More Enormous California Solar Plants on the Horizon

550 MW First Solar Plant Gets Green Light

The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) has given First Solar approval for yet another massive solar plant, the largest photovoltaic (PV) plant the agency has approved thus far. 

Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, a 550 megawatt (MW) thin-film solar PV project, will be built near Palm Springs, California on 4100 acres of public land. 

It’s expected to infuse about $336 million into the local economy, create 630 solar jobs during construction, and generate enough energy for 165,000 homes. 

First Solar’s thin-film PV technology generates electricity with low visual impact, no waste production or water use, and has the smallest carbon footprint of any PV technology.

The project size was reduced from 19000 acres during the environmental review process. First Solar will fund the acquisition and enhancement of over 7,500 acres for sensitive wildlife species to help mitigate the project’s potential impacts.

In June, the Department of Energy (DOE) gave the project a conditional commitment of a $1.88 billion loan guarantee.

Today’s decision authorizes the BLM to offer Desert Sunlight a right-of-way grant to use these public lands for 30 years if all rents and other conditions are met. The Record of Decision also approves amendments to the BLM’s California Desert Conservation Area Plan, identifying the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm site as available for solar energy development and identifying 14,500 acres in the Project Study Area as unavailable for solar development. The BLM oversees more than 1.5 million acres in Riverside County, including nearly a million acres managed for conservation.

This is the 12th large-scale solar project DOI approved in the last 18 months and the third in 2011.

In July, DOI approved two utility-scale solar developments in California, a wind energy project in Oregon, and a transmission line in Southern California that together will create more than 1,300 construction jobs and provide a combined 550 MW of electricity.

Brightsource Applies for 2 More Huge Plants

BrightSource Energy is asking California regulators for permission to build a second, mammoth utility-scale solar thermal project about 40 miles south of its 392 MW Ivanpah project, the world’s largest solar thermal plant.

The California-based company filed an Application for Certification with the California Energy Commission to develop two additional solar plants with a combined capacity of 500 MW on privately held land in California’s Inyo County. The plants would be called, Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System.

DOE loan guarantees expire for large scale renewable projects after the end of September – if the new plants are approved, they would have to be financed without government support.  

BrightSource began building the first phase of  the Ivanpah project in 2010 on federal lands in the Mohave Desert. The project, which is supported by a Department of Energy (DOE) guarantee, is the first large-scale solar thermal plant to begin construction in the US in over 20 years. 

In May, the Bureau of Land Management halted construction on two of three sites of the Ivanpah plant – which covers some 3500 acres – because of habitat disruption.

BrightSource says Hidden Hills would employ its next generation solar thermal technology, which reduces the amount of land necessary by 33% or more.

The technology employs a tower at the center of a field of reflecting heliostats to collect solar heat. By using a taller tower, BrightSource says it can place rows of heliostats closer together than is possible for a typical photovoltaic (PV) farm or parabolic trough solar thermal plant.

Additionally, BrightSource would place mirrors on poles stamped into the ground, allowing the solar field to be built around the natural contours of the land and avoid areas of sensitive vegetation. This design also allows for vegetation to co-exist in the solar field and avoids the extensive land grading and concrete pads associated with other designs.

To conserve precious desert water, the Hidden Hills project would use an air-cooling system that converts steam into water in a closed-loop cycle. 

BrightSource didn’t say whether the Hidden Hills project would  include its new molten salt energy storage technology, which it announced earlier this week.

BrightSource has signed 2.6 gigawatts (GW) of power contracts with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Company, California’s two largest utilities.

The company manages about 110,000 acres in its development portfolio in California and the U.S. Southwest, which it says has the potential to accommodate 11 GW of installed capacity.

BrightSource filed for a $250 million IPO in April to help finance construction.

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