BLM sharply reduces size of Soda Mountain solar project in California

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has prepared a Proposed California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) Plan Amendment and Joint Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Environmental Impact Report (EIR) in cooperation with San Bernardino County, Calif., for the Soda Mountain Solar Project.

The proposed project is a 358-MW photovoltaic (PV) facility, along with supporting infrastructure, in rural San Bernardino County. After review, the BLM’s Preferred Alternative identified in the Final EIS excludes the proposed northern solar array, includes the applicant’s proposed alignment for Rasor Road, and excludes the proposed brine ponds associated with reverse osmosis treatment of groundwater. The BLM’s Preferred Alternative would reduce the project size from 2,557 to 1,923 acres, and decrease its output from 358 to 264 MW, said BLM in a notice to be published in the June 8 Federal Register.

Any protests must be filed within 30 days of the date that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publishes its notice of availability of the proposed plan amendment/final EIS in the Federal Register.

The BLM had received a right-of-way (ROW) application from Soda Mountain Solar LLC for this facility. The project as proposed by the applicant would occupy approximately 2,557 acres, within a 4,170 right-of-way application area. The project is located along Interstate 15 (I-15), south of Blue Bell Mine Road, about 6 miles southwest of Baker, California, and 52 miles northeast of Barstow, California.

The BLM Preferred Alternative would eliminate the array north of Interstate 15 which would reduce the permitted project to 264 MW of solar energy.In connection with its decision on the proposed project, the BLM is considering an amendment to the CDCA Plan, as analyzed in the final EI CDCA Plan, while recognizing the potential compatibility of solar energy facilities on public lands, requires that all sites associated with power generation or transmission not identified in the CDCA Plan be considered through the land use plan amendment process. The BLM is deciding whether to amend the CDCA Plan to identify the project site as suitable or unsuitable for solar development.

The BLM published a Notice of Availability of the draft plan amendment/draft EIS and EIR for the Project in the Federal Register on November 29, 2013. The BLM and San Bernardino County held three public meetings: two in Barstow on January 8 and 9, 2014, and a third in Yucca Valley on January 11, 2014, to provide additional information to the public regarding the analysis.

“Soda Mountain Solar, LLC, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bechtel Development Company, Inc., a world-class contractor delivering high-quality, responsible development and reliable project execution,” said the website of the project developer. “The Soda Mountain Solar project is part of Bechtel’s commitment to advancing renewable energy development.”

Ron Tobler, project development manager for the Soda Mountain Solar project, said in a June 5 statement about the BLM action: “The final environmental impact statement is a milestone toward increasing California’s supply of clean, renewable energy. We look forward to reviewing the document to ensure we achieve our common goal to expand production of solar power in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”

The BLM said in a June 5 statement that its reduction of the size of the project responds to concerns raised by the public and partner agencies about the project’s potential impacts to bighorn sheep movement, groundwater and scenic vistas. The smaller project footprint reduces potential interference with future efforts to re-establish bighorn sheep movement across the interstate highway.

Eliminating the array of solar panels north of Interstate 15 provides for scenic vistas and ensures that the project will not be seen from most parts of the neighboring Mojave National Preserve, BLM added. The BLM is also proposing additional mitigation to reduce the project’s night lighting and dust emissions, and to provide further compensation for potential impacts to bighorn sheep populations.

The Final EIS also presents additional environmental analysis to address concerns raised about potential impacts, including an independently reviewed groundwater study verifying that the project’s water use would not measurably affect important nearby springs.

The BLM said it has approved 19 solar, wind and geothermal projects on public lands in California since 2010. Nationwide, the BLM has authorized 55 solar, wind, and geothermal utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands since 2009, including associated electric transmission facilities and infrastructure to connect to established power grids, for a total of 14,599 MWs of renewable energy capacity.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.