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Archive for the ‘Tessera Solar’ 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: Tessera Solar

I wrote this story for Reuters, where it first appeared:

The California Energy Commission has temporarily withdrawn approval of a controversial solar power plant by NTR’s Tessera Solar after opponents protested that the 663.5-megawatt Calico project had been improperly licensed.

California aims to get a third of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020 and the $2 billion plant is an important step toward that goal.

An attorney for California Unions for Reliable Energy had argued in a November 11 letter that the energy commission, which licenses large-scale solar thermal power plants, had not filed required written findings about Calico environmental consequences when it approved the project on October 28.

The order was issued late on Friday and the commission will take up the decision again on December 1, but the Sierra Club told Reuters on Monday that the environmental group may mount a legal challenge to Calico due to its impact on the imperiled desert tortoise, fringe-toed lizard and other wildlife.

“We are considering litigation,” Gloria D. Smith, a senior staff attorney with the Sierra Club in San Francisco, said in an email.

California Unions for Reliable Energy also is contemplating a legal challenge to the Calico decision on environmental grounds, said Marc D. Joseph, an attorney for the group.

Calico is one of seven huge solar thermal power plants that the energy commission has licensed over the past three months so developers can begin construction by the end of the year to qualify for a federal cash grant that covers 30 percent of a project’s cost.

Tessera has signed a contract to supply electricity generated by Calico to utility Edison International’s Southern California Edison, which is counting on the project to help it meet its renewable energy targets.

On Friday, Karen Douglas, the energy commission’s chairman, issued an order withdrawing the date approval would go into effect for Calico.

Douglas wrote that the decision did not mean that the commission agreed with the California Unions for Reliable Energy that the commission’s action had been improper.

Sean Gallagher, Tessera’s vice president of market strategy and regulatory affairs, described the issue as a procedural one that the commission could easily correct.

“There were some clerical errors in the way the documents were issued,” he said. “They are not going to address the substance of the decision.”

The company plans to deploy 26,540 solar dishes called Suncatchers at Calico. Resembling giant mirrored satellite receivers, each Suncatcher is 40 feet high and 38 feet wide and generates electricity by focusing the sun on a Stirling engine to heat hydrogen gas. As the gas expands, it drives pistons to generate electricity.

The commission approved Calico only after Tessera agreed to reduce its footprint nearly in half to 4,613 acres in Southern California’s Mojave Desert. The revised configuration would reduce the impact on the desert tortoise by 79 percent, the commission said.

But in an October 20 letter to the commission, Smith argued that even a downsized project would prove devastating to protected wildlife.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In a follow up to my story in Friday’s New York Times on the beginning of a solar building boom in the desert Southwest, I take a look at California regulators’ approval of the seventh Big Solar farm in two months, the 663.5-megawatt Calico project:

In an article in Friday’s paper, I write about the solar thermal power plant building boom now under way in California’s Mojave Desert. The looming expiration of crucial federal financial support for the multibillion-dollar projects, though, could turn the boom to bust.

But that hasn’t deterred California regulators, who on Thursday approved the seventh large-scale solar thermal farm since late August.

After years of painstaking environmental review, the California Energy Commission has been green-lighting the massive solar power plants at warp speed so developers can break ground before year’s end and qualify for a government cash grant that covers 30 percent of the cost of construction.

The latest approval goes to Tessera Solar’s Calico project, to be built in the San Bernardino County desert in Southern California. Originally proposed to generate 850 megawatts -– at peak output, that’s close to the production of a nuclear power plant -– the project was whittled down to 663.5 megawatts to lessen the impact on wildlife like the desert tortoise and the bighorn sheep.

It’s difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of even the smaller version of the Calico project until you’ve seen Tessera’s Suncatcher solar dishes on the ground. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a prototype six-dish Suncatcher solar farm at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico.

Resembling a giant mirrored satellite receiver, each Suncatcher stands 40 feet tall and 38 feet wide with a Stirling engine suspended on an arm over the center of the dish. As the dish tracks the sun, its mirrors concentrate sunlight on the hydrogen gas-filled heat engine. As the superheated gas expands, it drives pistons, which generates 25 kilowatts of electricity.

Now imagine planting 26,540 Suncatchers on 4,613 acres of federal land for the Calico project. Tessera, based in Houston, has also received approval for a 709-megawatt solar power plant to be built in California near the Mexico border. That will require the installation of 28,360 Suncatchers.

