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eSolar Sierra
photo: eSolar

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.”

In February, Google-backed (GOOG) eSolar agreed to supply its technology to NRG (NRG) to develop solar farms generating 500 megawatts.

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.

Next year, ground will be broken on an eSolar power plant in India and NRG and eSolar have a deal to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of solar electricity.

“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.”

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photos: Schott

German solar company Schott on Monday cut the ribbon on a $100 million factory in Albuquerque, N.M., that will produce solar panels as well as receivers for solar trough power plants. Meanwhile, Chinese solar giant Suntech said Monday that it will build a solar cell manufacturing plant in the United States.

The move to North America comes as the European market softens as government subsidies ebb and solar panel prices fall. Despite the severe U.S. recession, Schott and Suntech are betting that the solar market will boom when the economy recovers and they’ll gain a competitive edge by manufacturing near customers.

“We think North America in general is the next big market for solar power,” Gerald Fine, CEO of Schott Solar’s North American operations, told Green Wombat. “Especially in the case of concentrated solar receivers you want to be close to your customers and provide great customer service and low shipping costs.”

schottsolar05And it doesn’t hurt to be generating green jobs as well. The 200,000-square-foot New Mexico factory employs 350 people. The plant was built too late to take advantage of the Obama stimulus package’s 30% tax credit for renewable energy manufacturing. But Fine said the tax credit will encourage Schott’s plans to eventually expand the facility to 800,000 square feet with a workforce of 1,500.

The receivers the factory makes are long glass-covered steel tubes that sit above parabolic troughs in large solar farms. The troughs concentrate sunlight on the receivers to heat a synthetic oil inside that is used to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.

Fine declined to discuss specific customers for the receivers but there are numerous solar trough power plants being planned for the Southwest, including Abengoa Solar’s Solana project in Arizona and utility FPL’s (FPL) Beacon 250-megawatt solar in California.

“We feel pretty comfortable with our order books in both product lines for the foreseeable future,” said Fine. “If you look at the publicly announced plans and try to put a reasonable probability of them being completed, there’s in excess of two gigawatts of power plants out there.”

Schott will have the North American receiver market to itself but will face some stiff competition when it comes to making photovoltaic modules. Thin-film solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR) is headquartered in neighboring Arizona and claims the lowest cost of manufacturing. Last year, German solar cell maker SolarWorld opened a factory outside Portland, Ore., while Silicon Valley’s SunPower (SPWRA) makes some of the most efficient solar cells — albeit overseas.

And now China’s Suntech (STP) is moving into the U.S. manufacturing market. The company on Monday said it is looking at several states as potential sites for a factory and will make a decision on where to locate the facility within six months

“We believe in the outstanding long-term prospects of the solar energy market in the United States, and we will continue to invest in our ability to meet a substantial portion of that potential growth through in-market manufacturing,” Suntech CEO Zhengrong Shi said in a statement.

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

photo: First Solar

Sempra Generation on Wednesday said it has signed a deal for the United States’ largest photovoltaic power plant, a 48-megawatt solar farm to be built by First Solar in Nevada.

The thin-film solar power station will add on to a 10-megawatt solar farm built by First Solar (FSLR) last year adjacent to a Sempra  natural-gas fired power plant in Boulder City, Nev., outside of Las Vegas. Sempra Generation CEO Michael Allman told Green Wombat that Wednesday’s deal is part of a strategy to bring 500 megawatts of solar electricity online.

“The initial focus is on projects that are next to natural gas fired plants in the desert Southwest,” said Allman, whose company is a division of San Diego-based power giant Sempra Energy (SRE).

By building solar farms on the site of existing fossil fuel plants, Sempra can plug them in to the existing power grid, cutting costs for land, permits and electricity transmission. The 10-megawatt solar plant in Boulder City went online six months after ground was broken. Allman said Sempra also owns land next to its Mesquite natural gas power plant outside of Phoenix suitable for solar development.

“Those two power plants provide us with a substantial competitive advantage in both timing and cost,” said Allman. “These two initial projects will be the lowest cost energy delivered out of a solar project anywhere in the world.”

He declined to say what that cost is but an executive with PG&E (PCG), which is buying the electricity from the 10-megawatt Boulder City solar farm, previously told Green Wombat that the California utility was “very happy” with the rate it negotiated.

Allman said Sempra owns more than 4,000 acres in Arizona that could generate 300 megawatts of solar electricity. The company has also filed lease claims on 11,000 acres of desert land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in California’s Imperial Valley. But Allman said Sempra’s preference is to acquire private land to avoid the years-long BLM permitting process. The company will consider a range of solar technologies, including solar thermal, for future solar projects.

The 48-megawatt deal announced Wednesday is contingent upon Sempra signing a power purchase agreement with a utility.

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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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