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Posts Tagged ‘solar power plants’

photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I write about the solar industry’s dismay over the rent and other fees the United States government will charge developers to build big solar power plants on federal land in the desert Southwest:

The nation’s biggest landlord, the United States government, has set the rent it will charge developers who build solar power plants on federal land, and some prospective tenants are not happy.

Solar developers will actually pay two fees – the lease for the land along with what the Bureau of Land Management calls a “megawatt capacity fee” based on how much electricity a project generates.

“Since we don’t have authority to collect royalties for wind and solar projects, we had to come up with a methodology to convert that electrical generation into an upfront rent payment,” Ray Brady, manager of the bureau’s renewable energy team, said in an interview.

But potential developers see a disparity. “The proposed B.L.M. rental fees are in many cases two times higher than market rates for private land,” Monique Hanis, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in an e-mail message. “The B.L.M. must collect ‘fair market value’ from developers, but this seems to go beyond that threshold.”

That methodology is a work in progress as the agency tries to adapt decades-old formulas designed for oil and gas leasing and mineral extraction to renewable energy production.

Some 23 million acres of federal property are suitable for large-scale solar development, according to the bureau, and the agency has received more than 200 lease applications from developers who covet hot and sunny desert real estate in the Southwest.

Solar farms typically require vast swaths of land, meaning the lease fees can be considerable depending on a project’s location and local property values. The Bureau of Land Management’s solar rents range from $15.70 an acre in Hidalgo County, N.M., to $313.88 an acre in Riverside County, Calif.

For instance, BrightSource Energy will pay the government about $427,000 a year in rent for its 3,400-acre Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino, Calif., now undergoing licensing. The company, based in Oakland, Calif., will also pay an annual megawatt capacity fee of $2.6 million for the 392-megawatt solar thermal power plant. Fees over the 25-year life of the contracts that BrightSource has signed with California utilities would total about $76 million.

In neighboring Riverside County, First Solar, a solar module maker and developer based in Tempe, Ariz., plans to build a 550-megawatt photovoltaic farm on 4,410 acres of federal land. Lease and capacity fees for the Desert Sunlight project will total about $4.3 million a year.

The agency is charging different capacity fees for different solar technologies. Photovoltaic power plants, which deploy solar panels like those found on residential rooftops, are assessed $5,256 a megawatt.

Developers of more efficient solar thermal power plant, which uses mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam that drives a turbine, pay $6,570 a megawatt. The same rate is charged for concentrating photovoltaic farms that use mirrors to focus the sun on a highly efficient solar cell.

If either technology uses energy storage systems to produce electricity when the sun doesn’t shine, the fee jumps to $7,884 a megawatt. The fees will be phased in over the first five years of a power plant’s operation.

Some developers and environmentalists argue that such a fee structure penalizes technologies that are more efficient and thus use less land.

“This is an unfortunate way of emphasizing one technology over another,” said Bobby McEnaney, a land program expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Alcoa

In The New York Times on Thursday, I wrote about how aluminum giant Alcoa has become the latest industrial behemoth to jump into the solar business:

Alcoa, the aluminum giant, is testing a new type of solar technology that the company said it believed will lower the cost of renewable energy.

The company has replaced the glass in parabolic troughs with reflective aluminum and integrated the mirror into a single structure.

Parabolic troughs focus sunlight on liquid-filled receivers suspended over the mirrors to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Parabolic trough technology has been in modern use in solar power plants since the early 1980s, but Alcoa executives said they saw an opportunity to refine the technology and get a foothold in the rapidly expanding renewable energy market.

“If you go out and look behind large parabolic troughs, you’ll find an elaborate truss structure,” said Rick Winter, a technology executive with Alcoa. “From our understanding of aerospace structures, we said if we can modify the wing box design used in aircraft and integrate a parabolic reflector, it would give us a light and stiff structure that would fundamentally affect the cost equation.”

An airplane’s wing box is a unit that integrates support structures and anchors a wing.

“Using aluminum and a wing box design we’re able to create the parabolic curve that we want in the structure itself,” said Scott Kerns, a vice president and general manager at Alcoa. “We can make the skin conform more or less to the way we want to concentrate the light.”

Current solar troughs use glass mirrors that are formed in the shape of a parabola and then attached to a support structure made of aluminum or steel. The executives said they estimate that the all-aluminum Alcoa parabolic trough, which is being tested at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, will cut the price of a solar field by 20 percent due to lower installation costs.

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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photo: Todd Woody

In an interview I did with green tech entrepreneur Bill Gross for Yale Environment 360, Gross talks about the future of solar energy, his relationship with Google, and how to avoid battles over building large solar farms in the deserts of the Southwest:

Bill Gross is not your typical solar energy entrepreneur. In a business dominated by Silicon Valley technologists and veterans of the fossil fuel industry, Gross is a Southern Californian who made his name in software. His Idealab startup incubator led to the creation of companies such as eToys, CitySearch, and GoTo.com. The latter pioneered search advertising — think Google — and was acquired by Yahoo for $1.6 billion in 2003.

That payday has allowed Gross to pursue his green dreams. (As a teenager, he started a company to sell plans for a parabolic solar dish he had designed.) Over the past decade, Gross has launched a slew of green tech startups, including solar power plant builder eSolar, electric car company Aptera, and Energy Innovations, which is developing advanced photovoltaic technology.

But it has been eSolar, backed by Google and other investors, that has been Idealab’s brightest light. In January, the company signed one of the world’s largest green-energy deals when it agreed to provide the technology to build solar farms in China that would generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity — at peak output the equivalent of two large nuclear power plants. And last week, eSolar licensed its technology to German industrial giant Ferrostaal to build solar power plants in Europe, the Middle East, and South Africa. Those deals followed eSolar partnerships in India and the U.S.

