at Plataforma Solúcar in Sevilla province, Spain

Genesis Solar Energy Project

Genesis, a 250MW nameplate capacity facility sited on 1,950 acres of Public Land, is certainly the most heavy-handed of the three when it comes to grading.  Parabolic troughs, by the very nature of their technology, require extremely flat land.  They concentrate sunlight in trough-shaped mirrors, focusing on a central clear glass tube which is full of a thermal transfer medium, usually oil.  This medium is then brought to a conventional heat engine, where (as with almost every other form of energy production known to man, except wind and photovoltaics) it is used to heat water, which boils into steam, which spins a turbine, thus generating electricity.  The length of the troughs and tubes, and their rather sensitive alignment, means that almost perfectly flat ground is required for the facilities.

Water diversion scheme for Genesis Solar Power Project, as depicted in the EIS.

Water diversion scheme for Genesis Solar Power Project, as depicted in the EIS.

Genesis, built in the Chuckwalla Valley outside of Desert Center, CA, required substantial alteration of local hydrology.  The entire 1,950 acre site was graded, resulting in 1,000,000 cubic yards of earth being moved, and substantially altering the function of 90 acres of ephemeral washes (90 acres of washes means literally hundreds or maybe even thousands of washes, given their linear nature and low acreage).  Water from all washes crossing the site was diverted in massive engineered drainage channels, which  send the water across the site and downslope in concentrated waterways. This causes downstream peak flow rates to increase dramatically, in some cases by as much as 300%, which increases downslope erosion, and potentially will “dry out” certain areas that are no longer receiving sheet flow. In order to attempt to slow down outgoing storm water, NextEra proposed to utilize hydraulic energy dissapators and downstream riprap splash pads. BLM and CEC were skeptical enough of the success of this plan that they required ongoing downstream monitoring for erosion and altered sediment loads, and revision of mitigation plans as needed.

CEC photos of the aftermath of the Genesis flood (courtesy of Basin and Range Watch)

CEC photos of the aftermath of the Genesis flood (courtesy of Basin and Range Watch)

There is some irony in the amount of time and effort spent discussing storm water diversion on this site in the EIS, given what happened in Summer of 2012. A powerful desert rainstorm, certainly not uncommon in the area, dropped 3.5” of water on the site in less than six hours, causing a massive flash flood. The project, which was still under construction at the time, experienced about $5 million in damages, as flood waters raced across the actual project site, breeching the flood channels and destroying solar panels. Afterwards, it was found that the channels silted up to the point where they could not accept water, hence the breech. According to NextEra, the channels and other flood control structures were not completely finished in their construction. But it was certainly a potent reminder that the desert’s hydrological patterns cannot be easily altered.

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System

An example of a concentrating solar power tower facility, Gemasolar, Sevilla province, Spain

An example of a concentrating solar power tower facility, Gemasolar, Sevilla province, Spain

More has been written about Ivanpah than I really care to reiterate here, so I’ll just give you a few links.  It is a concentrating solar power tower facility, wherein sunlight is reflected from dispersed heliostats (mirrors on modular bases) to a central, tall tower, which contains a steam engine generating power just like at Genesis.

Ivanpah’s unique design means that its footprint is substantially different than that of Genesis.  The heliostats’ sole function is to focus sunlight on the power tower, tracking the sun throughout the day to maximize the amount of reflected light.  Given that there are 214,000 heliostats, each individual heliostat is relatively unimportant to the overall project. As such, rather than grading off the entire 3,500 acre area which is covered by heliostats, BrightSource is generally maintaining the hydrographic profile of the area underneath the heliostats, grading and diverting water only around the power blocks, which is where the power towers are located.  Grading would result in the moving of about 250,000 cubic yards of fill, or one quarter as much as Genesis, spread over an area two times as large, which yields, by this particular measurement, a grading intensity one eighth as much as that of Genesis.  Additionally, however, there were concentring rings of heliostat access roads graded, adding somewhat to the hydrological impacts of the project.

Detail of the heliostat access roads in concentric circles at Ivanpah.  Photo courtesy Jamey Stillings.

Detail of the heliostat access roads in concentric circles at Ivanpah. Photo courtesy Jamey Stillings.

