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Archive for the ‘First Solar’ Category

solara

photo: BrightSource Energy

As the Nevada legislature debates extending tax breaks for large-scale solar power plants, a new report finds that ramping up solar development in the Silver State could produce thousands of good-paying green jobs while generating nearly $11 billion in economic benefits.

The study from San Francisco-based non-profit Vote Solar concludes that 2,000 megawatts’ worth of big solar thermal and photovoltaic farms — needed to meet Nevada’s electricity demand — would result in 5,900 construction jobs a year during the plants’ building phase, 1,200 permanent jobs and half a billion dollars in tax revenues.

“It is likely that such an investment in solar generating facilities could bring solar and related manufacturing to Nevada,” the reports authors wrote. “The economic impact of such manufacturing development is not included in this analysis, but would add significant additional benefits.”

Vote Solar’s job projections are based on an economic model developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to project the impact of solar trough power plants, the most common, if dated, type of Big Solar technology.

The different solar technologies set to come online in the next couple of years could change that equation. No doubt thousands of jobs will be generated by Big Solar but just how many will depend on the mix of solar thermal and photovoltaic power plants that ultimately come online. New technologies like BrightSource Energy’s “power tower,” Ausra’s compact linear fresnel reflector and Stirling Energy Systems’s solar dish may generate similar numbers of jobs. But then there’s eSolar’s power tower solar farms – which uses fields of mirrors called heliostats to focus the sun on a water-filled boiler, creating steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.  eSolar’s small and prefabricated heliostat arrays cut out much of the skilled labor typically needed on such projects as they can be installed by two workers using a wrench.

Photovoltaic farms essentially take rooftop solar panels and put them on the ground and thus don’t require highly skilled laborers to build turbine power blocks, miles of piping and other infrastructure needed in solar thermal facilities. (They also can be built much more quickly than a solar thermal plant, which is why utilities have been striking deals with companies like First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWRA) for PV farms.)

A second report released this week — from the Large-Scale Solar Association, an industry group — found that Nevada could gain an edge over Arizona and California in luring solar power plant builders if it extended and sweetened tax incentives.  The three states form something of a golden triangle of solar, offering the nation’s most intense sunshine and vast tracts of government-owned desert land that are being opened up for solar development.

The timing of the reports was no accident. The Nevada Legislature held hearings earlier this week on extending tax breaks for Big Solar that expire in June, and Vote Solar’s utility-scale solar policy director, Jim Baak, went to Carson City to lobby legislators, hoping to head off one proposal to tax renewable energy production.

The Large-Scale Solar report, prepared by a Las Vegas economic consulting firm, found that if legislators let the tax breaks sunset, as it were, the developer of a 100-megawatt solar power plant would pay $55.1 million in taxes in Nevada during the first 15 years of the facility’s operation compared to $26.1 million in Arizona and between $36.1 and $37.9 million in California. If the current incentives are kept, tax payments drop to $25.1 million. A bigger tax break would reduce the tax burden to $14.3 million.

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Can Google help defuse a simmering green civil war between renewable energy advocates and wildlife conservationists in the American West?

That’s the idea behind a new Google Earth mapping project launched Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society. Path to Green Energy will identify areas in 13 western states potentially suitable for massive megawatt solar power plants, wind farms, transmission lines and other green energy projects. The app will also pinpoint critical habitat for protected wildlife such as the desert tortoise in California and Wyoming’s sage grouse as well as other environmentally sensitive lands.

“This was information that was unavailable or very scattered,” said Google.org program director David Bercovich at a press conference. “The potential cost savings from this will be enormous. If we can get people to the right areas and streamline the process that will have enormous benefits in getting clean energy online faster.”

NRDC senior attorney Johanna Wald said her group already is using Path to Green Energy in New Mexico to help plan a new transmission project. “Careful siting is the key to renewable energy development,” she said, noting that NRDC has mapped 860 million acres. “We’re not greenlighting development on places that are on our map but we’re providing a framework for discussion.”

siting2The unveiling of Path to Green Energy comes two weeks after California Senator Dianne Feinstein announced she would introduce legislation to put as many as 600,000 acres of the Mojave Desert off limits to renewable energy development to protect endangered wildlife and their habitats.  Solar developers have filed lease claims on a million acres of federal land in the California Mojave and there are state and federal efforts already under way to identify green energy zones across the West.

