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Actualizing Our Solar Energy Goals: It’s All About the Money

| Friday November 5th, 2010 | 1 Comment

By John Bartholomew

Imagine vast fields of concentrically arranged, industrial-sized mirrors.  Embracing the scorched landscape of the American Southwest, the mirrors direct the abundant sunlight to boilers atop centralized power towers.  Turbines convert the resulting steam into electricity and transmit the final, renewable product to hundreds of thousands of homes.

The large-scale implementation of heliostat mirrors has proven successful in recent years (such as the PS10 plant in Spain and eSolar’s Sierra SunTower), but the 347,000 mirrors called for in BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah project would dwarf previous efforts.  Spurred by California’s ambitious plan to generate 33% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, the $2 billion project will provide energy to 140,000 California homes.  On October 27, BrightSource broke ground on its new facility near Ivanpah, CA, in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

To help fund the project, BrightSource has taken advantage of a $1.375 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy.  The 3,500 acre Ivanpah facility entails the construction of three plants, each with three power towers and fields.  BrightSource has touted job creation and a potential economic benefit of $3 billion from the facility’s construction and operation.  The first phase of construction is expected to be completed by 2013.

As impressive as the Ivanpah project sounds (it is, after all, currently the world’s largest solar project), a similar project planned for Riverside County, CA has even loftier goals.  The recently approved Blythe Solar Power Project would utilize slightly different parabolic trough mirrors to power between 300,000 and 750,000 homes, with the plant’s expected 1,000-megawatt output almost tripling Ivanpah’s 370-megawatt offering.

Blythe project backers have encountered a problem shared with investors in at least seven other major solar projects in the Southwest: federal funding.  With the government’s generous loan guarantee program (covering up to 80% of a project’s costs) due to lapse in September 2011 and a tax credit incentive to be compromised by year’s end, solar companies are hurrying to secure financing.  Thus far, of the numerous California ventures in the mix, only the Ivanpah project has obtained government funding.

Come 2013, the status of the Ivanpah project will provide a useful benchmark in assessing the practicality of solar energy reliance.  First-movers such as Blythe may even get funding and follow suit.  In the meantime, though, other large-scale projects will likely flounder in the absence of government incentives.  Private investment has been slow to pick up the slack in this capital-intensive industry.  Sustained government support is critical to fostering growth in projects that have the collective potential to provide millions of U.S. homes with clean, renewable energy.

For an excellent discussion of the Ivanpah project and the issues related to solar expansion, see Todd Woody’s October 28 article in the New York Times (requires free registration to view).

John Bartholomew is a first-year J.D. student at the University of Denver.  He is a member of the University of Denver Water Law Review and hopes to practice in environmental law.


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