In the plans for reduced grading, BrightSource purports to adhere to the principles of Low Impact Design (LID).  LID is a set of principles intended to guide development such that it minimizes its impact on water resources, for instance by promoting natural flow regimes, by promoting groundwater recharge, and other virtuous impacts.  And indeed, compared to a wholesale grading of all 3,500 acres, they have minimized the impact of their design.  But the CEC/BLM staff who prepared the EIS are skeptical of the project’s success in this regard: “Even with these LID methods employed, project development would likely have effects that result in reduced storm water infiltration and increased runoff,”.  And indeed, the EIS reveals substantial changes to the hydrology during peak flow events: a 10-year storm event would see a 3% increase in peak flow volume after construction, with a 16% increase in maximum water velocity; while a 100-year storm event would see a 4.5% increase in peak flow volume, with a very significant 44% increase in maximum water velocity.

Desert Sunlight Solar Farm

Desert Sunlight is a 550MW nameplate capacity photovoltaic plant, sited on 4,144 acres of Public Lands, also in the Chuckwalla Valley, in the same vicinity as Solar Genesis.  Photovoltaics, not requiring a heat transfer medium or other centralized energy production facilities, are much more flexible in their deployment.  They can be mounted on steep rooftops, undulating terrain, or even insanely steep slopes.  As a result, Desert Sunlight utilized what might be referred to as a selective grading system.

Grading schematic for Desert Sunlight, from the EIS. Blue shaded areas outlined in dark solid black are Type 1; those outlined in red are Type 2; and the remainder of the area within the hashed-line project boundary is Type 3. Areas outlined in green are proposed stormwater retention basins.

Grading schematic for Desert Sunlight, from the EIS. Blue shaded areas outlined in dark solid black are Type 1; those outlined in red are Type 2; and the remainder of the area within the hashed-line project boundary is Type 3. Areas outlined in green are proposed stormwater retention basins.

Type 1 grading, traditional cut-and-fill leveling off of the ground, occurred on 31% of the site.  They claim that they are using an “isolated cut/fill and roll” grading method (Type 2), which they also refer to as “micrograding,” on about 9% of the site; these areas retain their basic hydrographic form.  And on the remainder of the site, they used a novel type of grading they call “disc and roll,” (Type 3) wherein conventional farming equipment is used to mulch vegetation and compact the mulch and churned up soils into a uniformly flat surface.  These non-conventional grading plans mean that they reduced their cut-and-fill amount from 1,350,000 cubic yards to 755,000 cubic yards, an almost 45% reduction.  (It should be noted that some amount of searching reveals no previous instances of “disc and roll” grading in any previous environmental review documents for any project of any kind; nor is there any mention of this sort of grading via google searches.)

The exact relationship between these “lighter impact” grading techniques and the flow of water across the project site is unclear from the EIS.  The majority of the heavy Type 1 grading occurs at the northwest corner of the project site, the upslope side, where a number of ephemeral washes come into the site.  These washes actually flow through the site, but a series of retention basins is to be built in various locations across the site, to slow down incoming water and reduce flow volumes and speeds.  However, behind those retention basins lies the area most heavily graded, which is meant to only support sheet flow, not concentrated flow as occurs in a wash.  Downslope from this area is the portion of the site that is lightly graded, where presumably the natural drainage structure will remain intact.  The question then, is will the retention basins be enough to stop water from concentrating in the washes which flow across the site?  The modeling in the EIS shows nominal increases to peak flow volume and velocity, less than was revealed in the Ivanpah EIS.  But, as was revealed in the Genesis flood, the desert can behave in unexpected ways.  Additionally, the analysis as to adverse impacts to downstream riparian communities is far less rigorous in the Desert Sunlight EIS, as they seem to anticipate no downstream impacts.  This seems highly unlikely, given the still significant alteration of flow regimes that the Desert Sunlight grading plan entails.

The Real Question

In my mind, the real question is: so what?  I’ve been analyzing EIS’s like those referenced above for months, trying to determine if there is a significant difference in the level of on-the-ground impacts between them.  Sure, Genesis is a completely clean scrape, leaving nothing of the native flora or fauna or habitat intact.  But is Ivanpah any better?  Is it any better to leave the bottom 18″ of plants on the ground, in a vain attempt to maintain current hydrological flow patterns?  Or is that simply paying lip service to maintaining ecological function in a site that will be horrifically degraded for centuries to come?  Will Desert Sunlight’s “selective grading” yield a site that is better able to recover in fifty years, when those photovoltaic panels are so pathetically obsolete that they aren’t even worth recovering for scrap?  I’m not even really sure how to answer this question yet (I’m just not there yet in my research).  I’ve heard opinions that Ivanpah might have a substantially smaller long-term ecological footprint, as compared with a clean scrape like Genesis.  I’ve also heard opinions that it’s really not even worth examining if one is “less bad” than another, in terms of impact, because ultimately it’s like comparing a gut shot to a head shot- they’ll both kill you.  So, in parting, I’ll leave you with a video posted by this blog’s illustrious host, Chris Clarke.  It shows Ivanpah’s “light on the land” grading in action.