“These desert solar projects will provide clean power for our schools, homes, and businesses while reducing fossil fuel consumption, creating local jobs, and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten California’s economy and environment,” Anthony Eggert, a member of the California Energy Commission, said in a statement on Thursday.

The cost to build the two projects will exceed $4.6 billion, according to Tessera, and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll go online unless the company receives federal loan guarantees that allow developers to borrow up to 80 percent of construction costs on favorable terms. That program expires next September, and Tessera needs to start putting steel into the ground by the end of the year to qualify for the cash grant program.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Friday’s New York Times, I write about the beginning of the long-awaited solar boom in the Mojave Desert and how it may well be short-lived if crucial federal incentives for renewable energy are allowed to expire in the coming months:

NIPTON, Calif. — The long-promised solar building boom in the desert Southwest is finally under way. Here in the Mojave Desert, a dice throw away from the Nevada border, giant road graders and a small army of laborers began turning the dirt for BrightSource Energy’s $2 billion Ivanpah project, the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in two decades.

The Ivanpah plant is the first of nine multibillion-dollar solar farms in California and Arizona that are expected to begin construction before the end of the year as developers race to qualify for tens of billions of dollars in federal grants and loan guarantees that are about to expire. The new plants will generate nearly 4,000 megawatts of electricity if built — enough to power three million homes.

But this first wave may very well be the last for a long time, according to industry executives. Without continued government incentives that vastly reduce the risks to investors, solar companies planning another dozen or so plants say they may not be able to raise enough capital to proceed.

“I think we’re going to see a burst of projects over the next two months and then you’re going to hear the sounds of silence for quite a while,” said David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy, on Wednesday after he announced that his company would invest $300 million in the Ivanpah plant.

Solar developers depend on two federal programs to make their projects financially viable. The most crucial is a loan guarantee program, expiring next September, that allows them to borrow money on favorable terms to finance up to 80 percent of construction costs.

The other is the option to take a 30 percent tax credit in the form of a cash payment once a project is built. Although the tax credit does not expire until the end of 2016, the option to take it as a cash payment disappears this year, making it far less valuable to a start-up company that is just beginning to generate revenue.

With both Democrats and Republicans promising to rein in the federal budget, it is unclear whether lawmakers will extend the programs in any form. “That could stall a number of projects and even lead to the failure of some,” said Ted Sullivan, an analyst with Lux Research, a consulting firm in New York.

Yet no one in the desert here wants to think too much about those looming clouds.

“Ivanpah represents a transformational moment in our energy equation,” said John Woolard, BrightSource’s chief executive, who was joined Wednesday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Ivanpah’s groundbreaking ceremony. “It demonstrates that the U.S. can lead in the drive for renewable energy at scale by building the largest solar plant in the world with new technology.”

The eight California projects that are expected to break ground this year will turn 46 square miles of the desert into a futuristic landscape of mirrors, towers and solar dishes. State officials estimate the plants will create 8,000 jobs in a state with a 12.4 percent unemployment rate.

During its three years of construction, Ivanpah will employ as many as 1,000 laborers in a recession-scarred region.

“In the last year, I haven’t worked,” said Basilio Yniguez, a 36-year-old pipefitter and father of seven, as he helped build a holding pen last week for threatened desert tortoises on the Ivanpah site. “Thanks to the green thing going up, I’m working.”

The state is supporting the industry in part by mandating that California utilities get a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

“When you look at the raw number of kilowatt-hours we need, I don’t see how you get there without large central station solar projects,” said Pedro Pizarro, a top executive with Southern California Edison, one of the state’s largest utilities.

Unlike the photovoltaic panel systems found on rooftops, most of the new solar plants will use thousands of large mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam that drives conventional electricity-generating turbines.

“Without the Department of Energy coming in to assume a lot of the risk, you might not find lenders willing to lend, particularly if you’re a start-up with untried technology,” said Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Other hurdles also stand in the way of the solar expansion. For some plants, multibillion-dollar transmission lines must be built to carry electricity from the desert to cities. Some environmentalists continue to oppose the projects’ impact on imperiled wildlife, such as the desert tortoise, and may sue to stop construction.

The competitiveness of large-scale solar thermal plants in California also depends on the cost of natural gas, the state’s dominant source of electricity. According to Mr. Bullard, gas-fueled plants can produce electricity for about 10 cents a kilowatt-hour. After including the government subsidies, solar thermal plants are expected to generate power at 13 to 17 cents a kilowatt-hour, which the industry says is close enough in price to be competitive.

So far, Ivanpah is the only California solar thermal project to win a government loan guarantee, although other projects have applied and are awaiting decisions from the Energy Department.

