California Pushes Ahead With Massive Solar Thermal Projects

By Andrew Moseman | August 27, 2010 1:14 pm

blytheCalifornia’s aggressive energy rules require its utilities to hit an ambitious target: 20 percent of their electricity should come from renewable sources by the end of this year. They’re not going to make it. But because of the drive for renewables, they are close to building some of the biggest solar power projects in the country—including one that would be the biggest ever.

The Beacon Solar Energy Project received the seal of approval from the California Energy Commission (CEC) this week. Beacon will be a 250-megawatt plant built north of Los Angeles near Mojave, California, and would cover more than 2,000 acres.

Beacon is solar thermal: Rather than converting sunlight to electricity through photovoltaic cells, solar thermal projects use mirrors to concentrate the heat of the sun, creating steam to turn turbines.

California hasn’t issued a license for this kind of big “solar thermal” power plant in about 20 years. But in the coming months, the energy commission will vote on eight other, large-scale solar projects that the state needs to meet its renewable energy goals. [San Francisco Chronicle]

One of those other projects would dwarf the Beacon project. The Blythe Solar Power Project, a proposed 1,000-megawatt (or 1-gigawatt) solar thermal operation, received a final environmental impact statement from California’s government. The CEC recommended that this project also be approved.

When completed, the Blythe plant would nearly double the current 585 megawatts of installed commercial-scale solar generation nationwide and would have a capacity to generate nearly three times the electricity produced at the country’s largest solar facility — the nine-unit, 354-megawatt Solar Energy Generating Systems plant in Kramer Junction, Calif., according to statistics provided by the Solar Energy Industries Association. [The New York Times]

We can expect the mad rush to continue—not just because of California’s renewable energy standards, but also because the money to build these things can be here today and gone tomorrow depending on whether Congress decides to extend the funding period.

Many companies are in a scramble to get approval for their solar projects and break ground within the year in order to take advantage of a Treasury grant program and the Department of Energy’s renewable-energy loan-guarantee program, both of which are both due to expire at the end of 2010…. The BLM (Bureau of Land Management), which has jurisdiction over 264 million acres of public lands, has received approval requests for 34 different solar thermal projects that together would total about 24,000 megawatts and cover over 300,000 acres of the Mojave Dessert, according to the CEC. [CNET]

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Image: California Energy Commission

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Rhacodactylus

    It’s great to see some state governments pushing ahead on renewable energy.

  • Katlian

    Sadly those 300,000 acres (an area roughly the size of 95,000 new Walmarts) will be bulldozed in pristine Mojave Desert that provides habitat for dozens of rare species. Solar power plants also use tremendous amounts of water to create the steam to turn the turbines. Even the “dry” solar plants suck up millions of gallons of water each year from basins that don’t have any water to spare. The BLM is being forced to approve these projects with minimal or no environmental review and the CEC will rubber stamp anything renewable. Most people don’t appreciate the desert the same way they appreciate forests and mountains; even the governor has stated that it’s just a wasteland.

    Those big grant and loan programs are designed to support huge projects on federal lands instead of placing solar panels on existing development like roofs and parking lots. Germany is a good example of how to produce a lot of solar power by adding small installations to existing buildings. They already produce far more power from solar than any other country despite their small area and cloudy weather because individuals have a financial incentive to install solar panels on their homes. As long as the financial incentives for building solar power in the US go to big corporations, instead of everyone, our power generating systems are not going to change.

    Sometimes being green isn’t very green at all.

  • dcwarrior

    Katlian @ #2

    Isn’t this about tradeoffs, though? I understand the rooftop programs are already underway, in LA and in other places. That’s great but not enough. If you are going solar, there will be a need to use land and water.

    And if you need a big field to do solar, where else would you do it? The desert has the advantage of less clouds and rain and cheap land.

  • Katlian

    Yes, the desert is a good place to make solar power but it doesn’t mean we need to pave over thousands of acres of otherwise undisturbed land. There are also large swaths of abandoned farmland in eastern California where the soil is too salty to grow crops because of decades of irrigating with salty water. But land is even cheaper when you’re getting paid to use public land; which do you think they are going to take? But the biggest problem with using those lands is still the fact that we have thrown 30 years of laws designed to protect public lands out the window in the name of renewable energy. If I were the head of a company that spent millions of dollars on environmental review to get a project on public lands approved I would be incensed over the whole thing. It’s worse than the 1872 mining law.

    The roof top solar programs are small and only offered by individual utilities, not nationally. There is also the problem of not being paid for extra solar power produced by individuals. Right now, a homeowner can only offset their own electricity use, so there is no incentive to pay for a larger system and give the excess back to the power company. I would install a solar array on my house but the cost doesn’t even begin to offset my already low power bill. There needs to be a way for people to make money from small solar installations. We would see a lot more solar panels on houses and businesses if people had a financial reason for installing them.

    Another part of the equation is that 20 to 30% of electricity generated is lost when it is transmitted long distances. So generating power near the places it will be used offsets a smaller or less efficient generating capacity. 300,000 acres in the desert could be 210,000 acres spread around the cities that will actually use the power. The article doesn’t talk about the huge new transmission lines that need to be built to transmit the power from these plants to places where it will be used. Thousands of miles of towers and cables are not cheap.

