It’s a good news week for solar energy!
First up, California: the U.S. Department of the Interior approved yesterday the 1GW Blythe Solar Power Project to be situated on 28.4 square kilometers of desert managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) west of Blythe, California – the largest solar energy project ever to be built on U.S. public lands (factsheet available here). According to the DoI, when constructed, the Blythe Solar Power Project will produce enough electricity to power 300,000 – 750,000 homes. Negotiations continue with the US Department of Energy to secure federal loan guarantees, but the company is confident that the project will begin before the end of 2010 – and if the political will is there, then I’d anticipate that the guarantees will follow.
The project will use parabolic trough technology, where long rows of curved mirrors concentrate sunlight onto a fluid in a central receiver, which is then used to heat water vapor, which in turns drives a turbine (diagram!).
A project of this size will clearly have an impact on the local habitat – to mitigate this the project has been subject to extensive environmental review and BLM is requiring the developers to provide funding for more than 8,000 acres of desert tortoise, western burrowing owl, bighorn sheep and Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat.
This announcement comes on the heels of the approval earlier this month of the first five renewable energy projects ever on public lands – Imperial Valley Solar Project, Chevron Lucerne Valley Solar Project, Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System and the Calico Solar Project, all in California; and the Silver State North Solar Project in Nevada. As BLM Director Bob Abbey says:
“With the approval of the Blythe project, the solar projects approved on BLM public lands in the last few weeks have the potential to generate up to 2800 megawatts of renewable energy. That’s enough to power up to 2 million homes … We have truly arrived at America’s new energy frontier.”
And! in more good news, the Guardian reports that South Africa is to unveil plans this week for what it claims will be the world’s biggest solar power plant – a 5GW project using giant mirrors and solar panels across an initial 9,000 hectares of state-owned land in the Northern Cape province. The project would aim by the end of its first decade to achieve an annual output of 5GW of electricity – currently one-tenth of South Africa’s energy needs. In a country which is currently dependent on coal-fired stations for most of its power, and one in six people still lacks electricity, this is a huge deal!
An estimated 200 foreign and domestic investors will meet this week in Upington, Northern Cape, with a view to funding the hugely ambitious solar project. A master plan will be set out by the US engineering and construction group Fluor. This follows a viability study by the Clinton Climate Initiative, which described South Africa’s “solar resource” as among the best in the world.
One of the sunniest 3% of regions in the world, the Northern Cape is South Africa’s largest province – and one of the poorest – but the hope is that the solar park would create a “solar hub”, regenerating the local economy.
We’ve seen the eye-opening infographic showing the surface area required to power the world via solar power alone. As Jonathan de Vries, the project manager and a special adviser to South Africa’s energy minister, said:
Solar power isn’t a panacea that will cure all but it’s a part of the solution, and a very important part.
State projects on a large scale are surely an important step toward that solution. And a little friendly international competition to invest the most in solar energy? That’s something I could get behind.