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What could be the first commercial scale solar thermal power plant built in California in the last two decades just got a green light. While BrightSource’s flagship solar project called Ivanpah has been in regulatory purgatory for going on close to three years, on late Tuesday the Commissioner of the California Energy Commission (CEC), Jeffrey Bryon, gave his recommendation that the CEC approve Ivanpah.
Ivanpah is planned to be a massive 392 MW solar farm built next to the Ivanpah Dry Lake, in San Bernardino County, California, and will be the first of its kind to use BrightSource’s solar thermal concentrating gear to tap into the sun’s heat to provide electricity for 140,000 homes. The solar project is also the first in line to get approval from both the CEC and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and there’s been a lot of new ground to cover getting its applications sorted out. Hence the three year waiting period.
However, here’s the fingers crossed part: it’s still not officially approved. Bryon’s recommendation — in the form of the Presiding Member’s Proposed Decision (PMPD) and a 576 page report — is the next step in the approval process and now the project must go through a 30-day public comment period and then put before a vote by the entire CEC. Then Ivanpah needs to be ruled on by the BLM. Even with all that left to do, BrightSource says it “expects to have all of the necessary permits to commence construction in fall 2010.”
Despite the approval delay, BrightSource seems to have everything else going for it, including the fact that it’s raised a whole lot of equity funding. In May BrightSource raised $150 million in a fourth-round of equity financing, putting the company in that rare group of startups that have raised more than $300 million. The round was led by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Morgan Stanley and VantagePoint Venture Partners, and included new investor Alstom (a provider of equipment and services for power generation), which will become “one of the main shareholders” in BrightSource. The finance arm of construction giant Bechtel has also taken an equity stake Ivanpah.
BrightSource also scored a $1.37 billion loan guarantee commitment from the DOE specifically to build Ivanpah. A loan guarantee serves essentially as a promise by the government to make good on a loan if the company can’t, and typically enables better interest rates and lower costs than would otherwise be available to a company for project financing.
With all that funding pointed straight at the Ivanpah project, it would have been incredibly disappointing if regulatory hurdles ended up tripping up the plant. . . Or still end up knee-capping the project. Some environmentalists are against the placement of the solar thermal farm in the California desert.
Ivanpah is just the first of BrightSource’s efforts. The company wants to build 14 solar power plants in the southwest by 2016, which will deliver projects meant to fulfill 2,610 megawatts in contracts with California utilities Pacific Gas and Electric Company and Southern California Edison.
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Image courtesy of BrightSource.