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California Solar-Biomass Project Axed

Leon Kaye | Tuesday July 6th, 2010 | 2 Comments

Renewable energy advocates often laud California for its renewable energy goals.  The state had been on such a roll that the California Energy Commission (CEC) accelerated its target date of having 20% of the state’s energy portfolio sourced from renewables from 2017 to 2010.  But wait, that’s this year!

Unfortunately, that ambitious 20% in 2010 benchmark may be decelerated.  Part of CEC’s goals rested on an innovated solar-biomass plant in the heart of Fresno County’s farmland.  That 640 acre plant, which PG&E announced with much fanfare two years ago, has been shelved.  And it is not because of corporate backlash against AB32, California’s budget crisis, or PG&E’s loss at the polls last month.  Neighbors protested what they saw as the negative environmental impact of the plant, so the Portuguese firm that was slated to operate the plant backed out.

The San Joaquin Solar 1 & 2 Power Plant was a laudable attempt to solve a couple issues:  what do you do with a solar energy facility when there is no sun, and how to you tackle the problem of agricultural waste in an area that arguably is the nation’s most important farming region?  As PG&E and its partner, Martifer Renewables, envisioned, solar thermal technology would use the sun’s heat to power steam turbines during daytime peak hours; as the sun set in the evening and overnight, waste from local farms would continue to fuel the power plant’s operations.  Had the plan worked out, the plant would have generated 107 megawatts of electricity, or enough power for about 75,000 homes.  Presumably the project would have created jobs in the west Fresno County town, Coalinga (the town’s name comes from “Coaling Station A,” thanks to Southern Pacific Railroad, during the 19th century), currently reliant on agriculture and prisons—sectors threatened by drought and state budget cuts.

Concerns from locals, however, stalled the plans.  Fresno County suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the United States, so farmers expressed concern over the 60 to 80 truck deliveries that would annually haul 450,000 tons of prunings, clippings, and even livestock manure.  Residents also questioned the amount of water that the plant would require, a sore point in a region that has seen many farms and orchards disappear due to California’s drought.

Frustrated with the roadblocks, Martifer wrote to the CEC last week stating that it was pulling out of the project

Naturally questions abound:  what about all the trucks that roll through the county hauling produce?  Power plants that use coal require the delivery of . . . coal by truck and rail, so how does the sourcing of the PG&E-Martifer project differ?  What did Chevron or Aera Energy, which operate a nearby oil field, have to say about this project?  And how well did PG&E and Martifer communicate with the local communities, and did they proactively address such concerns in advance—or were they caught flatfooted?

There is still a lot of ambition in the San Joaquin Valley to become a leading solar sun belt.  The termination of San Joaquin 1 & 2, however, is a step back.


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  • ron

    Leon Kaye: Bad Bad Locals! What are they thinking, and what right do they have to get in the way of progress–ively bad air quality?

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  • TreeHugginEnergyWonk

    From what I've read – that the plant would consume orchard trimmings and other ag-waste – the biopower/solar hybrid plant may have delivered a net improvement in air emissions, because much of that stuff is probably open-burned. Modern, engineered, regulated, emission-controlled biomass combustion is less polluting than old coal-fired power plants.

    But your final paragraph is the most important one:
    A major question that comes to my mind – did the developers consider making a concessions with the public visavis truck emissions? Diesel emissions control technologies are well-developed and commercially viable today. Yes, there is an incremental cost to the price of a new truck, and yes, the maintenance is an important factor with it's own costs, but these concerns about ground-level diesel emissions should not be dismissed. It's not the first time I've heard this brought up by local opponents of a renewable biomass project. And it's not the last time, either, I'm sure.