NextEra?s 250 MW Beacon concentrating solar power project clears

The proposed Beacon Solar Energy Project, a 250-megawatt facility in eastern Kern County, has been given its license by the California Energy Commission, the first solar thermal power project permitted in 20 years in the state.

"Today’s action begins the journey of increasing clean renewable energy in California," says Energy Commission Chairman Karen Douglas. The last solar thermal power plants that the Energy Commission approved were Luz Solar Electric Generating Systems in February 1990.

Beacon Solar LLC, a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Resources LLC, a unit of Florida Power and Light, will build, own, and operate the plant. The project is a concentrated solar electric generating facility on approximately 2,012-acres in eastern Kern County on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, four miles from California City and 15 miles north of the town of Mojave.

The project will use parabolic trough solar thermal technology to produce electrical power using a steam turbine generator fed from a solar steam generator that get heated heat transfer fluid from solar thermal equipment comprised of arrays of parabolic mirrors that collect energy from the sun.

This is the first pure Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plant approved by the CEC since SEGS X in 1990 (although it should be noted that the CEC did approve a 50 MW solar hybrid plant in Victorville in 2008)

Summary of the NextEra Beacon Solar Project

Output: 250 MW gross

Land: 2,012 acres of former farmland (alfalfa)

Technology: Parabolic Trough

Storage: None

Cost: ~$1B (which works out to $4.00/W)

Expected online date: Originally 2012 (now 2013-14)

Water usage: 456 million gallons/yr of groundwater

Why did it take so long to approve? There are a couple reasons.

1. Lost knowledge

From 1990-2007, there weren’t any CSP project proposals in front of the CEC, so the staff familiar with the projects have likely retired, requiring the new folks to get up to speed on the technology.

2. Water

This project is wet-cooled, and is projected to require 456 million gallons of water per year. That might be a small concern in the rainy Pacific Northwest, but this plant is in the Mojave Desert – which receives about 5 inches of rainfall per year.

Part of the solution was that Beacon will use recycled water pumped in from a nearby town.

This is a big hurdle to clear, but several more remain for Beacon Solar.

PPA: this project needs to sign a PPA with a major utility (PG&E, SCE, or SDG&E) – and then get the PPA approved by the CPUC

Financing: this project will likely need the subsidized debt that comes with a Federal Loan Guarantee, in order to make the economics work for the equity investor (see our previous article on "why a PPA is not enough").

Nevertheless, this is a promising sign, as the CEC was able to move to from a proposed decision to a final decision in ~2 months, which means that Brightsource, Abengoa, and STA should have final decisions on their projects by early October.