Path to Green Energy is designed to give regulators and developers a tool to choose the best potential sites for solar and wind farms so they don’t get bogged down in years-long and multimillion-dollar fights over wildlife.  Ausra, BrightSource Energy and other developers of the first half-dozen solar power plant projects moving through the licensing process in California have spent big sums on hiring wildlife consultants who spend thousands of hours surveying sites for desert tortoises, blunt-nosed leopard lizards and other protected species.

The Google Earth app won’t do away with the need to do such detailed environmental review but puts in one package a variety of information that developers must now cobble together themselves — if they can find it. Path to Green Energy could also prove valuable to utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) as more and more projects are proposed and regulators scrutinize the cumulative impact of Big Solar power plants across regions.

For instance, in California’s San Luis Obispo County, three large-scale solar farms are being planned within a few miles of each other by Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR). That has resulted in delays as wildlife officials initiate studies looking at how all those projects affect the movement of wildlife throughout the area. Going forward, Path to Green Energy will give developers a snapshot of where the wild things are, as well as wildlife corridors to help them avoid siting one plant too close to another in a way that may impede animals’ migration. That could save millions of dollars in mitigation costs – money builders must spend to acquire land to replace wildlife habitat taken for a power plant project as well as avoid fights with environmental groups that have become increasingly uneasy about Big Solar projects.

If the desert tortoise is the critter to avoid when building solar power plants in the Mojave, the sage grouse poses problems for Wyoming wind farms. Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming, said Path to Green Energy shows the densities of sage grouse across the state, allowing developers to stay clear of those areas.

“We get a solid indication of where energy development shouldn’t go,” he said. “Just as important, we get a better sense of the places that should be evaluated for wind turbine farms and transmission lines. The maps make clear that there is plenty of room for green energy.”

The payback from using Web 2.0 software could indeed be tremendous, given that Google (GOOG) spent a scant $50,000 in donations to NRDC and Audubon to create the maps.

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photo: Wild Rose Images

California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to put a large swath of the Mojave Desert off-limits to renewable energy development is splitting the environmental movement and could derail some two dozen solar and wind power projects the state needs to comply with its ambitious climate change laws.

On the firing line are 17 massive solar power plants and six wind farms planned for federal land — land that would be designated a national monument under legislation Feinstein intends to introduce. The solar projects in question would be built by a range of companies, from startups BrightSource Energy and Stirling Energy Systems to corporate heavyweights Goldman Sachs (GS) and FPL (FPL), according to federal documents. (For the complete list, see below.)

The companies are among scores that have filed lease claims on a million acres of acres of desert dirt controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. California utilities PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) have signed long-term power purchase agreements for some of the projects now in jeopardy and are counting on the electricity they would produce to meet state-mandated renewable energy targets. PG&E itself has filed a solar power plant land claim in the proposed national monument.

The area of the desert in dispute is some 600,000 acres formerly owned by Catellus, the real estate arm of the Union Pacific Railroad, and donated to the federal government a decade ago by the Wildlands Conservancy, a Southern California environmental group. About 210,000 of those acres are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which opened part of the land to renewable energy projects.

“Many of the sites now being considered for leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar released last week, notifying him that she will introduce legislation to designate the former Catellus lands a national monument. “Beyond protecting national parks and wilderness from development, the conservation of these lands has helped to ensure the sustainability of the entire desert ecosystem by preserving the vital wildlife corridors.”

The Catellus land controlled by the BLM forms something of a golden triangle between the Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California and are particularly coveted for renewable energy development because of its proximity to transmission lines.

Alan Stein, a deputy district manager for the BLM in California, told Green Wombat that the solar and wind lease claims are in areas that are not designated as wilderness or critical habitat for protected species like the desert tortoise. “This is public domain land, ” he says.

Tortoises, however, are found across the Mojave, and battles over Big Solar’s impact on endangered wildlife are quietly brewing in several solar power plant licensing cases now being reviewed by the California Energy Commission.  Environmentalists find themselves walking a thin green line, trying to balance their interest in promoting carbon-free energy with protecting fragile desert landscapes and a host of threatened animals and plants.

Take BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah 400-megawatt solar power plant complex on the California-Nevada border. The three solar power plants to be built by the Oakland-based company will supply electricity to PG&E and Southern California Edison. But the project will also destroy some 4,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat and at least 25 tortoises will have to be relocated – a somewhat risky proposition as previous efforts in other cases have resulted in the deaths of the animals.

