Todd Woody reports on licensing of the nation’s first large-scale solar thermal power plant in two decades. Licensing of the 250-megawatt Beacon Solar Energy Project comes after a two-and-a-half-year environmental review. The author is now hopeful that several other big solar farms will receive approval from the California Energy Commission in the next month.
The Beacon solar thermal electric power plant will use long rows of mirrored parabolic troughs, which focus sunlight on liquid-filled tubes to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. While using water may have been a business decision for NextEra developers, there certainly are other options, e.g., indirect dry cooling (Heller system) or using a molten salt loop to collect heat from the sun.
“I hope this is the first of many more large-scale solar projects we will permit,” said Jeffrey D. Byron, a member of the California Energy Commission, at a hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday. “This is exactly the type of project we want to see.”
Developers and regulators have been racing to license solar power plants and begin construction before the end of the year, when federal incentives for such renewable energy projects expire. California’s three investor-owned utilities also face a deadline to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2010.
Still, it has been long slog as solar power plants planned for the Mojave Desert have become bogged down in disputes over their impact on protected wildlife and scarce water supplies.
The 50 MW La Florida solar farm uses parabolic trough technology and a molten salt system for thermal storage. The new, Archimede solar thermal electric power plant in Italy does not use molten salt just for thermal storage. It uses a molten salt loop to collect heat from the sun.
In March 2008, NextEra Energy Resources filed an application to build the Beacon project on 2,012 acres of former farmland in California’s Kern County… Some rural residents immediately objected to the 521 million gallons of groundwater the project would consume annually in an arid region on the western edge of the Mojave Desert. After contentious negotiations with regulators, NextEra agreed to use recycled water that will be piped in from a neighboring community.
“It’s been a lengthy process, an almost embarrassingly long lengthy process,” said Scott Busa, NextEra’s Beacon project manager, at Wednesday’s hearing. “Hopefully, we’re going from a lengthy process to a timely process.”
However, an attorney for a union group that has been critical of Beacon told commissioners that obstacles still stand in the way of the power plant.
“Despite all the hard work that has been done, this project won’t get built anytime soon,” said Tanya Gulesserian, representing California Unions for Reliable Energy. She cited the absence of a deal to sell electricity from the Beacon power plant to a utility.
Mr. Busa responded that NextEra is in the final stages of negotiating a power purchase agreement.