*I’ve decided that from now on, I’ll always refer to Ivanpah as infamous.  Or perhaps ignominious.

Valle Solar as seen from the summit of Simancón.

On visual impacts, landscape, and NIMBYism

Please note: all links heretofore on this blog will go to English language pages unless otherwise identified.  Inconsistency with that might have been a pain in the butt in previous posts.

The Iberian Peninsula.  Notable are the Sierra de Cádiz, encircled here, and the long white Valle de Guadalquivir, just to the north.

The Iberian Peninsula. Notable are the Sierra de Cádiz, encircled here, and the long white Valle de Guadalquivir, just to the north.

I’d spent much of the past week meeting with and discussing utility-scale solar siting policy.  I was ready for a break.  Someone I’d been talking with recommended that I check out the Parque Natural de Sierra Grazalema, so I did.  The park, which has a lower level of protection than a Parque Nacional, but higher than plain old public land (what of it exists), consists of a series of serrated limestone ridges.  Located in the heart of the Sierra de Cádiz, it is the wettest place on the entire Iberian peninsula, because of storms coming in off the Atlantic.  You can see why in the picture here, where I’ve expertly encircled them in Microsoft Paint.  The are the first and only elevated area that storms in the Gulf of Cádiz will hit, thus dumping an entire ocean’s crossing worth of moisture.

As you can see in this kind of junky map from the booster-ish group Protermosolar, much solar thermal development has been focused in the Guadalquivir Valley.

As you can see in this kind of junky map from the booster-ish group Protermosolar, much solar thermal development has been focused in the Guadalquivir Valley.

Also notable is the Valle de Guadalquivir, the long northeast to southwest trending white area, just to the north of the Sierra de Cádiz.  It is the area with the highest, most consistent solar insolation in all of Spain; as viewable in many solar insolation maps, the boundary of the area of highest insolation tracks directly the northern boundary of the Guadalquivir Valley.  And indeed, it is where the most active deployment of solar, particularly thermal solar, has been.

Anyway, after a week of meetings and plant visits, I really needed to partake in some activity that wasn’t related to utility-scale solar.  So I headed up to the Sierra Grazalema to play around in the mountains.  After taking off up a limestone ridge, I found myself standing on the summit of the peak Simancón, which at 1569m (5020′) is amongst the higher peaks in the Sierra de Cádiz.  I took in the view, and as I’m wont to do, began identifying features in the distance.  When low and behold, what did I see, but…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I knew it before I even knew it.  It’s the Valle Thermosolar Plant, a 100MW parabolic trough plant located outside of San José del Valle in the Cádiz Province of Andalucía.  It’s owned by Torresol Energy, who in turn is majority owned by Masdar a/k/a the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, which is a subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company, the official investment vehicle of the government of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.  And where does their money come from?  Americans buying their oil.  Yes, that’s right oil profits finding their way around the world to install utility-scale solar plants in the hinterland of southern Spain.

Valle Solar as seen from the summit of Simancón.

Valle Solar as seen from the summit of Simancón.

I was just shocked.  According to google maps, I was 25 miles (40 km) away by line of sight from Valle Termosolar.  And yet, there it was, and since the sun was directly behind me with respect to the plant, it actually was shimmering in the distance.  Check out this video (sorry- embedding doesn’t seem to work here) to see it a bit better.

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Now, I’m no NIMBY-ist.  And, in fact, NIMBY-ism has gotten a really bad name.  With regards to renewable energy, Cape Wind is certainly the most prominent case of NIMBY-ism in American history, featuring the politically powerful Kennedy family not wanting their views from the compound in Hyannis Port destroyed by wind turbines visible in the distance.  As a result, NIMBY-ism is now politically impalatable to the point where arguments are rarely made about visual impacts of projects in America.

