Concentrated solar thermal power makes comeback in southeastern California

Solar thermal seems to be making a comeback in the east county with three projects either in construction or in the pipeline.

Back in 2009, when the federal government launched solar development in the Riverside East solar zone — 148,000 acres of desert land between Joshua Tree National Park and the city of Blythe — three of the four first projects to be singled out for approval were solar thermal.

Then came the nosedive in solar panel prices, and companies developing projects in the area turned to photovoltaic technology.

The ill-fated 1,000-megawatt Blythe project, originally owned by Solar Trust of America, was planned as solar thermal, but was changed to photovoltaic before Solar Trust went bankrupt and sold the plant to NextEra Energy, which plans to keep it PV.

NextEra Energy’s 250-megawatt Genesis project, using solar trough technology without storage, could be the first to come online, later this year.

Also in the queue is BrightSource Energy’s 500-megawatt Palen project, which the company bought from bankrupt Solar Trust of America. Originally planned as a solar-trough project, Palen was awaiting final approval at the time of the bankruptcy.

BrightSource recently submitted a new application for the project to the California Energy Commission, replacing the solar troughs with two 750-foot-tall solar towers, each surrounded by 85,000 reflecting mirrors, or heliostats — but no storage.

The project description in the new application is essentially the same as for the 500-megawatt Rio Mesa project, also in the east county, which BrightSource recently put on indefinite hold.

SolarReserve is targeting an early 2014 groundbreaking for its 150-megawatt Rice project, the only solar thermal project so far in California with molten salt storage. It could go online in 2016.