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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Huge solar power plants are blooming in California's southern deserts

Huge solar power plants are blooming in California's southern deserts - San Jose Mercury News

MOJAVE DESERT --  The huge desert, which spans an area larger than West Virginia, is becoming speckled with gigantic solar power plants that are creating hundreds of construction jobs and, when complete, will generate electricity for millions of homes.

California's Solar Gold Rush is under way, fueled by billions of dollars of federal stimulus funding and a new state law that requires utilities to buy a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

While the collapse of Fremont solar manufacturer Solyndra has dominated the news in recent weeks because it received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, several other solar companies that received loan guarantees appear to be thriving.

The project furthest along is BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which has been under construction for one full year and is currently being built on federal land near the California-Nevada border with the help of a $1.6 billion loan guarantee. 

BrightSource, which is based in Oakland, uses mirrors to concentrate the sun and turn turbines that generate electricity. When complete in 2013, Ivanpah will be the largest solar thermal power plant in the world, generating enough electricity for 140,000 homes.

Ivanpah is one of nine solar thermal power plants approved by the California Energy Commission last year. In addition, scores of other solar projects are in the pipeline. In August, the federal Bureau of Land Management was processing applications for 17 solar power plants in California's deserts.
Solar's potential

The Ivanpah facility embodies many of the hopes and fears of solar power plants in the desert. It will generate 370 megawatts of electricity, which BrightSource says will displace 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the plant's 30-year life.  Google (GOOG) has invested $168 million in the project, while PG&E and Southern California Edison have signed long-term contracts to purchase the electricity. 

Unlike rooftop solar panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal plants concentrate the sun's rays with mirrors or lenses to boil water to create steam; the steam then turns turbines that generate electricity. Ivanpah consists of three separate power plants, each with a 459-foot-tall "power tower" and tens of thousands of mirrorlike "heliostats" -- 173,500 in all. 

While land has been cleared for the construction site, BrightSource has taken pains to leave much of the native vegetation intact. Thousands of pylons protrude from the ground amid vegetation that has been trimmed, but not plowed.

Sprouting like weeds

Ivanpah is not BrightSource's only project. The company has filed applications with the California Energy Commission to build two other large solar power plants: the 500-megawatt Hidden Hills project, in California's Inyo County, and the 750-megawatt Rio Mesa project in Riverside County.

Conservation plan

In an effort to resolve conflicts between solar companies and conservationists, California is developing a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan to decide which parts of the desert will be open for renewable energy development and which parts will be protected.

"Initially, all of these big solar projects were being crammed down our throats," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity who is active in the conservation plan's process. "But now the state is realizing that you can't just bully projects into being -- you have to take a close look at where they are sited. Climate change is real, and we have to transition to renewable energy. But let's do it without driving species to extinction."

Source story:
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.

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