GUEST JUICE: California’s Brilliant Future in Renewable Power

By Published On: November 14, 2010

by Karen Douglas By tapping into the abundance of sunshine in the Southern California desert, the Golden State is embracing a solar power gold rush. Harnessing the sun’s power will allow California to reach its long-term environmental goals while creating jobs and increasing energy security. A generation after the last solar thermal power plant was certified, the California Energy Commission has approved seven large solar thermal power plants during a two month-span since late August. The Energy Commission will be considering two additional projects before the end of 2010, in order for these projects to qualify for federal funds under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA). The stimulus funds cover 30 percent of a project’s cost. The seven projects that have been approved span four Southern California counties; Imperial, Kern, Riverside, and San Bernardino. They would produce nearly 3,500 MW, powering more than 2.6 million homes. The approved projects are: the Abengoa Mojave Solar Project; the Beacon Solar Energy Project; the Blythe Solar Power Project; the Calico Solar Project; the Genesis Solar Energy Project; the Imperial Valley Solar Project; and the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project. Two remaining projects, the Palen Solar Power Project and the Rice Solar Energy Project, are still under review. Many of the projects are located on federal public land, requiring additional approval from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. To help streamline the review process, the Energy Commission closely coordinated with a number of federal and state agencies, including BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the California Department of Fish and Game. These collaborative relationships between federal and state agencies will help pave the way for the development of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). The DRECP will streamline the approval process for renewable energy projects in the desert while supporting the long-term conservation of covered species throughout the region. At the outset of this effort, Energy Commission staff had primarily reviewed applications for natural gas power plants, setting a pace of about seven per year with the process averaging 18 months. To meet ARRA deadlines, the Energy Commission had to greatly accelerate its work. To help speed up the review process, priority was given to the ARRA solar thermal projects over natural gas projects that were already in the queue. The Commission’s siting staff worked a significant amount of overtime in order to meet the timelines that were set by the individual siting committees. Blythe--which at 1,000 MW would be the largest concentrated solar power plant in the world--was approved in 13 months. Large solar projects present complex environmental issues, especially in the areas of biology, cultural resources, water use, and drainage. They are also far larger than natural gas plants. For example, natural gas plants are usually sited on 20 to 40 acres. Beacon Solar, the first solar thermal power plant licensed by the Energy Commission in 20 years and one of the smallest of those heard by the Energy Commission, is to sit on 2,012 acres, or roughly equivalent to two Golden Gate parks. Through the environmental review process, the Energy Commission required high levels of mitigation for some projects. Some projects also were substantially changed by the process, for example, by the selection of smaller alternatives that avoided the most high-value habitat within the originally-proposed project footprint. The Calico project, originally proposed as an 850-MW facility on 8,230 acres, was reduced to 663.5 MW on 4,613 acres in order to protect the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. Factored into the Energy Commission’s review process are the environmental and social-economic benefits that large-scale solar projects provide. Deploying solar power means reducing greenhouse gas emissions that threaten the state’s environment and economy. The solar projects also will help meet the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard, which requires California’s electric utility companies to use renewable energy to produce 20 percent of their power by 2010 and 33 percent by 2020. The projects also will provide a much-needed economic boost in local communities where the power plants will be built. At the peak of construction, the nine projects would provide more than 8,000 jobs. Operating these power plants would provide an additional 1,000 jobs. While some of the approved projects must overcome additional hurdles before beginning construction, these new plants represent a huge breakthrough in achieving our energy and climate goals. Licensing these plants has been a tremendous learning experience for all involved. The Energy Commission intends to evaluate lessons learned through a public process that will help improve our power plant licensing process and further reduce potential environmental impacts of future projects. By tapping into the state’s renewable resources, we can meet California’s goals for reducing the carbon-intensity of our electricity system while providing sustainable green-tech jobs and powering our economy with clean, reliable energy. --Karen Douglas is the California Energy Commission chair. Edited By:

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