June 22, 2011 / 7:40 PM / in 6 years

New foe for U.S. solar energy: the railroads

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Railroad company Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp has joined an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, American Indians and politicians who are opposing a massive solar energy project planned for California’s Mojave Desert.

The railroad is sounding the alarm over what it says are potentially “catastrophic” consequences of a proposed 663.5 megawatt solar facility that would be so bright that the glare could temporarily blind train operators.

The Calico Solar project is expected to include both SunCatchers, 40-foot-high solar thermal dishes made of mirrors that resemble giant satellite receivers, and photovoltaic panels on a 4,613-acre site along a rail transportation corridor used by BNSF and Amtrak.

BNSF has filed multiple complaints with California regulators over the project, which was approved by the state last year but is undergoing a new round of hearings to approve the inclusion of photovoltaic panels on the site.

“We were concerned about having all of these mirrors, hundreds of them, pointing at our crew,” said Lena Kent, BNSF public affairs director for California. “Clearly that could be catastrophic.”

BNSF runs 65 to 75 trains along the route every 24 hours which carry agricultural, consumer and industrial freight, according to spokesman Steve Forsberg.

Forsberg said BNSF is also worried about electrical interference and potential hydrology issues including water run-off which could affect train tracks.

“We are defending our interests to ensure that the pre-existing, safe movement of trains engaged in interstate commerce can continue on our land without interference,” he said.

Amtrak has a passenger line that runs along the same tracks, but officials say it would be less affected by the project.

“Amtrak would not be affected during normal operating hours through that region,” said Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham, noting that the Southwest Chief line that runs through the Mojave Desert operates at night and in the early hours of the morning, thereby avoiding possible glare issues.

But Amtrak is following BNSF’s cues on other possible issues. “We would have the same issues BNSF has since they are the host railroad,” said Graham.

BNSF has raised similar objections against another proposed solar facility, Needle Mountain Power’s Sterling Solar Generation Facility near Kingman, Arizona. That site is projected to accommodate as much as 1,200 megawatts upon completion, according to the company website, and will be adjacent to the same rail line.

The Calico Solar project has faced numerous legal and financial hurdles since its inception. Edison International utility Southern California Edison canceled a contract to buy electricity from the site in December 2010. Less than a week later, the project was sold by original owner NTR Holding’s Tessera Solar to K Road Power, a New York investment firm. The original acreage and megawatt output have both been lowered after facing objections from environmentalists and the local American Indian community.

Phase 1 of the Calico Solar project is scheduled to be completed in 2014, according to the company website.

BNSF became a subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc in February 2010.

Reporting by Mary Slosson and Nichola Groom; writing by Mary Slosson, editing by Matthew Lewis

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