Big Desert Solar Project Hit By Wind, Flood

Wind-whipped downpours in late July at the site of an under-construction government-backed utility-scale solar project in the desert of southeastern California caused extensive damage, according to preliminary documents released by the California Energy Commission.

An inspector from the commission, in an email included among the documents released, said estimated damage to NextEra Energy’s Genesis Solar Project was $3 million, and said work on the project would be delayed about one month.

gensis solar flood

Damaged parabolic trough solar collector. (image via NextEra Energy)

In an Aug. 7 email – a week after the July 30 and 31 rains – Mike Conway wrote: “Things are actually pretty good after the storm, they were back to work yesterday. 90% of the problems were related to earthen berms they constructed for temporary access. The berms caused most of the flooding and severe damage. The channels and dissipation structures worked as they were designed.”

The storm toll did include damage to some 195 mirrors on the parabolic troughs the power plant will use to collect the sun’s energy.

genesis solar flood

image via NextEra Energy

NextEra had told KCET ReWire’s Chris Clarke, who broke the story of the flood, that the damage would amount to less than $5 million and would not delay the opening of the plant. The first of two 125-megawatt units is supposed to go online in mid-2013, with the second unit to follow a year later. Power from the project will go to Pacific Gas & Electric.

Parabolic trough plants like Genesis Solar capture and concentrate sunlight to heat a synthetic oil, which then heats water to create steam. The steam is then fed to an onsite turbine-generator to produce electricity.

The Genesis Solar Energy Project received a partial guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy for an $852 million loan in September 2011. The project had been approved under the Obama administration’s fast-track process for renewable energy development on public lands.

The havoc raised by the storm might on the surface be taken as a sign that the power plant could be vulnerable to powerful weather events. But the company suggested that wasn’t the case; in its report to the Energy Commission, it blamed the damage on the incomplete state of the construction and the freak nature of the storm.

“It is noteworthy that the rain event on July 31 was a 100 year storm event,” the company said.  “It is also noteworthy that this 2 day storm that started Monday (5.6-6 inches over the 2 day period) occurred during construction where foundations, fencing, major equipment deliveries, and other temporary construction activities were ongoing and not complete per the design.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • robertemery

    As predicted, Engineers without desert experience have a disadvantage

  • Tami Kennedy

    It isn’t hard to see the extent of damage based upon the strength of the storm during construction. A serious review of dating of storms (100 year event) is required as climate change makes them more frequent. In that instance construction processes need to be assessed and modified appropriately.

  • Kooday SearchEngine

    Of course there is always that impatient investor factor who always want returns on investment yesterday. In the case of a political componant where an elected official wants Public Relations Legacy build up to enhance chances of relection, this also doesn’t allow for responsible study when time is the major factor. Needless to say nature gets screwed in the end.

  • Ecopolitidae

    Another reason why solar belongs on rooftops.