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California approves Tessera solar plant

Tessera's Calico plant is expected to cost more than $2 billion and to power 200,000 to 500,000 homes, perhaps by late 2011.

NTR's Tessera Solar won approval for a 663.5-megawatt solar plant near Barstow in Southern California, the latest in a string of giant solar plants planned for the nation's most populous state.

The Calico Solar Project won the green light from the California Energy Commission (CEC) yesterday afternoon, following last week's approval from the Interior Department.

Development of alternative energy has been a major platform of President Barack Obama and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and create new jobs.

SunCatcher solar dishes
The Calico project will use SunCatcher mirrored dishes developed by Sterling Energy. Salt River Project

Tessera's Calico plant will cost more than $2 billion and will power 200,000 to 500,000 homes, according to the Interior Department. If the company secures financing, it could start construction by year-end and begin generating power late in 2011.

Calico would use a concentrated thermal-power technology called SunCatcher that relies on mirrored dishes to convert sunlight into electricity. The technology was developed by Sterling Energy, which like Tessera is majority-owned by Irish infrastructure company NTR.

The plant is one of a group of fast-tracked solar power projects that state and federal agencies are coordinating. Those include projects from Abengoa Solar, NextEra Energy, and Solar Millennium.

If they start construction by December 31, the plants can qualify for a program that provides a 30 percent cash grant from the Treasury Department.

For many of the projects, securing a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy is just as important as the regulatory approvals.

"To get this first wave of projects off the ground, the loan guarantee is pretty much critical," says Sean Gallagher, vice president of marketing and regulatory affairs for Tessera Solar North America.

Tessera is also applying for a loan guarantee for a 709-megawatt solar plant in California's Imperial Valley. That plant won CEC approval last month and Interior Department approval this month.

But the Department of Energy is moving slowly on its approval process. Earlier this month, Solar Millennium said it did not know if it would receive a guarantee by year's end, which throws the future of its 1,000-megawatt solar plant near Blythe, Calif., into question. The company is also trying to develop a 500-megawatt solar plant in Palen, Calif.

Like many of the other planned solar plants, Tessera's Calico plant has met opposition from environmentalists over fears it will harm desert tortoises, a threatened species in the state.

Environmentalists are also concerned about water use and bighorn sheep that live in the mountains above the planned project.