There’s a heated race taking place in the U.S. Southwest to build the next generation of solar thermal power plants — massive solar power systems that use the sun’s heat to generate power — and the finish line could be as close as 2009, when the companies start construction. The majority of the solar thermal capacity that will come online in the U.S. over the next five years will come from five solar thermal companies, according to a report from Emerging Energy Research (EER), which is tracking the concentrated solar thermal power “resurgence.” But while these five — Stirling Energy Systems, SkyFuel, Solel, Ausra and BrightSource Energy — are racing to the finish line, there are plenty of regulatory obstacles in the way.
The permit process is long and arduous. Before being considered for licensing and permitting, anyone proposing a solar project must first prove they are “data adequate,” which basically entails filing complete documentation on the project’s details and environmental impact statement. Becoming “data adequate” can take a year while licensing and permitting can take another year. There are well over four gigawatts of solar thermal in the pipelines, but much of it remains trapped in bureaucratic paperwork. In two years we’ll see who is actually online and who is still in regulatory purgatory.
So while the lengthy government permit process is slowing things down, it is important that government solar tax incentives stay in place to speed things up. Todd Woody at the Green Wombat notes that solar relies heavily on the 30 percent investment tax credit, which was not renewed with the signing of the latest Energy Bill. Speaker of the House Pelosi has promised to bring this up in the 2008 session, but it shows how unstable the legislative framework is in the American energy market.
If all goes well with the permit process, the deserts outside of Los Angeles will glimmer with reflective solar collectors. Stirling has giant plans for nearly two gigawatts in the Mojave and the Imperial Valley, and BrightSource has plans for two installations in the Mojave totaling 900 megawatts of solar thermal power. Solel is developing 553 megawatts of power in the Mojave and has done a deal with PG&E for a 25-year purchase power agreement.
Ausra plans to open a solar manufacturing plant in Las Vegas and has arranged for PG&E to buy 177 megawatts from a farm planned for San Luis Obispo while it woos locals near its proposed $500 million installation in the Carrizo Plain awaiting approval from the California Energy Commission. Meanwhile, SkyFuel’s web site opens with hopeful flash animation that reads: “In 2008, the SkyTrough sees the sun.”
Four of these five companies have reported plans to break ground for solar installations in 2009 with the hopes of producing power by 2010. That means 2008 will be a race to see who can clear the permitting and bureaucratic hurdles first.