California Commission approves two solar power plants, for a total of 650 MW

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CEC solar power plant map
The California Energy Commission has approved the Palen and Rice solar projects that had been under review. The combined peak generating capacity of solar power plant projects licensed in California since late August is about twice the peak capacity of Hoover Dam.

Published Dec. 15, 2010

The California Energy Commission has approved two more large-scale solar power projects in the desert, the eighth and ninth it has licensed since late August as the state continues its historic shift toward mainstream use of the sun to power homes and businesses.

The two projects would employ a maximum construction labor force of nearly 1,600, drawing from a region with one of the country’s highest unemployment rates, especially among construction workers.

The Palen Solar Power Project has a nominal planned capacity of 500 megawatts and the Rice Solar Energy Project would be capable of generating up to 150 megawatts at peak times. The nine state-approved solar power complexes that would be scattered throughout Southern California’s desert regions have a combined capacity of 4,142.5 megawatts.

That amount of peak power capacity is about double the maximum generation available at any one time from Hoover Dam. The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona is the largest power producer in the Southwest; its three reactors are rated for a combined peak capacity of 4,020 megawatts. Unlike solar power plants,  conventional power plants and hydroelectric stations can operate at high capacity around the clock. The Rice solar project includes an energy storage capability that would allow it to generate electricity for an extended period.  

The Palen and Rice projects both require approval from the federal Bureau of Land Management, and the Rice solar plant must also be approved by the Western Area Power Administration. The Palen project would employ a parabolic trough technology that has been used in smaller desert solar plants in California for nearly 30 years. The Rice project calls for a 653-foot-high tower to which the sun’s heat would be directed. The plant would use molten salt to store heat that could be tapped to generate electricity even after sundown.  

“Today is a bright day for California. By approving these projects, California continues to demonstrate its leadership and commitment to support clean, renewable energy. These solar projects will reinvigorate our economy and bring jobs to hard-hit communities.  As we look to harness more renewable sources of energy by 2020, California leads the nation by embracing the power of the sun,” said Karen Douglas, chairwoman of the Energy Commission, in a news release.  

These solar projects
will reinvigorate
our economy
and bring jobs to
hard-hit communities.

Karen Douglas
California Energy Commission

Several more large-scale solar power plants using photovoltaic technology – solar panels – are under review or have been approved by county boards in California. The state Energy Commission is responsible for licensing large solar thermal power plants, which turn the sun’s heat into electricity. Solar photovoltaic technology converts sunlight directly into electrical energy. Solar PV plants require local or county approval in California.

“Today’s announcement is great news for California because these projects will help power our homes and businesses with clean electricity while creating thousands of jobs,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a prepared statement. “I applaud the California Energy Commission for their hard work and dedication to advancing renewable energy in our state and continuing California’s leadership in clean energy. The construction of these large-scale solar projects will help us meet our long-term energy and environmental goals, while creating jobs and moving us toward a cleaner, more sustainable future.”

The governor’s office noted that developers have expressed interest in building about 270 renewable energy projects in California, totaling about 70,000 megawatts. Only a fraction of the projects need to come to fruition to make renewable energy a mainstream power source in the state.

In separate unanimous votes, the Energy Commission adopted proposed decisions that recommended licensing the Palen and Rice solar plants. To qualify for federal stimulus funds, the projects needed to be approved by the commission before Dec. 31, 2010.

During the construction of the Palen project, its developers estimate, a peak workforce of about 1,145 will be required, and 134 workers will be needed when the plant is in operation. With the Rice project, a peak workforce of about 440 will be needed during construction, with another 47 jobs when the plant is operating.

The state and the U.S. Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management, have cooperated in rapidly assessing and recommending changes to plans submitted for large solar projects on public land.

In October 2009, the governor and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a memorandum of understanding to develop long-term renewable energy plans through state and federal permitting processes for projects that can receive federal tax credits of 30 percent under the Recovery Act.