    A large number of small producers also makes the system a lot less vulnerable to large scale failures. If one small, local power producer has a problem, a few people are without power. If a large plant suddenly shuts down or a large transmission line fails, a whole region is in the dark. We’ve already seen that relying on a small number of large companies (cars, banks, etc.) is dangerous because when one fails it creates a cascade effect of failure across the system.

  • ikesolem

    A good feed-in tariff program for California (which ensures profitable rates for renewable energy producers until they reach their 20% mark, when feed-ins should be phased out) would assist farmers and other landowners in becoming solar energy producers.

    (Reuters 2009) – “Bright winter sun dissolves a blanket of snow on barn roofs to reveal a bold new sideline for Jean-Luc Westphal: besides producing eggs and grains, he is to generate solar power for thousands of homes.”

    “Economic crisis has cast doubt on funding hopes for many big renewable energy projects, but the giant panels built into roofs on this sloping farm at the foot of the Vosges hills in eastern France are attracting attention from farmers to financiers.”

    This is a very good idea for landowners and farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquim river valley. It will also allow them to make up some lost revenue due to water restrictions – for example, in 2008, Colorado River farmers left tens of thousands of acres fallow, and LA bought the water from them instead. If the farmers could sell LA electricity as well, then they would have a buffer against drought years.

  • Le Spaz dArgent

    There is a win-win scenario playing out in the Central Valley of California. Once productive farm land that is now fallow because of lack of water or the accumulation of excess salts from years of irrigation is being returned to productivity by being converted to solar ‘farms’.

    The land can no longer produce agricultural crops, but the land owners are still assessed property taxes. The solar developers lease the land – which puts money in the farmers’ pockets – and the developers can build without having to wreck a patch of desert; saving time and money in the permitting process.

  • Doug M.

    Katlian @2,

    You make four really interesting points in your comment:

    — those 300,000 acres… will be bulldozed in pristine Mojave Desert

    — Solar power plants also use tremendous amounts of water to create the steam to turn the turbines.

    — Even the “dry” solar plants suck up millions of gallons of water each year from basins that don’t have any water to spare.

    — The BLM is being forced to approve these projects with minimal or no environmental review

    Can you give cites for these points? I’m not asking this to be obnoxious, but because I’m sincerely curious.

    On the first point, the Mojave is a big place — about 25,000 square miles. 300,000 acres is around 500 square miles. Nobody wants to see wilderness paved over with solar panels, but presumably some parts of the Mojave are more desirable / damaged / special than others. Is there something special about these sites that renders them “pristine”, or was that a bit of exaggeration?

    On the second point, aren’t most turbine systems closed, recycling most of their water? Where is the water loss and demand? Again, I’m sincerely curious.

    The BLM is being forced… that doesn’t sound implausible, but can you support it?

    Thanks very much in advance,

    Doug M.

  • Don L

    I share your concern for the environment. If we continue to burn fossil fuels and over heat the planet there is likely to be very little or nothing left to protect in some of those tiny little patches of desert they could use to generate vital electricity. There is a LOT of desert out there.

  • Jockaira

    Don L,

    There is a principle here that you have overlooked. “There’s so much desert, we need so little of it for this project.”

    Restated in economic terms: “It’s not a budget-buster, it’s only a million dollars, it’s not even a rounding function.”

    Every time the latter statement is used to justify a project against the realities of fiscal management, it adds another burden to the budget. After this has been done a sufficient number of times, the budget will be bloated beyond any reasonable comprehension. Likewise using the same basic argument for the use of so-called “wasteland” soon ends up with no “wasteland” left.

    The argument made above about higher power transmission costs from remote locations, such as the Mojave, is definitely a factor to be taken into consideration, and should be included in the planning of any solar-power generation project. Fact is, the sun shines everywhere, there is no absolute necessity to place a solar power generator at any particular spot.

  • Doug M.

    Power transmission lines: the Mojave is a big place. Parts of it are indeed remote, but parts of it are not. The far western edge of it butts right up against suburban Los Angeles. And greater metropolitan Las Vegas — with nearly 2 million people — is entirely inside the Mojave.

    I don’t disagree that power transmission lines are an issue. But I’d like to see some more facts.

    “there is no absolute necessity to place a solar power generator at any particular spot” — the ideal spot for a solar power generator would be in a desert or other low-rainfall area with constant heavy predictable sunshine, not far from major power consumers. I have to say, at a first glance it’s hard to see someplace in the continental US that’s *better* than the Mojave.

    Doug M.

  • Jockaira

    Doug M,

    In the USA, transmission losses due to inescapable physical laws hover around 7%. This figure includes short distances such as a mile or two, long distances such as hundreds of miles, and power distribution within local communities. The longer the distance, the higher the loss due simply to electrical resistance.

    Coal burning for power consumes about 850 million tons per year in the USA. Transmission power losses then represent about 60 million tons of coal per year. You can see that the transmission losses are significant. Keep in mind that the USA gets only about half its electrical power from coal.

