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World's Largest Solar Thermal Facility Opens In California Desert

posted on February 21, 2014

Pressure is building on President Obama to make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline which would funnel oil from Canada and North Dakota to refineries in Texas.    

But a Nebraska judge's decision this week all but guarantees the legal battle surrounding the controversial project will continue.  At issue, is a 2012 law that allowed Republican Governor Dave Heineman to approve the route through Cornhusker State.  That, in turn, gave Calgary-based TransCanada the right to use eminent domain on landowners who deny the company access to their property.

The ruling was a victory for pipeline opponents, including environmentalists who say Keystone XL would carry "dirty oil" that contributes to global warming and Nebraska ranchers and farmers who fear it could threaten local water supplies.

Just about any effort to develop new sources of power these days is either heralded as a panacea or vilified as a threat to wildlife or the environment.  And that was the case in the Mojave Desert this week, when the world’s largest solar power plant went online.    

World's Largest Solar Thermal Facility Opens In California Desert

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System formally opened on Thursday making it the largest solar power plant in the world.  The complex covers nearly 5 square miles in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border and consists of 350,000 mirrors that are roughly the size of a garage door.    

Jeff Holland, NRG Energy spokesman: “The solar heat that's reflected from the mirrors onto the towers produces steam, and heats some water, and produces steam, the steam then turns the generator and the generator in turn produces electricity."

The $2.2 billion system consists of three generating units capable producing nearly 400 megawatts -- enough electricity to power 140,000 homes.  The project has been controversial, since the cost of building and generating solar thermal energy is much more expensive than that of nuclear, natural gas or coal-fired power plants. 

According to 2011 Energy Information Administration estimates, it costs $100 to generate a megawatt-hour using conventional coal, while solar thermal power costs $261, or more than two-and-a-half times as much.

Environmentalists fought construction of the facility because of the potential negative impact it would have on a population of desert tortoise that was listed as threatened in 1994.  Government documents also show that dozens of dead birds have been found on the site with scorched and melted feathers.  

Currently, solar power accounts for less than one percent of the nation’s generating capacity.  But in 2012, The Obama administration established “17 Solar Energy Zones” designating that 285,000 acres of public land in six southwestern states would serve as priority areas for commercial-scale solar development.  

Tags: California electricity energy Ivanpah solar energy solar power solar thermal


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