California Takes Major Step Toward Clean-energy Goals

BrightSource Energy, a concentrating solar-thermal technology company, has announced that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) unanimously approved two amended BrightSource contracts with Southern California Edison (SCE).

The contracts, totaling 1.3 million megawatt-hours (MWh) annually, will help California take a significant step toward reaching its clean-energy goals with reliable and cost-effective power. Collectively, the contracts represent billions of dollars in direct investment in California’s economy, more than 2,000 construction jobs in some of California’s hardest hit local economies and avoidance of more than 400,000 tons of annual CO2 emissions.

The first of the approved contracts is for a power tower project at BrightSource’s Rio Mesa site, which is designed to produce 573,000 megawatt-hours annually. The plant at Rio Mesa will employ BrightSource’s next-generation LPT technology, which feature a 750-foot-tall tower that allows for a high concentration of heliostats. This design significantly reduces the amount of land required to produce energy—up to 33 percent less than a typical photovoltaic (PV) farm or other solar thermal technologies. The design also improves plant performance and improves efficiencies, reducing the total cost of power.

The second contract approved is for a unit at the company’s Sonoran West site that is designed to produce 733,000 MWh annually. The contract will be the first to deploy BrightSource’s SolarPLUS thermal storage system, which provides operational flexibility and reliability services needed to balance the grid as increasing amounts of intermittent PV and wind come on line without the emissions and expense associated with peaker plants that would otherwise be required for reliability.

There is growing recognition of the important value that concentrating solar-thermal technology brings to support grid reliability. Recent studies by the U.S. national labs point to the high value provided by concentrating solar thermal power with storage, especially when compared to wind and solar technologies that cannot integrate cost-effective storage options. This added value is a result of the resource’s unique capabilities including:

  • Shifting electricity production to periods of highest demand
  • Providing firm capacity to the power system; replacing the need for conventional power plants as opposed to just supplementing their output
  • Providing ancillary services such as spinning reserves to help support a reliable grid
  • Avoiding the variability and integration costs that other renewable resources like photovoltaics (PV) and wind create for utilities and grid operators; reducing the need for additional fossil fuel units required to back up intermittent renewables that put a hidden financial burden on ratepayers

Southern California Edison submitted the approved contracts in November 2011 as part of a package of five contracts with BrightSource. In addition to the two approved, CPUC denied Southern California Edison cost recovery for the three other contracts: a 200 MW project at Rio Mesa and two 200 MW projects at the company’s Siberia site. The Rio Mesa project will continue to move forward as planned with an anticipated permitting decision from the California Energy Commission. The Siberia project will remain a part of BrightSource’s 90,000 acre site portfolio.

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