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Solar power plant plans move ahead in California

Two key agencies this week advance permitting for large-scale solar projects in the California desert which, if built, would bring gigawatts worth of solar power online.

After a long drought, large-scale solar power is getting closer to returning to the U.S. desert.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday gave the green light to power purchase agreements which two utilities have with solar power project developers, a key step toward beginning actual construction.

The approvals in California follow a flurry of activity at the Bureau of Land Management, which created a fast-track review process for solar projects on federal land. Both agencies' reviews are required for permitting the projects which, if finalized and financed, would result in a dramatic increase in solar power on the California grid.

On Friday, the BLM issued its final environmental impact statement for the Chevron Energy Solutions Lucerne Valley Solar Project in the California desert, a necessary step before final permitting approval. That project would bring 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity online in California, enough to supply hundreds of thousands of homes.

BrightSource heliostats use sunlight to make heat, which creates steam to drive a turbine.
BrightSource heliostats use sunlight to make heat, which creates steam to drive a turbine. Click on image for a photo gallery of large-scale solar technologies. Eilon Paz Studio EPP

Earlier this week, the BLM issued final environmental impact studies for two other large projects proposed for public lands in California--the Ivanpa Solar project developed by BrightSource Energy and Calico Solar project developed by Tessera Solar.

In all, there are nine projects in California in the fast-track program which, if completed, would bring over 4,500 megawatts worth of generating capacity onto the grid, according to a tally compiled by Environment & Energy News. The nine projects would cover more than 41,000 acres of BLM land and provide enough power for 3.8 million homes, according to federal estimates.

Demand for these large-scale desert solar projects is driven by a California mandate that requires utilities to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy by the end of the year.

The technologies behind these projects vary. The 392-megawatt Ivanpah project, which technology provider BrightSource Energy expects to start construction on this fall, uses a field of mirrors focused on a tower which heats a liquid to make steam that drives a turbine.

The Calico Solar project in California's San Bernardino County feature giant parabolic dishes which use the sun's heat to drive an attached Stirling engine to generate electricity. Meanwhile, other project developers plan to use arrays of flat photovoltaic panels which can be quicker to deploy than solar thermal systems.

But even though these large solar projects promise a jump in clean energy on the grid, they have faced opposition over the potential environmental impact and water use. BrightSource, for example, scaled back its original project plan for the Ivanpah project to reduce the impact on habitat for endangered tortoises. Tessera Solar plans to use waste water to wash solar panels, according to Environment & Energy News.

Financing for these projects, which can cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to construct, is not assured. Banks are wary of putting money into relatively new technology, such as some solar thermal systems.

At the same time, project developers are rushing to finalize permitting before the end of this year because there's a risk that federal tax grant for renewable energy projects will not be renewed next year.