On Wednesday, the California Energy Commission granted two national environmental groups – the Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club – the right to intervene in the Ivanpah case. “Defenders strongly supports … the development of renewable energy in California,” Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, wrote to the energy commission in a Jan. 23 letter.  “Defenders has several serious concerns about the potential impacts of this project on a number of rare, declining and listed species and on their associated desert habitat and waters.”

Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Johanna Wald wrote a letter with the Wilderness Society expressing concern over the impact of Ivanpah project on the desert tortoise but also made a strong statement of support for renewable energy development. “Our public lands harbor substantial wind, solar, and geothermal resources,” wrote Wald, who serves on a state task force to identify appropriate areas for renewable energy development. “Developing some of these resources will be important to creating a sustainable energy economy and combating climate change.”

The big national enviro groups are working with the government and power plant developers to create zones in the Mojave where renewable energy projects would be permitted while setting aside other areas that are prime habitat and wildlife corridors. A similar effort is underway on the federal level to analyze the desert-wide impact of renewable energy development.

Local environmental organizations, however, have split with the Big Green groups over developing the desert and other rural areas. In San Luis Obispo County,  Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar’s (FSLR) plans to build three huge solar farms within miles of each other has prompted some local residents worried about the impact on wildlife to organize in opposition to the projects.

And some small Mojave Desert green groups pledge to go to court to stop big solar projects. “We don’t want to see the Endangered Species Act gutted for the sake of mega solar projects,” veteran grass roots activist Phil Klasky told Green Wombat last year for a story on the solar land rush in the Mojave. “I can say the smaller environmental organizations I’m involved with are planning to challenge these projects.”

It would be unwise to underestimate Klasky. In the 1990s, he helped lead a long-running  and successful campaign to scuttle the construction of a low-level radioactive waste dump in tortoise territory in the Mojave’s Ward Valley – now a prime solar spot.

Still, while California’s senior senator’s move in the Mojave may exacerbate rifts in the environmental movement over renewable energy, it also could galvanize efforts to resolve critter conflicts in a comprehensive way. Otherwise, environmentalists of varying hues may find themselves fighting each other rather than global warming.

Update: I just had a conversation with BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs, who takes issue with my characterization that the Ivanpah project will “destroy” desert tortoise habitat. He points out that the company is taking care to minimize the impact of the power plant on the surrounding desert and that wildlife may still occupy the site. It would be more accurate to say that the project will remove desert tortoise habitat from active use during Ivanpah’s construction and operation.

(Below is a list of solar and wind projects that fall within the proposed Mojave national monument. Note: Solar Investments is a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs and Boulevard Associates is a subsidiary of FPL.)

source:  BLM

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photo: First Solar

The arid Southwest has no shortage of sun but has been rather slow to embrace Big Solar power plants, at least compared to California, where more than a half-dozen massive megawatt solar farms are being licensed.

That appears to be changing. On Tuesday, First Solar said it will give New Mexico its first big solar power plant, a 30 megawatt photovoltaic farm that will generate electricity from the company’s thin-film panels. Once the plant is built in Colfax County in northeastern New Mexico, First Solar will sell the electricity it generates to the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association under a 25-year power purchase agreement. Tri-State is an electric cooperative.

The deal continues First Solar’s (FSLR) move into the power plant business. Earlier this month, the Tempe, Ariz.-based company acquired OptiSolar’s 1.85 gigawatt project portfolio – including a 550-megawatt photovolatic power plant for California utility PG&E (PCG) – in a $400 million stock transaction.

First Solar has also signed contracts for smaller-scale solar farms with Southern California Edison (EIX) and Sempre (SRE).

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photo: Solyndra

It’s been a good news, bad news Friday for the solar industry. Silicon Valley startup Solyndra received a half billion-dollar loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a solar module factory while further up Interstate 880 OptiSolar moved to shut down its manufacturing operations.

OptiSolar too had asked for a federal loan guarantee to complete work on its Sacramento thin-film solar cell plant but a decision on the $300 million application couldn’t come soon enough to save the startup. “We continued to be unable to find a buyer for the technology and manufacuring business, and the board of directors decided that we needed to limit ongoing operational expense,” wrote OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer in an e-mail.

First reported by the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Baker, OptiSolar will shut down factories in Sacramento and Hayward, Calif., and lay off 200 workers.  Earlier this month, OptiSolar sold its pipeline of solar power plants – including a 550-megawatt solar farm that will supply electricity to PG&E (PCG) – to rival First Solar  in a $400 million stock deal. At the time, OptiSolar said it intended to focus on manufacturing solar modules.