    The same basic transmission losses apply to all other forms of power generation, such as oil, gas, hydro, nuclear, solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal. Except for the last three processes, none absolutely require siting in any particular place.

    As for the Mojave or any other desert area being an ideal site for solar, the same could be said for almost all land areas in the southwestern US, as almost all this area has climate and sun similar to the Mojave. Of course, there are other considerations such as land cost, and I don’t mean to dismiss those. I do mean to stress that the ideal site for a power generation installation is as close as possible to the intended usage to mitigate transmission losses, keep additional required infrastructure costs low, make good use of what might be otherwise undesirable local real estate, and make wise use of our environmental resources.

  • Alexander

    I am not as verbous or eloquent as some people but I have to say something reqarding “pristine” deserts. I grew up in a desert environment and there is nothing “pristine” about it. Most of it is a vast wasteland with minimal life. The life that is there is slowly growing cacti, various insects, scorpions, and snakes among other things.

    I would level a million acres of desert in a heartbeat if it got us away from coal, natural gas, and oil with its attendant pollution. Now if we were talking about rainforest in the amazon, that is a whole other story…..

  • Katlian

    thanks for your questions, I”l try to answer all of them.

    First, my sources. I work with many of the academic and agency people who work in the Mojave and study these giant solar projects. Most of my information comes from conversations with these people. I also read many news articles about what is happening with solar energy and I will cite a few as I go.

    Land. The Mojave desert is a big place but much of the land area is mountainous or otherwise not flat. The flat areas, which are a habitat preferred by certain species such as the desert tortoise, are very popular places for building things like cities, farms, airports, etc. When you consider all of the impacts within the same habitat type it’s a much larger percentage. The above article states that the BLM is reviewing 34 projects covering 300,000 acres but these are just the “fast-track” projects. There are about 160 projects proposed for six states that would cover 1.8 million acres. When you add in the wind projects it’s an even larger area. Some of these projects are proposed for an area that is being considered for National Monument status so you know they’re not degraded wasteland. Alexander’s comment just underlines my original argument that most people don’t see any value in deserts because they don’t produce much of value to humans.

    NEPA. With that many projects, how much review do you think each project will get? These BLM offices are staffed to review a few projects a year, now that have dozens to approve before the funding deadline at the end of this year without adequate additional staff to do the work. The Dept of the Interior says on their website that each project will get a full review in the future but once the construction starts, do you think they will really stop to avoid impacts to sensitive areas? I doubt it. Many of the renewable energy companies complain that the BLM is dragging their feet on approving projects but they barely have enough staff for the cursory reviews their director has pledged.

    Water. These plants don’t use water in the pipes that run through the solar collectors, They use it to generate steam, cool the equipment, and wash off mirrors and solar panels. the steam that runs turbines can be reclaimed but it must be cooled to condense back to water and the cooling in “wet” solar plants is done by evaporating water, like a swamp cooler. “Dry” solar plants use giant cooling fins (like a car’s radiator) but they are more expensive and less efficient. Some solar projects will use reclaimed wastewater from nearby towns, but there is a limited amount of wastewater to go around.

    I am not advocating that we not install solar projects in the desert, just that we should use caution when deciding where to put these giant projects. There are millions of acres of disturbed lands in the southwest (old farmland, mined areas, unfinished developments adjacent to cities, old oil fields) where these plants could be sited, not to mention the millions of acres of parking lots and rooftops in cities throughout the west. Just because our other methods of powering our country are destructive doesn’t mean that solar needs to be just as bad as the rest.

    Lastly, the best way to reduce our carbon emissions is to use less energy in the first place. I ride my bike to work and added insulation to my house to reduce heating and cooling needs. My neighbors run their air conditioner all day while they leave doors and windows open. It’s not that hard to use less energy if you try.

  • Kathi Zebley

    Look, you guys might not agree, but I think Solar is the future of our energy needs. If we could harness the power of 1 day of sun rays imagine how much energy we’d have! We woudldn’t even know what to do with it all or where we could store it!

  • Thomas

    It would be nice to see other states follow Cali’s lead.

  • Doug M.


    Thank you for the long and detailed response. It’s much appreciated.

    I live in Germany, where the distributed approach you describe has been pushed aggressively by the government. Rooftop and backyard solar panels are tolerably common — there are probably a dozen of them in my small (~1500 people) community, and a couple of large buildings have passive solar arrays as well. Unfortunately, Germany suffers from some fairly huge geographic disadvantages — it’s a densely populated country with a rainy climate located around 50 degrees from the equator. So all forms of solar together are only providing roughly 1% of the country’s electricity budget.

    Where Germany really shines is in energy conservation; the country supports a First World economy but consumes energy per capita at only about half the rate of the US. Part of this is due to geography again (denser population allows more efficient transportation, cool but mild climate means they’re not running aircons as much). But most of the difference is just better energy policies.

    That said, it’s impossible to reduce energy consumption below some minimum value. And while riding a bicycle to work is certainly admirable, it’s not a realistic option for most people.

    Anyway: this thread has probably run its course. But thanks, once again, for the good information and useful links.


    Doug M.


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