BrightSource Energy is First to Qualify for 30% Recovery Act Federal Funding

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This week BrightSource Energy was the first of the California utility-scale solar projects to make it over the finish line by the deadline of December 31st, 2010. Their 392 MW solar thermal project at Ivanpah has broken ground on time.

Now it qualifies for renewable energy funding under the Recovery Act – the stimulus bill that California’s Senator Boxer was instrumental in getting written into the legislation.

“At Ivanpah, we’re demonstrating that the U.S. can lead in the clean energy race by building the largest solar plant in the world.” said John Woolard, President and CEO of BrightSource Energy at the ground breaking ceremony.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, another booster for renewable energy, opined that “Projects like this one are helping us meet our long-term energy and environmental goals, while creating jobs and moving us toward a cleaner, more sustainable future – a future where California leads the nation and the world in a clean energy revolution.”

Of the 16 gigawatts of new renewable power being put on the grid with support from the Recovery Act, 11 gigawatts is in the West, and most of that is solar on California’s deserts. If all 16 gigawatts make it in time, by the end of December, thus qualifying for the 30% subsidy, it will double the US renewable energy supply, getting more renewable energy on the US grid than in the last thirty years combined.

That sounds sensible.  But there’s a catch, as there always is in any clean energy legislation that has to get through our plutocratic Senate.

The 30% cash grant funding under the Recovery Act for this sea change in US energy is like Cinderella’s coach, that is held together as if by magic, and turns back into a humble pumpkin at the stroke of midnight.

To get funded, projects have to break ground by midnight on December 31st, 2010. Since it easily takes 18 months for solar projects to get through environmental reviews, the proviso is a killer.

So, despite truly heroic efforts from each of the bureaucracies that permit energy –  the CPUC, CEC and BLM – that have had to race to get these approved since the Recovery Act passed in March last year – their approvals are not enough. Even the contracts with the utilities (PG&E, SDG&E and SCE) are not enough. Actually sticking a shovel in the dirt by the end of 2010 is what counts.

It is fitting that BrightSource Energy be the one that makes it through. BrightSource is the heir to Luz, California’s first solar thermal energy company, that was bankrupted by 1992 by low fossil energy prices and poor legislative support for clean energy at both the Federal and state level back then.

Luz built California’s pioneering solar thermal project, back in the ’80s. It is still going strong thirty years later, having pumped out 14,000 gigawatt-hours of clean solar energy – so far – from the California desert.

This year, the Federal government provided a $1.37 billion loan guarantee to its successor, BrightSource Energy.

Image: Senator Boxer of California meets with BrightSource
Susan Kraemer@Twitter

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