Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The List: Solar Power’s New Megaplants

Record-breaking oil prices, soaring greenhouse-gas emissions, and the rise of carbon trading all add up to one thing: a new dawn for solar power. From New Mexico to Australia, governments and businesses are collaborating to create enormous plants that will each bring clean electricity to tens of thousands.

Mojave Desert, Southern California

Megawatts: 500, will possibly expand to 850

Expected cost: Undisclosed

Projected completion date: 2011

Plan: California not only boasts the highest concentration of hybrid cars in the United States, but it can now also claim the world’s largest solar energy project. Phoenix-based Stirling Energy Systems, working with utilities firm Southern California Edison, is developing an enormous, 4,500-acre thermal solar generating station in southeastern California’s Mojave Desert. The station will initially encompass 20,000 40-foot-tall, dish-shaped mirrors and produce 500 MW of electricity. And the site might expand to 850 MW—making it at least 500 MW more powerful than any of the other large solar plants in the pipeline. Stirling’s dish technology uses mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on the receiver of a device called a Stirling engine. When the hydrogen inside the receiver expands, it creates enough pressure to kick the engine into gear and drive an electricity generator without any need for gasoline or water, and without producing emissions. The company claims its process is nearly twice as efficient as other solar technologies, and Stirling is also planning to construct a 300 MW site in California’s Imperial Valley. Construction of the Mojave Desert facility is due to begin in the middle of this year.

Tres Cantos, Spain

Megawatts: 300, an expansion from its current 55

Expected cost: $390 million - $470 million

Projected completion date: 2010

Plan: BP Solar, a division of energy company BP, announced a year ago that it has begun construction of a mega solar plant at its European headquarters in Tres Cantos, at a site it acquired in 2002. The project will employ innovative photovoltaic technology that utilizes high-quality antireflective materials coated on solar cells and silver paste screen-printed on the back and front of the cells to improve the efficiency of its panels. It helps that BP Solar will reportedly be able to sell its energy to the national grid at 575 percent of the cost of production—and the company has entered a 25-year contract with the Spanish government that obliges utilities to purchase the plant’s electricity. Tata BP Solar (a joint venture between India’s Tata Power Company and BP Solar) is also undertaking the construction of a similar facility in Bangalore, India, which is also set to produce 300 MW.

Deming, New Mexico

Megawatts: 300

Expected cost: $1.6 billion

Projected completion date: 2011

Plan: With help from a 30 percent federal tax credit for renewable energy, Governor Bill Richardson has vowed to make sun-drenched New Mexico the “Saudi Arabia of renewable energy.” That would make New Solar Ventures’ Deming plant, which began construction in 2006, the equivalent of the famous Ghawar oil field. Located 230 miles southwest of Albuquerque, the plant will incorporate a $650 million solar-panel-producing factory as well as a massive $950 million solar farm. The potential 3,200-acre site will take advantage of its 350 days of sunshine a year to power 240,000 homes using special patented photovoltaic technology.

Gila Bend, Arizona

Number of megawatts: 280

Expected cost: $1 billion

Projected completion date: 2011

Plan: “Solana,” meaning “a sunny place” in Spanish, is an apt name for the nascent solar farm situated about 70 miles outside Phoenix, where summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Specialty solar technology firm Abengoa Solar, supported by Arizona Public Service Company (APS), is developing a solar farm spanning 1,900 acres. Abengoa Solar will make use of something called “solar power trough technology.” The secret? Parabolic mirrors track the sun’s path and concentrate its energy to heat a fluid to more than 700 degrees Fahrenheit, which in turn converts water into steam that spins turbines to generate electricity. The electricity can then be stored and used even after the sun sets. The farm is expected to have 2,700 parabolic trough collectors and power about 70,000 homes. APS has already contracted to buy Solana’s power for 30 years, which will move APS a third of the way by 2011 toward achieving the state’s mandate of having 15 percent of the company’s electricity derived from renewable sources by 2025.


Ashalim, Israel

Megawatts: 250

Expected cost: $600 - $700 million

Projected completion date: Not set

Plan: The Israeli government is currently seeking bids from companies around the globe to build and operate two solar thermal plants at a 1,000-acre site in the central Negev Desert. Australian, Spanish, and Israeli companies have already expressed interest, and a final deal is expected to be reached by the end of the year. The government envisages that the plants will produce 3 percent of Israel’s electricity, and the project is part of the government’s drive to ensure that 5 percent of Israel’s electricity comes from the sun by 2016. In light of security concerns, the plant will be located about 19 miles from the Egyptian border and about 34 miles southeast of Gaza, out of range of the Qassam rocket attacks employed by Palestinian fighters.

Mildura, Australia

Megawatts: 154

Expected cost: $270 million

Projected completion date: Power generation to begin in 2010, plant completion by 2013

Plan: In the largest solar project in Australia to date, Hong Kong-owned TRUenergy is set to construct a major solar plant in southeastern Australia, near Mildura. Using technology developed by Melbourne firm Solar Systems, the project will utilize mirror arrays that concentrate light onto advanced high-efficiency photovoltaic cells, lowering the required size of cells—and therefore the cost. The plant is expected to generate emission-free power for 45,000 homes (avoiding the 437,000 tons of annual greenhouse-gas emissions that a coal-fired plant with a similar power output would produce). The project has secured about $120 million in funding from the federal and state governments, along with private investment through TRUenergy’s parent company. Construction on the plant will begin next year and continue to 2013, but don’t be fooled by the size of the project: It would account for just 0.1 percent of Australia’s electricity generation in 2006.

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