Sempra Energy to expand solar-powered plant in Boulder City


Boulder City will soon house North America's largest sun-powered energy plant.

And though local utility executives praised the power station as an indicator of Southern Nevada's potential for renewable energy, they said they hoped the project would generate more jobs and more juice for locals than its predecessor created.

San Diego-based Sempra Generation, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy in New York, said Wednesday it would more than quintuple the size of its El Dorado Energy solar plant, from 10 megawatts to 58 megawatts. The company will rename the expanded project Copper Mountain Solar.

"The desire to build renewable resources for generating electricity has never been greater," said Mike Allman, president and chief executive officer of Sempra Generation. "Fears of climate change, carbon-emissions issues and trying to wean our country off of burning fossil fuels all have led toward a desire for renewable resources."

Allman wouldn't disclose the cost of building the addition or the price Sempra will charge for the energy Copper Mountain Solar generates. But he said the plant will yield the lowest-priced solar power in the world thanks to several factors.

First, it's part of an existing Sempra power complex, so infrastructure for distributing the energy already exists. That means there'll be no substantial cost to connect the center to the power grid. What's more, the addition's land was already zoned for power-plant use, which made for a quick permitting process. And the company will build the plant using its own cash, so it won't incur financing costs.

Construction should begin when Sempra completes contracts to sell the plant's output. The generating station could come online by late 2010.

Roberto Denis, senior vice president of energy supply for local electric utility NV Energy, said the expansion "points out the attractiveness of Southern Nevada for solar development."

The expansion will allow Sempra to serve more than 30,000 homes. But those homes might not be in the Las Vegas Valley.

Power from the 10-megawatt El Dorado plant went to households in San Francisco after Pacific Gas and Electric bought the juice. Allman said PG&E showed the most interest, while NV Energy showed "mild but not substantial interest" in electricity from El Dorado.

Denis said Allman's account was "outright incorrect."

NV Energy had engaged in "extensive negotiations" with Sempra for power from El Dorado, even working out a price for the energy. But Sempra pulled the deal at the last minute when PG&E offered a higher price for the power.

Denis said NV Energy has no plans as of now to purchase power from Copper Mountain Solar, either. The utility sends out requests for proposals each year for suppliers interested in competing to sell the company the renewable energy it needs to meet state requirements mandating the use of renewable-energy sources. That process hasn't yet resulted in NV Energy's buying power from Sempra's Boulder City solar plant.

"Hopefully, this expansion will result in more benefits to the city than the first phase did," Denis said.

In February, the Nevada Legislature held hearings on tax breaks that Sempra accepted for El Dorado Energy. Nevada Sen. Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas, said the company received $1.8 million in state tax breaks, and then hired out-of-state workers and sold the power to other states.

Sempra representatives testified that 65 percent of 131 workers who built the plant were locals.

Sempra has retained El Dorado's builder to finish work on Copper Mountain Solar. Arizona-based First Solar will serve as engineering, procurement and construction contractor.

Allman said the company would hire the "vast majority" of its 200 Copper Mountain construction workers from the local market. The combined plant is expected to employ three people upon completion.

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

 

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