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

In any emerging industry, there are turning points that bear watching. One of those occurred Tuesday when BrightSource Energy, a California developer of solar power plants, announced the appointment of John E. Bryson as its new chair.

Bryson is a key player in the energy-enviro-regulatory industrial complex, and a member in good standing of the Fortune 500 whose decision to join BrightSource is another signal that Big Solar will be a Big Thing.

A co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970, Bryson went on to become chair and chief executive of Edison International, one of the United States’ largest utilities. He also serves on the boards of Boeing and Disney, as well as the Santa Monica electric car startup Coda Automotive. He is also an advisor to New York private equity and buyout giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

Before going corporate, Bryson was president of the California Public Utilities Commission and California State Water Resources Control Board.

In short, Bryson, 67, is someone who knows his way around the top echelons of the nation’s energy and financial power structure.

Such connections will be key for BrightSource. The company has so far signed contracts to supply more than 2,600 megawatts of electricity to California utilities PG&E and Southern California Edison. It will need to secure many billions of dollars in financing to build more than a dozen large-scale solar power plants to fulfill those deals.

The California Energy Commission on Wednesday is expected to license BrightSource’s first solar project, a 370-megawatt power plant to be built in Southern California’s Ivanpah Valley.

Bryson will serve as non-executive chair, meaning he will not have operational control over the company. A BrightSource spokesperson, though, told me Bryson “intends to be a very active board chair.”

BrightSource has shown itself adept at developing strategic relationships. It counts Google, Morgan Stanley, and Chevron as its investors and brought on engineering giant Bechtel as the chief contractor to build its first power plant as well as to take a stake in the project.

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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: Southern California Edison

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

The California Legislature started out the week in the green by passing the nation’s first energy storage bill. But legislators quickly ran into the red Wednesday when they failed to approve legislation to impose a statewide ban on plastic bags, or codify Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s executive order that utilities obtain a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

But don’t go crying in your organic beer yet. On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission signed off on 650 megawatts of new solar energy contracts and programs.

Whch all goes to show that in the Golden State, environmental politics are not green and brown. And despite the fate of Proposition 23, the oil company-bankrolled ballot initiative to suspend California’s global warming law, the state’s panoply of green laws allows progress to be made on various fronts.

The utilities commission, for instance, approved contracts for two giant photovoltaic solar farms to be built in the Mojave Desert by First Solar. Together they will supply 550 megawatts of electricity to the utility Southern California Edison.

Commissioner Timothy Simon noted at Thursday’s energy commission meeting in San Francisco that the price for that electricity is lower than previous solar contracts, another sign that photovoltaic power is edging ever closer to edging out fossil fuels. The price also speaks to the ability of First Solar, the Tempe, Ariz.-based thin-film solar company, to win and begin to execute big projects.

The commission also greenlighted San Diego Gas & Electric’s proposal for 100-megawatt’s worth of small-scale photovoltaic projects.

Most installations will be 1 or 2 megawatts and built in parking lots or other open spaces where they can be plugged into the grid without expensive transmission upgrades. The move comes on top of 1,000 megawatts of distributed solar generation that the utilities commission previously approved for California’s two other big utilities.

Michael R. Peevey, the president of the utilities commission, said despite the failure of the state legislature to institutionalize the 33 percent renewable portfolio standard — currently subject to reversal by the next governor — California was on a solar streak.

“With approval of this project we’ll have added 1,100 megawatts of photovoltaic electricity by the three utilities,” said Peevey, noting that separately the California Solar Initiative will add another 3,000 megawatts and that by year’s end regulators are poised to approve big solar farms that will generate 4,700 megawatts of electricity.

“These are big, big numbers,” Peevey added. “Independent of the legislature, we’re moving to a RPS economy.”

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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

In a followup to my story in Wednesday’s New York Times about recycling farmland and toxic waste sites for renewable energy projects, I take a deeper dive into why some farmers in the California’s San Joaquin Valley want to stop raising crops and start growing electrons:

In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I wrote about an ambitious plan to build one of the world’s largest solar energy complexes on 30,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

Elsewhere, big renewable energy projects have encountered opposition from farmers, ranchers and environmentalists who worry about the impact of solar power plants on agriculture, wildlife and scarce water supplies.