ESolar’s power plants deploy thousands of mirrors called heliostats to focus the sun’s rays on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a slender tower. The heat creates steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Last year, eSolar built its first project, a five-megawatt demonstration power plant, called Sierra, in the desert near Los Angeles.

This “power tower” technology is not new, but what sets the company apart is Gross’ use of sophisticated software and imaging technology to control the 176,000 mirrors that form a standard, 46-megawatt eSolar power plant. That computing firepower precisely positions the mirrors to create a virtual parabola that focuses the sun on the tower. That allows the company to place small, inexpensive mirrors close together, which dramatically reduces the land needed for the power plant and cuts manufacturing and installation costs.

“We use Moore’s law rather than more steel,” Gross likes to quip, referring to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s maxim that computing power doubles every two years.

You can read the interview here.

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photo: eSolar

In my new Green State column on Grist, I take a look at the implications of California startup eSolar’s 2,000 megawatt solar thermal deal with China:

Forget Red China. It’s Green China these days—at least when it comes to making big renewable deals.

Friday night, a Chinese developer and eSolar of Pasadena, Calif., signed an agreement to build solar thermal power plants in the Mongolian desert over the next decade. These plants would generate a total of 2,000 megawatts of electricity. It’s the largest solar thermal project in the world and follows another two-gigawatt deal China struck in October with Arizona’s First Solar for a massive photovoltaic power complex. Altogether, the eSolar and First Solar projects would produce, at peak output, the amount of electricity generated by about four large nuclear power plants, lighting up millions of Chinese homes.

Is China the new California, the engine powering the green tech revolution?

Yes and no. When it comes to technological and entrepreneurial innovation, Beijing lags Silicon Valley (and Austin, Boston, and Los Angeles)—for now. But as a market, China is likely to drive demand for renewable energy, giving companies like eSolar the opportunity to scale up their technology and drive down costs.

[We’ll pause here to state the obvious: China’s investment in renewable energy and other green technologies is miniscule compared to the resources devoted to its continued building of coal-fired power plants and efforts to secure dirty oil shale supplies in Canada and elsewhere.]

“All the learning from this partnership will help us in the United States,” Bill Gross, eSolar’s founder and chairman, told me. “I think as soon as the economy improves in the rest of the world and banks start lending, there will be a lot of competition in the U.S. and Europe. But, until then, China has the money and the demand.”

In a one-party state, a government official saying, “Make it so,” can remove obstacles to any given project and allocate resources for its development. Construction of the first eSolar project, a 92-megawatt power plant, in a 66-square-mile energy park in northern China, is set to begin this year

“They’re moving very fast, much faster than the state and U.S. governments are moving,” says Gross, who is licensing eSolar’s technology to a Chinese firm, Penglai Electric, which will manage the construction of the power plants. Another Chinese company will open and operate the projects

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: eSolar

In Saturday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about a ground-breaking solar thermal deal struck by eSolar of Pasadena, Calif., to build two gigawatts of power plants in China over the next decade:

ESolar Inc. of Pasadena signed an agreement Friday to build a series of solar thermal power plants in China with a total capacity of 2,000 megawatts, in one of the largest renewable energy deals of its kind.

Coming four months after an Arizona company, First Solar, secured a contract to build an equally large photovoltaic power plant in China, the ESolar deal signals China’s emergence as a major market for renewable energy.

“They’re moving very fast, much faster than the state and U.S. governments are moving,” said Bill Gross, ESolar’s chairman and the founder of Idealab.

Under the agreement, ESolar will provide China Shandong Penglai Electric Power Equipment Manufacturing Co. the technology and expertise to build solar “power tower” plants over the next decade. Those solar farms would generate a total of 2,000 megawatts of electricity; at peak output that would be equivalent to a large nuclear power plant. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

The initial project, which includes a 92-megawatt solar power plant to be built this year, will be located in the 66-square-mile Yulin Energy Park in the Mongolian desert in northern China. The region has become a hot spot for renewable energy, with the 2,000-megawatt First Solar project planned 60 miles to the north.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: SolarReserve

In The New York Times on Saturday, I write about utilities NV Energy and PG&E signing power purchase agreements to buy electricity from SolarReserve’s solar farms, which store the sun’s energy in molten salt to generate power at night:

Solar farms that would serve two Western utilities are planning to use technology that will generate electricity after the sun goes down, a move that could be a potential game-changer for the industry.

The two farms being planned by SolarReserve of Santa Monica, Calif., would store the sun’s energy in molten salt, releasing the heat at night when it could be used to drive a turbine and generate electricity. Two utilities, NV Energy in Nevada and Pacific Gas and Electric, Northern California’s biggest utility, would buy the power.

The sun’s intermittent nature has made large-scale solar farms most useful as so-called peaker plants that supply electricity when demand spikes, typically in the late afternoon on hot days. But the ability of SolarReserve to store the sun’s energy for use at night would be a step forward in technology.

“The energy storage characteristics were a key factor in our selection of the Tonopah solar energy project,” NV Energy’s chief executive, Michael Yackira, said in a statement. The utility will be able to draw electricity from the solar farm more or less on demand, which makes it easier to balance the load on the power grid.

NV Energy would buy power from the 100-megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project being planned on federal land near Tonopah, Nev., about 215 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

“We’re expecting to put in 12 hours of storage, which allows us to move power within the day to meet peak requirements as well as to operate at full load,” SolarReserve’s chief executive, Kevin Smith, said of the Tonopah plant.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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