The news was definitely brighter Friday for Solyndra, which emerged from stealth mode last September with $600 million in funding and $1.2 billion in orders for its solar panels composed of cylindrical tubes imprinted with solar cells. Conventional rooftop solar panels must be tilted to absorb direct sunlight as they aren’t efficient at producing electricity from diffuse light. But the round Solyndra module collects sunlight from all angles, including rays reflected from rooftops. That allows the modules, 40 to a panel,  to sit flat and packed tightly together on commercial rooftops, maximizing the amount of space for power production.

The $535 million federal loan guarantee will allow the Fremont, Calif.-based company to build a second factory, which is expected to create 3,000 construction jobs and more than 1,000 other jobs once the plant is in operation. The factory will be able to produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar panels a year.

“The DOE Loan Guarantee Program funding will enable Solyndra to achieve the economies of scale needed to deliver solar electricity at prices that are competitive with utility rates,” Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet said in a statement. “This expansion is really about creating new jobs while meaningfully impacting global warming.”

Friday’s grant makes good on Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s pledge to speed up processing of renewable energy loan guarantee applications. The department had come under fire during the previous administration for taking years to dole out grants and loan guarantees for electric car and green energy projects.

Meanwhile, First Solar (FSLR) announced on Friday that it had manufactured 1 gigawatt of thin-film solar cells since beginning commercial production in 2002. It took the Tempe, Ariz., company six years to hit 500 megawatts and only eight months to produce the second 500 megawatts. First Solar’s annual production capacity will reach 1 gigawatt by year’s end, according to the company.

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Another day, another solar deal. San Francisco’s Recurrent Energy on Wednesday will announce that it is acquiring a 350-megawatt portfolio of photovoltaic projects from UPC Solar of Chicago as the industry continues to consolidate.

“Since the financial crisis set in last year we’ve kept an eye out for opportunities to pick up a pipeline of projects,” Recurrent CEO Arno Harris told Green Wombat. “You’re seeing companies like Recurrent that are well-capitalized take advantage of the market consolidation.”

Recurrent, which last year scored $75 million in funding from private equity firm Hudson Clean Energy Partners, installs large-scale solar arrays on commercial rooftops and at government facilities and then sells the electricity generated back to the hosts under long-term power purchase agreements.

The deal puts Recurrent in the power plant business as UPC’s portfolio includes a number of 10-megawatt projects in Ontario designed to take advantage of the province’s generous feed-in tariff for solar farms. “It’s a significant addition to our project pipeline,” Harris said. The projects are in various stages of development but Recurrent expects that 100 megawatts will be completed by 2012. The company stands to benefit from an expected decline in the price of solar panels this year.

Harris declined to reveal the financial terms of the deal but said that Recurrent is putting relatively little money up front. “We wrote a small check to compensate UPC Solar for the work done so far and we’ve committed to continue funding projects,” Harris said. “Then they’ll get a bonus paid at end for completed projects.”

The deal follows thin-film solar company First Solar’s (FSLR)’s $400 million acquisition this month of Silicon Valley startup OptiSolar’s 1,850 megawatt pipeline of photovoltaic power projects, including a 550-megawatt power plant to be built for California utility PG&E (PCG). The same day as the OptiSolar deal, Spanish solar developer Fotowatio bought San Francisco solar financier MMA Renewable Ventures’ project portfolio.

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First Solar Electric, 701 El Dorado Valley Dr., Boulder City, NV
photo: First Solar

In the second big solar deal of the day, First Solar on Monday announced it was acquiring rival thin-film photovoltaic startup OptiSolar’s solar power plant projects in an all-stock transaction worth $400 million.

The acquisition vaults First Solar into the ranks of big solar power plant developers, giving it control of a 550-megawatt photovoltaic solar farm — the world’s largest — OptiSolar is building for utility PG&E (PCG) as well as 1,300 megawatts’ worth of projects in the pipeline. The deal also includes federal land claims OptiSolar filed on 136,000 acres in the Southwest desert that could support power plants generating 19,000 megawatts of solar electricity.

First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn said 6,500 megawatts of those projects are in the front of the line in the “transmission queue” to connect to the power grid, allowing solar farms to be rapidly deployed over the next couple of years.

