California may be in the midst of licensing dozens of massive megawatt solar power plants but New Mexico may be first state out of the gate with a big project using next-generation solar thermal technology. On Thursday, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that Pasadena, Calif.-based eSolar and utility giant NRG Energy will build a 92-megawatt solar thermal power plant — the state’s first — near the Texas border that will go online in 2011.
“The New Mexico Public Utilities Commission has approved the project, we have the permits and we already have the land so we’ll be breaking ground in 2010,” eSolar CEO Bill Gross told Green Wombat. “We already have the equipment and the financing partner, NRG. We’re ready to go.”
eSolar will use fields of mirrors to focus the sun on water-filled boilers that sit atop towers. The heat vaporizes the water and the resulting steam drives electricity-generating turbines. Competitors use large, slightly curved — parabolic — mirrors to focus sunlight. That requires big and expensive steel frames to hold the glass in place. eSolar’s solution: make small flat mirrors the size of an LCD television screen that clamp on to a 5 x 12-inch frame and then use software and Big Iron computing to position the mirrors to create a “dynamic parabola” out of the entire heliostat field. Gross says eSolar’s small heliostats can be cheaply manufactured take up less land than conventional mirrors.
That means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines, lowering costs and avoiding some of the endangered species fights that have slowed Big Solar projects in California. (See Green Wombat’s column on Grist for a first-hand look at eSolar’s Sierra demonstration plant in Southern California.)
The New Mexico solar farm will be built on 450 acres of agricultural land about 10 miles from El Paso, Texas. Utility El Paso Electric (EE), which serves parts of New Mexico, will buy the electricity generated by the solar power plant — enough to power 74,000 homes — under a 20-year power purchase agreement. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“We think there’s room for a lot more solar power plants at this price,” says Gross. “The sun is very good in New Mexico and all the economics that make this project work are very good there.”
In March, First Solar (FSLR) said it would build a 30-megawatt thin-film photovoltaic solar farm in northeastern New Mexico.
eSolar’s five-megawatt Sierra demo plant outside Los Angeles, pictured above, has begun producing steam and will soon start generating electricity — “It’s the only solar power tower operating in North America,” Gross says.
“The idea of these plants dotting the desert and producing electricity has been our dream for a long time,” says Gross, “and now it’s a reality.”