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BrightSource's Ivanpah solar installation cleared by Energy Commission

Ivanpah At the rate the California Energy Commission is approving solar projects, the state’s deserts may soon be littered with arrays.

At least that’s the hope as the agency cleared the fourth large solar installation up for consideration in recent weeks. The controversial 370-megwatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, from Oakland company BrightSource Energy, is now on track to start construction this fall in the Mojave Desert, assuming it gets the go-ahead from the federal Bureau of Land Management in the coming weeks.

Once it’s constructed less than five miles from Primm, Nev., the project will nearly double the amount of solar thermal electricity produced in the country today, the commission said. But the progress hasn’t been easy to come by for BrightSource.

The intended 3,600-acre site was trimmed down from an original plan for 4,073 acres producing 440 megawatts after environmentalists and politicians complained 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 focuses the sun’s rays onto a central “power tower,” heating liquid inside to make steam that will power a turbine.

The setup will produce enough energy to power 140,000 homes while creating more than 1,000 local union jobs at the height of construction, the commission said. Bechtel Construction Co. signed a labor agreement in 2009 to build the arrays.

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.

The Ivanpah installation is one of several solar thermal proposals jostling for approval 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 roughly 4,300 megawatts.

The state 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 the queue.

-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Miles of power lines stretch across the Mojave Desert towards Primm, Nev., and the casinos at the state line, near the proposed site of the Solar Generating Station. Credit: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times
 

 
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