Plans for a 1,200-megawatt solar plant near Golden Shores could be in jeopardy.
On Wednesday, the Mohave County Planning and Zoning Commission continued for 30 days four requests from Sterling Solar to change the technology for the plant, after commissioners became concerned over what effect the new technology would have on the community and BNSF railroad.
Commission Chair Carl Flusche excused himself from the discussion and vote on the project. Flusche is a member of Needle Mountain Power, the design company that originally partnered with Sterling Solar to develop the project.
According to information provided to the commission, the company's main supplier of Stirling dish-engines, which look like giant mirrored satellite dishes, is no longer in business and Sterling Solar wants to use a different photovoltaic solar technology to finish the project.
In order to do so, the company requested changes to the text of the amendments to the County General Plan, Sterling Area Plan and rezone that were approved by the Board of Supervisors last year to allow them to use a mix of alternative energy technology for the project.
Because the Sterling Solar project covers more than 10,000 acres of land, staff asked the commission to determine whether the technology changes were major or minor amendments to the original project plans.
According to the County Zoning Ordinance, the commission and the Board of Supervisors must approve major changes to very large projects; staff can handle minor changes.
At least two members of the commission, Vice Chair Mehdi Azarmi and Commissioner Joseph Morabito, and BNSF official Heidi Short raised concerns that the request to switch from Stirling dishes to any alternative energy technology was too vague.
Azarmi expressed concerned that the company wasn't sure what technology it wanted to use, how much water the technology would use and how much grading the company would have to do to install the technology.
Morabito said he was having a hard time figuring out what was different about the project. The plan to build a solar plant on the land hadn't changed, but he wasn't sure how big of an impact on the land the change in technology would have because the company couldn't tell him what kind of technology they wanted to use.
Short said she was having a hard time understanding the changes to the project. The railroad was especially concerned about the broad range of solar technology the company could use. BNSF has a rail line that runs through part of the property of the proposed project. Railroad officials have raised concerns in the past that glare from the Sun-Catchers could affect train signals or blind engineers.
Short was also concerned that grading for the project could affect storm runoff and wash out or damage tracks.
Robert Hibbs, the manager of Sterling Solar, explained that the company only wanted to install photovoltaic solar technology on the property, but was still trying to decide what kind of photovoltaic technology it wanted to use.
Higgs said the company was not interested in using technology that would use a lot of water, such as concentrated solar troughs, or that would require a lot of grading work. The company is currently looking at single or double axis solar panels, but solar technology is improving swiftly and the company may decide to go with another more efficient form of solar power. The company was only interested in photovoltaic technology and was more than willing to change its request to the county's photovoltaic alternative energy source zoning, he said. The reason the company asked for the mixed alternative energy technology zoning was because that was what was recommended by staff.
Higgs also pointed out that Sterling had just taken over the project from Needle Mountain Power and was on a tight timeline to get the project into the environmental impact statement phase with Western Area Power Administration and in negotiations with several utility companies over a purchase power agreement.
Higgs explained that the company had no plans to have solar panels near BNSF's tracks. Also, any grading for the project would have to be approved not only by the county but by the Army Corps of Engineers because of a nearby wash.
Higgs said he didn't know why Needle Mountain Power, which was in charge of the project last year agreed to only use Stirling technology. Sterling Solar only took over complete control of the project a few months ago.
The commission eventually voted four to one to continue all four items to the commission's next meeting to allow Sterling Solar to gather more information. Sherwood was the sole vote against continuing the items.