Interior Department Authorizes Utility-scale Solar Projects

Yesterday, the head of the U.S. Interior Department authorized two large solar energy projects to serve California--one almost gigawatt scale. The projects are representative of a larger set that have divided environmental communities in the West, and the government's decision comes against a highly charged political backdrop in California, featuring two high-profile political races and a referendum challenge to the state's very ambitious greenhouse-gas-reduction law.

The projects also highlight a dirty little secret about much of what goes under the name of green energy: the renewable low-carbon technologies--solar especially--are typically much more land-hungry than conventional fossil or nuclear energy, and that in turn can imply a wide range of environmental concerns.

The larger of the two projects, slated for the Imperial Valley, is a 709 MW concentrator plant to be built by Tessera Solar. 28,630 reflectors covering 6,360 acres focus energy to power an engine generator. Its operation will require construction of a dedicated transmission line; together, the plant and line are considered threats to animals like the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep, besides being--arguably--big and unsightly.

The considerably smaller 45 MW Lucerne Valley plant, to be built by Chevron Energy, involves similar issues but on a smaller scale, obviously.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the press that the decision to permit construction of the plants on Federal lands was taken in light of President Obama's order to him to "change the game." Yet, as the Washington Post noted, the solar industry has complained that the administration has been slow to clear loan guarantees available for big renewable energy projects.

Still, as the New York Times reported, other major solar projects projects that are poised to gain approval by year end "include BrightSource Energy’s proposed 370-megawatt Ivanpah facility, Tessera’s 850-megawatt Calico project, NextEra’s 250-megawatt Genesis Solar Energy Plant and Solar Millennium’s 1,000-megawatt Blythe Project."

In the case of the Blythe plant , the trough solar collector configuration had to be significantly modified with water conservation in mind, at the cost of overall efficiency.

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