Recovery Act Gets Another Half Gigawatt on the Grid in Nevada

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One more giant solar project on Federal land has made it in time for funding under ARRA!

Solar Millenium’s Amargosa Farm Road Solar Project is a 500 megawatt project on BLM land, 80 miles from Las Vegas. It is a concentrated solar project comprising two 250 MW parabolic trough dry-cooled power plants.

It includes some thermal energy storage, which enables the solar plant to keep supplying electricity after sundown. Although Las Vegas, like all desert areas, has peak needs in the hottest afternoons, the included thermal storage means the famous neon signs of Vegas can be solar powered well into the night.

The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) reports that through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s incentives for specified energy programs, Solar Millennium would be eligible for approximately $1 billion in Investment Tax credits. But it’s not all a one way street.

The project will pay back the local community. Annual property taxes of $12 million a year – for as long as it is producing – will go to Nye County. Concentrating solar thermal near cities with three hours or more of night time storage have to pay the highest rents at $7,884 per megawatt annually. Solar Millenium will also pay a one-time fee to the BLM that is based on the size of the finished project (per megawatt).  Collectively, a total of 200 solar projects on BLM lands are expected to pay fees in the billions.

Since it may be one of the last to make it under the wire before the Dec 2010 deadline when funding ends, (and an incoming more unfriendly congress that yet further gridlocks clean energy development), it is instructive to compare the cost/benefit of how we taxpayers benefited from the Recovery Act.

The stimulus bill could well prove to be as isolated an example of government support for renewables as the long-ago one-time Carter era support, that jump-started solar development worldwide.

This Solar Millenium project adds another half-gigawatt of power and comprises part of the 16 GW of renewable energy that this administration will have managed to get onto the US grid with the Recovery Act in record time.

The BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service worked closely with Solar Millennium to develop an innovative water mitigation plan that can serve as a model for future solar projects. By contrast, a 500 MW coal plant uses up 2.2 billion gallons of water every year to burn up 1,430,000 tons of coal every year. Then it releases that water – now 16 degrees hotter – to nearby waterways, altering habitats.

The plan ensures that the project will have a net neutral benefit on the plant and animal species found at nearby Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and Devils Hole.  BLM will require a natural color palette and minimum night lighting measures to reduce visual impacts on the local community. (Like all solar, the project will be free of the innumerable health safety and climate problems associated with coal power).

BLM forced the company to squeeze down the size of the project from the original 7,630 acres to 6,320 acres with a project disturbance area of only 4,350 acres. A comparison by Sandia National Laboratory estimates that a 500 MW coal plant occupies well under 1,000 acres.

But the mining area fueling a coal plant occupies much more space.

An equivalent-sized 500 MW coal plant takes up a much larger footprint if you count both the  size of the mountain removed each year, as well as just the size of the coal-fired power plant itself. To get an idea of the size, a one hundred foot thick coal seam in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming for example covers (and destroys) a gigantic 10,000 square miles. That is 6, 400,000 acres of ruined landscape.

So if you are inclined to fret about the land size of the new solar projects, remember to compare apples to apples, and to include the mountains that we are now removing to burn coal for electricity. The choice is not land – or no land, but land or more land.

Because we’ll keep removing far more land if we stick with coal.

Image: Willie Stark
Susan Kraemer @Twitter

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