World’s Largest Solar Thermal Plant Coming to the Mojave Desert

At a forum organized by The Atlantic magazine, David Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department, said the department just gave approval for the world’s largest solar thermal facility in California’s Mojave desert. The Blythe Solar Project, a $6 billion project, will generate more than 1,000MW of renewable energy and span 7,000 acres in an area 200 miles east of Los Angeles. To date, five major solar projects on public lands, including the controversial Cape Wind project off the shore of Martha’s Vineyard, have received approval. 

The Obama administration has actively promoted the use of public lands for utility-scale renewable energy plants, says Hayes. With climate change and energy legislation dead on Capitol Hill, Hayes argued these types of projects “are the way to make all the talk about the green economy a reality.” The administration has not been able to move as fast as it would have liked because “national environmental impact statements take 18 months.”

The new Mojave desert facility will use solar thermal energy systems (see earlier post) instead of the traditional photovoltaic cell array. Solar thermal systems use curved mirrors and parabolic troughs filled with mineral oil to heat steam and power turbines that create energy. Other systems use solar concentrators, or dishes, that focus on a solar “power tower.” Given many conventional solar systems actually consume lots of water, Hayes said the Interior Department has made sure they only approve “dry water systems” (However, it’s not clear whether the solar thermal system contains water). He added water is also needed to periodically clean the solar systems. Given that the facilities can cover thousands of acres, all that cleaning water add up to a lot. Interior is asking the energy firms involved to create water treatment systems that can reuse effluent water from nearby communities’ industrial facilities.

Plans for the new Mojave desert solar thermal plant were also altered to accomodate the needs of two endangered species: the desert tortoise and Mojave fringe-toed lizard. In the case of the desert tortoise, Hayes argued, “we need to ensure the tortoise is better off after the completion of the project.” The department will work with the firms involved in the new facility to ensure we “invest in great habitat for this species.” Biologists are also expected to help round up and move any endangered tortoises found on the site before construction begins.  

Beyond direct adverse impacts on local endangered species, massive solar plants can also negatively impact local communities. Despite these concerns, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) supported the new solar power plant, because: “It is located adjacent to developed lands, including industrial and agricultural lands; It is located near a new non-controversial transmission line that has already been approved; and a large part of the project is located in an area that environmental groups identified for study for potential solar energy development.” Under the new administration, 24 parts of the country have been determined to be “places where we can do solar power generation without adverse environmental impact,” says Hayes.

California and other states with renewable energy mandates are driving demand for solar power. California has issued new rules saying that 33 percent of its energy must be from renewable sources by 2020. The new solar facility in the Mojave will power more than 300,000 homes and is expected to create thousands of jobs.

New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are other states with strong renewable energy rules. As a result, the Atlantic seaboard’s off-shore wind energy is increasingly viewed as a untapped resources. “The government is now actively developing the Atlantic wind resource,” says Hayes. Public lands, which once only provided access for coal, oil, and gas production, will increasingly be used to provide platforms for renewable energy as well.

Image credit: Solar thermal system / Solar Ninja

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