Bill passed to ease massive Calico Solar project

The California Assembly on May 10 approved a law that would allow the developer of a controversial solar power project to bypass local agencies and go directly in front of the state energy commission.

AB 1703 allows developers to go directly to the California Energy Commission with its application for approval. San Bernardino County, where the project is situated, will have no say.

K Road Power‘s proposed 663-MW Calico Solar plant is seen by environmentalists as ecologically damaging to the California desert. The bill was approved by the Senate in March and passed 56-10 in the Assembly on May 10. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign the bill.

California is under pressure to meet its aggressive renewable portfolio standard to get 33% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

State and federal government officials have emphasized how regulatory agencies have cooperated to make projects economically viable while satisfying environmental objections. Some projects, including Calico, have reconfigured their footprints to avoid environmentally sensitive areas. But not enough, according to some opponents.

“While an encouraging number of project developers here in California have embraced this challenge, one in particular — K-Road Power’s Calico Solar Project — exemplifies solar done wrong. And legislation now before the Assembly — AB 1073 — that would give the Calico project special treatment is equally wrong,” the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote before the bill’s passage. “Passage of AB 1073 will undermine efforts of California’s environmental community to continue to do what California’s elected leaders, including the Speaker of the Assembly and the Governor, have asked us to do — namely, to work hard with the solar industry to find ways to site large-scale solar projects in the desert while protecting unique and sensitive wildlife and other natural resources in order that the State can meet its aggressive and precedent-setting renewable energy goals.”

In March, the NRDC and other groups filed a lawsuit to block construction of the Calico project.

K Road said it needed quick action because it faces a June 30 deadline to apply for approval from the California Energy Commission.

The project was originally proposed for 850 MW by Tessera Solar as a thermal solar power plant on a 8,230-acre site. The site was later reduced to 4,613 acres to accommodate endangered desert tortoises.

In 2010, Southern California Edison backed out of its power purchase agreement. K Road acquired the project and announced plans to convert it from solar thermal to solar photovoltaic technology.