Submitted by New Energy News Blog

A 5-megawatt solar power plant went online in California October 23. It’s a small addition to the California electricity supply but a giant step for solar energy.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) is studying proposals for 5 large solar power plants with a combined 1,512 megawatts capacity.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has received permit requests from developers for 34 more solar plants in the Southern California deserts with a total potential output of ~24,000 megawatts.

All of this signals a coming return to stardom for the solar power plant concept that was created in the California deserts 2 decades ago in response to skyrocketing fuel costs in the 70s but abandoned when the price of natural gas-fired electricity generation turned cheap.

Today’s solar power plants have advantages over the previous incarnation that could protect them as natural gas prices once again plummet. One is California’s strict requirement that its utilities obtain 20% of their power from New Energy sources by 2010. That makes utility-scale solar generation appealing.

Another advantage is how fast utility-scale solar generation can be built. The cost of new solar power plants beats the cost of new plants using fossil fuel sources when the quicker return on investment and the high cost of financing are figured into the equation.

Solar power plants come in a variety of competing technologies. The new Ausra installation north of Bakersfield that just kicked off ceremoniously uses parabolic mirrors in a trough formation to capture the sun’s heat and reflect it onto a liquid flowing in a tube through the trough. The highly heated liquid flows to a central power plant where it boils water that drives a steam turbine that generates electricity.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the power plant inauguration: “This next-generation solar power plant is further evidence that reliable, renewable and pollution-free technology is here to stay, and it will lead to more California homes and businesses powered by sunshine…”

Ausra will apply this technology in a 177-megawatt solar power plant installation in 2009.

Competing solar power plant technologies include a field of mirrors that focus the sun’s heat at the top of a central tower where a liquid is heated and flows to a central power plant to generate electricity in the same way as the trough technology does.

A third concept utilizes individual modules. Each of the 3 concepts has variations on the basic theme. Each offers the potential for storage of steam for power generation when the sun is not shining.

5 or 10 years from now, people will look back on this inaugural ceremony as the launching of a new era in solar energy and the beginning of a race between the technologies. The competition for dominance in the field will be one of the most interesting in the business world in the coming decade.

Everyone will agree: The remake is better than the original.

News Report on Bakersfield Solar Power Plant

From BloombergNews via YouTube.

Large solar energy plant opens near Bakersfield
David R. Baker, October 24, 2008 (San Francisco Chronicle)
Ausra’s first solar thermal plant starts up
Chris Morrison, October 23, 2008 (NY Times)
Ausra (Bob Fishman, CEO); California Energy Commission (CEC); Bureau of Land Management (BLM); Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E); Brightsource Energy

The ceremonial inauguration of a 5-megawatt solar power plant built by Ausra and funded by a PG&E power purchase agreement kicks off a new era in solar energy and a new race for technological dominance in the field.

A closer look at Ausra’s technology. From alternativeenergycom via YouTube.

– 1990: This is the first new solar power plant to go into operation in California in 18 years.
– October 23, 2008: Official opening
– 2009: The installation will expand from 5 megawatts to 177 megawatts next year.
– 2010: California’s RES requires its utilities to obtain 20% of their power from New Energy sources by December 31, 2010.

– Ausra is based in Palo Alto, CA.
– The new plant is on the northern outskirts of Bakersfield, CA.
– Next year’s 177-megawatt installation will be on the Carrizo Plain in San Luis Obispo County.
-Brightsource Energy, using a different solar power plant technology, is developing hundreds of megawatts in the Mojave Desert.

– Ausra built its 5-megawatt Bakersfield plant as a demonstration project.
– The power purchase agreement (PPA) with PG&E is a key funding element in Ausra’s ability to move forward. PG&E also has a PPA for the electricity generated at Ausra’s Carrizo Plain solar power plant to be built next year.
– The Ausra trough technology is the oldest and most proven of the technologies being developed.
-Brightsource Energy, whose principals helped develop the original trough technology, now uses solar power tower technology.
– Both the Ausra and Brightsource Energy concepts allow for storage capability.

A different kind of solar power plant technology from Brightsource Energy. From 5293565 via YouTube.

– Bob Fishman, CEO, Ausra: “The primary reason we built this facility was to demonstrate to our customers and our investors that we could do what we said we could do…”
– Chris Morrison, VentureBeat, NY Times: “For the moment, it doesn’t look like the credit crunch is delaying plans for larger, utility-scale deployments of 50MW and upward, at least according to what company execs have told me. Most plants haven’t yet begun construction, and can spend time locating funding sources during permitting, while others have already secured debt or equity money to build. However, an extended recession could trim the number of plants that go online over the next four to five years.”

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