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Monday, October 25, 2010

Riverside County Gets World's Largest Solar Array

The LA Times reported today that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has approved a proposed 7,000 acre solar project for Blythe, CA backed by Solar Millennium, a German-based corporation.  The 1 gigawatt installation would be the world's largest solar installation, at the same time effectively doubling the United State's entire solar production potential:
What’s the sunny equivalent of “when it rains, it pours”? Because that’s what’s happening in Southern California, as yet another massive solar plant cleared the permitting process Monday.

This time, it’s the Blythe Solar Power Plant, backed by German company Solar Millennium and planned for more than 7,000 acres in Riverside County. The project would be the largest solar installation in the world, doubling the amount of solar electricity the U.S. can produce.

The Blythe installation is the sixth in recent months to be approved for public land. Several proposed solar plants have been fast-tracked through the permitting process as they race to meet the December deadline for federal stimulus funds. One of those, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, is breaking ground Wednesday near Primm, Nev.

Winning final clearance to start construction from the Bureau of Land Management on Monday, after getting the go-ahead from California authorities last month, makes Blythe the first proposal of its kind to be approved for federal public land.

The installation will deliver 1 gigawatt of power using parabolic trough technology. The process involves curved mirrors that gather the sun’s rays, heating liquid that creates steam to run generators.

The multibillion-dollar Blythe project will consist of four separate, 250-megawatt sections that together would be able to power more than 300,000 average homes -– even up to 750,000 residences by some estimates.

The groundbreaking should happen by the end of the year, Solar Millennium said. But first, the company is in “advanced discussions” with the Department of Energy as it attempts to land $1.9 billion in government debt financing for the first two portions of the project, as several other solar projects have done.

Construction is expected to create more than 1,000 direct jobs, as well as thousands more throughout the supply chain, the company said. Once built, the plant will support nearly 300 permanent jobs.

The project, however, will have its share of impact on the environment. So, to mitigate any potential damage, regulators are requiring that Solar Millenium cough up funding to support more than 8,000 acres of habitat for native species such as the desert tortoise, the Western burrowing owl, the bighorn sheep and the Mojave fringe-toed lizard.
Certainly the announcement is great news, but also sounds a note of caution.  The plant is a great opportunity for the US to deploy solar technology in a large-scale capacity, and will hopefully promote desperately needed economic gains within the region via a green technology. But, the sheer scale of the plant also underscores the impacts all energy production technologies, whether traditionally oriented or renewable, impose upon the surrounding environment.  Each imposes a true physical cost to the landscape that may vary in scope, but does not waver in its lasting impacts. It will be interesting to see what mitigation measures are implemented, and how successful they are in offsetting impacts to habitat in highly sensitive landscapes.  Above all, I guess we can consider the  experiment known as the solar-era officially underway in Southern California, and hope that the promise of renewable energy rings true. 

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