Mojave Desert Solar Power Complex Receives Large Federal Loan Guarantee
The solar power industry got a big boost last week when the Department of Energy announced a $1.37 billion loan guarantee for a solar thermal power complex in the Mojave Desert. BrightSource Energy, the recipient of the loan, plans to construct three solar thermal facilities with a collective generating capacity of 392 MW. According to a report from the Washington Post, the money will be drawn from resources given to the Department of Energy under the economic stimulus bill of 2009.
The Obama administration emphasized that the new project would bring clean energy jobs to the region. The Washington Post reported the following:
BrightSource, the project developer, estimates that during the construction phase, the solar power complex will employ about 1,000 people. Operation of the plant will require 86 permanent jobs. BrightSource's construction contractor is negotiating labor agreements with various trade unions, the Energy Department said. Construction could start as early as later this year if BrightSource gets the necessary permits.
According to a New York Times report, the Mojave Desert project still faces difficult challenges in the coming months. Most notable among these obstacles is the approval of improvements to 200 miles worth of transmission lines connecting the power plant with major population centers. Stuart Hemphill, vice president of renewable and alternative power at Southern California Edison, echoed these concerns: "The reality is that renewable projects are very far away from where customers are." Similar transmission projects across the Mojave have met crippling resistance in the past. Some environmental groups point out that desert construction has negative impacts on endangered species, like the desert tortoise. According to Mr. Hemphill, transmission lines can take seven to ten years to win approval and can add significantly to finance charges.
Despite the potential problems, Mr. Hemphill added that he was confident the solar project would succeed, and emphasized that it was part of the company's accelerating shift toward new energy sources. "What we're doing is changing the shape of the way the electric system is going to operate in California." He cited recent large contracts for wind turbines, photovoltaic rooftop panels and geothermal power as evidence of the utility's commitment to renewable resources.