“We are sensitive to the deadlines and are doing everything we can so that these projects can move forward,” said Jonathan Silver, the executive director of the department’s loan program. “There’s a significant demand for these funds.”

The uncertainty has left even some of the licensed solar projects in limbo.

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.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday gave the green light to the first two big solar power plants to be built on federal land in the California desert, promising more approvals of solar projects in the coming weeks.

The granting of leases to Tessera Solar’s massive 709-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar Project and to a smaller 45-megawatt photovoltaic farm to be built by Chevron come four years after the solar land rush began in the Mojave Desert.

With nearly 200 applications filed on hundreds of thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, the federal government soon became overwhelmed trying to weed out viable projects from speculators. Environmentalists, meanwhile, grew alarmed at the potential impact of such huge industrial projects on a plethora of imperiled wildlife, as well as on water supplies and desert vistas.

The Obama administration beefed up BLM staff devoted to solar projects and began collaborating with California agencies to streamline the approval process.

“Today’s projects are proof that we can cut red tape without cutting corners,” Salazar said Tuesday during a press conference.

The looming expiration of federal tax incentives for large renewable energy projects also lit a fire under state and federal regulators to license power plants so that developers could begin construction by the end of the year.

For instance, since Aug. 25, the California 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 as was installed in the United States last year.

“I am excited to join Secretary Salazar today in announcing the first solar projects to ever get permits on federal land, both of which will be located in the Golden State,”  California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “Today’s announcement only further cements California’s national leadership in renewable energy development.”

Some environmental groups initially raised concerns about the Imperial Valley project, which will place 19,000, 38-foot by 40-foot Stirling solar dishes on 6,400 acres of desert land near the Mexican border east of San Diego. Of particular concern was the project’s impact on the flat-tailed horn lizard and the Peninsular bighorn sheep. A Native American tribe, meanwhile, objected to the power plant’s presence on their ancestral lands.

But Johanna Wald, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, said the developer’s willingness to shrink the project to mitigate degradation of wildlife habitat and to minimize its water consumption won over her group and other environmentalists.

“The company sat down with NRDC and our conservation partners and agreed to a number of important measures that were above and beyond the requirements that were imposed by the state and federal regulators,” Wald said in an interview.

Nevertheless, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Native Americans have continued to object to the Imperial Valley solar farm.

Wald singled out the much smaller Chevron project as one where developers’ selection of a site near transmission lines and away from protected wildlife paid off in the unanimous support from major environmental groups.

“Chevron,” she said, “is a project we all would agree was smart from the start.”

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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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In Tuesday’s New York Times, I write about California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to ban renewable energy production in two proposed national monuments in the Mojave Desert:

AMBOY, Calif. — Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation in Congress on Monday to protect a million acres of the Mojave Desert in California by scuttling some 13 big solar plants and wind farms planned for the region.

But before the bill to create two new Mojave national monuments has even had its first hearing, the California Democrat has largely achieved her aim. Regardless of the legislation’s fate, her opposition means that few if any power plants are likely to be built in the monument area, a complication in California’s effort to achieve its aggressive goals for renewable energy.

Developers of the projects have already postponed several proposals or abandoned them entirely. The California agency charged with planning a renewable energy transmission grid has rerouted proposed power lines to avoid the monument.

“The very existence of the monument proposal has certainly chilled development within its boundaries,” said Karen Douglas, chairwoman of the California Energy Commission.

For Mrs. Feinstein, creation of the Mojave national monuments would make good on a promise by the government a decade ago to protect desert land donated by an environmental group that had acquired the property from the Catellus Development Corporation.

“The Catellus lands were purchased with nearly $45 million in private funds and $18 million in federal funds and donated to the federal government for the purpose of conservation, and that commitment must be upheld. Period,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement.

The federal government made a competing commitment in 2005, though, when President George W. Bush ordered that renewable energy production be accelerated on public lands, including the Catellus holdings. The Obama administration is trying to balance conservation demands with its goal of radically increasing solar and wind generation by identifying areas suitable for large-scale projects across the West.

Mrs. Feinstein heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Interior Department, giving her substantial clout over that agency, which manages the government’s landholdings. Her intervention in the Mojave means it will be more difficult for California utilities to achieve a goal, set by the state, of obtaining a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020; projects in the monument area could have supplied a substantial portion of that power.

“This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the environmentalist and a partner with a venture capital firm that invested in a solar developer called BrightSource Energy. In September, BrightSource canceled a large project in the monument area.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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