“This package in total would be very hard to replicate, if at all,” Ahearn said Monday afternoon during a conference call. “That positions us ideally to be the player in the U.S. utility market.”

OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer told Green Wombat that OptiSolar will now focus on its solar cell manufacturing operations. “We needed to find a way to realize value for our shareholders,” he said. “This is a wonderful fit. We developed what we think is the largest power plant pipeline while First Solar developed the lowest cost thin-film technology.”

Silicon Valley-based OptiSolar quickly became a leader in the nascent solar power plant market but stalled as the financial crisis hit, forcing the company to halt work on a solar cell factory and lay off half its workers last November. Bernheimer said OptiSolar has applied for a $300 million federal loan guarantee to restart and expand its manufacturing operations.

He said OptiSolar CEO Randy Goldstein will join First Solar, along with about 30 other employees, when the deal closes.

First Solar (FSLR), backed by Wal-Mart’s (WMT) Walton family, has become become known as the Google (GOOG) of solar for its stratospheric stock price. The Tempe, Ariz.-based company jumped into the solar power plant market last year with deals to build small-scale solar power plants for Sempre Energy (SRE) and Southern California Edison (EIX).

The OptiSolar deal follows by hours the sale of solar financier MMA Renewable Ventures’ solar portfolio to Spanish solar developer Fotowatio.  “There’s a shakeout in the marketplace and there’s opportunities for consolidation,” MMA Renewable Ventures CEO Matt Cheney presciently told Green Wombat Monday morning

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photo: Optisolar

SAN FRANCISCO — With the financial crisis dimming solar’s prospects to become a significant source of renewable energy, utility giant PG&E on Tuesday said it will spend $1.4 billion over five years to install 250 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic panels in California while contracting with private developers for another 250 megawatts. PG&E chief executive Peter Darbee said the utility is also prepared to be a “green knight,” rescuing distressed big centralized solar power plant projects by providing financing so they can get built.

“We have contracted for 24% of our energy to be renewable and we’re concerned whether our [developers] will have access to capital,” Darbee said at PG&E’s San Francisco headquarters during a press conference. “We think financing for these projects may be in jeopardy. PG&E is well-positioned with its $35 billion balance sheet to step up and help.”

PG&E’s (PCG) move to take a direct role in obtaining the renewable energy it needs to comply with California’s global warming laws could be big business for solar module panel makers and installers like SunPower (SPWRA), Suntech (STP) and First Solar (FSLR). The action was prompted in part by a change in the tax laws that lets utilities claim a 30% investment tax credit for solar projects.

Fong Wan, PG&E’s vice president for energy procurement, said most of the 500 megawatts of solar panels will be installed on the ground in arrays of between one and 20 megawatts at utility substations or on other PG&E-owned property. (The utility is one of California’s largest landowners.) A small portion may be installed on rooftops, he said.

PG&E said the solar initiative will generate enough electricity to power 150,000 homes and will provide 1.3% of the utility’s electricity supply.

“There’s no or little need for new transmission and these projects can plug directly into the grid,” said Darbee. “Given our size and our credit ratings and our strength, we can move forward where smaller developers may not be able to do so.”

The California Public Utilities Commission must approve PG&E’s solar initiative, which Wan estimated would add about 32 cents to the average monthly utility bill.  An $875 million program unveiled by Southern California Edison (EIX) last year to install 250 megawatts of utility-owned rooftop solar panels has run into opposition from solar companies that argue it is  anti-competitive and from consumer advocates who contend the price is too high. The state’s third big utility, San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), has also proposed a rooftop solar program.

Wan acknowledged that objections to Edison led PG&E to design its program so that private developers would have a 50% stake in the initiative. PG&E will sign 20-year power purchase agreements for privately owned solar installations.

PG&E will also need regulators’ approval to inject equity financing into companies developing big solar power plants. The utility has signed power purchase agreements for up to 2,400 megawatts of electricity to be produced by solar thermal  and photovoltaic power plants to be built by companies like Ausra, BrightSource Energy, OptiSolar and SunPower.

“We are looking at the least risky and most developed opportunities to see where we can be the most helpful,” Darbee said.

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In the green stimulus sweepstakes, big potential winners are companies like Silicon Valley startup OptiSolar.