In Europe, however, things are different.  NIMBYs still hold lots of sway in British energy politics.  In Spain, there has been a large academic focus on conceptions of landscape, and how landscape planning and integrity are compromised by the dispersion of solar energy developments.  Profesora Maria José Prados (enlase en Español), of the Universidad de Sevilla, has written extensively on this topic, including a prominent article in the highly influential journal Energy Policy, which somebody may have posted a PDF of here, and which that same somebody would highly recommend you reading if you’re interested in understanding the utility-scale solar scene in Spain.

I’m planning on writing a whole post about Spanish academics’ work on landscape integrity and renewable energy, but it is worth noting that it is a variation on the NIMBY argument- their issue with the way that utility-scale solar has been deployed is that it has been in an unplanned fashion, causing dispersed impacts on the landscape, which then shapes how people view the landscape around them, and perhaps how they treat it.  This PDF of a power point (in English), from Doctora Marina Frolova at the Universidad de Granada, gives another good look at what Spanish academics refer to as “landscape” integrity.

Americans might scoff at such NIMBY sounding concerns.  And yet, with some degree of fanfare, film director Robert Lundahl debuted his anticipated documentary “Who Are My People?”, a film which explores the conflict between Native Americans in the California desert and large-scale renewables, which they say are destroying their culture.  And most Americans probably wouldn’t dispute that Native Americans have a valid position to take regarding the desecration of land that is holy to them.  And yet, isn’t this another form of NIMBY?

My point is, in denegrating the concerns of the British or the Kennedys as “just NIMBY-ism”, but exalting the arguments of Native Americans as a valid concern for their spiritual birthright, we are both valorizing and essentializing Native Americans and their connection to the earth, while implying that Western Culture has no legitimate claim to a spiritual connection with place.  This is exactly what the Spanish are getting at- landscape concerns aren’t NIMBY-ism, they are about a Spanish territorial identity- an identity forged of a relationship to the land, dating back millenia, which is being rapidly changed by renewable energy deployment.  And perhaps, in their own crude, privileged, gauche way, this is what the Kennedys are getting at: that they have a spiritual or otherwise important psychological connection to the views from Hyannis Port, and that wind mills in the distance are a legitimate concern of theirs.

Standing at the top of Simancón, I reacted to the sight of a utility-scale solar plant the same way I reacted upon seeing the Mojave Generating Station from the top of the Dead Mountains in the California Desert, or upon seeing the extensive oil fields of the Pinedale Anticline from the top of the Wind River Mountains- concern for the local environment, and yes, some degree of personal dissatisfaction at having what is, for me, a spiritual experience of viewing a landscape from on high, impeded by an industrialized landscape.  I’m not using this post to take a stand in favor of NIMBY-ism, but what I am doing is asking people to reconsider why the knee-jerk reaction is to consider NIMBY an invalid argument.  We humans are a part of the landscape, and if we consider something to have negative impacts to that landscape, simply from an aesthetic point of view, isn’t that an argument worth considering?

I’ll be exploring this topic more this summer, but… please feel free to leave your thoughts below!

A utility-scale solar facility in Spain built on an incredible severe grade.

Spanish Solar Steep Slope inSanity!

Spanish utility-scale solar developers apparently have little concern for the slopes upon which they build photovoltaic plants, resulting in absolutely insane, erosion-causing, likely self-endangering developments such as this one.

A utility-scale solar facility in Spain built on an incredible severe grade.

A utility-scale solar facility in Spain built on an incredibly severe grade.

American utility-scale solar developments have a variety of laws governing their permitting, chief amongst them our beloved National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA), which requires rigorous environmental impact assessment on all proposals involving the federal government in any way.  California, too has the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), passed just a few months after NEPA, which gives a similar level of scrutiny to state-only projects, as well as enhancing the level of NEPA’s review in many cases.  

One of the chief areas of impacts examined under NEPA/CEQA is impacts to soil resources and hydrology.  Because building a facility like the one above will inevitably cause terrible erosion, by denuding the slopes of the vegetation which hold down their soil, utility-scale solar developers in California have been forced to limit the areas they can build to relatively flat places.  For example, the Solar PEIS, BLM’s programmatic evaluation of solar on Public Lands in the southwest, excluded all areas with slopes greater than 5% from consideration for development.  

In practice, developers need even flatter areas.  Ivanpah SEGS, which was able to built on a “steeper” slope of 1.7%, because it didn’t require wholesale grading of the site, is probably amongst the steeper that will ever be built in the U.S. [Link to EIS from BLM].  BLM’s own regs state that photovoltaics, like the Spanish sites pictured here, need to be sited at a 3% grade or less.

