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State solar power plans are as big as all outdoors

December 03, 2008|Marla Dickerson | Dickerson is a Times staff writer.

BAKERSFIELD — Just up the road, past pump jacks bobbing in California's storied oil patch, look sharp and you'll catch a glimpse of the state's energy future.

Rows of gigantic mirrors covering an area bigger than two football fields have sprouted alongside almond groves near California 99. This is a power plant that uses the sun's heat to produce electricity for thousands of homes.

Owned by Palo Alto-based Ausra Inc., it's the first so-called solar thermal facility to open in California in nearly two decades. It's part of a drive to build clean electricity generation using the sun, wind and other renewable sources with an urgency not seen since the days of environmentalist Gov. Jerry Brown. Add President-elect Barack Obama's stated intention to push for more renewable power and you've got the equivalent of a green land rush.

At least 80 large solar projects are on the drawing board in California, more than in any other place in the country. The scale of some is unrivaled on the planet. One facility planned for the Mojave Desert is projected to take up a land mass the size of Inglewood.

"The expectation is that renewables will transform California's electricity system," said Terry O'Brien, who helps vet sites for new facilities for the California Energy Commission.

It's a daunting challenge for the world's eighth-largest economy. Despite the nation's toughest mandates for boosting green energy and reducing greenhouse gases, California remains addicted to burning fossil fuels to keep the lights on.

Excluding large hydroelectric operations, less than 12% of the state's electricity came from renewable sources in 2007, according to the energy commission. Solar ranked last, supplying just 0.2% of California's needs. Rooftop photovoltaic panels are unaffordable or impractical for most Californians even with generous state incentives.

Enter Big Solar.

Proponents say utility-scale solar is a way to get lots of clean megawatts online quickly, efficiently and at lower costs. Solar thermal plants such as Ausra's are essentially giant boilers made of glass and steel. They use the sun's heat to create steam to power turbines that generate electricity.

Costing about 18 cents a kilowatt-hour at present, solar thermal power is roughly 40% cheaper than that generated by the silicon-based panels that sit on the roofs of homes and businesses, according to a June report by Clean Edge Inc. and the Co-op American Foundation. Analysts say improved technology and economies of scale should help lower the cost of solar thermal to about 5 cents a kilowatt-hour by 2025. That would put it on par with coal, the cheap but carbon-spewing fuel that generates about half the nation's electricity.

Size matters, said Sun Microsystems Inc. co-founder-turned-venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, whose Khosla Ventures has invested more than $30 million in Ausra. A square patch of desert about 92 miles long on each side blanketed with Ausra's technology could generate enough electricity to meet the entire nation's demand, company executives say.

"Utility-scale solar is probably the only way to achieve real scale . . . and reduce our carbon emissions" significantly, Khosla said.

Critics fear that massive solar farms would create as many environmental problems as they purport to solve. This new-age electricity still requires old-fashioned power towers and high-voltage lines to get it to people's homes. A proposed 150-mile transmission line known as the Sunrise Powerlink that would carry renewable power from Imperial County to San Diego has run into stiff resistance from grass-roots groups and environmentalists.

Solar plants require staggering amounts of land, which could threaten fragile ecosystems and mar the stark beauty of America's deserts. And in contrast to rooftop panels, which enable homeowners to pursue energy independence, these centralized facilities keep consumers tethered to utility companies.

"They are trying to perpetuate the old Big Energy paradigm into the renewable-energy era," said Sheila Bowers, a Santa Monica attorney and environmental activist. "They have a monopoly agenda."

California already has the largest operating collection of solar thermal facilities in the world: nine plants totaling just over 350 megawatts in San Bernardino County. Built in the 1980s, they were part of a drive toward energy self-sufficiency stemming from the '70s oil shocks. The boom ended when California dropped requirements forcing utilities to buy renewable power.

The push is back. The 2000-01 energy crisis exposed California's dependence on outsiders -- more than 30% of its electricity still comes from out of state. Renewable forms of energy are once again central to efforts to shore up supply and fight global warming.

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