February 13

Huge thermal plant opens in Calif. as solar industry grows

To generate power, nearly 350,000 computer-controlled mirrors roughly the size of a garage door reflect sunlight to boilers atop 459-foot towers.

The Associated Press

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A boilers sits on 459-foot towers vents steam recently in Primm, Nev. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across roughly 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, opened formally Thursday after years of regulatory and legal tangles.

The Associated Press

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Jeff Holland takes a picture of some of the thousands of computer-controlled mirrors that reflect sunlight to boilers that sit on towers.

The Associated Press

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Ivanpah can be seen as a success story and a cautionary tale, highlighting the inevitable trade-offs between the need for cleaner power and the loss of fragile, open land. The California Energy Commission concluded that while the solar plant would impose “significant impacts on the environment ... the benefits the project would provide override those impacts.”

Such disputes are likely to continue for years as more companies seek to develop solar, wind and geothermal plants on land treasured by environmentalists who also support the growth of renewable energy. At issue is what is worth preserving and at what cost, as California pushes to generate more electricity from renewable sources.

In 2012, the federal government established 17 “solar energy zones” in an attempt to direct development to land it has identified as having fewer wildlife and natural-resource obstacles. The zones comprise about 450 square miles in six states — California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

The Western Watershed Project is continuing to push a lawsuit against federal agencies that reviewed the Ivanpah project. Its California director, Michael J. Connor, said alternatives to the site were not considered and serious environmental impacts, including fragmenting the tortoise population, were ignored.

“Do we really need to have these giant plants first, or is it better to generate solar power on people’s roofs, the place it’s going to be used?” Connor asked.

NRG did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Resch said a key issue for the industry will be maintaining government policies that encourage development, including tax credits for solar projects that are set to expire in 2016 and government loan guarantees. “The direct result of these policies is projects like Ivanpah,” he said.

According to statistics compiled by the Energy Department, the solar industry employs more than 140,000 Americans at about 6,100 companies, with employment increasing nearly 20 percent since the fall of 2012.

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Additional Photos

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Some of the computer-controlled mirrors, each about 7 feet high and 10 feet wide, reflect sunlight to boilers. The sun is used to heat water in the boilers’ tubes to make steam, which in turn drives turbines to create electricity.

The Associated Press

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One of the boilers vents steam recently at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.

The Associated Press

 


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