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Solar rules! New list of proposed renewable energy projects in California has gigawatts of potential

Dec 31, 2009 - Tom Cheyney-

Ever wonder how many large-scale renewable energy projects might be on the drawing board in California? Thanks to the latest announcement from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, we now have a round number-244. Although the "comprehensive list" of proposed projects does not include every solar, wind, geothermal, or other clean energy system planned for the Golden State, it does offer a peek at nearly 70GW of green-powered possibilities that would push toward meeting the Guv's renewable portfolio standard goal of 33% by 2020. And guess what: the vast majority of those projects and gigawatts would rely on our favorite inexhaustible feedstock-the sun.

The press release issued Dec. 29 by the Office of the Governator talked about how the partnership between the state and federal governments should help expedite the permitting approval process for the 244 sites. As many as 53 of the projects may be taking advantage of the 30% investment tax credit dangled by the Feds as part of the ubiquitous American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), with the other 191 choosing not to partake of the Recovery Act benefits.

The ARRA and non-ARRA lists are broken down by project size-200MW or more, 100-199MW, 50-99MW, and <49MW-and then categorized by project name, county, developer, capacity (MW), type (solar PV, etc.), and lead agency (Bureau of Land Management [BLM], California Energy Commission [CEC], various counties, et al.).

According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, solar rules the lists. Out of the 244 proposed projects, 155, or about 59%, are totally or partially solar, with PV accounting for slightly more than thermal.

A check of the list of 53 ARRA projects (supposedly set to break ground by the end of 2010) reveals that 35 of them are solar thermal, photovoltaic, a combo of the two sun techs, or a hybrid installation with another renewable. Some 10.975GW would be added to the California grid if the entire list were to come online, and out of that amount, about 7.34MW would be solar something-4.516GW thermal, 2.563GW PV, with the remainder a mix of the two or in combo with biomass.

Fifteen of those 35 would be at least 200MW-a total of 6.49GW--with nine of those thermal plants, the largest of which would be the 1GW Blythe project to be developed by Solar Millennium and Chevron. (A tumbleweed-strewn area near the future site of SunPower's 210MW California Valley Solar Ranch in San Luis Obispo County is shown below.)

The larger, non-ARRA group is also heavily weighted toward solar technologies. Out of 191 proposed projects totaling 58.95GW, approximately 55 adding up to some 34.9GW would be thermal and 62 coming in at about 20GW would be PV, with a couple hundred megawatts of combined systems in the mix to bring the total to 120 of the total going sunnyside up.

Big solar projects, at least 200MW in size, dominate the non-ARRA document, accounting for 74 out of the 78 on the list. A massive 4.1GW thermal site proposed by the Leopold Companies in San Bernardino County tops the charts, followed by a pair of 2.5GW PV projects under development by Bullfrog Green Energy in Riverside County.

All told, more than 53GW of solar power farms of a couple hundred megawatts or more are slated-a major bite of the overall number. Only a bit more than 2GW of projects of smaller scale-199MW size and less-show up on the non-ARRA list.

When both lists' solar totals are tallied, the stellar gigawattage dominates the overall number: a little more than 62GW out of the roughly 70MW would soak up rays from old Sol. Of that 62GW, about 39.4GW is thermal, 22.6GW is photovoltaic, plus a few odd megs of combo and hybrid projects.

San Bernardino and Riverside counties-the so-called "Inland Empire" region of Southern California-account for a goodly percentage of the proposed installations, with neighboring Kern and Imperial counties also representing a healthy chunk of the renewable real estate. Although there are collectively a few gigawatts of green power projects listed for the central and northern parts of the state, the southeastern portion--with its world-class insolation--garners the vast majority.

The list is not without its typos and incomplete info, which makes my own calculations less than precise. For certain projects, the county, developer, capacity, or technology type is missing. Errors include an unspecified 1.205GW site in San Berdoo (that's what locals call the area) showing First Solar as the developer and "solar thermal" as the type of energy-an obvious boo-boo, unless the CdTe crew is planning to branch out into Stirling engines, power towers, or other variations of troughs and mirrors.

(The photo below shows the wide open spaces that First Solar hopes to populate with its proposed 550MW Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County.)

The developers listed are a grab-bag of well- and lesser-known names, including First Solar, Iberdola, enXco, SunPower, Nextlight, Boulevard Associates, and several utilities, although one would be hard-pressed to find some of the projects that are listed on the state documents also detailed on certain companies' Websites.

For example, a check of the aforementioned Bullfrog Green Energy's site shows none of the projects listed in the state's charts among the company's own table of projects under development (unless the two California sites are under different names with different power-generating capacities). Still, the company did file a plan of development with the BLM for its proposed massive PV farms.

I won't go into the details of the programs designed to expedite the permitting process or efforts to come up with a comprehensive, objective framework for balancing renewable energy development with the conservation of fragile desert areas.

But it's worth noting that the latter policy issue is shaping up as a biggee for 2010, as factions within the environmental, green-business, and utility camps snuggle up with previously unlikely bedfellows, and the new allies struggle to make their arguments pro and con heard.

How many of the 244 clean-energy dreams will actually come true, get built, and generate power? Given the laundry list of risks to be mitigated for a project to be approved-financing (or lack of it), environmental impact (what is too much?), and other land use issues (including the almighty NIMBY factor)-I suspect that dozens of these best-laid plans may likely go awry.

Still, if most of the solar projects do get off the ground (actually, on the ground) and a few years from now dozens of CST and PV gigawatts are added to the California power grid, that vision is something worth celebrating during the first new year of the century's second decade.

(A copy of the press release as well as the lists of the projects under review or already approved are available here. The same page also has links to other relevant documents, such as "Best Management Practices and Guidance Manual: Desert Renewable Energy Projects.")



Updated: 2003/07/28