But farmers in the San Joaquin Valley’s Westlands Water District are embracing solar power as a solution to their water woes. And environmental groups are backing the project as a way to avoid fights over building solar power plants in pristine desert areas.

In the 1960s, the west side of the San Joaquin Valley was transformed from a desert to one of the nation’s most productive agricultural centers thanks to a huge irrigation project that transports water from Northern California and distributes it to 600,000 acres of farmland through 1,034 miles of underground pipes.

Decades of irrigation and drainage problems led to a buildup of salt in the soil that forced the water district to spend $100 million to acquire and retire 100,000 acres of land from most agricultural production. Drought and environmental disputes over the impact of water diversions on endangered fish, meanwhile, slashed water deliveries to Westlands farmers.

The water district hopes to make money off salt-contaminated land by providing an initial 12,000 acres to Westside Holdings, a firm that has proposed building a 5,000-megawatt photovoltaic power complex called the Westlands Solar Park.

And farmers like Mark Shannon have agreed to lease their parched land to Westside, reluctantly concluding there’s more money to be made by growing electrons than crops.

“Last year, we received only 10 percent of our water supply and we idled 85 percent of this ranch,” said Mr. Shannon of the 5,300-acre property that his family has farmed for three generations. “My dad is 67 and I can’t believe how many times I’ve called him and he’s in tears — he just always figured he’d pass this land on to me.”

Mr. Shannon took me up in a small plane for a bird’s-eye view of the impact of the water crisis on his land, where brown fields surround green patches of almonds and pistachios. Beyond his farm are dry lands that stretch to the horizon, property owned by the Westlands Water District and taken out of irrigated production.

“Last year, we had over 250,000 acres in the district that didn’t get farmed,” said Sarah Woolf, a Westlands spokeswoman. “Then you have drainage issues coupled with the long-term reliability of the water supply.”

Desperate farmers have been spending millions of dollars drilling hundreds of deep groundwater wells, which in turn has caused subsidence problems.

In other parts of California, the prospect of covering square miles of farmland with solar panels has stirred outrage among some rural residents. But Mr. Shannon and Westlands officials don’t expect any significant opposition in the San Joaquin Valley.

The reason: if farmers such convert their land to solar farms, their water allocations will be redistributed to their neighbors.

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 a growing movement to repurpose farmland and toxic waste sites for big renewable energy projects:

LEMOORE, Calif. — Thousands of acres of farmland here in the San Joaquin Valley have been removed from agricultural production, largely because the once fertile land is contaminated by salt buildup from years of irrigation.

But large swaths of those dry fields could have a valuable new use in their future — making electricity.

Farmers and officials at Westlands Water District, a public agency that supplies water to farms in the valley, have agreed to provide land for what would be one of the world’s largest solar energy complexes, to be built on 30,000 acres.

At peak output, the proposed Westlands Solar Park would generate as much electricity as several big nuclear power plants.

Unlike some renewable energy projects blocked by objections that they would despoil the landscape, this one has the support of environmentalists.

The San Joaquin initiative is in the vanguard of a new approach to locating renewable energy projects: putting them on polluted or previously used land. The Westlands project has won the backing of groups that have opposed building big solar projects in the Mojave Desert and have fought Westlands for decades over the district’s water use. Landowners and regulators are on board, too.

“It’s about as perfect a place as you’re going to find in the state of California for a solar project like this,” said Carl Zichella, who until late July was the Sierra Club’s Western renewable programs director. “There’s virtually zero wildlife impact here because the land has been farmed continuously for such a long time and you have proximity to transmission, infrastructure and markets.”

Recycling contaminated or otherwise disturbed land into green energy projects could help avoid disputes when developers seek to build sprawling arrays of solar collectors and wind turbines in pristine areas, where they can affect wildlife and water supplies.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for instance, are evaluating a dozen landfills and toxic waste sites for wind farms or solar power plants. In Arizona, the Bureau of Land Management has begun a program to repurpose landfills and abandoned mines for renewable energy.

