Calif. OKs major solar project slated for federal land

The world's largest solar thermal power plant is one step from breaking ground in California following approval yesterday by state regulators.

The California Energy Commission voted unanimously to clear a state license for Solar Millennium AG's 1,000 megawatt project, completing years of often grinding environmental review. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is expected to follow suit in October, clearing the way for construction.

When and if BLM clears the project, it would be the first commercial-scale solar thermal power plant permitted on land owned by the U.S. government. The project would be located in Riverside County, in southeastern California between Joshua Tree National Park and the Nevada state line.

At 1,000 megawatts, the Blythe Solar Power Project is unprecedented in scale for a technology that uses fields of mirrors to concentrate thermal energy and create steam to drive electric turbines. Commissioners at the CEC said the facility would advance the state's renewable power mandate and create jobs.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), just back from a trade trip to Asia, issued a statement praising the project to be built in Blythe, Calif. He also urged the commission to act expeditiously on several other solar projects vying to get final clearance by year's end.


"Projects like this need our immediate attention, as solar and renewable power are the future of the California economy," said Schwarzenegger, who is battling to protect renewable power goals under the state's climate change law, A.B. 32, from efforts that would suspend both. "Hopefully this approval of the Blythe project will attract more companies to look to the Golden State for their projects."

The approval marks the third vote for a large-scale solar license at the CEC in the last month. The agency cleared NextEra's 250-MW Beacon project in August and Abengoa's 250-MW Mojave Solar Project this month. By the end of September, Schwarzenegger's office expects final state approval for BrightSource's 370-MW Ivanpah project, Tessera/Stirling's 750-MW Imperial Project and NextEra's 250-MW Genesis Project.

All are vying for federal stimulus dollars that sunset at the end of the year.

The Blythe project would employ four plants of 250 MW each in eastern Riverside County, about 2 miles north of Interstate 10 and 8 miles west of Blythe. The BLM application requests rights of way for 9,400 acres of federal land, with 7,025 for construction and operation.

The state's environmental review found that the project would affect land, traffic, visuals and transportation but said benefits outweigh the associated impacts.

German-based Solar Millennium's stock price shot up today by more than 20 percent in Frankfurt after traders caught wind of the California approval. The company says it intends to start construction on two of the four units by year's end.

Southern California Edison, based in Los Angeles, has secured long-term power purchase agreements to buy the power generated by the first two units. State regulators approved those agreements earlier this year.

Sullivan reported from San Francisco.

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