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BrightSource's Ivanpah solar project approved by California Energy Commission

September 23, 2010 |  9:32 am

Brightsource

BrightSource Energy's controversial Ivanpah solar project is rounding the bend toward the finish line, getting clearance Wednesday from the California Energy Commission to start construction.

If the company also gets approval in the coming weeks from the federal Bureau of Land Management, it could break ground this fall on the planned 370-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.

The project, slated for a patch of the Mojave Desert near Primm, Nev., is expected to nearly double the amount of solar thermal electricity currently being produced in the U.S., the commission said. The energy coming out will be enough to power 140,000 homes while creating more than 1,000 local jobs at the height of construction.

It hasn't been an easy process for BrightSource, which has had to battle environmentalists and politicians along the way. The intended 3,600-acre site was trimmed down from an original plan for 4,073 acres producing 440 megawatts after complaints about potential effects on the endangered desert tortoise population.

The company agreed to fund some desert conservation projects and avoid harmful land-grading techniques to mount its mirrors. The Ivanpah site also plans to use an air-cooling system that is expected to suck up 95% less of the dwindling water supplies that many other solar projects use.

Last year, BrightSource ditched a proposed solar project in the eastern part of the Mojave Desert after feuding with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wanted to turn the area into a national monument. Earlier this year, however, the federal Department of Energy granted BrightSource a conditional loan guarantee for $1.37 billion to support financing on the Ivanpah project.

The three separate solar thermal plants that will make up the facility will use a field of mirrors that focus the sun's rays onto a central "power tower," heating liquid inside to make steam that will power a turbine.

Power will be sold under separate contracts with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which will snatch up about two-thirds of the energy, and Southern California Edison, which will pick up the rest. Bechtel Construction Co. signed a labor agreement in 2009 to build the arrays.

The Ivanpah installation is one of several solar thermal proposals jostling for approval in order to take advantage of federal stimulus funds before they expire at the end of the year. Together, the arrays would infuse the California electricity grid with about 4,300 megawatts.

The California Energy Commission has already advanced the 250-megawatt Beacon project, the 250-megawatt Mojave Solar Project and the 1,000-megawatt Blythe Solar Power Project. The 750-megawatt Imperial Project and the 250-megawatt Genesis Project are next in line.

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Attorney Brendan R. Cummings, with the Center For Biological Diversity, G.Sidney Silliman, with the Sierra Club, and Jim Andre, a researcher with UC Riverside, stand in the area where the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is proposed to be built in the Mojave Desert. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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