Concentrated solar power project gets federal approval

The U.S. solar industry had a record-breaking third quarter, according a report released Wednesday by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GreenTech Media.

Highlights of the report: Photovoltaic (PV) installations hit 449.2 megawatts in the third quarter, a 39 percent increase over the second quarter and a 140 percent increase over the same period last year.

The third quarter spike put the U.S. over 1 gigawatt of installed solar for 2011 — the first time the country has hit the 1-gigawatt benchmark — and more growth is expected by the end of the year.

California led the country in the third quarter, installing 196.7 megawatts of solar panels, 44 percent of the national total. Large-scale solar projects accounted for more than half of installations in the state.

The U.S. has about 5,000 solar companies, many of them small businesses. Total employment in the sector is estimated at 100,000.

An $850 million concentrating solar energy tower project slated for northeastern Riverside County has received federal approval for a 10-mile transmission line that would traverse public land.

It was the final step in the federal and state approval process for SolarReserve LLC’s 150-megawatt Rice Solar Energy Project, which will generate enough electricity to power about 68,000 homes.

The Bureau of Land Management approved the transmission line, which will connect to the Western Area Power Authority, flow into the California market and enable Pacific Gas & Electric to take delivery, said Tom Georgis, senior vice president of development of Santa Monica-based SolarReserve.

PG&E signed a long-term contract to buy the power generated from the plant, which will be on 1,400 acres of private land about 40 miles northwest of Blythe. The nearest community, Vidal Junction, is about 15 miles away.

The Rice project approval comes as the U.S. solar energy industry announced Wednesday that nationwide production has hit 1 gigawatt for the first time.

The remote desert area was formerly Rice Army Air Field and Camp Rice, an abandoned training ground for Army Gen. George Patton’s infantry and artillery during World War II.

The project previously won approval from the California Energy Commission.

It is expected to be built over the next two years and create 600 construction jobs at peak. About 50 jobs will be permanent when the energy plant goes online in 2013.

What makes the project adjacent to and south of Highway 62 in unincorporated eastern Riverside County different from many others is that SolarReserve will use what it calls “game-changing technology.”

About 17,500 mirrors, not solar panels, will be installed and swivel throughout the day to focus the sun’s light on a 640-foot-tall tower with a maintenance crane mounted on the top. Engineers say heat from molten salt kept in the tower’s tank will boil water for steam and make electricity.

The molten salt storage system designed by Pratt Whitney & Rocketdyne captures solar energy and delivers power to the grid even after the sun goes down.

“This is the most advanced solar thermal technology, which due to its inherent storage capacity, can operate like a coal- or gas-fired power plant without the associated harmful emissions,” Georgis said.

The solar plant would have twice the output of a comparably sized photovoltaic, solar direct steam or solar trough technology, Georgis said.

Four-year-old SolarReserve has more than 20 projects in various stages of development in California, Arizona, Nevada and Spain.

The project has undergone extensive environmental reviews over the past two years. SolarReserve must take various steps to compensate for impacts to desert tortoise habitat, including providing funding to buy and enhance 1,522 acres.

Riverside County supervisors Marion Ashley and John Benoit are among supporters of the project, which is expected to generate more than $48 million in state and local tax revenue during the first 10 years of operation.

Solar Reserve may not have to pay the county’s $450-per-acre solar fee, because the Rice project may not cross any county land or need county permits, the triggers for the fee, said George Johnson, director of the Transportation and Land Management Agency.

Benoit, who represents most of the Coachella Valley, said the project will help toward the state’s goal of generating 33 percent of total electricity sales by 2020 from renewable energy sources.

The Rice Solar Energy Project is near the Riverside East solar zone, where at least seven more large-scale solar projects are in the pipeline.

More than 175 workers are on the job at GE-NextEra’s 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight project off Interstate 10 near Desert Center.

Another 125 have begun building NextEra’s 250-megawatt Genesis project further to the east between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe.

Other projects proposed for the solar zone include enXco’s 150-megawatt Desert Harvest, Solar Trust of America Palen’s 500-megawatt project, and a 500- to 750-megawatt NextEra McCoy project.

A 1,000-megawatt project by Solar Trust of America in Blythe is on hold.

Chuckwalla Solar has proposed a 200-megawatt project in the Riverside East solar zone.

Others in the pipeline include First Solar Desert Quartzite, enXco Mule Mountain, and enXco McCoy.

Mike Perrault,