Water diversion scheme for Genesis Solar Power Project, as depicted in the EIS.

Water diversion scheme for Genesis Solar Power Project, as depicted in the EIS.

The alternative is to dramatically alter the native hydrology, as occurred with the Genesis Solar Power Project, a 250MW parabolic trough project sited near Desert Center, CA.  [Link to the EIS from BLMinfo from CECinfo from NREL.]  In order to properly set up the troughs, they needed to grade the entire 1,950 acre site to a 1% or less grade, requiring the movement of over a million cubic yards of fill (picture a 1500 mile long convoy of standard sized dump trucks).  But this of course, dramatically altered the local hydrology: to prevent a catastrophic flood, they had to build massive water diversion ditches, a schematic of which can be seen here.  And still, during construction Genesis experienced what can only be described as a catastrophic flood.

Spain’s environmental review process, on the other hand, is much more rudimentary.  One of the things I’m focusing on this summer is getting my hands on Spanish EIS’s for utility-scale solar plants here, to compare the way they assess impacts, and how that may inform whether or not a plant gets built.  Clearly, impacts to hydrology were not thoroughly considered with these facilities.  All the pictures come from a paper by Prof. Matías Mérida at the University of Málaga, in which he develops a typology of impacts from photovoltaic plants.  I’ll write more about his typology in a future post.  You can see the original Spanish version here [PDF, with pictures] or a crudely Google Translate-translated English version here [PDF, no pictures].  (Even so, Google Translate still seems like magic to me.)  Unfortunately, I do not have a good source yet for which specific solar facilities these shots come from in Spain- I’m currently in correspondence with Prof. Mérida about it and will update this post when I find out.  Still, just gaze in wonder, and be grateful that this is one particular problem that utility-scale solar watchers in the U.S. don’t have to contend with.

merida2

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Various iterations of the Stirling Engine, the oldest to the left and most recent to the right, a technology that has yet to prove commercially viable at utility-scale.

A Fascinating Visit to Europe’s Biggest Utility-Scale Solar Research Facility: Plataforma Solar de Almería

It may have felt a bit like peering into the belly of the beast, but yesterday I had the rare opportunity to visit the Plataforma Solar de Almería (PSA), the Spanish government’s main utility-scale solar research facility, and the largest such facility in Europe.  Political concerns about the siting of utility-scale solar facilities aside, it was truly fascinating from a history of technology viewpoint to see the evolution of solar thermal technology from the early ’80s to today.

The earliest parabolic trough system on the planet, Accurex.  Much smaller than current technologies, it also covered more ground.  These are turned downward so the tubes don't break in the sun.

The earliest parabolic trough system on the planet, Accurex. Much smaller than current technologies, it also covered more ground. These are turned downward so the tubes don’t break in the sun.

Plataforma Solar de Almería

Screen grab from Google Maps of the Plataforma Solar de Almería. Clearly visible are several iterations of solar power tower, as well as parabolic trough and other technologies.

The Plataforma Solar de Almería is in southeastern Andalucía, Spain’s sun-drenched southermost autonomía, in an area called the Desierto de Tabernas, the only desert in Europe (Google Maps link).  According to worldclimate.com data, Almería, the local provincial capital (provinces in Spain are roughly analogous to counties in the U.S.) receives 8.8″ of rain per year, the very definition of a desert.  According to the PSA staff, the Tabernas desert has over 3000 hours of good solar insolation per year.  Considering that 4350 hours per year are at night, that’s a truly remarkable amount of sunlight for such relatively northern latitudes (at 37°N, it is roughly equivalent to San Francisco or the Central Plains in the U.S.- you gotta love the jet stream!).

SSPS/CRS

SSPS-CRS, the world’s first solar power tower facility, constructed in 1981.

While facilities such as the early Luz plants in Israel (Luz went bankrupt and reformed itself as the now-industry-leading BrightSource Energy some years later) and the many Kramer Junction SEGSs in the Mojave Desert were innovators in concentrating solar thermal technology, they really owe their root technologies to the PSA.  The PSA built the world’s first concentrating solar power tower AND the world’s first parabolic trough designs in 1981, further refining both technolgies during the remainder of the 1980s.

Private enterprise has dominated such fields of technological innovation in the past few decades in the United States, but the PSA is fully funded by the Spanish Government, through its Centro de Investigaciones Energéticas, Medioambientales, y Tecnológicas (CIEMAT).  It also collaborates with government research bodies from other European countries, notably Germany.  Technologies are then leased or sold to private enterprises, through our tour guide was vague on fee structures and terms on such contracts.