In Southern California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has proposed building a 5,000-megawatt solar array complex, part of which would cover portions of the dry bed of Owens Lake, which was drained when the city began diverting water from the Owens Valley in 1913. Having already spent more than $500 million to control the intense dust storms that sweep off the lake, the agency hopes solar panels can hold down the dust while generating clean electricity for the utility. A small pilot project will help determine if solar panels can withstand high winds and dust.

“Nothing about this is simple, but it’s worth doing,” Austin Beutner, the department’s interim general manager, said of the pilot program.

All of the projects are in early stages of development, and many obstacles remain. But the support they’ve garnered from landowners, regulators and environmentalists has attracted the interest of big solar developers such as SunPower and First Solar as well as utilities under pressure to meet aggressive renewable energy mandates.

Those targets have become harder to reach as the sunniest undeveloped land is put off limits.

Last December, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced legislation to protect nearly a million acres of the Mojave Desert from renewable energy development.

But the senator’s bill also includes tax incentives for developers who build renewable energy projects on disturbed lands.

For Westlands farmers, the promise of the solar project is not clean electricity, but the additional water allocations they will get if some land is no longer used for farming.

“Westlands’ water supply has been chronically short over the past 18 years, so one of the things we’ve tried to do to balance supply and demand is to take land out of production,” said Thomas W. Birmingham, general manager of the water district, which acquired 100,000 acres and removed the land from most agricultural production. “The conversion of district-owned lands into areas that can generate electricity will help to reduce the cost of providing water to our farmers.”

You can read the rest of the story here:

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photo: eSolar

This post first appeared on Grist.

Amid all the hope and hype about the nascent solar boom under way in California, there’s long been an elephant in the room – transmission. Billions and billions of dollars must be spent to build and upgrade transmission lines to connect dozens of proposed solar power plants to the grid.

Now that elephant has rolled over and squashed one project’s use of innovative solar technology. Last year, California utility PG&E signed a deal with NRG Energy, a New Jersey-based electricity provider, to buy power from a 92-megawatt solar farm called the Alpine SunTower to be built near the desert town of Lancaster, northeast of Los Angeles.

The power plant would deploy solar thermal technology developed by eSolar, a Pasadena startup founded by serial technology entrepreneur Bill Gross. NRG and eSolar earlier had inked a partnership to build 500 megawatts’ worth of solar farms. In January, eSolar reached an agreement with a Chinese company to supply technology for solar farms that would generate a massive 2,000 megawatts of electricity.

PG&E, however, submitted a letter recently to the California Public Utilities Commission  asking approval for a re-negotiated deal with NRG that has resulted in a downsizing of the Alpine SunTower project to 66 megawatts. And instead of deploying eSolar’s fields of mirrors that focus the sun on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a tower to create steam to drive a turbine, the power plant will generate electricity from photovoltaic panels like those found on residential rooftops.

The utility gave no reason for the technology switch. “NRG has not finalized the exact type of panels or the manufacturer of the panels,” a PG&E executive wrote in the letter. “Solar PV panels have been used in installations throughout the world, in both small and utility scale applications.”

However, when I contacted eSolar about the change, I received a joint statement from the company and NRG:

“NRG is returning the project to its originally proposed size to match the transmission capacity available to the project at this time,” it said. “Maintaining the project as previously announced would require waiting for additional interconnection studies and potential transmission upgrades that would delay the project delivery date.”

While solar panels are not as efficient as eSolar’s solar thermal technology in generating electricity, they are modular – meaning you can just keeping adding them to produce a desired amount of power or to match the transmission capacity in an area. ESolar’s power plants, on the other hand, are designed to be built in 46-megawatt units so there’s far less flexibility in scaling them up or down.

It’s too early to say whether this portends other switches from solar thermal to photovoltaic technology, especially as solar cell prices fall and California utilities scramble to meet a mandate requiring they obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of this year and 33 percent by 2020.

But the elephant is getting restless.

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