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California approves giant thermal solar plant

Beacon Solar Energy is the first of perhaps many such plants to be approved before federal incentives expire at end of 2010.

California's energy regulatory agency on Wednesday approved plans to build a 250-megawatt solar thermal farm near the Mojave Desert.

The Beacon Solar Energy thermal solar plant would be built at the western edge of the Mojave Desert, roughly 15 miles north of the town of Mojave itself. It would cover about 2,012 acres in Kern County, Calif., according to the California Energy Commission.

And it may just be the first of many to be approved by the CEC before the end of this year.

A solar thermal plant using parabolic troughs.
A solar thermal plant using parabolic troughs. Acciona

The Beacon project is being touted by many as the first solar thermal project to be built in the state in 20 years, and perhaps it will be. But the CEC actually did approve plans for a hybrid solar thermal plant two years ago that has not yet built.

In July 2008, the CEC granted "a certificate to construct and operate" the Victorville 2 Hybrid Power Plant that included 50 megawatts worth of parabolic solar-thermal collectors over 250 acres. The hybrid natural gas and solar thermal plant was approved to be built on the location of the former George Air Force Base, according to CEC records. Unfortunately, that project is on hold until private investors can be found, as the city no longer has the funds needed to complete the project, according to the Victorville Daily Press.

The last thermal solar plant project to be approved before that, on February 14, 1990, was a combination solar thermal and natural gas plant near Harper Dry Lake in San Bernardino County. It went operational in November 1990 and is owned by a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources.

In addition to the Beacon project, the CEC has about a dozen other large-scale projects involving solar thermal energy that should receive an up or down vote before year's end.

Many companies are in a scramble to get approval for their solar projects and break ground within the year in order to take advantage of a Treasury grant program and the Department of Energy's renewable-energy loan-guarantee program, both of which are both due to expire at the end of 2010.

Residents from states with great solar potential, such as Arizona, are publicly debating whether that incentive deadline should translate into quicker approval for projects, since new solar projects could mean an influx of jobs for their economy.

The Beacon project, because it is to be developed on private land, did not need approval from the federal Bureau of Land Management. But many of the proposed projects will require approval from both the CEC and the BLM because they would be built on Mojave Desert preserve lands.

The BLM, which has jurisdiction over 264 million acres of public lands, has received approval requests for 34 different solar thermal projects that together would total about 24,000 megawatts and cover over 300,000 acres of the Mojave Dessert, according to the CEC.

In order to cope with the influx of requests, the CEC and BLM have signed a memorandum of understanding (PDF) to form a joint review process that includes a time line.