California Set to Approve 1.6 GW of Solar in Desert

August is turning out to be a critical month for concentrating solar thermal developers.  The California Energy Commission’s siting committee has issued recommendations for not one, but three projects over the past week, for a whopping total of 1.6 GW. These are decisions that could pave the way for final approvals by the commission before the year’s over.

The approvals — for projects from BrightSource Energy, Abengoa Solar, and Solar Millenium —  would be a huge boost for a class of emerging technology that hasn’t been embraced as quickly by investors as other solar technologies. Concentrating solar thermal power plants use mirrors to heat fluids for producing steam, which is then piped to run turbines for electricity generation. In comparison, solar panels, the more commonly-used technology, are embedded with solar cells and convert sunlight directly into electricity.

The sizes of the three projects combined will dwarf just about any solar project (either PV or thermal) that has ever come on line in the country. The largest complex of solar power plants is in California, but the 354 megawatts of solar thermal power stations were built from 1984 to 1991. The largest project that uses solar panels is the 25-megawatt facility in Florida commissioned by Florida Power & Light only last October.

The public has 30 days to comment on the recommendations to approve the three solar thermal projects in California. Cinching the permits will be a major milestone for the companies, though not the only major hurdles to overcome. There is also the issue of project financing. Solar thermal power plants are economically feasible only in large sizes, which require hefty sums to complete. Here is a glance at key points of each project:

Project Developer Size App Filed, Start Date Funding Tech
Ivanpah BrightSource Energy 3 power plants, 392MW (370MW nominal) August 2007, Fall 2010 $1.37B fed loan guarantee, private funding Flat mirrors will direct sunlight onto centrally located towers.
Abengoa Mojave Solar Abengoa Solar 280 MW (250MW nominal) August, 2009, 4Q 2010 $1.45B fed loan guarantee, private funding Curved mirrors called parabolic troughs.
Blythe Solar Power Solar Millennium, Chevron Energy Solutions 4 power plants, 1,000 MW nominal August 2009, By the end of 2010 Undisclosed private funding Curved mirrors called parabolic troughs.

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