The solar-cell maker came out of nowhere last year to score a deal with utility PG&E to build the world’s largest photovolaic power plant, a 550-megawatt monster that would cover some 9 1/2 square miles on California’s central coast. OptiSolar subsequently began construction of a factory in Sacramento to produce the thousands of thin-film solar panels needed for the project. Then the economy tanked and as financing dried up, OptiSolar laid off half its workforce – some 300 employees – and halted construction of the Sacramento facility.

With a Colorado solar company executive joining President Barack Obama as he signed the $787 billion stimulus legislation into law Tuesday at a solar-powered museum in Denver, OptiSolar and other renewable energy companies stalled by the financial crisis may see their fortunes revive. The package allows builders of big renewable energy projects to apply for a government cash grant to cover 30% of construction costs in lieu of claiming a 30% investment tax credit. A dearth of investors who finance solar power plants and wind farms in exchange for the tax credits has put in jeopardy green energy projects planned for the desert Southwest and the Great Plains. The cash grant would shave about $300 million off the projected $1 billion price tag for OptiSolar’s Topaz Solar Farm.

The stimulus package also includes $2.3 billion to fund a 30% manufacturing tax credit for equipment used to make components for green energy projects, a provision OptiSolar can tap to help finance its solar cell factories. And the company may be able to take advantage of the legislation’s government loan guarantees for large renewable energy projects.

“It will lower the cost of the factory we’re building in Sacramento and make it easier to attract financing,” OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer told Green Wombat, noting the company’s priority is to complete the facility and begin production of solar panels. “The factory is more than shovel ready – our shovels are hanging on the wall where we put them when we had stop work in November.” (OptiSolar currently manufactures solar modules at its Hayward, Calif., plant.)

Fred Morse, senior adviser to Spanish solar energy giant Abengoa, says the stimulus package puts back on track a $1 billion, 280-megawatt solar thermal power plant the company will build outside Phoenix to produce electricity for utility Arizona Public Service. “With the stimulus bill we’re very confident we’ll be able to finance the project,” says Morse. He says Abengoa expects to use the government loan guarantees to obtain debt financing to fund construction of the project and then apply for the 30% cash refund. “I think the entire industry is very optimistic that these two aspects of the stimulus package, the grants and the temporary loan guarantees, should allow a lot of projects to be built.”

Mark McLanahan, senior vice president of corporate development for MMA Renewable Ventures, agrees. “I expect the government grants to attract new investors,” says McLanahan, whose San Francisco firm finances and owns commercial and utility-scale solar projects.

There are some strings attached, though.

To qualify for the cash grants, developers need to start shoveling dirt by Dec. 31, 2010. That means only a handful of big solar thermal power plants planned for California, for instance, are likely to make it through a complicated two-year licensing process in time to break ground by the deadline. One of those could be the first phase of BrightSource Energy’s 400-megawatt Ivanpah power plant on the California-Nevada border. But BrightSource’s biggest projects, part of a 1,300 megawatt deal signed with Southern California Edison (EIX) last week, won’t start coming online until 2013 at the earliest.

Another Big Solar project, Stirling Energy Systems’ 750-megawatt solar dish farm for San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), will be racing to meet the 2010 deadline. The project is in the middle of a long environmental review by the California Energy Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management which currently is scheduled to stretch into 2010.

SolarReserve CEO Terry Murphy says his Santa Monica-based startup has a couple of solar power plant projects in the works that should be able to take advantage of the stimulus provisions. “The likelihood of us being able to close on a financial deal has increased,” Murphy says.

Solar analyst Nathan Bullard of research firm New Energy Finance expects the stimulus package to prompt a push for large photovoltaic power projects. That’s because in California such solar farms – which essentially take rooftop solar panels and mount them in huge arrays on the ground – do not need approval from the California Energy Commission and can be built relatively quickly.

That’s good news for companies like thin-film solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR), which builds smaller scale photovoltaic power plants, and SunPower (SPWRA), which has a long-term contract with PG&E (PCG) for the electricity generated from a planned 250-megawatt PV solar farm to be built near OptiSolar’s project.

“It’s great for PV because you can definitely can get construction done by the end of 2010,” says Bullard. “It’s also good news for smaller and mid-sized developers who couldn’t access tax-equity financing.”

The catch, however, is that renewable energy companies still must raise money from investors in a credit-crunched market to cover construction costs, as the government doesn’t pay out the cash until 60 days after a solar power plant or wind farm goes online. And as McLanahan points out, the cost of raising capital from private equity investors is typically higher and will add to the cost of renewable energy projects. Those costs will only rise if the government is late in paying out refunds.

