The road is long & hard for giant solar farms

Around this time last year, California and federal regulators were busy reviewing and signing off on close to a dozen giant solar farms planned for California’s and Nevada’s deserts. Eventually, between them they would approve nine in California and several more in Nevada within a few months in 2010.

You would think that the speedy approval process should’ve invited more proposals, but it hasn’t. And now with uncertainty about federal solar funding looming and the economy remaining weak, the pace for building these first giant solar farms in decades could slow down as well. So far this year, the California Energy Commission, which oversees solar thermal power plants larger than 50 MW, has received only one new solar thermal power plant application. That application came from BrightSource Energy, which is seeking to in Inyo County.

As I last December, mega solar farms  — because of their size and land-use choice – will likely always face difficult hurdles in securing permits and financing. All but two of the approved by the California Energy Commission last year proposed using mirrors to harness the sun’s heat to generate steam, which is then piped to run turbines to produce electricity. The remaining two also plan to use mirrors to capture the thermal energy, but that energy would heat up hydrogen gas to run 4-cylinder engines, which would then drive the turbines.

All these so-called concentrating solar thermal power plants require a lot of land because they are hundreds of megawatts in size each, and building them at a smaller size just wouldn’t be economically feasible. Many of these huge plants also are destined for public lands, and that triggers an additional environmental review from federal agencies. They also are set to materialize in remote regions where more wildlife roams. Fierce fights over these projects’ environmental impact have against both federal and state governments.

Large solar farms that plan to use solar panels (photovoltaic, or PV, technology) aren’t having an easier time. First Solar and SunPower with environmental groups in order to avoid legal challenges from them over their projects in San Luis Obispo County in California.

Need for speed

Both California and federal regulators made it clear last year that they were eager to approve these solar farms so that the project developers could qualify for a federal program that doles out enough money to offset 30 percent of a project’s cost. That Treasury program, typically called , was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2010. But then, last-minute politicking for another year. 

The same program is set to end this year, and solar industry advocates once again . But fighting for the program’s survival could be tougher this year because the Republicans, since taking control of the House, have been keen on enacting large spending cuts and opposing programs dear to the Democrats. Another that over the past two years has offered billions of dollars in loan guarantees to help build solar farms will end this year as well, and chances of keeping this program around are even slimmer.

Those two federal programs came out of the 2009 stimulus package and are meant to be short-term solutions. Many people were hoping and even expecting the economy would improve significantly by now. But the recent in the stock markets worldwide sure the worse is over.

Successes and potential failures

Many of the solar farms approved last year haven’t started construction. Some are finalizing their federal loan guarantees, which require them to secure private money as well. And if they don’t have loan guarantee offers in hand, then they will likely find it even tougher to convince banks and other investors to pony up the money – billions of dollars in some cases – to build their projects.

Lining up construction money for solar thermal power plants will be particularly difficult for some projects, said Brett Prior, a senior analyst at GTM Re…

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