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Archive for the ‘NextEra Energy Resources’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about how the nascent solar thermal boom in California’s Mojave Desert is being derailed by lawsuits from environmental, union and Native American groups:

SAN FRANCISCO — Just weeks after regulators approved the last of nine multibillion-dollar solar thermal power plants to be built in the Southern California desert, a storm of lawsuits and the resurgence of an older solar technology are clouding the future of the nascent industry.

The litigation, which seeks to block construction of five of the solar thermal projects, underscores the growing risks of building large-scale renewable energy plants in environmentally delicate areas. On Jan. 25, for instance, Solar Millennium withdrew its 16-month-old license application for a 250-megawatt solar station called Ridgecrest, citing regulators’ concerns over the project’s impact on the Mohave ground squirrel.

At peak output, the five licensed solar thermal projects being challenged would power more than two million homes, create thousands of construction jobs and help the state meet aggressive renewable energy mandates. The projects are backed by California’s biggest utilities, top state officials and the Obama administration.

But conservation, labor and American Indian groups are challenging the projects on environmental grounds. The lawsuits, coupled with a broad plunge in prices for energy from competing power sources, threaten the ability of developers to secure expiring federal loan guarantees and private financing to establish the projects. Only one developer so far, BrightSource Energy, has obtained a loan guarantee and begun construction.

Like so many of this state’s troubles, the industry’s problems are rooted in real estate.

After President George W. Bush ordered public lands to be opened to renewable energy development and California passed a law in 2006 to reduce carbon emissions, scores of developers staked lease claims on nearly a million acres of Mojave Desert land. The government-owned land offered affordable, wide-open spaces and the abundant sunshine needed by solar thermal plants, which use huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

But many of the areas planned for solar development — including the five projects being challenged — are in fragile landscapes and are home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other protected flora and fauna. The government sped through some of the required environmental reviews, and opponents are challenging those reviews as inadequate.

“There’s no good reason to go into these pristine wilderness areas and build huge solar farms, and less reason for the taxpayers to be subsidizing it,” said Cory J. Briggs, a lawyer representing an American Indian group that has sued the United States Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to stop five of the solar thermal plants. “The impacts to Native American culture and the environment are extraordinary.”

The risk that the suits will succeed in blocking construction could make it more difficult for the builders to get federal loan guarantees or attract private financing.

Officials with the Loan Programs Office of the United States Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment. However, department guidelines classify litigation risk as a significant factor to be considered when qualifying renewable energy projects for a loan guarantee.

Brett Prior, a solar analyst with the GTM Research firm, said commercial lenders also viewed the suits as a negative. “In general, there are more projects chasing project finance than there are funds available, so the investment banks can be selective when deciding which projects to support,” he said. “Projects with lawsuits pending will likely move to the back of the queue.”

The conflict over the California projects has already accelerated a shakeout among competing solar technologies.

Tessera Solar announced last week that it had sold its 709-megawatt Imperial Valley solar dish project, which had become the target of two lawsuits. The buyer, AES Solar, develops power plants using photovoltaic panels like those found on residential rooftops. The move follows Tessera’s sale of its 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant in late December, a week after the company lost its longstanding contract with a utility. Calico is the subject of three lawsuits, and the project’s new owner, a New York firm called K Road Power, said it planned to abandon most of the Tessera solar dishes and instead use photovoltaic panels.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

While efforts to pass federal climate change legislation have stalled and a fight rages in California to overturn its global warming law at the ballot box, Golden State regulators have been licensing massive desert solar power plant projects at a breakneck pace in recent weeks.

On Wednesday, for instance, the California Energy Commissioned approved two solar projects that would generate nearly 1,000 megawatts of electricity, the 250-megawatt Genesis Solar Energy Project and the 709-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar Project.

Since Aug. 25, the energy commission has licensed six solar thermal power plants that would cover some 39 square miles of desert land and generate 2,829 megawatts. That’s nearly six times as much solar capacity that was installed in the United States last year, mostly from rooftop solar panels.

“Consider how important it is that California move aggressively toward renewables and how important these pioneering projects are,” said Jeffrey Byron, a member of the California Energy Commission, said at a hearing Wednesday.