MMA Renewable finances large commercial arrays and solar power plants and then sells the electricity under long-term contracts to customers who host the solar systems. The loan guarantee provision of the stimulus legislation will help secure financing from investors skittish that some of MMA Renewable’s customers may default on their agreements, according to McLanahan.

Says Murphy: “The fact that we’re getting iron into the ground and getting things moving helps us.”

The wind industry also stands to gain from the stimulus package through a three-year extension of the production tax credit for generating renewable electricity as well as the government cash grants and manufacturing tax credit. Despite a record year for wind farm construction in 2008, projects have come to a standstill in recent months as the financial crisis froze development and forced the European-dominated industry to lay off workers.

“I think it’s good down payment on what needs to happen,” says Doug Pertz, CEO of Clipper Windpower, one of two U.S. wind turbine makers. “A lot more needs to be done but I think this will start to bring a lot of people back into the marketplace.”

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photo: Ausra

When Green Wombat sat down for a chat with Ausra founder David Mills back in September 2007, he allowed that it was not unreasonable to expect the Silicon Valley solar startup to soon be building several massive megawatt solar power plants a year. The optimism was not unwarranted. After all, in the space of 12 months Ausra had relocated from Sydney to Palo Alto, raised $40 million from A-list venture capitalists and was about to ink a deal with utility PG&E for a 177-megawatt  solar power project.

That was then. This month Ausra laid off 10% of its 108 employees amid a move to stop building Big Solar projects – for now – to focus on providing its solar thermal technology to other power plant developers and to industries that use steam. (Ausra’s compact linear fresnel reflector technology deploys flat mirrors that sit low to the ground and concentrate sunlight on water-filled pipes that hang over the mirrors. The superheated water creates steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine.)

“I think our competitors will figure this out sooner or later but nobody’s going from a five-megawatt project to a 500-megawatt project. No one’s going to finance that,” Ausra CEO Bob Fishman told Green Wombat. “If you look at the amount of money it takes to be involved in the project development business, that’s not something a startup can do.”

At least any time soon. Ausra last year opened a robotic factory in Las Vegas to make mirror arrays and other components for the many power plant projects it had on the drawing boards. Just three months ago the company flipped the switch on its five-megawatt Kimberlina demonstration power plant outside Bakersfield. But as the credit crunch hit, financing for billion-dollar solar power projects evaporated. Then in October, Congress passed legislation allowing utilities like PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) to claim a 30% investment tax credit for solar projects. As the only well-capitalized institutions left standing in the energy game, utilities are stepping forward as investors.

PG&E CEO Peter Darbee says he’s prepared to make direct investments in solar power plants – projects the utility needs to comply with a California mandate to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020. Under pressure to meet those targets, California utilities have signed more than four gigawatts worth of power purchase agreements with solar power plant startups like BrightSource Energy, Solel, Stirling Energy Systems and eSolar. Utilities also have begun signing deals for electricity produced by smaller scale photovoltaic power plants built by companies like First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWRA).

Fishman said Ausra will complete the 177-megawatt Carrizo Energy Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast to supply electricity to PG&E. “If Peter Darbee wants to own Carrizo rather than buy the electricity, we’re willing to do it. It makes sense,” he says.

Ausra will also will complete a second big solar power plant planned for Arizona. But the company has quietly let drop a Florida project for utility FPL (FPL) and is negotiating to offload lease claims it filed on federal land in Arizona and Nevada for solar power plants during the solar land rush.

“Other projects in the pipeline we’ll be selling to utilities or developers for a modest amount of cash with a commitment that those developers must use our technology,” says Fishman.

Fishman notes that the cost of licensing a solar power plant can be $5 million to $10 million a year – and in California it’s a multi-year process – so Ausra will realize some immediate savings by morphing into a technology provider.

Customers for Ausra’s technology include oil companies that could inject solar-generated steam in oil wells to enhance recovery of thick petroleum as well as food processing plants and other heavy users of steam. Fishman just returned from a trip to the Middle East where he says he held talks in Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai about using Ausra’s technology for oil recovery and desalinization.

Going forward, he says Ausra’s focus will be on medium-sized power plants. “Maybe next year we’ll do four projects of 50 megawatts a year. It’s a walk before you run situation,” says Fishman. “The financial customers and financial community are going to insist we do medium scale before we do large scale. We’ll still want to do very large projects but given the project finance market, it’ll be a few years from now.”

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