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Posts Tagged ‘Solar Millennium’

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.

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Solarthermische Parabolrinnenkraftwerke Andasol 1 und 2

Photo: Solar Millennium

Water is emerging as a make-or-break issue for solar developers hoping to build massive megawatt solar power plants in the desert Southwest. On Monday, Solar Millennium announced it would rather switch to dry-cooling its proposed 500-megawatt solar farm in the Nevada desert rather than fight to use more than a billion gallons of water a year to cool the power plant. As I write in The New York Times:

A solar developer caught in the crossfire of the West’s water wars is waving the white flag.

Solar Millennium, a German developer, had proposed using as much as 1.3 billon gallons of water a year to cool a massive solar power plant complex it wants to build in a desert valley 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

That divided the residents of Amargosa Valley, some of whom feared the solar farm would suck dry their aquifer. Others worried about the impact of the $3 billion project on the endangered pupfish, a tiny blue-gray fish that survives only in a few aquamarine desert pools fed by the valley’s aquifer.

Now Solar Millennium says it will instead dry-cool the twin solar farms, which will result in a 90 percent drop in water consumption.

“We trust that this decision to employ dry-cooling will accelerate the approval process and enable us to begin construction and stimulate the local economy by December 2010,” Josef Eichhammer, president of Solar Millennium’s American operations, said in a statement on Monday.

Water has emerged as contentious issue as dozens of large-scale solar power plants are proposed for the desert Southwest. Solar Millennium’s move is likely to put pressure on other solar developers to follow suit.

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Stirling Energy Systems Solar One project

image: Tessera Solar

In a feature published in today’s New York Times, I look at a water war breaking out in the desert Southwest over plans to build dozens of large-scale solar power projects on hundreds of thousands of acres of land:

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Nev. — In a rural corner of Nevada reeling from the recession, a bit of salvation seemed to arrive last year. A German developer, Solar Millennium, announced plans to build two large solar farms here that would harness the sun to generate electricity, creating hundreds of jobs.

But then things got messy. The company revealed that its preferred method of cooling the power plants would consume 1.3 billion gallons of water a year, about 20 percent of this desert valley’s available water.

Now Solar Millennium finds itself in the midst of a new-age version of a Western water war. The public is divided, pitting some people who hope to make money selling water rights to the company against others concerned about the project’s impact on the community and the environment.

“I’m worried about my well and the wells of my neighbors,” George Tucker, a retired chemical engineer, said on a blazing afternoon.

Here is an inconvenient truth about renewable energy: It can sometimes demand a huge amount of water. Many of the proposed solutions to the nation’s energy problems, from certain types of solar farms to biofuel refineries to cleaner coal plants, could consume billions of gallons of water every year.

“When push comes to shove, water could become the real throttle on renewable energy,” said Michael E. Webber, an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin who studies the relationship between energy and water.

Conflicts over water could shape the future of many energy technologies. The most water-efficient renewable technologies are not necessarily the most economical, but water shortages could give them a competitive edge.

In California, solar developers have already been forced to switch to less water-intensive technologies when local officials have refused to turn on the tap. Other big solar projects are mired in disputes with state regulators over water consumption.

To date, the flashpoint for such conflicts has been the Southwest, where dozens of multibillion-dollar solar power plants are planned for thousands of acres of desert. While most forms of energy production consume water, its availability is especially limited in the sunny areas that are otherwise well suited for solar farms.

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