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A New Solar Boom: U.S. Government Approves Largest Solar Project to Be Built on Public Land

Nathanael Baker's picture
EnergyBoom Media Inc.

Nathanael Baker is the Managing Editor of EnergyBoom. He has been immersed in the areas of renewable energy and climate change for two years. Before joining EnergyBoom, Nathanael was the Director...

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  • Oct 26, 2010

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Gaining on the momentum of approving its first solar projects to be built on public lands earlier this month, the U.S. government has now sanctioned the largest solar project to built on public land — the 1,000-megawatt Blythe Solar Power Project.

The US$6 billion Blythe solar power plant is located in California’s Mojave Desert, and will utilize concentrated solar power technology.  The project, being developed by German-based Solar Millennium (XETRA: S2M.DE), will cover more than 7,000 acres of land.

Already approved by the California Energy Commission, the solar farm is now clear to begin construction.  Solar Millennium hopes to break ground before the end of the year.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, said this approval marks the start of a new solar boom in the United States:  “Today is a day that makes me excited about the nation’s future.  This project shows in a real way how harnessing our own renewable resources can create good jobs here at home.”

The Blythe Solar Power Project is one of six solar power plants that have been approved to be built on public lands by the U.S. Department of the Interior.  All of the approvals have come in the last month and each of the projects is located in California.  California is not only the United States’ leading solar energy producer, but it is also home to one of the world’s largest renewable energy markets

Despite its position as a global cleantech leader, the state of California is currently embroiled in a political battle over clean energy.  Proposition 23, which will be on next week’s election ballot, seeks to curb Governor Schwarzenegger’s precedent setting environmental and clean energy laws because, ironically enough, they have been labelled as “job-killers” which are detrimental to the economy.

Continued resistance to new energy policy from the Republican party and fossil fuel companies has not hindered the Obama administration from finally moving forward in the approval process of renewable energy projects proposed on public lands.  The approvals could not come soon enough for developers, some of which have been waiting for five years — and in the case of the recently approved Cape Wind project, eight and half years.

Collectively the approved solar projects are expected to generate more than 3,000 megawatts of energy, which is enough to power 2 million homes.  Additionally, they will create over 2,000 jobs during construction and 700 permanent jobs.

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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 26, 2010

Note that Solar Millennium does not yet have funding for the Blythe solar thermal project.  They are apparently so confident, that they plan to begin construction in December, with or without a loan, in order to qualify for the cash grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. 

The Blythe development will start with two 242 MW parabolic trough plants.  Neither will have storage, as the claimed output suggests a capacity factor of only 25%.  The cost of over $1B per plant works out to over $16 per average Watt!,lang2,50,1899.html

For comparison, the BrightSource Ivanpah also has received permits from the US bureau of Land Management and the California Energy Commission, and their power purchase agreement with SCE has been approved by the PUC.  The difference is that BrightSource also received a condition loan guarantee from the DOE.

The other difference is that BrightSource uses power tower technology, which enables lower cost thermal energy storage (power towers can get the molten salt much hotter than  parabolic troughs, so they can put three times as much energy in each pound of salt).  This is a crucial difference if fossil fuel backup is limited, or if expensive transmission lines are involved (cheaper storage means higher capacity factor and better line utilization).  Ivanpah won’t have storage, though, as the SCE rate structure does not encourage it.

Both Blythe and Ivanpah are a welcome change from the constant buzz about solar PV, which is a technology which seems to require plentiful fossil fuel to be practical.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Oct 27, 2010

Willem’s link makes some good points. One issue is industria solar-thermal converting reflective (high albido) areas to hot absorptive areas.

Still, the parts nuclear advocates don’t include is their COMPLETE dependency on a grid. Blowing steam while leaving a mess from mining to radioactive waste never is included in their “analysis.”

PVs follow a very different track. Photoexcitation of electrons is fundamental to how the earth works; photsynthesis and the electron transport chain. Certainly, living systems are more complex than simple voltages, so simple structures like semiconductor crystals work in place of chloroplasts for electric power production. Like a backyard garden, PVs can be incorporated in many ways. Of course the nuclear advocates will point out this or that panel. But it’s not about “panels,” it’s about photoexcitation of electrons; and that has worked pretty well for billions of years. And PV advocate who don’t ask for your taxes of permits don’t need to defend how they intend to implement their system ( I’ve already mentioned optical waveguides).

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Nathanael Baker on Oct 28, 2010

Thanks for these comments, Nathan.  I was unaware that Solar Millennium had not qcquired any funding.  To me, that seems like the starting point for a project.  It will be interesting to see if they can get their ducks in a row by December.

Why are towers able to heat molten salts hotter than parabolic troughs?

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Nathan Wilson on Oct 28, 2010

The problem with molten salts is that they all freeze at room temperature.  So all plumbing that carries them must be insulated, and electrically heated.  This is not a big problem for a giant tank, or for two fat pipes that go up and down the towers.  It is a problem for the miles and miles of skinny pipe that cover a trough plant.

Instead of salts, trough plants normally use a synthetic oil as the heat transfer fluid in the solar field.  The oil can stay liquid at room temperature, but can’t be used above about 400C without breaking down or vaporizing.  If molten salt heat storage is needed, then a heat exchanger is provided so the salt doesn’t have to be sent all over the solar field.

I think there has been a small prototype built in Spain that used a special salt with low melting temperature (around 120C) in the solar field.  Howvever the modified salt is very expensive and still can’t reach 500C.  Normal solar salt melts at 220C and can be used to at least 565C.

The BrightSource plant makes steam at 550C to be compatible with off-the-shelf high efficiency steam turbines.

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