Regulators and developers are racing to put shovels to ground before the end of the year when federal incentives for large renewable energy projects expire, which could threaten the financial viability of some of the solar projects.

The Genesis project, to be built by Florida-based energy giant NextEra Energy Resources (formerly called FPL), will build long rows of parabolic troughs in the Riverside County desert that will focus sun on liquid-filled tubes suspended over the mirrors to create steam that will drive an electricity-generating turbine. It’s an older solar technology that was first deployed in the 1980s in California.

Tessera Solar’s  Imperial Valley project, on the other hand, will be the first big test of Stirling dish technology. Resembling a giant mirrored satellite receiver, the 38-foot-high, 40-foot-wide, solar dish focuses the sun’s rays on a Stirling engine, heating hydrogen gas to drive pistons that generate 25-kilowatts of electricity. Some 29,000 of Tessera’s Suncatchers will be installed on more 6,400 acres of desert land near the Mexican border about 100 miles east of San Diego.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger this week signed into law what is thought to be the nation’s first energy storage legislation. The bill, AB 2514 could result in regulations requiring the state’s utilities to store a certain percentage of electricity generated in energy storage systems such as batteries, compressed air or flywheels.

Energy storage is considered crucial for the mass deployment of solar power plants, wind farms and other sources of intermittent renewable energy, as well to build out the smart grid.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I write about the California Energy Commission green-lighting the nation’s first big solar power plant in 20 years:

California regulators on Wednesday approved a license for the nation’s first large-scale solar thermal power plant in two decades.

The licensing of the 250-megawatt Beacon Solar Energy Project after a two-and-a-half-year environmental review comes as several other big solar farms are set to receive approval from the California Energy Commission in the next month.

“I hope this is the first of many more large-scale solar projects we will permit,” said Jeffrey D. Byron, a member of the California Energy Commission, at a hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday. “This is exactly the type of project we want to see.”

Developers and regulators have been racing to license solar power plants and begin construction before the end of the year, when federal incentives for such renewable energy projects expire. California’s three investor-owned utilities also face a deadline to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2010.

Still, it has been long slog as solar power plants planned for the Mojave Desert have become bogged down in disputes over their impact on protected wildlife and scarce water supplies.

In March 2008, NextEra Energy Resources filed an application to build the Beacon project on 2,012 acres of former farmland in California’s Kern County. Long rows of mirrored parabolic troughs will focus sunlight on liquid-filled tubes to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.

Some rural residents immediately objected to the 521 million gallons of groundwater the project would consume annually in an arid region on the western edge of the Mojave Desert. After contentious negotiations with regulators, NextEra agreed to use recycled water that will be piped in from a neighboring community.

“It’s been a lengthy process, an almost embarrassingly long lengthy process,” said Scott Busa, NextEra’s Beacon project manager, at Wednesday’s hearing. “Hopefully, we’re going from a lengthy process to a timely process.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

California utility PG&E on Monday announced two new Big Solar deals that will likely to ramp up the debate over solar thermal power plants’ thirst for water in the desert Southwest. As I write in The New York Times:

The West’s water wars are likely to intensify with Pacific Gas and Electric’s announcement on Monday that it would buy 500 megawatts of electricity from two solar power plant projects to be built in the California desert.

The Genesis Solar Energy Project would consume an estimated 536 million gallons of water a year, while the Mojave Solar Project would pump 705 million gallons annually for power-plant cooling, according to applications filed with the California Energy Commission.

With 35 big solar farm projects undergoing licensing or planned for arid regions of California alone, water is emerging as a contentious issue.

The Genesis and Mojave projects will use solar trough technology that deploys long rows of parabolic mirrors to heat a fluid to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. The steam must be condensed back into water and cooled for re-use.

Solar trough developers prefer to use so-called wet cooling in which water must be constantly be replenished to make up for evaporation. Regulators, meanwhile, are pushing developers to use dry cooling, which takes about 90 percent less water but is more expensive and reduces the efficiency –- and profitability – of a power plant.

NextEra Energy Resources, a subsidiary of the utility giant FPL Group, is developing the Genesis project in the Chuckwalla Valley in the Sonoran Desert. The twin solar farms would tap about 5 percent of the valley’s available water.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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