Desert Sunlight solar project gets go-ahead from Department of Interior; construction to begin soon

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US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has greenlighted the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, a 550MW (AC) solar power project to be developed, built, and operated by First Solar on 4100 acres of public lands in the California desert outside Joshua Tree National Park. Construction on the site could begin within days.

“The issuance of Desert Sunlight’s Record of Decision (ROD) is a major milestone in the project’s permitting process and paves the way for construction to begin by mid-August, maintaining the project’s eligibility for the DOE’s loan guarantee program,” Frank De Rosa, First Solar’s senior VP of North American project development, told PV-Tech. 

Desert Sunlight is the beneficiary of a conditional loan guarantee commitment of $1.88 billion, which was announced in June by the US Department of Energy. 

“The 550MW Desert Sunlight project will be the largest PV project on federally managed land in the United States and one of the two largest PV solar projects in the world,” he continued, “both of which are being developed by First Solar.” (The other is the 550MW [AC] Topaz Solar Farm, located in the Carrizo Plain area of San Luis Obispo County, CA.)

Although he could provide any detail on the timeline of the construction phases planned at the project or any update on a potential buyer/owner for the site, De Rosa did say that nearly 9 million of the company’s Series 3 cadmium telluride thin-film PV panels will be deployed.

First Solar has two signed power purchase agreements for the project, one for 250MW with Southern California Edison, the other for 300MW with Pacific Gas & Electric.

An onsite substation and a 230kV generation tie line will connect the project to the Red Bluff substation, which will convert the power from 230kV to 500kV for transmission on SCE’s regional grid.

De Rosa noted that in regards to eventual interconnection of the power plants’ output to the two utilities’ grids, the solar company is “not planning on energizing one off-taker before the other.”

The PV farm will create more than 630 jobs at peak construction and pump an estimated $336 million into the local economy. When built, Desert Sunlight will produce enough electricity to power over 165,000 homes.

About $197 million of the $336 million that the project is expected to generate for the local region will be in the form of wages. More than three-quarters of the total impact will occur during the construction period, with the remainder taking place over the project’s 25-year operating period.

The project, located about six miles north of Desert Center, will also generate about $27 million in sales and property tax revenue to Riverside County.

As part of Interior’s commitment to responsible development of renewable energy, the Desert Sunlight project underwent extensive environmental review and mitigation, with the final environmental impact statement issued on April 15. 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) worked in close coordination with Desert Sunlight, the National Park Service, and other stakeholders to significantly reduce the proposed project’s total footprint from 19,000 acres down to 4,144 acres. 

In addition, BLM requires that Desert Sunlight provide funding for acquisition and enhancement of more than 7,500 acres of suitable habitat for desert tortoise and other sensitive wildlife species to help mitigate the project’s potential impacts.

The decision authorizes BLM to offer Desert Sunlight Holdings a right-of-way grant to use these public lands for 30 years if all rents and other conditions are met.

The ROD also approves amendments to the bureau’s California Desert Conservation Area Plan, identifying the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm site as available for solar energy development and identifying 14,500 acres in the Project Study Area as unavailable for solar energy development.

A copy of the project Record of Decision, which also includes the amendment to the California Desert Conservation Area Plan, can be found here

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