$2.1 bil loan guarantee for Calif. solar project

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu this morning announced his department is offering a conditional commitment for a $2.1 billion loan guarantee to support the first two phases of a gigantic solar energy project in Southern California.

This first half of the Blythe Solar Power Project, sponsored by Solar Trust of America LLC, is a two-unit concentrating solar thermal power plant that will produce 484 megawatts of power; Solar Trust Chairman and CEO Uwe Schmidt told reporters today that site preparation in Riverside County started last fall, and full-scale construction is likely to start late this spring or in early summer. A second phase – two more units capable of producing just as much energy as the first two – will be built a few years from now. All told, this will be the world’s largest solar facility, producing enough electricity to power more than 300,000 single-family homes each year.

This project is part of the company’s mission to “revolutionize the way we generate energy here in the United States,” Schmidt said, noting this will be the first solar facility on a scale and output capacity equal to the largest coal-fired and nuclear plants operating today.

Chu said the Obama Administration recognizes “we’re in a global race to develop and deploy clean energy technology,” and this project not only will create about 1,000 local construction jobs but also will avoid dumping more than 700,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

Schmidt said the job creation actually will be much more considering the supply chain necessary for such a project, stretching from the job site to Midwestern steel mills.

Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters California appreciates the confidence and investment put into this project, and while the state has been at the forefront of alternative energy for more than 30 years, “you’ve got to have a long-term perspective and you’ve got to keep at it.”

Chu had joined Brown last week as he signed into law the state’s new renewable portfolio standard, increasing California’s current 20 percent target in 2010 to a 33 percent standard by December 31, 2020. Brown said today he’d like to see 20,000 megawatts of solar output by then.

This first half of the Blythe project include HelioTrough collectors, which the company says is a larger-yet-simpler design that’s less expensive to build and install but more efficient than earlier parabolic trough technology.

According to the project’s website, the technology uses hundreds of trough-shaped mirrors to focus the sun’s light and heat onto a pipe that runs along the collector’s focal line. This causes a heat-transfer fluid in the pipe to get hot, which generates steam in the power block through heat exchangers. Then, as with conventional power plants, that steam will be directed into a turbine to generate power.

This will be the first concentrating solar power parabolic trough plant to use an air-cooled condenser unit, which will decrease water use by nearly 90 percent compared with a water-cooled CSP facility. It will sell all of its electricity output to Southern California Edison and will deliver power into the California Independent System Operator power grid.

The Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office has issued loan guarantees or offered conditional commitments for loan guarantees totaling over $21 billion to support 22 clean energy projects across 14 states. The program’s 11 generation projects will produce nearly 25 million megawatt-hours annually, enough to power over two million homes.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.