Posts Tagged ‘California Energy Commission’

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: California Energy Commission

In Friday’s New York Times, I wrote about California regulators’ licensing of a 1,000-megawatt solar thermal power plant, which would be the world’s largest solar energy complex:

California regulators have licensed what is for the moment the world’s largest solar thermal power plant, a 1,000-megawatt complex called the Blythe Solar Power Project to be built in the Mojave Desert.

By contrast, a total of 481 megawatts of new solar capacity was installed in the United States last year, mostly from thousands of rooftop solar arrays, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.

“Given the challenge of climate change at this time, it is very important to reduce fossil fuel use by moving forward with the largest solar project in California,” Robert Weisenmiller, a member of the California Energy Commission, said at a hearing Wednesday in Sacramento after a unanimous vote to approve the Blythe project.

“We’re taking a major step toward reducing the threat of future climate change impacts on the state, and at the same time the other real challenge for the state is the economy,” he added, referring to 604 construction jobs and 221 permanent jobs that the Blythe project would create in an area of California where the unemployment rate was 15 percent this summer.

After years of environmental reviews, the California Energy Commission has in the past three weeks licensed solar thermal farms that would generate 1,500 megawatts of electricity when completed.

A commission spokeswoman said the commissioners anticipated making licensing decisions by the end of 2010 on additional solar projects that would produce another 2,829 megawatts. At peak output, those solar farms would generate the equivalent electricity produced by several large nuclear power plants.

Developers are racing to start construction before federal tax incentives for big renewable energy projects expire at year’s end.

If all the projects are built, they would create 8,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs, according to the energy commission.

At peak operation, the Blythe solar complex would supply enough electricity for 800,000 homes. The multibillion-dollar project will be built in four 250-megawatt phases.

It is notable for being the first big solar project to be licensed that would be built on federal land. The United States Bureau of Land Management is expected to decide by the end of October whether to approve the Blythe complex.

The project will be constructed by Solar Millennium, a German developer, and will cover 9.3 square miles in Riverside County in Southern California with long rows of parabolic troughs. The solar reflectors focus the sun on liquid-filled tubes suspended over the mirrors to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine housed in a central power block.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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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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image: California Energy Commission

In The New York Times on Friday, I write about another setback in California’s scramble to meet its renewable energy targets:

The developer of a hybrid biomass solar power plant to be built in California has abruptly canceled the project, underscoring the challenges the state faces in meeting its ambitious renewable energy goals.

Martifer Renewables, a Portuguese company, had signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with the California utility PG&E for 106.8 megawatts. The power was to be generated from a pair of power plants called San Joaquin Solar 1 and 2 that would be built on 640 acres of agricultural land in Fresno County. The facility would produce electricity from a solar field by day and burn biomass collected from area farms by night. But 18 months into an extensive licensing process and after recently depositing $250,000 for a transmission study, Martifer notified the California Energy Commission last month that it was withdrawing its license application.

The developer’s representatives did not return a request for comment. But in a June 17 letter to the energy commission, Miguel Lobo, a Martifer executive, wrote, “We were not able at this time to resolve some of our issues regarding project economics and biomass supply amongst other things.”

Although local residents and regulators had raised issues about the proposed solar farm’s water consumption and other impacts, it was the project’s plan to operate around the clock by burning biomass that proved problematic, according to energy commission records.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Photo: BrightSource Energy

In The New York Times on Wednesday I write that California regulators have recommended approval of BrightSource Energy’s 392-megawatt solar thermal power plant, the first large-scale project in the state in two decades:

California regulators on Wednesday recommended that the state’s first new big solar power plant in nearly two decades be approved after a two-and-half year review of its environmental impact on the Mojave Desert.

The recommendation by the California Energy Commission staff comes three weeks after the United States Department of Energy offered the project’s builder, BrightSource Energy, a $1.37 billion loan guarantee to construct the 392-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, or I.S.E.G.S.

The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity favor solar energy projects but objected to building the BrightSource power plant in Southern California’s Ivanpah Valley, saying it would harm rare plants and animals such as the desert tortoise.

Other environmentalists argued that the project, which features thousands of mirrors that focus the sun on 459-foot-tall towers, would mar the visual beauty of the desert.

In an assessment filed on Tuesday, energy commission staff found that a smaller version of the project that BrightSource proposed last month would mitigate any damage to several protected plant species on the site.

Environmentalists, however, had said the downsized version of the power plant would not sufficiently protect rare species and continued to push for the project’s relocation to more disturbed land.

The energy commission staff determined the visual impact of the Ivanpah power plant could not be reduced but recommended that the commission’s board license the project due to “overriding considerations.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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