Parts of the PSA seemed like a veritable solar graveyard, as old or abandoned technologies slowly bleach in the sun.

Parts of the PSA seemed like a veritable solar graveyard, as old or abandoned technologies slowly bleach in the sun.

On to the technology!  We got to view the world’s first solar power tower facility, the SSPS-CRS (the Small Solar Power System- Central Receiver System, weird that they gave it an English name and acronym), which amazingly was constructed over 30 years ago, in 1981.  When used to generate power, it employed  around 100 heliostats, each with an independent small PV cell to power their movement (check out the picture here), focusing their light on a 42m tall tower, creating a whopping 500kW of energy.  In the intervening years, with its pioneering technology long eclipes, the SSPS-CRS has been used for fascinating research in the splitting of water and hydrocarbon molecules to generate free hydrogren atoms, with potential applications in artificial photosynthesis.

CESA-I at PSA

The CESA-I, from 1983, a more refined solar power tower facility which resembles the modern technologies of today.

A few years later in 1983, they upgraded this technology significantly, with the CESA I (I’m a bit ashamed to say I did not catch what this acronym stands for), a 84m tower with 300 heliostats, capable of generating 1.2MW.  The CESA I bears much more resemblance to the towers which we know today, from plants in Spain, the United States, and elsewhere.  [For especially nerdy readers who also can read Spanish, here’s a picture of the interpretive sign for the power towers.]  Remarkably, it can generate temperatures of up to 1500°C (some 2700°F)!  Compared to Ivanpah’s meager sounding 1050°F, this sounds very impressive.  One would imagine that Ivanpah’s technology makes better use of the already high temperatures it has, such that temperatures hot enough to melt metal aren’t necessary (seriously, look at this picture).

Various iterations of the Stirling Engine, the oldest to the left and most recent to the right, a technology that has yet to prove commercially viable at utility-scale.

Various iterations of the Stirling Engine, the oldest to the left and most recent to the right, a technology that has yet to prove commercially viable at utility-scale.

Solar power tower wasn’t the only technology on display at the PSA, though it was certainly the most impressive.  Early incarnations of parabolic trough designs, much smaller (just a few feet across), and more heavily concentrated, so that almost no sunlight reached the ground, were scattered about the site (Spanish parabolic trough interpretive sign). The entire evolution of the Stirling engine was also visible, from a black dish to a curved mirror system.  And all around, like a graveyard of solar technologies, were decommissioned panels, troughs, cells, dishes, and every other possible incarnation of solar energy technology.

And so it was a day at the Plataforma Solar de Almería to forget about politics for a minute, and simply enjoy the fascinating path of technological development over the past 30 years.  The center focuses on technology, not siting, and thus is able to stay above the political fray.  And perhaps the visit also offered some hope- if humanity, when properly motivated, can devise such ingenious and seemingly miraculous ways to transform sunlight into energy, surely we can find appropriate places to site such technologies.  I left feeling optimistic, that utility-scale solar, if its siting and impacts are properly considered, could be a force for good in our future energy mix.

Through a bit of research serendipity, my trip to Andalucía this summer happened to coincide with a field studies program from Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes and Global Technology and Development Program.  They had thirty enthusiastic undergraduate and graduate students, who were touring many of the facilities I was interested in visiting, and were gracious enough to let me tag along.  (Huge thanks are in order to Sharlissa Moore, a brilliant doctoral candidate at ASU who will be spending the next four months in Rabat, Morocco, doing field work for her dissertation on the DESERTEC project, amongst other solar intiatives in the MENA area).

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Hear That?

Before last summer, I had never actually stood in front of a utility-scale solar thermal plant.  We simply didn’t have any (at the time) that had finished being constructed yet in California!  While photovoltaic (PV) utility-scale solar facilities are, by their very nature, quiet, solar thermal facilities are a different story.  All solar thermal, be it parabolic trough, power tower, or even the mythical Stirling engine, operate on the same basic principle as every conventional power plant humanity has ever designed: heat up a liquid to its boiling point, and use the steam generated to spin a turbine.  Which leaves us with either billowing clouds of steam (not very efficient) or re-condensed and extremely hot liquid, requiring some form of cooling, typically in the form of what are essentially giant air conditioners.

