CEC Approves First Utility Solar Project in 20 Years

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After years of delay, things are finally heating up for large-scale solar thermal power plants in California’s remote deserts. In the last month, a California Energy Commission (CEC) siting committee has recommended at least five solar plants for approval. Last week the first of these projects gained official go-ahead from the agency. The Beacon Solar Energy project is the first utility-scale solar power plant to receive approval in California since 1990.

A project of NextEra Energy Resources, the largest developer of renewable energy in the United States, the Beacon solar project will cover more than 2,000 acres of western Mojave Desert with parabolic trough collectors that will focus sunlight onto liquid-filled pipes. The solar-heated liquid will be channeled to a boiler, where it will produce steam to spin an electricity-generating turbine.

The power plant will create 250 megawatts (MW) of solar electricity when performing at peak production. The project has been wading through the complex permitting process since 2008. This and many other projects have been hampered by environmental concerns as to their impact on the local environment, including wildlife habitat and water issues.

While the Beacon Solar Energy project has the advantage of being located on private land in Kern County, CA, most of the 150 similar projects up for approval by the CEC are located on public lands administered by the U.S. Department of Interior, under its Bureau of Land Management (BLM) division. Only in the wake of extensive environmental impact surveys, and in some cases, important concessions by the developer, are some of these projects getting close to seeing the light of day.

NextEra’s Beacon project will have to secure a power purchase agreement with a utility before it can really break ground. I’d like to assume that this wouldn’t be very difficult, considering California utilities’ rush to meet state energy mandates requiring 20 percent of their energy to come from renewable resources by the end of 2010. But time is of the essence for NextEra and other developers as well, as the federal government’s Treasury Grant Program, which allows solar projects to opt for up-front grants in lieu of federal tax credits otherwise paid over time, is scheduled to expire at the end of this year. That initial funding is key to projects gaining financing from lenders wary of the perceived risk associated with intermittent solar power.

Other projects OK’d by a siting committee and slated for approval by the CEC — following 30 days of public comment — include the 400 MW Ivanpah Solar Plant from Brightsource Energy and the Genesis Solar Energy Project, yet another NextEra Energy Resources project (by subsidiary Genesis Solar). For more information on pending utility-scale solar projects in California, visit the CEC website and scroll down to “Power Plant Licensing Under Review.”

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