New projects to harness thermal power from America's sun-soaked deserts keep rolling in – thanks in part to Spain.
The latest was announced this week, when Madrid-based Albiasa Solar disclosed plans for a 200 MW, $1 billion concentrating solar plant (CSP) that will spread a sea of parabolic mirrors over a 1,400-acre stretch of Arizona desert near Kingman.
When completed in 2013, the billion-dollar plant will power 50,000 homes.
It's the first solar deal on U.S. soil for Albiasa – and the latest move by a Spanish firm to cash in on the country's concentrated sunlight.
In 2007, Spain's Acciona Solar dedicated America's first CSP plant in almost two decades, Nevada Solar One (pictured above). The $266 million plant boasts a capacity of 64 MW.
In 2008, Abengoa Solar, a Spanish multinational, announced plans to construct what will be one of the largest CSP plants on the planet when it goes online in 2011 – a $1 billion, 280 MW facility 70 miles southwest of Phoenix.
Abengoa was also awarded two R&D contracts last year from the U.S. Department of Energy for a total of $14.4 million. The money will support the company's efforts to help make CSP as cheap as coal by 2015.
We'll see if that can happen. And if it does, then CSP, the sleeping solar giant of the desert, could theoretically meet a vast portion of future energy demand, particularly in the Southwestern U.S. By one estimate, a single, massive plant in Nevada, about 100 miles on each side, could power all of America.
No wonder CSP is seen as the best chance of expanding U.S. renewable energy – and why Spain's enterprising solar sector, and others, want a piece of the action.
The technology is relatively simple. Giant mirrors focus desert sunlight into tubes of fluid that are heated and sent to a generating station, where it is then used to power a steam turbine.
It's not new, as CSP company Ausra explains in pictures here. But CSP has been improved in recent years.
And Spanish firms undoubtedly played an ample role – thanks to an attractive "feed-in tariff" the government put in place exclusively for CSP development in 2002. It's the only one of its kind in the world. And it spawned an explosion of CSP installations in Spain.
The advanced technology spread across the global economy; Spain's major renewable players opened U.S. offices. And today the American Southwest is perhaps the hottest CSP market in the world.
The extension of renewable tax credits, state renewable energy standards, and most recently the Obama presidency (among other factors), have brought long-term policy stability to the U.S. solar space for the first time ever.
Arizona is on track to be a global solar thermal leader, as this week's news demonstrates. And so is California. Take a look at some of the massive growth under way in that state:
- Oakland-based BrightSource Energy is building a 400 MW CSP plant in the Mojave Desert, called the Ivanpah Solar Power Complex
- Israel-based Solel is developing a 553 MW CSP facility in the Mojave Desert, called the Mojave Solar Park.
- Pasadena-based, Google-backed eSolar is constructing an up to 245 MW plant, the Gaskell Sun Tower, in Kern County. It is slated to be the nation's first commercial effort in building "power tower" CSP plants.
(Note: A total of nine CSP plants were built in the 1980s and early 1990s in California's Mojave desert. But sinking oil prices and a withdrawal of federal tax credits brought the industry to a total standstill.)
This is all just a taste of what's happening, and more importantly what's to come.
In January, the federal Bureau of Land Management announced that applications to build solar projects on federal lands jumped an astonishing 78 percent in just six months. There were 107 applications in California, 71 in Nevada and 35 in Arizona. New Mexico, Utah and Colorado made up the rest. In all, the projects would occupy 2.3 million acres.
That's a clear indication that behind the scenes – right now – solar companies, start-ups and entrepreneurs from Spain and beyond are vying to harness all that desert solar.
And you can bet it's for one reason alone: They see riches in America's clean energy future.