Saturday, October 23, 2010


There's an interesting article in today's Los Angeles Times on a huge solar-thermal site going up in the Mojave desert in California. Groundbreaking for the site is set for Wednesday. When the construction is finished in 2013, the project should generate enough electricity for over 140,000 homes.

Las Vegas-bound travelers nearing the Nevada border rarely take notice of the vast, empty stretch of the Mojave Desert surrounding them. But that may soon change.

On Wednesday, ground is to be broken for a massive solar thermal plant spanning about 3,600 acres and involving 346,000 mirrors, each about the size of a billboard. ...

The installation will be in three phases, each with roughly 116,000 mirrors arranged in circles around a 460-foot-tall "power tower." The mirrors, or heliostats, focus the sun's rays onto the tower. The heat turns fluid inside the tower into steam, powering a turbine.

The plant is expected to produce 370 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes. The power will be sold to Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The huge project is the first of its kind, and had to jump through a lot of very complicated hoops to get this far. The fact that it has gotten to this stage is a significant sign that just maybe this country is finally willing to give up its dependence on oil. Chevron, one of the investors in the company building the project, certainly must think so. So must the US government, which provided pretty hefty loan guarantees. SCE and PG&E, the two largest private electric companies have already signed contracts to take delivery of the electricity generated once construction is complete.

And after Wednesday, a whole lot of jobs will also be generated in San Bernardino County where right now unemployment is at about 20%. Even after the three year construction is finished, technicians and laborers will be required to keep the project working and the turbines spinning.

But the project is not an unmixed blessing, even if it is a dramatic example of what alternative energy can do for the state, the nation, and the world.

Not everyone is thrilled. Environmentalists fought the project for years, concerned about its effect on the habitat of a rare tortoise. Others see the developer, Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc., as just another "Big Solar" corporation chasing down profits on the public dime.

"It's the old centralized robber-baron monopoly model," said Sheila Bowers, an activist with the advocacy group Solar Done Right. "This is the worst way to go about getting clean energy — it's slow, it's remote, it's devastating to the environment, and taxpayers are footing most of the bill." ...

Critics such as Bowers contend that sprawling installations like Ivanpah contribute to harmful greenhouse gas emissions because the mirrors and equipment require heavy manufacturing and construction. And the lengthy transmission lines could be vulnerable to weather, hackers and potentially even terrorists, she said.

"There's a lot of rooftop potential in our cities or suburbs to produce the vast majority of the solar power we need," she said. "That they're choosing the wilderness first is incredibly wrong."

That, unfortunately, is a pretty accurate description of the other side of the coin.

That said, at least we've made some movement on the issue, a movement away from the old paradigm of oil and carbon based fuels. Given the economic system in play at the present and the foreseeable future, it may be the best we can expect, at least for now.

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