The Palen complex, consisting of two adjacent but independent power plants, would use curved trough-like mirrors to concentrate radiant heat onto tubes containing a fluid that would be heated to about 750 degrees Fahrenheit. The fluid is to be piped through heat exchangers, generating steam to be fed under high pressure through conventional turbine-generators, like steam through a whistling kettle, to produce electricity.

The Palen project is to be built off Interstate 10 in the Colorado Desert, about halfway between the cities of Indio and Blythe and 10 miles east of Desert Center. An Energy Commission siting committee recommended either of two alternative configurations for the Palen project that the commission determined would have fewer effects on the desert ecology. The two alternatives reconfigured the project to significantly reduce impacts on the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, on sand dune habitat, and on a sand “transport corridor,’’ where sand is naturally carried by wind or water.

One alternative would disturb 4,365 acres, while the other alternative would take up about 4,330 acres. The commission vote allows the applicant to construct either of the two alternative configurations.

Palen Solar I, a subsidiary of Solar Millennium, is the applicant for the Palen project. Solar Millennium is a subsidiary of Solar Trust of America. The latter is a joint venture of Germany-based Solar Millennium Group (70 percent) and Ferrostaal Inc. (30 percent), according to the Solar Millennium Group’s website. Ferrostaal, founded in the Netherlands in 1920 as a steel firm, is also based in Germany, the leading solar nation.

In 2009, according to Wikipedia, the International Petroleum Investment Co. of Abu Dhabi acquired 70 percent of the shares of Ferrostaal. Abu Dhabi, on the Persian Gulf, is developing a sustainable, solar-powered city called Masdar City, which has employed U.S.-based companies such as Sunpower Corp. and Sopogy Inc. A number of Middle Eastern countries with finite oil reserves have been investing in solar energy development.

Solar Millennium has applied for loan guarantees from the U.S. Department of Energy for an even larger solar power plant project it plans in Blythe, with a production capacity just shy of 1,000 megawatts. The terms of the loan guarantees are under discussion. Construction of the Blythe project would employ more than 1,100 workers, the Solar Millennium Group said in a recent news release. Uwe T. Schmidt, chairman and chief executive of Solar Trust of America, said, “The solar power plants under development and construction are of central importance not only for reaching California’s climate goals, but also for improving the region’s economic future.”

The Rice Solar Energy Project is being developed by Rice Solar Energy, a subsidiary of SolarReserve. The power plant is to be located about 30 miles northwest of Blythe in eastern Riverside County. The project will occupy 1,387 acres of a 2,560-acre parcel of previously disturbed private land located immediately south of State Route 62. A 161-kilovolt generation tie line and substation is to be located partly on land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The development firm estimates the project will create another 5,300 related jobs in the economically hard-hit region.

The Rice project is a concentrating solar thermal power plant with a central receiver tower, a field of sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats, and an integrated thermal storage system using molten salt as the heat transfer and storage medium. Solar energy captured throughout the day could be retained in a tank of molten salt. To make electricity, the hot liquid salt would be routed to heat exchangers to boil water and produce steam. The steam would then be used to generate electricity in a conventional steam turbine cycle. The storage system will allow electricity to be generated up to eight hours after sunset, the company said on its website.

“SolarReserve is a California-based company with American technology that was developed here in the state, so it’s even more gratifying to be building this project in California, creating significant economic benefits and new jobs for the region,” said Kevin Smith, the company’s chief executive, in a news release.

On Monday, SolarReserve reported that it had received environmental permits for a 150-megawatt solar thermal power plant it is planning near Gila Bend, Ariz., about 70 miles southwest of Phoenix. That project still must be approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission; a decision is expected early in 2011.

The seven other solar power projects recently licensed by the California Energy Commission are: Abengoa Mojave Solar Project (250 megawatts, Sept. 8); Beacon Solar Energy Project (250 megawatts, Aug. 25); Blythe Solar Power Project (1,000 megawatts, Sept. 15); Calico Solar Project (663.5 megawatts, Oct. 28); Genesis Solar Energy Project (250 megawatts, Sept. 29); Imperial Valley Solar Project (709 megawatts, Sept. 29); and Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (370 megawatts, Sept. 22).

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