Thus, a utility-scale solar thermal plant is actually extremely noisy!  Listen to this brief video from the Solnova Parabolic Trough facility, part of the Plataforma Solúcar, owned by Abengoa, near Sanlucar la Mayor, Andalucía, Spain (map link).  The whine could be heard from over a kilometer away.

(If the embedded video isn’t working, click here)

Satellite view of Solúcar Platform, near Sevilla in Andalucía, Spain

Drawing a Line in the Sand: In Search of Sensible Utility-Scale Solar Policy

Hello!  Welcome to my new blog, “Miracle or Mirage? Tracking utility-scale solar around the globe.”  This post is an introduction to my work.  Please keep an eye on this space, as I’ll be updating frequently over the next few months with notes from the field.

Large-scale solar energy facilities have been amongst the most visible incarnations of proposed solutions to the problem of global climate change.  Beginning in the middle part of the 2000′s, a veritable gold rush of solar development began, as energy companies sought to cash in on lavish state subsidies while benefiting from legislation which mandated renewable energy production.  As a result, landscapes in remote areas have been transformed, turning formerly pastoral areas or those largely unused by humans into industrialized energy production zones.

Ivanpah SEGS as seen from the air

Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, Mojave Desert, CA.
Photo: © Jamey Stillings, New York Times Magazine

For most people who have found this blog, this is an old story.  However many Americans are unaware that the current utility-scale solar boom in the desert Southwest is not unique: Spain, for example, has a higher level of deployment both on per-capita and absolute bases.  And indeed, they have experienced significant boom-and-bust cycles, as governmental market supports dissolved in the face of economic uncertainty.  Utility-scale solar has also been deployed in Israel, Germany, South Africa, Morocco, India, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are some common threads:

  • In almost all cases, there have been significant government subsidies, legislative mandates, and market supports to promote utility-scale solar.  Frequently these will also have deadlines for commencing production, meaning there is a rush for development.
  • As a result of this rush to meet incentive deadlines, environmental review processes have often been expedited and/or forgone altogether.
  • By the very nature of these facilities, their sheer size and internal intensity of development, land use patterns have changed.  In some places, notably America and Morocco, this has meant development on previously undisturbed, largely “unused” areas.  In other places, notably Spain and South Africa, this has meant displacement of agriculture.

None of this is to cast an absolute value judgement on utility-scale solar projects.  There are instances of “good” utility-scale solar projects, with adequate environmental review processes, appropriate siting, and thoroughly mitigated (or negligible) environmental impacts; just as there are instances of “bad” projects, with hurried and cursory environmental reviews, poor siting, and severe and unmitigatable environmental impacts.

Satellite view of Solúcar Platform, near Sevilla in Andalucía, Spain

Screen capture from Google Earth of Platforma Solúcar, a complex of solar thermal projects near Sevilla, Andalucía, Spain

For my research summer, I have been awarded a Haas Scholars Research Fellowship from the University of California, Berkeley, to investigate policy-making processes and implementation of utility-scale solar projects in the United States, Spain, and Morocco.  My goal is to conduct a comparative analysis of Spanish and U.S. policy, finding what similarities exist, and to extract some “lessons learned” from the Spanish experience, as their deployment of utility-scale solar has been several years ahead that in the United States.  To read my abstract, you can click here [PDF].

In this space, I’ll be regularly posting portions of my field notes.  This could be photos or descriptions from site visits to facilities in Spain, Morocco, and California; snippets from interviews with policy-makers or community members; particularly interesting tidbits from Environmental Impact Statements or solar-enabling legislation; or really anything else that comes down the pike as my investigations unfold.

With my work this summer, I hope to draw a line in the sand.  Utility-scale solar, if deployed in the correct way, could be a key facet of humanity’s response to the negative climate impacts of our energy consumption.  However, as it currently stands, it appears in many ways to be a utility-scale boondoggle: sucking down government subsidies and fundamentally altering local environments, while ultimately showing negligible benefits to overall energy production patterns.  Sensible policy reforms could promote sensible utility-scale solar deployment.

And so, we’re off!  I’m writing this post from a small apartment where I’m currently staying in Sevilla, in the south of Spain.  I’ll spend this week trying to track down EIS’s and talking to people in the towns near the Solúcar Platform (depicted above).  Please feel free to contact me either through this blog, or via email (donnellyshores AT berkeley DOT edu)- I’d love to hear from others who share my interest and passion in this topic.  Until then… Saludos!